The boundaries of many
African and Asian States were drawn and inherited from the old colonial era. A great deal of these boundaries were superimposed on the land, with little regard for the culturally coherent groups of people living there. Once they regained their independence, those people inherited these peculiar boundaries.
Nigeria is a typical illustration of the loose correspondence between nation and sate that exists in much of Africa today. In the Middle East, Turkey, Iraq and Iran are home to parts of the Kurdish people, who are a minority in each of these countries and have made attempts to break away and form their own unified states. India includes fifteen official linguistic groups, among other former colonies that exhibited similar mismatches of state and nation.
With the growth of nationalism, it is now thought a right of people, if they feel that they have a common nationality, to have a state to match that nationality, especially when the minority in the country feels marginalised. The ‘right’ has become a constant source of political tension and conflict for two reasons. First, many state boundaries do not coincide with the geographic distribution of nation while the second is that the sense of nationhood is a subjective thing.
A ‘feeling’ on the part of a group of people may be stimulated or laid to rest by persuasive leaders and is therefore liable to change. Even if state boundaries could ever at any time be brought into a perfect fit with the distribution of nations, this benign or gentle situation could not last, because new nations would gradually emerge and some old ones would fade and be forgotten.
Another example is the small black nationalist movement in the United States of America, which attempted to arouse a ‘nation’ (the nation of blacks) among a people who had not generally thought of themselves as a separate nation. One good example is Belgium, where the French and Dutch-speaking regions of the state co-existed without much notice for a long time but then became agitated about their separate nationalities in the 1970s. Today, they operate with such autonomy that they have almost become separate states within the state of Belgium.
At any given time then, the system of states will not coincide with the system of nations. Points at which state and nation fail to coincide are likely to be hot spots politically. Indeed, many of the most intense political struggles in the present era have resulted from such situations. The movement to separate Quebec from the rest of Canada; the war between East and West Pakistan, which resulted in the formation of a new state, Bangladesh; the Basque nationalist movement in Spain; the conflict between French and Dutch – speaking Belgians, the activities of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which embodies the desire of Palestinians for a state of their own, the chronic unrest among Kurds in Iraq, Iran and Turkey; the attempt by Chechnya region to secede from Russia; above all, the bloody ethnic wars of the 1990s in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, and the civil war in Nigeria in 1967 – these are only a few examples of hot political conflicts occasioned by a display between state boundaries and people’s sense of nationhood.
One striking, and sometimes disturbing reality about the modern state is the way it has been able to enlist its people in its cause. Citizens of a state generally identify themselves strongly with it and will defend it with passion. This passionate identification with a nation or with a state riding on the coattails of nation is called nationalism, and like any other passion, it can make people either noble or base. Some have performed it by great acts of courage and self-sacrifice under the influence of this sentiment, and others have carried out cowardly assassinations and brutal massacres under the same influence. Whether it makes people noble or ignoble, nationalism is undeniably convenient for governments. This is because it predisposes a large and varied population to obey the single government of the state or nation.
And if the nation is attacked, nationalist passion makes the defending soldiers a more formidable force than they would otherwise be. Therefore, all governments try to encourage nationalism – not necessarily a hate of others, but at least a national pride by holding parades, using national symbols such as the flag, presenting the state’s history to school children and so on.
The agitation of a Biafran nation out of Nigeria is not a peculiar move and it has been a long-standing one, which triggered a bloody civil war between 1967 and 1970. Nigeria is a populous country or state on the West Coast of Africa, with a population of about 170 million, One out of five Africans lives in Nigeria, including people from the Western world, and its gross national product is second on the continent only to that of South Africa. The country is rich in oil and gas, but it has so many people to feed that the average Nigerian is not especially well off.
Until 1960, Nigeria was a British colony and like most colonies, it was not constructed for internal coherence but rather for the administrative convenience of the British. Over 250 different languages and dialects are spoken within its boarders and there is also an important religious, split, as the north is primarily Muslim and the south primarily christain. After the World War II, Britain experimented with various ways of handling this diversity, and the plan adopted was a decentralized system under which Nigeria was divided into three regions, vis, the Northern region based on the Hausa – Fulani, the Western region, made up of the Yorubas and the Eastern region, based on the Ibos. These regions were administratively distinct, each having its own budget.
This arrangement continued in the initial democratic structure set up in 1960. The federal government at that time left many functions under the control of the regional governments in what is called a federal system. This situation was unstable, however, because tensions soon developed among the regions. The democratic procedures that were written into Nigeria’s constitution favoured the north, because it was the most populous region and the north quickly established political control under the first prime minister, a northern Muslim, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.
Tribal sniping is common in Nigeria, which is why Nigerian comedians play endlessly on ethnic stereotypes: that Yorubas are noisy, Ibos are miserly, Hausas are dim, and so on, just as Nigeria’s many newspapers are full of columnists who complain that their own tribe has contributed more to the country than any other but never gets its fair portion of pepper soup or national cake. Ordinary Nigerians spend hours mouthing similar complaints. The only time this nation cheers with one voice is when its football team scores.
Ethnic solidarity is used to justify Nigeria’s great vice, corruption. Nigerians almost all say they disapprove of corruption, but they tend to forgive or even applaud the perpetrator if he is one of their own tribe.
For most of the time since independence, Nigeria has been ruled by northern Muslim military strongmen. They and their hangers on grow fabulously wealthy, so with Nigerian politicians of other tribes. Inevitably, one can trace Nigeria’s tribal troubles back to colonial era when the country’s borders were drawn by the British, who, in 1914, lumped the whole mélange or people of different cultures, religions and tribes into a single unit. Nigerians refer to this as “the mistake of 1914,” at which the British were not blind to the rifts within their new colony.
In order to avert religious strife, the British discouraged Christian missionaries from preaching in the Muslim north, but while that seemed wise at that time, it built up problems for the future, as the missionaries were effectively barred from northern Nigeria. The intricacies in the administrative and economic policies of the country after independence, and the influence of the better-educated southerners on literate northerners then stimulated the Hausas and Fulanis of the north to begin a programme of “northernisation” within their own region. The northern regional government allegedly tried to bar southerners from winning public works contracts, running shops, or owning land in the north, a bias that swiftly spread to the federal government, especially the parts controlled by northerners.
A resentment of being discriminated against was one reason a group of mainly Ibo offices in the army tried to mount a coup in 1966. The coup leaders promised, among other things, to establish national norms that all applicants for civil service jobs would have to meet. To the northerners, this sounded like a promise that all the best jobs would go to southerners, for which a group of mainly Hausa-Fulani officers hurriedly led a counter-coup and seized control of the state. The coup by Ibo officers toppled the democratic government and put an Ibo general, Aguiyi Ironsi, at the head of the state, but six months later, Muslim soldiers struck back and a new government under Yakubu Gowon, a northerner but a Christian, was installed.
At this point, the eastern region seceded from Nigeria and proclaimed itself the state of Biafra, but the federal government refused to accept Biafra’s right to secede. This followed a bloody civil war which lasted two and a half years in which over a million people died. The northern-dominated army ferociously put down the rebellion as the Ibos were starved out and had to give up on secession.
Gowon wisely followed a generous, conciliatory policy toward the defeated province and its leaders, one calculated to make it easy for them to rejoin or reunite the rest of the country.
The first presidential election after Gowon and Obasanjo’s military rules was held in 1979 and a northerner, Shehu Shagari was elected. He ruled for four years and was reelected in 1983, but his administration was marked by corruption and economic decay just like his military and civilian successors. Most Nigerians are dismayed by the greed of the political class and their inability to overcome the regional, tribal and religious divisions of the country as well as improve the economy.
Today, the Nigerian economy is in deep distress, oil revenues have declined and the government has failed to invest in developing other sectors of the economy to create jobs for the teeming unemployed youths, while some geo-political zones such as the South-South and South-East are being marginalized. The country is owing vast debts to foreign leaders even as election is not peaceful, free and fair, coupled with inequitable distribution of resources and federal appointments.
Democratic government of this country is hampered by the religious, ethnic and regional divisions between the north and the south. Southerners believe that the Muslim north never allow them to gain power. Babangida, Abacha, Murtala Muhammed and Buhari are northerners; Chief Moshood K. O. Abiola, the winner of the annulled 1993 election who died in jail during the military regime, was from the south. Former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, is from the south but attacked as a turncoat supporter of the north during the election and got few votes in the south. Northerners fear that since the south has the oil and gas and most of the economic activities of the country, they will be left with nothing if they give up political power to the south, or allow them to secede.
By all this reasoning, the Ibos of the south feel that the most effective way to parlay tribal support into political office is to carve out a new state or nation in which one’s own tribe is a majority, hence the agitation or struggle for a state of Biafra. From three regions at independence, Nigeria has fragmented or splintered into thirty-six states today, causing endless complexity. In a situation such as this, it behoves the Federal Government and the agitating groups – the Actualisation of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) as well as Igbo leaders and South-East governors to strike a compromise via dialogue as regards the release of the detained Director of Radio Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu who had been preaching non-violent action and peace in his broadcasts and programmes. Both government and the groups should tread with caution.