Last week Monday, November 21, 2022, the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs, (NIIA), Lagos, played host to eminent Nigerians who turned out in their large numbers to listen to a lecture on the concept of nationalism and dynamics of the nation-building process in the history of Nigeria. The lecturer, Professor Jide Osuntokun, reminded the distinguished guests, comprising Afenifere Leader, Pa Ayo Adebanjo, Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe (retd), former governor of old Anambra State, Chief Chukwuemeka Ezeife; Chief Simon N Okeke, His Royal Highness, Ambassador Eze LOC Agubuzu, former Director General of NIIA, Professor Bola Akinterinwa, among other eminent Nigerians, that our founding fathers were devoted to the task of building a nation free from the shackles of injustice.
Organised by the Ohaneze Ndigbo, the lecture drew the presence of renowned academics, socio-cultural organisations, retired military red necks and statesmen, among others. Speaking on the title: ‘Nationalism and National Building In Nigerian History’, the erudite scholar of History and International Relations went down memory lane to recapture the many efforts by founding fathers of the Nigerian State to terminate the stranglehold of colonial powers on October 1, 1960.
Professor Osuntokun noted that “the rise of Nigerian nationalism was promoted, though unwittingly, by the British; it was a reaction not only against Britain’s political domination, but against the deliberate action of the colonial establishment to monopolise power and to bar from participation in the political process educated Africans who believed it was their right to participate in the government of Nigeria”.
The attitude of educated Nigerians during the reign of Sir Frederick, according to the History scholar, can be seen through newspaper articles and petitions to the Colonial Office in London. According to the lecturer, Nigeria’s intellectuals detested British rule and spared no efforts to synergise towards ending colonialism. Educated Nigerians during the period of Lugard-led administration said that “they had known better times under other governors and they consequently considered Lugard a reactionary official bent on turning back the hands of the clock”.
The role of the media in fueling the quest for independence was explicitly portrayed by Professor Osuntokun as he recalled efforts by journalists aimed at building consensus for the demand of self-rule for Nigeria. Agitation by the press against the colonial powers, the lecturer recalled, reached its zenith when the editor of the ‘Daily Time’, 68-year old James Bright Davies, was sent to jail for six months in 1916 over what the authorities deemed to be seditious libel. Davies would later return to the centre stage to champion the cause of freedom and liberty in 1917, thus portraying the unflagging spirit for independence under colonial Britain. The outbreak of both the First and Second World Wars were eye openers for colonised people as the war afforded Nigerians the opportunity to compare what was happening in other countries colonised by Germans, among other colonial powers.
The scholar was quick to add that since 1966, Nigeria “has struggled to find a modus operandi of ruling a multi-national state balancing regional desire for autonomy under an overarching national stricture. The search for a Modus Vivendi unfortunately led to the disastrous civil war in which some millions of Nigerians, predominantly Igbo people, died”.
Bringing to an end his lecture delivered over an hour, Professor Osuntokun said: “We have external forces that are against the success of this country, but the sorrowful thing is that those who are at the commanding height of political leadership in this country appear totally oblivious or indifferent to the destiny of Nigeria and the black race. What we need if this country is to succeed is to find collective and equitable solution to the way we choose our government and put in place the administrator of the country based on the French revolutionary credo of careers open to talents, instead of the current nebulous federal character and the odious and rampant corruption ruining the country, while the majority of our people vegetate in poverty and in want”.
Earlier in his opening remarks, President General of the Ohaneze Ndigbo, Ambassador (Prof) George A. Obiozor, lamented that since independence to date, “no generation of Nigerian leaders, past or present, military or civilian, has been able to create an atmosphere of credibility to ensure Nigeria’s claim to a political future as one nation. None was able to evolve a unifying national ideology that was embraced either by majority of fellow political elites or by the entire Nigerian populace.”
Disagreeing with those who insist that Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable, the Leader of the Ohaneze Ndigbo declared: “Nigeria’s unity is definitely negotiable and must be re-negotiated for it to stand or survive the test of time. The reality over the years remains that in spite of the best efforts of all our leaders, past or present, Nigerian unity is not guaranteed. It is simply, at best, an aspiration and not yet an achievement. Consequently, the statement that Nigerian unity is ‘not-negotiable’ is simply a historical fallacy”.
National Publicity Secretary of the Northern Elders’ Forum (NEF) and the lead discussant of the lecture, Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, drew the relevance of the lecture in combating contemporary challenges of evolving templates for the emergence of a new nation anchored on justice for all ethnic nationalities. He told the audience that Nigeria’s ethnic groups are victims of one form of injustice or the other. Where Nigerians find themselves, Baba-Ahmed contended, has made it imperative that all hands must be on deck to salvage what remains of the country.
According to him, “all the elites in Nigeria are hostages and captives of politicians but we must remove ourselves from that bondage. So, we will reach out to elites from the other regions and together we will welcome any presidential candidate who says he has a solution to Nigeria’s problems.
“We worry about the South-east. We don’t know whether they are in support of Peter Obi, the presidential candidate of the Labour Party or not. The nation can see what is happening now and if the South East fails to line up behind Obi, they should not blame anybody.
“If the Igbo believe it is time for them, they should support Obi, reach out to other Nigerians and tell them they are supporting Obi not because he is an Igbo man but because he is the best. We will give our support to the best man who can heal the wounds in the land because actually, everybody in Nigeria is marginalised right now”.
Yours sincerely, who represented the President of the Middle Belt Forum (MBF), Dr Pogu Bitrus, at the event warned against turning the 2023 campaign into an ethnic clamour. What we need in 2023, I reminded the distinguished audience, was a Nigerian President who understands what Nigeria needs. For justice, equity and fairness, the umbrella organisation of all ethnic nationalities of the Middle Belt has always declared its readiness to support any candidate from the South. Considering the fact that the South-west ruled from 1999-2007; the Forum has publicly declared its support for the presidential candidate of the Labour Party, Mr. Peter Obi. The position of the Middle Belt has always been anchored on justice and equity. Therefore, ethnic nationalities of the Middle Belt have always reiterated its stance that it is only fair for power to shift to the South.
Many Nigerians believe in Obi. It is clear that the Igbo are not in the forefront of projecting the Obi presidency, but other Nigerians from other ethnic groups. The urgent challenge now for citizens is to rally across ethnic and socio-economic divides to wrest power from politicians who have commercialised our democracy and made us victims of an unjust system.
As it is today, there is a need for the presidential candidates to speak to the electorate, instead of allowing spokesmen and women to foul the air with their eloquent speeches. Nigerians must be allowed to interrogate those who seek our votes. Less than three months to national elections, it is obvious that out of the three frontline presidential candidates; citizens are well informed of whom among them is competent.
The intention should not be to enthrone a system anchored on flawed primordial ethnic sentiments. 2023 should open a door that affords every Nigerian the right to pass through and be treated as a citizen with all rights and privileges of citizenship. Anything less than this is not enough for a nation that is experiencing its most trying moments since attaining independence over 62 years ago.