Ask any Nigerian what the problem of Nigeria is that has kept it backwards since independence and you will almost inevitably hear “Corruption”. We have so much unanimously reached a consensus on corruption as a fundamental Nigerian problem that we unwisely forget that there are numerous other problems of the Nigerian State far more detrimental to its development than our proverbial corruption. Ethnicity, tribalism, sectionalism are worse problems besetting our dear Nigeria.

The worst effect of tribalism and it’s twin brother of sectionalism is that they are antithetical to national unity. If there is any glue – natural or manmade — binding the various tribal makeups of this country together, tribalism and sectionalism makes them seem non-existent. The national assignmental task given to us by the British at independence is that of evolving, through revolution, radical policy initiation and changes, dialogues etc, from the ugly state of being ethnically divided…to the desirable and progressive state of being ethnically diffused, nationally compact, placing national interests and aspirations above those of ethnicity and tribe (if any).

It is in this that we have done our potentially great Nigeria the greatest disservice. The whiteman understood we would never move forward until we got it right in the area of national unity. They are standing aloof, watching us from beyond their shores, to see what we would make of the examination they set for us. And we have thus far failed.

The prevalent disunity and lack of love among makeup ethnic groups in Nigeria is without any equivocation the product of British selfish interest in the colonial era. It is a historical fact that the British for administrative convenience partitioned, using tribal affinity as major index, Nigeria into different protectorates, and later, regions. This partitioning set the tone for ethnicity and tribalism in the Nigerian state, as against what would have been obtainable if they had governed the country as one national entity with centralized authority.

Lagos was first a separate colony until Sir Walter Eagerton merged it with the Southern Protectorate in 1906. The Northern Protectorate was administered as a separate colony at this point. The fusion of Southern and Northern Protectorates in 1914 gave birth to Nigeria without any travail. Richard Constitution of 1946 deepened the lines of tribal affiliations by introducing “Regionalism”. These divisions were further entrenched by the operation of the Indirect Rule system.

This seeming constitutional factionalisation of the Nigerian state gave rise to its inevitable tribal seggregations and rivalries which has been militating against national unity. Every Nigerian developed a psyche and mindset of loving and defending their region and tribe without any love for the Nigerian state. National interest meant nothing once tribe (or in broad term, region) was in the mix.

The politicians of the day were very popular, and thus became the people’s beacon of direction. Their predispositions was easily the resolve of their followers — and most of them had sectional ideals, never believed in the workability of the Nigerian State. They further made the peoples of Nigeria see their tribes and regions as where they truly belong, leaving Nigeria in a state of no identity.

With this setting, regional politicians concentrated their efforts on playing power politics, scheming and jostling for who and which region got the best from the national pool. Nigeria had no meaning. The only thing that was of paramount importance was what the politicians and their regions stood to get from the centre.

The agents of national disunity – tribalism and sectionalism – gained ground and became normative as it is today. Not even our politicians have any scruple as touching such nauseating manners of thinking.

These tribal differences and rivalries gradually metamorphosed and blossomed into an internecine war in which secessionist Biafra (mainly of defunct Eastern Region) got routed and forced back into the Nigerian union after almost three years of brutal arms-fighting.

The Nigerian civil war, contrary to some opinion, is not the reason we as a people are not united today. The war ended nearly 50 years ago. In fact the war should even be our uniting factor, since (on the surface) we appear to have gone to war for the sole aim of having a united Nigeria. Most advanced and successful nations of the world fought Civil Wars, some even fought more than once. But this rather than divide them, made them stronger and more united.

The reason we have remained divided and far from national unity is a reflection of the political philosophies held by our leaders, especially our wartime president, Gen. Gowon. They were men without nationalistic ideals. Their heart was not beating for Nigeria. They shared the sectional sentiments and orientation held by some political leaders of pre-independent Nigeria.

Of these pack of leaders, Gowon should share the most blame. He had everything it took at his disposal to unite Nigeria for good but failed to move a finger. All he did was boast on national media that Nigeria was too rich, that his only problem was how to spend its money! He had everything it took to be our own version of Abraham Lincoln but that was not anywhere near his thoughts.

Yesterday, at the 16th  CVL annual lecture and international leadership symposium themed: ‘’Is Democracy Making Life Better In Africa?’’ held at MUSON Centre, Lagos, Gowon confirmed my perception of him as an incompetent Nigerian leader by saying that he became the president of Nigeria by accident. His government was really typical of one that came by accident. History did not lie when it told us that he cut a confused figure for the best part of the nine years he was in the saddle.

America came out of her Civil War stronger and more united because they had a Lincoln, a man who believed unwaveringly in the nationalistic ideals of the founding fathers of the American State. At the end of the war, he knew exactly what he wanted for America, and the kind of America that is in tandem with the ideals of its progenitors. The South having been defeated by the Federal North were at the mercy of the latter. But Lincoln threw away grudges and reabsorbed the South, even amidst genuine threats to his life, into the American national life again. He worked sincerely to remove all factors that would cause those from down South to be oppressively taunted and treated with vanquished slights. That’s what you call a leader with good understanding.

Sometimes, one does not know if to blame providence for bequeathing us a leader in the mold of Gowon to lead us after the civil war. Maybe someone else would have done better. His creation of twelve states at the buildup to the war, which would have been a plus for him, was only a political strategy to attenuate the unity and numerical strength of the Igbo by separating them from their brothers in the coastal areas of the defunct Eastern Region, it had nothing to do with diffusing ethnicity to discourage tribalism and sectionalism in order to entrench national unity. His pronouncement of “No winner, no vanquished” after the war was never demonstrated through sincere implementation of the policy instrument of the 3Rs (Reconstruction, Reconciliation, and Rehabilitation). If the government was sincere in the implementation of that policy there shouldn’t be separatist agitations today.

The failure of Gen. Gowon and our subsequent leaders to seek policy instruments that would discourage ethnicity and tribalism and promote national unity has further lent credence to my belief that the Nigerian civil war was ostensibly fought to unite Nigeria. It is very evident that those whom the war threw up as patriots and heroes of the Nigerian state never loved Nigeria. If they did, they would’ve long after the war made policies that would have made Nigeria a compact entity.

As we count days to our national elections we are once again confronted with the challenges of tribalism and sectionalism in our choice of who to vote for. Tribalism and sectionalism does not care about a candidate that’s better or most qualified; neither is it bothered by the pervading and overwhelming underdevelopment in the country; it wants to vote, but only for anyone from its section of the country or its tribe. Nigeria does not mean a thing. What matters is what his tribe or section stands to benefit. Thesame backward mentality and attitude that we had about Nigeria since before independence.

Tribalism and sectionalism are really cultures of people who don’t want to move beyond the situation Nigeria finds herself at the moment. Corruption is bad, but tribalism and sectionalism are the behest upon which corruption thrives. If your tribesman or a person from your section of the country, for instance, was the Chief Justice of the Federation and was found with damning evidence to be super corrupt, tribalism and sectionalism will get you and those from your tribe and section to leap to his defence! It doesn’t matter what she/he does, those with whom she/he share common tribe or section will fight tooth and nail to ensure she/he escapes justice.

Tribalism is really ugly, and it represents backwardness. Before the campaign trail for the 2019 elections started rolling, one youngman told me something that spooked me for months, and even till now, I still feel so bad, as one with the spirit of Nigerian nationalism, anytime I remember it. In fact, the youngman still irritates me till date. He boldly told me that the only reason he was going to vote for President Buhari for a second term is because he was sure the man would die in office, leaving Osinbajo, a Yoruba, to inherit the presidency!

There was this level of shamelessness and innocence with which he said it, as though it was something normal, that really got me feeling pity for Nigeria. You will know he’s talking from a mindset tainted with tribalistic sentiments. To him, it was normal, and not at all immoral, for him to wish another man death in order for “his brother” to emerge president.

The above position of this Nigerian evidences the level of love and importance an average Nigerian accords her country. It’s as though we are all in this union because the whiteman forced us all into it. You hardly see anyone whose heart pants for Nigeria. When we send political representatives from our constituencies, it’s only so that we can get some of the oil money that Nigeria is so blessed with back to our enclaves. It’s never because we want them to go and initiate policies that would help us fulfil our assignmental task of making a nation out of our heavily divided Nigeria.

This is the only reason why some people can be so keen about voting for President Buhari, a man that by all indications is in a state of dementia and lacks the wherewithal to lead a people of this great a population. Blinded and spurred by tribal sentiments, they have failed to see how frail Buhari has become, and how incompetent he is to lead Nigeria. All they know is that he is one of us. And those that he does not share tribe or section with are doing it because they feel he has been good to their tribes in terms of political appointments. This is a man that could barely walk without being supported. This is a man that ridiculously fetes Nigerians by the day with comic reliefs that rival that of “I go die” through his cerebral dysfunctional gaffes. This is a man that does not even know that he’s the presidential candidate of his political party! A man who in Ondo state announced to everyone that he was in Edo-Central! All in the name of tribe and sectionalism, they are hellbent on voting him in again, instead of advising him to go and rest for his years of service to motherland.

We are all aware that Nigeria only exists dejure. We know Nigeria does not really exist. We just don’t love Nigeria, and Nigeria wants to be loved. Politicians are busy wearing big, big agbada, oppressing to impress the masses, doing nothing whatsoever about leaving a better and greater Nigeria for generations unborn. They’ve been called to duty but they are not serving, because their hearts are not with the country they’ve been called to serve.

The future portends real danger for the country if we continue like this. Hundred years to come, Nigeria will still remain underdeveloped if the problem of tribalism and sectionalism is not solved through policy instruments. If we fail to make Nigeria more important than our tribes and sections, we can never record as a nation any meaningful development, because you can’t progress without unity. And unity has eluded us for a very long time.

Sometimes I wonder if this is the kind of unity we fought a civil war to have. It couldn’t be. If it is not, then, why do we still have Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba almost fifty years after the war? The states are supposed to have broken that love and affinity for tribes but why has it subsisted? Why do Nigerians still talk of their tribes instead of their states?

The problem of ethnicity, tribalism and sectionalism are this prevalent because some people with the mindset of the youngman I talked about above, who wants to vote for Buhari because he believes he would die in office, have foung their way into our most important fabric of the society, the political institution. They have through power politics, in order to check the success of rival tribes, made some wrong policies that are antithetical to national unity.

They deliberately created geopolitical zones in the country so as to undermine the ability of state creation to discourage tribalism and sectionalism, and, thus, returned the country to the Richard Constitution era, where the lines of regional differences were thickened and deeply marked. It becomes easy, thus, to mark a particular tribe as rivals and make policies and appointments to their detriment since they are like sitting ducks staying together under one geopolitical umbrella.

The faults of geopolitical zones creation is the reason why the Igbo are still clamouring for at least one more state to bring them in par with other zones of the country, except the North West. If there was no geopolitical zone, everyone will be forced to fight for their individual states and think less of their tribes or section.

I earlier mentioned that the war threw up some haters of Nigerian unity as heroes. You don’t need a grant for elaborate research work to know this. You can find that out by looking at our incumbent president. Buhari is one of the supposed heroes of the civil war, even though he fought as a non-commissioned officer (See Obasanjo’s “My Command”). As one that fought to unite Nigeria, should Buhari not have traits of a nationalist? But can you see any trait of a nationalist in him? Look at his appointments, you will not fail to observe that he’s a tribal and sectional bigot. But the war wrongly made a hero of him.

An average tribalistic political leader will do anything to obstruct any good cause intended to benefit people of other tribes, even if that means clogging the wheels of national development. The road networks that would benefit not only the people of that enclave but the country at large can be stood against because it could be of benefits to a politician’s perceived tribal enemies. The ports are best concentrated in Lagos state alone in a politically induced monopoly because development could be extended to some persons we wish to be eternally backward in federal influence, even though decentralizing it would bring about rapid and even development.

What Nigeria does not know is that once one section of the country is not healthy, it inevitably affects all the other sections, no matter how economically stable. It’s an ecosystem. Lagos is economically buoyant, no thanks to our monopolized ports within its border, but it can’t deny that it has problem of urbanization. We are merely unwisely holding ourselves down in the doldrums of underdevelopment when we hold down any region or section of the country. The Niger Bridge, for instance, will not benefit the Igbo alone; but we have chosen to play politics with it. It is a bridge that will aid national economic development but we don’t care because we feel it is the problem of the Igbo, whereas informed sources in the Nigerian Ports Authority have constantly affirmed that not less than 70% of goods that leave Apapa Port end up in Eastern Nigeria.

I just feel pity for the masses of this potentially great nation. They are the ones that suffer the effects of this misgovernance. Those in government, like Fela sang in “Look and Laugh”, are the ones enjoying the good of the country. They sell these ideas to the gullible masses who ignorantly help them in its implementation. We judge our neighbours based on tribal affiliations and would withdrawal favours from them at the slightest arousal of our tribal stereotypes.

We owe this country a great favour, which we can only achieve by diffusing ethnicity to discourage tribalism and sectionalism. This is the only how we can have a great nation. Seeing Nigeria through the thin eyes of Awo’s realist goggles is to keep Nigeria perpetually divided and inevitably underdeveloped. We are in Catholic Marriage in this union; it’s for better, for worse. Nobody is going anywhere. There’s a clause that’s against self-determination in the 1954 federal constitution. The earlier we made alive the idealist philosophies of Zik, no matter how unrealistic it looks, the better for Nigeria. We can’t move forward until we truly unite. If we continue the way we are right now structurally for the next hundred years, we would remain the way we are, and even worse. We can stop agitations for Biafra or Niger Delta republic. We can engender national love and patriotism into Nigerians and make them see Nigeria first before their states (not even their tribes at all). What is state of origin still looking for in our national lexicon? We can change this country, and the earlier we moved to do it, the better. If we fail to unite Nigeria today, posterity will not be kind to us at all.

God save Nigeria.

Stanley Sciense Irobikem is a nationalist. He writes from Ile-Ife.

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