5 June 2012

Nigeria: 'How to be a Nigerian' - Remembering Joe Garba


Joseph Nanven Garba was born on July 17th, 1943 and died on June 1, 2002. He was a soldier, a diplomat, and a remarkable human being, but, above all, he was a patriot.

He believed in Nigeria, though Nigeria often disappointed him. He believed in Nigerians and their future, though they, too, often disappointed him. Were he here with us, I am sure he would be beyond disappointment; he would be angry. Nigeria did not have to be as we see it now.

You may wonder how someone who looks and sounds like me can presume to speak about "How to be a Nigerian." I can only tell you that, in one of the nicest compliments I have ever been paid, I was regularly introduced by Joe Garba as "This is Jean Herskovits, a well-disguised Nigerian." I cannot promise to be as verbose as Peter Enahoro's satirical characterization of Nigerian oratory, nor to make creative use of proverbs. And although I know full well that I am not a Nigerian but simply a frequent guest here, I will tell you that my concern for Nigeria, its people, and their future goes very deep. Joe Garba had, and still has, no small influence on those feelings.

That the pride in being Nigerian has diminished is, sadly, inescapable now. The national identity is frayed. Some people even talk and write openly about breaking up Nigeria--this in a country that experienced the tragedy of civil war.

As a historian and one privileged to have watched Nigeria closely since just before its independence, I will look briefly at Nigerianness over the years. To speak only about the present would be to do what Joe Garba deplored--ignoring history. As every student of history knows, however, you can use, or misuse, it to make whatever case you choose. We see too much of that now. But what I will do is put Nigeria's experience into a larger historical and geographical context, and draw some implications for thinking about the Nigerian future that Joe Garba believed in and many here today share.

As you well know, Nigeria's myriad people date their history from long before it existed as a country. Nigeria itself is nearly 100 years old or just over fifty, depending on how you count. Some people make much of its artificial creation. Years ago Chief Obafemi Awolowo described Nigeria as a mere geographical expression. I would argue that such statements make a political point, but are historically irrelevant.

I don't know when people started calling themselves Nigerian, but use of the name began in Lagos, notably with the founding in 1923, by Herbert Macaulay, of the Nigerian National Democratic Party. Its focus was Lagos, with broader Nigeria scarcely figuring in the politics of the day. Macaulay and others to come were more concerned with Lagos and Anglophone West Africa than with Nigeria.

A broader Nigerian identification came with students who were studying abroad. Their numbers were few as World War II approached; even by 1945 there were only some 150 in England and fewer than a dozen in the U.S., and they were all from southern parts of the country. That war spurred the rise of African nationalism and its later demands for national self-determination--not least among Nigerian soldiers, all of them northerners, and, among them, Joe Garba's father, fighting with the British in Burma.

I suspect that as the numbers of Nigerian students abroad increased, the sense of being Nigerian did too. By the late 1950s, in Oxford or London, if you asked a Nigerian where he (it usually was he) was from, he'd answer "Nigeria," and would resist being pressed for more specifics. In the United States by 1960 "Nigeria" would be the answer, delivered with near-aggressive emphasis that closed off probing further.

1966 changed that for some. In July that year I was in Atlanta, Georgia, as an instructor in a Peace Corps training program for volunteers heading to Nigeria's Eastern Region. My assignment was Nigerian history; my fellow Nigerian instructors were Igbo language teachers. They and I felt some distance from the other Americans on the staff, including a few who had already been in the Peace Corps in Nigeria. We talked endlessly about what was happening "at home." That's how I knew that on July 28th they were building in their minds a Nigerian future. On July 29th, they wavered, and by the next day, for them, a Nigerian future had disappeared.

Civil war came in 1967 and ended 30 months later, with General Gowon's remarkable "No Victors, No Vanquished" policy, rare if not unique for victors in "brothers' wars." Those on the side of "One Nigeria," especially those who had fought for it and their families, were proud to be Nigerians; understandably, those who fought for Biafra had a harder time with such feelings, which would rebuild--and sometimes recede--for individuals over time.

But in the aftermath of the civil war, forging the country's unity and increasing Nigerians' sense that the country belonged to all of them was an explicit goal of the two military governments of the 1970s. Creating states out of the regions was designed to do that. Even though designating the first twelve in 1967 had a tactical dimension as war approached, doing so responded to long-time agitation from "minorities" in Nigeria's regions to get out from under ethnically-defined majority rule.

Despite the hope in1976 that creating seven more states would make for a more unified Nigeria, the reservations contained in the Willink Commission expressed have come all too true. I understand that even with the current 36 states, the National Assembly has received requests for over 60 more and has agreed to consider 46. And we all know, and are appropriately shocked by, the percentage of Nigeria's resources that already go to maintaining its many governments, few of which, if any, starting with Abuja, take measures to reduce costs.

Nor have those been the only negative consequences of multiplying states. It has been obvious since the Second Republic that state governors could act as they please, unchecked institutionally except by an impeachment process. Not only is that too blunt an instrument, it has been flagrantly abused for purely political reasons. Nonetheless, Lord Acton's saying about how power corrupts applies as well to governors as to presidents, not to mention local government chairmen, when they get their hands on resources.

The new capital Abuja, purposely sited in the middle of the country to make it equally accessible to all, has bred unexpected resentment. Yes, people flock there in their tens of thousands, in search of work or patronage. But the opulence and extravagance have made many of those who see it say to themselves, "So that's where the money goes." We know that this prompted young men of the Niger Delta to turn to violent protest, after some of them were brought to Abuja, in 1998, and paid to demonstrate in favour of a civilian Abacha presidency.

Those who rule now have Julius Berger building eight-lane highways that whisk them quickly past people they are supposed to represent, to get to the airport, or wherever else. But turn off one of those highways, into the "bush" of the Federal Capital Territory, and you will drive on dirt tracks for forty minutes to reach a village only dozens of kilometres away. How can those villagers, desperately hungry for education, not to mention power and water, think about being Nigerians?

And then there is the idea of federal character. It was introduced to cement the feeling that the country belonged to all Nigerians, but it has been taken to unforeseen--and, I would argue, destructive--extremes. Very like American "affirmative action," it was designed to compensate for historically deep disparities. It was a companion to the new, 1979 American-style constitution, which I thought, along with those who mandated it, would be appropriate for Nigeria's complexity and its then-19 states. I was wrong. Astronomical cost apart as states multiplied, federal character made selecting members with appropriate credentials ever harder in ever-larger cabinets. If a minister was chosen from one Senatorial zone, an ambassador had to come from another. Even local governments replicated the pattern.

To be continued.

Remarks made by the author at the presentation of a book, Joe Garba's Legacy, in Lagos last week.

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