Cutting edge postulations echoed across the Basement Complex at Veritas University, Abuja earlier this morning as high voltage political scientists, Historians and economists engaged the theme “Governance, Separatist Agitations and the Survival of the Nigerian State” at a National Conference put together by the university’s Department of Political Science. Although each of the three main speakers at the opening ceremony entered the interrogation of the theme from slightly different angle of emphasis, they all came to the conclusion that whether Nigeria survives or does not would depend on what the elite make of it.
As Prof Sam Egwu, the University of Jos Political Scientist who got a standing ovation for his keynote address put it, “when a nation is weak and there are echoes of separatist agitations, it is because the elite are fragmented”. Similarly, Dr Patrick Ukase of the Department of History and International Relations at Kogi State University, Anyigba argued the same position by his approving endorsement of the claim of the authors of Why Nations Fail that such happens because “those who have power made choices” and that such choices were on purpose, not mistakes nor ignorance.
Surprisingly, none of the two speakers took their contentions to the next level by taking down the Nigerian elite, the elite with the best of everything on earth to have created a unique African State but has, instead, found itself embarrassingly engrossed in what it calls restructuring, for example, at a time it is supposed to be critically discussing how to be Africa’s China. That tends to make it the exact opposite of the American elite who ditched their European forefathers to create a completely new civilisation. Or the East Asians who spent years debating the compatibility or otherwise of Democracy with Asian values but only to come up with what no one has succeeded in naming – China. Henry Kissinger, America’s famous ex-Secretary of State, says it is not clear whether China is to be known as a state or a civilisation. Even the Latin Americans who suffered imperialism along with Africa have come up with Brazil as a global power symbolically offering the IMF a loan package. Only Africa is still crawling because, according to Prof Egwu, 29 out of her 55 states are facing separatist challenges.
Agreeing with Benedict Anderson’s claim that a nation is an imagined community, Professor Egwu who is currently away from academia as the Resident Electoral Commissioner of the Independent National Electoral Commission, (INEC), for Niger State then asked whether we may, therefore, ignore ethnic armies and separatists. His answer is No and his reason is that ethnicity, though constructed, should not be ignored because ethnic entrepreneurs tap into ethnic grievances by politicising it. In that case, he argues, the point to worry about is horizontal inequality in Nigeria aggravated by differential exposure to westernisation which is itself further aggravated by prolonged military rule and the three consequences he finds with that. One is the military practice of outlawing politics and political parties once they take over, the second is the perception that those who controlled power under military rule were from one part of the country and, thirdly, the rise of ethnic campaigning platforms such as Afenifere, Arewa Consultative Forum or Ohaneze Ndigbo once political parties are outlawed. His final point on this score is that people do not just hate each other on ethnic grounds but a reality that came, in the Nigerian case, mainly from the dynamics of Structural Adjustment Programme, (SAP) which took the Nigerian State away too far from the people, compelling people to search for meaning of their lives in ethnic and other identities that modernisation is supposed to have eclipsed.
Prof Egwu says Nigeria is witnessing manifestations of what the late Prof Claude Ake had called the two catastrophic failures in the African/Nigerian context. One is the failure of the state to assert or operationalise national collectivism and the second is the failure of the state to objectify itself as national interest, becoming rather captured instruments of personal, clan or group rule. In other words, state building and nation building remain the challenges, challenges he traces to elite crisis of mission, including the colonial elite to whom he traced the whole speculative enterprise about whether Nigeria could survive. The colonialists were, in his submission, succeed in this business by the nationalists who fought for independence and how the Veritas conference thus speaks to a long history of separatist agitation in its current manifestations: NADECO, MEND, Boko Haram, IPOB, Arewa Youths and so on.
Recalling his own experience as a member of the 2014 Political Conference, Prof Egwu noted how each of the geopolitical units in Nigeria came with its own agenda. His argument, however, is that these are contestations of citizenship where you have the kind of complex nation created by the British such as Nigeria as opposed to the ethnically homogenous conception of the nation state from Europe where the nation state idea first emerged. But he says the contestations do not mean the impossibility of crafting a multicultural state from Nigeria. Instead, in his own analysis, what it means is for Nigeria to work on Nigeria. That is not to take Nigeria for granted. “Let us not assume that it has come to stay”, he said, insisting on good, democratic governance as the way out. All nations are artificial, he says, pointing out that a key difference between nations which became great and those which lost it is the presence or absence of the visionaries who moulded successful nations into success stories, built on rule of law, good governance, justice and development. He stopped short of asking, “where are the visionaries or the elite in the case of Nigeria?”
In an interesting relay of thought between Prof Egwu and Dr Ukase who delivered the lead paper, the latter threw the poser as a case of who would come to Nigeria’s rescue? Although he too basically interrogated the Nigerian crisis in terms of elite crisis of mission, his point of departure is the need for the rise of the followership to assert itself in terms of creating a society “where political rights would be more broadly distributed, where merit shall govern human affairs and a society where the government can be held accountable to the people.
There is thus an interesting convergence in what some people call radical liberalism between Prof Egwu and Dr Ukase, suggesting the disappearance of the classical Marxists of those days from analysis of the Nigerian crisis and the possible solutions even as Dr Ukase manifested a Leninist streak along the way in his paper at the point where he was suggesting that politics is the husband of the economy, evident in his postulation that “all the economic impediments confronting contemporary Nigerian State stem from the way political power has been and is still being exercised and monopolised by a narrow and selfish elite. He had no problem in putting separatist agitations to Nigeria being ruled by “a narrow elite that have organised society for their own personal aggrandizement at the expense of the vast majority of the people”.
Prof Mike Kwanashie, Vice-Chancellor, in his own case, isolated the intellectual wing of the elite by saying that the time has come when intellectualism must sit down and redirect the conversation based on history, comparative experience and where the world is going. “There is Boko Haram, yes, there is IPOB, yes but what is important is whether the nation has the capacity to interrogate these as threats , not only domestically but also internationally”, he told his audience as Chairman of the opening ceremony. Obviously mourning the death of the robust intellectualism that characterised their days, Prof Kwanashie said there was a time the country had a robust tradition of debate which was always aimed at mobilising everybody rather than celebrating ethnicity, setting up tribal barricades and bigotry.
He described the Veritas University conference on “Governance, Separatist Agitation and the Survival of the Nigerian State” as one beyond a perfunctory academic exercise but something in tandem with what he called the unique mandate of Veritas, its spirituality that enables it to see beyond the superficial. Welcoming participants to the conference, Prof Okon Eminue, the Head of the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy said the Department thought it wise to initiate a conversation within academia in the light of multifarious security challenges confronting Nigeria, from Boko Haram to IPOB, Niger Delta Avengers to other militant groups in the South-South, murderous herdsmen, armed robbery, kidnapping, cultism and similar organised crimes. Anchoring the conference on problem solving essence of knowledge, Prof Eminue disclosed how the Department considered initiation of a conversation on these challenges as part of its intellectual responsibility. The conference enters its second day tomorrow.
Picture credit: Juliana Obianuju