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Nigeria and The Politics of National Integration: An Historical Overview

I feel highly delighted to be requested to contribute a paper as part of a book publication in honour of Professor Sa’ad Abubakar, Ubandoman Muri, one of Nigeria’s most celebrated Educationists, Historians, seasoned Administrators, consummate Politicians, excellent Diplomats and venerated Statesmen. I thank Prof. A. Akinwumi, our former President of the Historical Society of Nigeria, for this initiative. For me, as a student of Prof. Abubakar from 1st degree, Master to Doctorate, this assignment is a huge honour and a token pay back; and I treasure it.
Given the current search for a new political order in our country, and the need for serious intellectual input therein, and given the latitude allowed me in the choice of theme, I deliberately chose the topic for this paper to share my thoughts on the thorny subject of Nigeria’s integration and unity. Nigeria’s unity holds a strong promise for her participation in the global politics as a powerful international actor; guaranteeing us the overcoming of hunger, homelessness, disease, illiteracy, poverty and insecurity. Also, globalization has naturally imposed on Nigeria the dire necessity to unite as the prerequisite for her economic growth and political relevance in today’s world order. I think a book on Prof. Abubakar is a propitious medium to add a perspective to this all important discourse.

Focus of the Paper
The January 1914 amalgamation exercise had brought diverse ethnic and cultural groups together under one single political entity called Nigeria. Within the boundaries of the country, there are approximately 248 distinct languages that make Nigeria a principal ‘linguistic crossroads’ of the world. These groups, ranging in sizes from tiny units of tens of thousands to large groups of tens of millions, spread within four administrative regions of North, West, East and the Colony of Lagos. Later, after the First and Second World Wars, the Mandated and Trust Territories of the Cameroons were added. Each region had within it a single ethnic majority and a large number of ethnic minorities. Owing to a three-dimensional suspicion and distrust amongst the various ethnic groups, and their religions, ethnicity became a key issue defining social relations in our communities. Gaining ascendancy in the politics of decolonization, at independence it spread through the political landscape; becoming the most serious element militating against Nigeria’s national integration and unity.

Given the complexity in the diversity of these ethnic groups with the attendant ethnic and religious group sentiments, loyalties, solidarities and tensions, many Nigerians doubted the country’s ability to attain national integration and unity. In spite of this scepticism, shared even by our pioneer politicians, intellectuals and statesmen, the trend to keep Nigeria as one indivisible and indissoluble entity also never abated. Thus, Nigeria’s national politics, either under military or civilian regimes, remained geared towards sustaining the country’s unity. This paper attempts to give an historical overview of how successive regimes since independence viewed and grappled to solve this contentious issue and the devices and strategies employed in trying to attain the set goal.

Highlighting the Challenge:  Views that Matter
At independence, many of Nigeria’s leaders, politicians and intellectuals were at best sceptical of the prospects of the country’s integration and unity, and such view was not only openly expressed but also at times even actively pursued. For example, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of Northern Nigeria, saw the amalgamation as ‘the mistake of 1914. …’  Indeed, even the future Prime Minister of the country, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, had cause to state in 1947 that since the amalgamation in 1914, Nigeria existed as one country only on paper’.
Apart from the ethnic group differences, the Northern leaders considered religion, culture and temperament as other serious factors militating against national integration. Mallam Abubakar Imam, a one-time General Secretary of the governing party of the North, bluntly pointed out to Southerners that Northerners had no confidence in them:
‘To tell you the plain truth, the common people of the North put more confidence in the white man than in either their black Southern brothers or the educated Northerners’.
This view was not limited to the Northern leadership alone. As pointed out by Dr. E.E. Idike  in his view about the Nigerian State, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, a foremost Southern Politician of repute, also placed national interest secondary to ethnic interest. He looked on Nigeria as a mere geographical expression. He posited that ethnic group affiliation is the controlling influence in the life and motivation of the individual in a plural society like Nigeria. He therefore believed that the ethnic group is organic and real while the aggregation of diverse ethnic groups called Nigeria is inorganic and artificial.  In fact, after the July 1966 counter coup, the new Head of State, then Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, declared that the basis for Nigeria’s unity was no longer there. General Murtala Muhammad too, who led the counter coup, was first with the opinion of breaking the unity of the nation. Araba, Murtala first contemplated.

In addition, academics like K.C. Anyanwu believed ethnic diversity and ethnic loyalties constitute the basis of political instability that militates against national unity. In a paper titled “The Basis of Political Instability in Nigeria,” Anyanwu said; ‘The Nigerian political structure is deeply grounded in ethnic group and regional loyalty, which means that the federal government merely endures a very precarious life’. He held the view that Nigerians possess certain basic political orientations, ethnic in character, to which they hold tenaciously and that their unwillingness to alter these orientations leads to political instability.

But against these divergent and even despondent views, there also had always been a strong aspiration to keep Nigeria as one nation. Indeed, successive leaders preferred coexistence than separation. To this end, it became necessary to devise practical ways of fusing and integrating the different ethnic groups and component units of the country into a nation-state. The creation of homologous administrative entities was thus devised as means of putting groups under their own separate entities while at the same time promoting national integration. Hence the subdivisions of groups, based on the exigencies of ethnicity, culture, history and politics, into separate administrative units such as regions, provinces, states, LGAs, districts, zones, etc. to satisfy this need. Post-colonial rule started this process in 1963 when the Mid-West region was created; in 1967 when General Gowon created twelve states, in 1976 when General Murtala created nineteen states, in 1989 when General Babangida created twenty one and in 1991 thirty states, and General Abacha in 1996 created the present thirty-six states. This strategy had considerable positive impact on the integration of Nigeria.

Constitution-Making for National Unity
The second strategic devise adopted to ensure national integration was by means of constitution-making. Nigeria‘s political experience is unique in the large number of constitutions the country produced. In the colonial era, the country recorded eight constitutional changes in 1914, 1922, 1939, 1946, 1951, 1954, 1956-57 and 1960. In post-independence, Nigeria worked out five major constitutional arrangements in 1963, 1979, 1989, 1994-95 and 1999. These constitutional changes were part of our leaders’ responses to political and administrative difficulties to the diversities of the country. Sharply conscious of the need to use these constitutions to achieve national integration, post-independence leaders, especially the military, made constitutional provisions to check separatist tendencies while at the same time aiming to forge national integration. For example, in the 1979, 1989, and 1999 constitutions, structural and institutional mechanisms impeding healthy growth of nation-building were removed. These included traditional rulership in local governance, ethnic and communal organizations in the political processes, tribal parties and the use of religion in politics. All these and many more were massively trimmed down through constitutional curtailments.

Another major constitutional provision for the purpose of forging national unity is to be found in the 1979 constitution – the concept of Federal Character! Intended to promote “national loyalty in a multi-ethnic society” the constitution Drafting Committee and members of the Constituent Assembly created the idea of the Federal Character and made it a constitutional requirement in all matters of national governance. Its aim was to achieve national unity by minimizing the disadvantages of ethnic groups that stand to lose in a plain contest for political power and for benefits that derive from the public turf. Such provisions were retained in all the subsequent constitutions since 1979. What runs through all these administrative changes and constitution-making efforts is the common concern to ensure that ‘Nigeria stays together as a single political entity’. Towards accomplishing this overriding goal, two other devices had further been employed. These are Presidential system of government and ideological indoctrination.

Presidential System of Government
Clearly, the British Parliamentary system of government adopted at independence where Parliamentarians were elected only by their small constituencies failed to advance national integration as it was comparatively easy for small ethnic and other factional interests to dominate local politics. Members elected from these constituencies had all too often been more concerned with the interest of the ethnic groups they represented and thus carried these interests to the national level. This way, national politics became the politics of these local groups. In the presidential system, however, the President and Vice President must win a nationwide election, and to do that they have to appeal to all ethnic groups and to a whole host of other interests across the country. Because of this the President and the Vice President will less likely be controlled by specific ethnic and other special interest groups but by national interests.

Thus, the presidential system, invented by the 1979 constitution, was meant to expand and extend the size of Nigeria’s democracy thereby taking in an ever-larger number of ethnic groups, factions and other interest groups. In such a large democracy, no one group would ever be big enough to always dominate the national political process. This would mean that national politics would have to be dominated by ever-shifting coalitions of ethnic, religious, regional and other interests rather than by one majority bloc. As a result, such a large constituency would be less prone to interest group capture at any one given time. What this means is that the Presidency will tend to have moderating effect on our ethnic, religious and sectional politics. Because of this, divisional barriers are being broken to advance national integration and unity.

Ideology: A Tool for National Integration
For the amalgamated communities in Nigeria to stay together, there must be territorial and constitutional integration as well as maximum consensus. Hence, every leadership in Nigeria became obliged to find means of holding the divergent units together in one whole. Accordingly, since ‘the whole’ contains culturally heterogeneous groups, to preserve the union, it is imperative to preserve the essential elements of the peculiarity of each unit in which every group sees a bit of itself in the whole. There are psychological dimensions of this ‘seeing a bit of itself’, which took the form of an ideology consciously manipulated to help minimize cultural strains among the different groups. This was, for example, embedded in the country’s constitutions and national anthems. The preambles of all the constitutions reflect the aspiration to live in unity and harmony as one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign state.

The country’s National Anthem refers to Nigeria as “our Father Land”, and citizens are to serve that “Father Land” with all their hearts and might. With a vow to sustain “the labours of our heroes past”, the “Father Land” is to be for the citizens ‘one nation bound in freedom, peace and unity.’ Indeed, at independence in 1960, the founding fathers’ dreams for the country were mirrored in the then National Anthem where “though tribes and tongues may differ” all citizens were to stand side by side in one brotherhood as Nigerians.  All these were meant to emphasize one message – the need for national unity, national loyalty and national patriotism in spite of our diversities.

Nigeria’s National Colours of “Green-White-Green” are also symbolic. Green symbolizes hope, fecundity and prosperity, while white symbolizes peace and justice. The country’s Coat of Arms first read “Unity and Faith’ in the nation and when threatened with war of secession, it added “Peace and Progress”. There were also such party slogans as ‘one nation one destiny’. Under the military too similar emotions were being infused. ‘To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done’, Gowon was later to profess. We find other military leaders, particularly General Murtala Muhammed, calling attention to the need for ‘a strong, united and virile nation, a great and dynamic economy, a just and egalitarian society, a land of bright and equal opportunities for all citizens’. Others maintained that ‘this generation of Nigerians and indeed future generations have no other country but Nigeria …’ There was even a change of national anthem and introduction of a National Pledge undertaking to ‘defend her unity’.

Concurrently, successive leaderships also invested considerable amount of time, energy and money in nationalism at the federal level. They tried to create a national image that was meant to have such appeal to citizens as to make any image of a separatist group unacceptable, and even unattractive. Huge resources were spent on national flags, new national anthem, education, unity schools, NYSC, sport and cultural festivals, etc. and the territory was bound together by a network of railways, airports, roads, waterways, etc., followed by massive inter-regional and cross-cultural group settlements and even intermarriages. Also, since within the matrix of global politics large population has some advantages for countries, Nigeria’s huge demography is used to create a psychological need for the unity of the country. It is common to hear Nigeria being eulogized as a great country; the giant, the leader and the hope of Africa and the Blackman. This ‘greatness’ meant that Nigeria has a manifest role in shaping the destiny of Africa, due principally to her population and not because Nigeria actually attained any spectacular success in say scientific, technological, industrial, organizational, economic or political sphere, or any other aspect of human endeavour. Consequently, Nigerians are made to see the unity of their country to be in their best interest as well as in the interest of both the African Continent and that of the Blackman, and therefore must strive to maintain it. Hence, Nigerians became ready to, and in fact did, fight a war to keep the country united.

These policy objectives have over the years evolved to be the aspirations and common values of the Nigerian people. Political leaders, colonial and indigenous, military and civilians alike, have tried to give Nigerians a glimpse of the future to aim for – a free, prosperous and egalitarian society, filled with men and women inured to selfless motivation, concerned with the common good and struggling to ensure justice to all citizens irrespective of their tribes, regions or religions. In the final analysis, therefore, what this amounts to is achieving a broad unity that can accommodate the peculiarities of all groups, thus holding the entire country together in justice, peace and progress. This is what academics like Prof. Sa’ad Abubakar had strove to attain for our people in their blissful years of service to the country; and it is what all of us in the academia must also strive to maintain and perfect. We have no luxury of a better alternative.

Dr Ardo is a Public Affairs and Policy Analyst.



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