I know that many people have spoken and written about the current situation of things in Nigeria, especially the agitation for a referendum to enable Nigerians determine for themselves whether they still want to live together as one big populous country or whether the different ethnic groups that make up the country now want to go their separate ways.
Many of the people who have so far contributed to this conversation point to the fact that some sections of the country like the East are grossly marginalized in the distribution of government appointments and largess because they were involved some 50 years ago in a civil war that cost the country so much in human and material resources. For that reason, they insist that it is either the country is restructured from what it is now, or it would be dismembered and the different ethnic groups can go their separate ways.
In all of these considerations however, it is rather disturbing that the core reason Nigeria finds itself in this dilemma has not been considered or addressed by those who are saddled with the responsibility of finding a solution to the trouble with the country.
I think the main reason Nigeria finds itself in this dilemma is that there are two divergent sets of social arrangements that find it as difficult to merge as it is for water to merge with oil. One must float on top of the other.
The northern states of the country practise feudalism as their social norm, because of their history and geography. Feudalism was also practised in the European countries before the age of industrial revolution.
On the other hand, the southern states practise republicanism, also because of their history and geography. But because space will constrain me from dealing with these issues of history and geography in details here, anyone who cares can read it up in books.
Britain knew about this social dichotomy when it “gracefully” amalgamated its Northern and Southern protectorates in 1914 and called them Nigeria. For some unexplained reasons, Britain believed that the new country would pull through in about its first hundred years. And it wouldn’t really matter if the country disintegrated after 100 years of the experiment to live together – if its ethnic components found it desirable to disintegrate.
So, the inability of its leaders to smoothly fuse a feudalistic social system and a republican social arrangement is the main reason Nigeria has remained a problem to itself, and all kinds of agitations have arisen in the wake of this challenge.
The practice of feudalism in the north implies that a few very rich families are the owners of the land – stretching through the north. But the north is also ambitious to extend its territorial influence to the south. The majority of non-land owners are contracted to farm on the land, as in the case of herdsmen who walk all the way from the north through to the south, grazing their cattle in any farm of their choice, ready to make trouble if the farm owners resist their incursion. Or they may get into the army in order to serve the interest of the land owning families. The land owners who are the rich families are the ones who make the laws and everyone else is expected to obey.
That is why you find that in the north, for instance, when a poor man steals something as little as a chicken or a goat because he is hungry, the law demands that he is amputated. But when a man in a high position like a governor steals billions of dollars of the tax payers’ money, nothing happens to him. When a woman who is widowed or separated from her husband has sex with another man, the law stipulates that she has committed the crime of adultery and should be stoned to death but the man who committed the “crime” with her has no case to answer. In this part of the country, the law does not recognize pedophiles and a man of seventy years is free to marry a young girl of twelve if her parents are in support.
Talk of democracy. I remember that some years ago, there was the case of a young girl in the north. Her parents wanted her to marry a man about three times her age, a man who already had two wives. She refused. They forced the marriage on her because they were poor and needed the suitor’s money. The girl reluctantly agreed but had her own ideas which many Nigerians later considered as awful.
The wedding took place. Afterwards, the new bride was asked to cook dinner for her husband and six of his friends who were his guests for the night. This girl secretly called the daughter of the first wife, gave her some money and asked her to buy some quantity of rat poison for her. Unsuspectingly, the little girl bought the rat poison, gave it to the new wife and left. The bride finished preparing the dinner, spread the rat poison in the food and served her husband. The man and all his guests died after eating the food.
It was a test case for the Nigerian judiciary when the case went to court. And I remember that some charity organisations stood up to be counted in support of the girl who they insisted acted out of frustration. That, they pointed out was the evil outcome of a forced marriage. I am not sure if the case has yet been disposed of, even as I write.
A former governor of a northern state who is now a senator was in the news a few years back for marrying a 14 year-old girl from Egypt. Many women from the south protested against the marriage of an elderly citizen to a girl who was young enough to be his grandchild. There were associations of lawyers and there were associations of doctors who came out in their droves to protest on the Senate grounds, threatening to take the senator to court.
But while they were at it, some delegates of widows from the north surfaced on the grounds of the Senate asking what the Senator did wrong. They said it was their religious culture and their leader narrated how she married her husband when she was only nine, stayed with her mother-in-law until she was 14, and then she knew her man and had her first child at 15. As she was speaking she had nine children for her husband. She spoke glowingly about the senator, remembering how much he helped widows when he was the governor. With this defence, the protesters dispersed and the matter came to closure.
These are just a few isolated examples. The baseline is that the practice of feudalism in the north has created a two class social system of very rich families and very poor families. In between is the military which the very rich families use to maintain peace in the land. That is why, for instance, today there is the presence of the military code-named “Egwu Eke II” (Dance of the Python) in the eastern part of the country. This and the other military “dances” across the country are manifestations of feudal practice.
On the part of the southerners, the social practice is republicanism. There is an upper class – who own private jets, several posh homes in the country and abroad and whose children attend choice schools and universities. There is the lower class who cannot afford to pay their rents easily or train their children in school unless they sell their ancestral land or economic trees. Between these two is the middle class. The difference is that the republican way of life, unlike feudalism, creates a scope for social fluidity. So, a child who is born by poor parents is not stamped with poverty. If he is wise and struggles hard, he can attain the highest position in the land and even become the President of his country.
Such social fluidity is not the norm in the north. For the majority of people here, you are born rich, you live rich and you die rich. You are born poor, you live poor and you die poor. There is no scope for social mobility. That is why, for instance, after everything General Abacha was said to have done during his four-year reign of terror and all the money he was said to have stolen, his son still has the audacity to want to run as governor of his state. You are born rich, you live rich and you die rich.
But new families in the north are now beginning to go to school and attend universities. The old order is being challenged in some ways. So, rather than let go the system, new sets of laws that will protect the interest of the nova riche are being put in place. For instance, the ordinary citizen in the north is being indoctrinated with the idea that western education is poison and not good for anything, and yet the children of the rich families are going to American and European universities to study.
Be that as it may, it is important to note that there were two fallouts from this feudal system of the north. First is that the condition had created a massive opportunity which the southerners explored before now, which is why so many southerners, especially from the east flocked into the north and saw the place as their new found business heaven. The second is that because there is a tendency for the feudal system to create a two-class society of very rich and very poor families, its influence in the south became a social disaster.
Many hard working southerners who should have belonged to the middle class became lured into anti-social behaviours like armed and bank robbery, kidnapping, cultism and ritual murders because they didn’t want to be counted among the poor families of Nigeria. They wanted to be seen or counted among the rich and influential in the society.
This fact accounted for the proliferation of crimes in the south in recent years, especially after the election of Dr Jonathan as President in 2011. The election of a southerner as President of Nigeria was seen by the north as a major shift in power structure and a possible threat to the social order in the north. And as result, as many as twelve northern states immediately responded robustly to this shift by totally embracing the Sharia Penal Code.
Given these indices, why would anyone subscribe to the idea that Nigeria must remain a “united” country, whether or not the citizens like it? Insisting on it is like conquering your own people and forcing them willy nilly to accept the harsh conditions shoved down their throats by a civilian army of occupation. Nigerian political leaders certainly won’t like to create such an impression in the name of democracy.
Yes. It is obvious that there are two very different social ways of life between the south and the north. But if Nigerians decide to remain together because they feel it will pay them better to do so as the gateway to the African economy, then their leaders must recognise the underlying factors that militate against a union of the south and the north. They must address this issue intellectually and intelligently.
And again I think the solution can only be in the states being given financial autonomy, as it is in America. Every state should have the right to explore whatever it has in its land, make its own laws, own its own police force, manage its own schools and hospitals, its own factories and business outfits, build its own roads and its own transportation system and so on, and pay something like 20% of its annual budget into the federation account for the maintenance of structures like the Army, the Central Bank and the Immigration.
Beyond that the governor of a poorer state can court and befriend the governor of a richer state and thus make a way for their people to trade or do business to their mutual benefit. Take a state like Gombe for instance. If the governors of Gombe and a state like Imo are close friends, their people will be encouraged to become friends too. They will be inspired to trade and do business across their two states. A state like Taraba can get medical doctors from states like Anambra or Rivers to manage its hospitals and get easterners to explore what can be done in terms of business between Taraba and, say, Abia people. And no one needs to fight about such mutual relationships.
But first of all, the APC government of General Buhari must summon the political courage to call for a plebiscite to enable Nigerians decide for themselves whether they want to remain together or whether they want to go their separate ways.
There is every possibility that more Nigerians would want to stay together. Consider the population of those agitating to dismember the country. If indeed more Nigerians want to stay together as one country, then the will of their leaders will be strengthened in the knowledge that they are executing the mandate of the people who elected them into public office. But the politicians must summon the courage and the political will first, knowing that this would be the most critical decision they would have to make to save Nigerians from frustration and self harm.
The people who are calling for a breakup of the country are doing so because they want the government to restructure the country, not because they see a breakup as a panacea to the problems of the Igbo or any other dissatisfied ethnic group. Indeed, judging from my interviews of, and interaction with some of them, what they envision is that Nigeria should have become as economically and socially stable as Singapore, Malaysia, United Arab Emirate and other countries which attained self rule about the same time with Nigeria and utilised their oil wealth to provide basic infrastructure for their people.
Nigeria should have had 24/7 electricity supply by now. The country should have had good high ways, well equipped schools and hospitals that would spare the people the shame of seeking medical attention abroad. Nigerians should have been obeying traffic lights when they turn red. The sanctity of life should have been respected. But that is not the case after 57 years of self rule. This is why some agitators see the country as a “zoo”.
Some of us who live abroad feel the shame. One young Nigerian in my workplace recently asked me why white people don’t respect us, Africans. I had to explain to him. These people know us well. You are a graduate from your country. You come here to become a dishwasher in a public kitchen. You come here to become a cleaner on the streets, and in restaurants. You come here and begin to wash dead bodies. And you are a university graduate, coming from a country that is widely touted across the world as rich in oil and other mineral and human resources. Why would white people respect us?
But if our leaders had used our money to build good roads, good industries and factories, well equipped schools and hospitals and so on, some of the rich white people would be sending their children to study in Nigerian universities. Some of the white people would be coming to Nigeria to look for work. That is the only time they will begin to respect us both at home and abroad. I had to explain to the young man why we are in the soup we find ourselves, even overseas.
But all that can change when APC leaders stop chasing the shadows in the name of fighting corruption and begin to address the main issues that are keeping Nigeria down despite the much touted rich resources that nature endowed it with. These are political issues. And they demand political solutions.
- Mr Asinugo is a London-based journalist and publisher of Imo State Business Link Magazine (imostateblm.com)
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