Although the idea that the modern states-system was born in 1648 at the Peace of Westphalia has been shattered especially by Benno Teschke’s thesis at the LSE now published as The Myth of 1648: Class, Geopolitics and the Making of Modern International Relations, nobody has yet shattered how the international system has been imprisoned by the crisis of cultural pluralism in both homogenous and heterogenous polities . In Nigeria, for instance, the big question today is none other than that of what magic formula might help the nation manage cultural pluralism (ethnic, regional and religious differences) in a multinational polity being further torn by the uniting and dividing; localizing and globalizing as well as centralizing and decentalising global order. This is as the far-sighted celebration of difference in the expression ‘though tongues and tribes may differ’ has collapsed, giving way to threatening re-tribalisation of inter-group relations. Amb Usman Sarki attempts a three-part series on a thorny, contemporary issue – Editor
By Ambassador Usman Sarki
Precision is a very important requirement of history and social science especially when it entails using constructs towards the understanding of transformation of societies. As such, the “national question” as a transformative proposition is an issue that must be treated with all delicacy and due consideration as to its complexity, dimension and probable implications on the contemporary evolution and development of Africa’s political spaces that we call states or nations today.
In order to make some sense out of the conversations around this concept such as the introduction of “restructuring” and “true federalism” as new metaphors for reconstruction of national entities, and also for the sake of starting an intelligent and intelligible dialogue around them, we should at least endeavour to situate the parent proposition in its proper geo-historical context. This is more so towards determining whether or not such a concept can fit into the Nigerian schema or approaches for resolving challenges associated with governance in the country.
While discussing the “national” or “nationalities” questions relative to Africa in general and Nigeria in particular, it is worth bearing in mind that our pre-colonial political spaces or entities were largely cosmopolitan and hence, multifaceted in nature. They comprised different ethnic, religious, cultural and even racial mixes. There were no unique entities that were composed only of insular tribes or ethnic groups. Unless of course if they were autochthonous communities whose levels of development have been circumscribed by their material environment, the conditions of their productive forces and the degrees of advancement of their social relations.
Most other Nigerian political entities had surpassed the level of molecular constitution and achieved certain degrees of organisational sophistication to warrant their classification as nation-states. They had the ability to accommodate diversities that even today makes them very elastic and cosmopolitan. The “national question” as part of the broader discourse on nationalism, self-determination and independence, therefore became pronounced in the European milieu after the Napoleonic Wars in the nineteenth century, rather than an African phenomenon.
It is a feature of the transition of Europe from the vestige of feudal rule to nascent capitalism, that requires freedom to expand and develop into the revolutionary transformative mode of production that it ultimately became. How to aggregate, assemble or divide as the case may be, the various “nationalities” (which are in essence “tribes” when applied to Africa), became a major political issue for both the governments of Europe, and the political thinkers of that age.
The period following the French Revolution and especially after the revolutions of 1848, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the First World War of 1914-18, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia of 1917, and the various other convulsions that disturbed the tranquility of Europe in those times, introduced some new dimensions into the discussion on the nationalities question across the length and breadth of that continent.
Apart from the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and a few others, there were no clear-cut demarcation of boundaries around the different nationalities or tribes that made up Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Even in these countries, the ideas of “nationhood” or “nationality” with clear cut boundaries and identities, were not so apparent or pronounced as they are today. Right now, the configuration of the European Union (EU) and the determined eastwards expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to Russia’s borders, are attempts at tackling the “nationalities question” in Europe through geopolitics and diplomacy.
In the centuries after the French Revolution, Germany, Austria, Italy, the Scandinavian and Balkan states, and virtually the whole of Eastern Europe were in a state of flux with a heightened sense of agitation for redress of one perceived wrong or the other in terms of the self-determination of the different nationalities or tribes. In the case of Russia, the solution to the dilemma was to create what was called the “Soviets of nationalities” or “Republics” after the Bolshevik Revolution took place to settle the lingering questions related to administration of vast territories comprising of different tribes that were forcibly incorporated into Czarist Russia.
In Eastern Europe and the Balkans, the solution to the nationalities question was to be found by breaking up the Ottoman Empire so as to free countries like Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and many other tribes that were under Turkish rule. Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, the Baltic States and others in the precinct were in distressing situations from which they desperately wished to emerge. In Germany and Austria-Hungary, the towering genius of Otto Von Bismarck and the power of the Prussian monarchy combined to resolve the tribal dichotomies in these countries by forcing the hitherto separate Germanic-speaking tribes to come together.
In Italy, it did not seem feasible to do anything about the national question or “Il Risorgimento” until Giuseppe Mazzini, Victor Emmanuel and Giuseppe Garibaldi came along and pushed for the unification of the country and its independence from foreign powers. In Northern Europe, the Scandinavian countries resolved their nationalities question by getting apart and away from the domineering control of the Swedes whereby they created Norway, Denmark, Greenland and the other territories.
In the United Kingdom also, the identities of the separate tribes that formed that conglomerate became issues that have lingered on to this very day. Scottish, Wales and Irish nationalism became fused with the idea of separating from the English to form independent countries for these different tribal groupings. So, in essence the “national question” should appropriately be termed the “tribal” or “ethnic” question if we are to accurately delineate the contours of its evolution and original state of application.
To apply this construct to an African setting and more so to Nigeria with her macro and microspheres of ethnicity and what have you, will look rather incongruous and untenable under most conditions. However, for the purpose of convenience and want of a better term, we may reluctantly agree to apply the concept of the “national question” to Nigeria as it were, as she evolves in her political arrangements and seeks better methods towards effective governance of her disparate constituent parts.
To be precise, therefore, we should perhaps dispense with the euphemism and call it what it is or how it should be; that is to refer to the issue as nothing but the Hausa Question, the Yoruba Question, the Ibibio Question, the Igbo Question, the Kanuri Question, the Lunguda Question, the Tiv Question, the Ishan Question, the Isoko Question, the Gbayi Question, the Idoma Question, the Fulani Question, the Nupe Question, the Ekwere Question, the Bachama Question, the Birom Question, the Marghi Question, the Bura Question, the Ijaw Question, the Mumuye Question, the Jukun Question, the Ganawuri Question, the Dadarkari Question, the Tera Question, the Bolewa Question, or what have you.
Thus, there will probably be nearly three hundred “Questions” if we are to go by this understanding in Nigeria applicable to the different tribes or ethnic groups that make up the country. Hence, it should no longer be seen as a “national question” but rather as a micro- or sub-national “question” that overrides the nation and burrows deep into the granular composition of the country itself. In essence, this is what the whole thing is about. Try as one may, it is impossible not to be subjective or even sentimental about it and link it to the phenomenon of tribes and ethnic groups in Nigeria.
Taken as a whole, the entire issue around the “national question” boils down to how matters affecting the interests, concerns or fears of the different ethnic groups or tribes in Nigeria can be met or assuaged. It can be rightly assumed or conjectured in retrospect, that the Willinks Commission of 1957 was a forerunner of the “national question” debate in Nigeria, and an attempt at getting to the bottom of the tribal configurations of the country, and how to resolve contradictions and assuage fears of the different component tribes especially the so-called minorities.
But what is this “national question” that is being invoked so frequently by writers and commentators in this country? What does it entail, and what does it actually convey to the average Nigerian in terms of its import or consequence? These are questions that should be answered in respect of that “question” in order to have some clarity and a solid grasp of the debate. Should the “national question” be reduced to formulae, formalities and processes such as conferences and other procedures, or should it be seen as a constitutional and administrative issue and be dealt within the normative context or the formal setting of the bureaucracy of government?
Or rather, should it be seen as an abstract intellectual issue and discussed ad infinitum in universities and the pages of newspapers and other platforms? This “question” has of late been tied up with a number of issues and agitations which practically touched on everything to do with governance of Nigeria. They range from the creation of states and local governments, to the debate on restructuring and resource allocation, and even other issues like the conduct of elections and national census, the structuring of the national economy, herders and farmers clashes, open grazing, value added taxes etc.
All these are indispensable matters that are critical to the building of our nation. However, when aggregated together they form a confusing spectacle for the distant observer such as might bring about misunderstandings on what actually are meant to be achieved by throwing up such diverse elements for conversation at the same time. Questioning the “national question” therefore becomes a necessary step in our understanding of what it means or what it is supposed to entail in the different configurations of interests and tendencies now evolving across various divides in the country.
What surprisingly seems to be absent in the debate about the “national question” in Nigeria is how to achieve linear unity or a sort of horizontal integration of the country along discernible values that cut across various issues and challenges. It is obvious that democracy as a value system has failed to unite the country around discernible parameters of nation building. This in turn has led to a situation whereby it is increasingly becoming difficult to seek or achieve common grounds and understanding on ordinary matters of governance and how inclusiveness can be created.
This does not, however, indicate that attempts have not been made towards those ideals and aspirations. Indeed so much has been done in the past and presently about inclusiveness that it baffles the mind how the proponents of “restructuring” and “true federalism” seemed to have missed them entirely as relevant to deepening the discourse on the “national question”. The issues related to nation building even at the best of times, are rather complicated, nuanced and mainly self-serving in the sense that most of them are selective and do not really cut across divides and transcend all interests and concerns.
The debates about “restructuring” and “true federalism” are two such issues that seem to have been placed at the core of the “national question” of late, but which also seem to be of different gravity depending on what part of Nigeria they are being viewed from or brought up for discussion. While in the South they are generally seen as existential affairs, in the North they are seen rather as staid and ineffectual means of reorienting the debate on governance and nation building.
They are seen merely as storms in a teacup that do not constitute an emergency in national dialogue. Rather, the North seems to be seized with the state of the economy and insecurity as they affect the lot of the people in the region, while much of the focus in the South is about the political dimension of the “national question” most importantly about which region should produce the next president or whether some parts should be allowed to secede and go their own separate ways.
What is indicative of the deep divide is the lack of convergence of views on what platform should be used or devised to bring about the “restructuring” of the country. While most of the South is fixated on the so-called sovereign national conference option, the North seems rather nonchalant about it all, preferring instead on letting the National Assembly justify the monumental sums being expended on its members, so that all questions of concern could be debated there and brought to their logical finality.
The North argues that there is no need to reinvent the wheel where the National Assembly is already constituted and mandated to discuss all issues relative to the governance of Nigeria which in essence is what the national question is all about. But because of some apprehensions or even disquiet about the efficacy of processes and procedures, the South seems rather reticent in going along with the option of letting the National Assembly have its way with discussing the issues of restructuring and its associated discontents.
The preference of the South seems to be towards the convocation of an “independent” or “sovereign” national conference to become the venue for the settlement of the “national question” once for all. However, the problem with this stance is the implied supposition or assumption that the National Assembly is not really independent or that it is not sovereign and, therefore, lacks the legitimacy or legality to discuss the issues that constitute the “restructuring” of the country.
The abject failure of the National Conference that was hastily organised by the Goodluck Jonathan administration in 2014 does not seem to offer any lessons on the futility of such improvised ad hoc arrangements. The dilemma for both the South which insists on having its way in this debate, and the North that insists on letting the ship of state float steady as it goes, is that there is simply no point of convergence between the two perspectives.
While the South is clamoring for restructuring even at the point of linking it to the country’s future unity and survival, the North on the other hand views the entire agitation as unwarranted because it considers every decision or action taken by government as an act of restructuring of Nigeria and redress of various grievances. Be that as it may, it is probable that this could be more than the mere brewing of a cup of tea. It could prove to be a brew from the witches’ pot with concoctions of alternating potency that could either heal or kill the country. Either way, it is a potent concoction that should be handled with care, since there are no readable warning signs attached to the formula yet.