30 April 2014

Nigeria: Revisiting the Politics of Diversity in Nigeria

Nigeria's national conference should address the question of a genuine respect for cultural and ethnic diversity, for if a nation can unite as one family in support of football teams, they can surely unite for the achievement of other national objectives?

Nigeria is remarkably diverse. Whether you consider, ethnicity, religion or culture, you will find such incredible diversity that makes you wonder how this collection of peoples could possibly have lived together for a century. Some like to argue that our strength lies in this diversity and we cannot forge a united country unless we master our diversities. Unfortunately, we haven't managed to do this successfully.

Traditionally, Nigerians lived with and enjoyed their diversity. Across the country, you would find individuals and families from other parts residing and contributing to the local economy. Indeed, some felt so comfortable as to settle permanently in communities other than their native communities. But those days are regrettably fading away no thanks to the mismanagement of our diversity.


Our national motto recognizes the importance of "unity and faith" in the context of our diversity and seems to suggest that they are essential tools to achieve "peace and progress" particularly in a diverse entity. The elite, particularly politicians, have however disregarded this time-honored admonition in their quest for electoral victory.

Nigerians can enjoy a game of football. We are very passionate about our national teams - male and female. We're also very determined followers of European football. Every time we watch or talk football, we're united about our aspirations for the national teams. We want them to do well irrespective of who is in charge or where the players come from and that is the true spirit of Nigeria! However, when the topic changes to just about anything else, the politics of diversity sets in.

Over time, politicians have managed to sow the wrong seeds. When they win, they carry on as though no one else was good enough on the ticket. When they lose, they blame it on their ethnicity, religion or some other divisive interest. They create the impression that their constituency has been denied an opportunity at advancing its interest. They fan the embers of discord and disdain for people of the "offending" ethnicity or religion. When the chips are down, they find a way to extricate themselves leaving the rest of their community vulnerable.

The politics of diversity takes our focus off merit and the future. It suggests that we must have "our share" now or never. It seldom thinks about how to create more wealth but enjoys talking about how to share what already exists even if it is diminishing at geometric proportions. It creates an environment where unqualified persons fill positions of authority and responsibility thereby posing potential danger to institutions of state. But diversity shouldn't always lead to polarization or disaffection. It should be possible to use our diversity to advance the course of Nigeria. But how can we do that?

I believe this is one of the more serious questions that the on-going national conference/dialogue should aim to answer. If it is possible to unite as one family in support of our football teams' even if momentarily, then it should be possible to unite in the pursuit of our common heritage. The idea that some people have a higher or better stake in the entity called Nigeria does not augur well for the continued existence of the country. We need to begin with a sense of justice, equity and fairness.


Perhaps, we should begin with reversing long years of injustice meted to oil bearing communities. This is not necessarily a question of making more money available to them. It is rather a question of strengthening the capacity of people from those communities to take their destinies in their own hands. It is about promoting education; providing entrepreneurial skills; offering opportunities and mentorship and pursuing dialogue on a sustainable basis. It is also about equipping people to hold their leaders to account for the resources and political mandate entrusted to them.

But we shouldn't stop there. We should also consider recreating the aforementioned scenarios in the north east of Nigeria reputed to be the zone with the highest rate of poverty and probably illiteracy. Although it may be difficult to achieve these objectives in an atmosphere of violent conflict, there is scope to start small while addressing the conflict because the more empowered people are, the greater their capacity to take informed decisions about their future.

The 2015 general elections are only a few months away. Politicians are already invading every available space with their messages of solidarity with the people. Some are adept at selling their messages on the platform of their ethnic, religious or cultural backgrounds. Others cite equity in the distribution of political positions as the overarching philosophy of their aspirations. Nigerians must take the initiative to reframe these discussions. We can talk about equity and justice but we should also insist on interrogating ideas. It is not enough that we share the same ethnic or religious affiliation, you should demonstrate your competence and motivate intelligently for the position. We need to ask the tough questions and act based on facts rather than emotions.

For too long, Nigerians have been at the rough end of the politics of diversity. Now, they need to use the impending elections to call opportunistic politicians to order. No one deserves a position of authority unless they genuinely respect diversity.

Stanley Ibe is a lawyer and writes from Abuja, Nigeria

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