A few years ago, on a trip abroad, I met a man from Singapore with his Malaysian wife, and we started to talk about Nigeria and its political and social problems. The couple were very educated about our affairs – they had a background in investment banking, so they had quite a lot of depth on many subjects.
Incidentally at about that same time, I was reading Lee Kwan Yew’s book – “From Third World to First” and was excited to be engaging with a “real” Singaporean on the subject. My general take was that countries like Nigeria needed to learn from success stories like Singapore and try to model our society after theirs. The gentleman remarked very quickly and politely about how Singapore had gone several light years ahead of Nigeria, and that if we were to realistically try to chart the course for development, we should perhaps set our eyes on other countries – notably Malaysia (his wife’s country), which had a similar background in Nigeria in a number of areas – two strong Religions (Christianity and Islam); a shared Colonial Legacy from the British; and a shared history of military dictatorship and the ‘militarization” of politics, or the “politicization” of the military.
He left me with his wife, who was an expert in Malaysian affairs, to be my teacher for the next couple of hours, but parted with some very profound words that never left me. He reminded me that Singapore was a country made up of four races (Chinese, Malay, Indiana and Eurasians), and made the firm distinction between races, and what we squabble about in Nigeria – ethnic groups. His profound thought was that if Singaporeans could get beyond clear racial differences, that are very conspicuous and physically obvious, countries like Nigeria with one homogeneous negro race should and MUST overcome the prejudices associated with ethnic differences.
I reflected on his words, and still do till this moment. One quick thought that hit me was that if you dressed up a Hausa man in an Itsekiri wrapper and shirt with bowler hat and put a Hausa babanrigaon an Itsekiri man with the cap to match, they would be indeed indistinguishable (we all have wedding party pictures to prove this). This wouldn’t be so if the Malay and Chinese races in Singapore exchanged clothes. Racial differences are clearly pronounced even on the surface, while ethnic ones are not. In fact, when Nigerians or indeed black people are discriminated against, we cast all our ethnic differences aside and are in one accord against our abusers. What is ironic is that as we spew our own ethnic venom against one another, we are similarly as guilty as the far-right extremists and bigots in Europe and America with their anti-black vituperations.
This got me thinking about finding the basis for Nigeria’s unity, and using this basis as a fulcrum for galvanizing all our people together. As a young student of our political history, I was aware of the comments of some our nation’s founding fathers regarding the lack of a basis for Nigerian Unity, since we were merely a contraption of colonial administrative convenience. But almost 60 years after successfully winning independence from the British, fighting a bitter civil war against secession and surviving many years of brutal military dictatorships and a plethora of corrupt and ineffective political leaders, Nigerians must find the basis for national unity and forge our future together based on it. So, is there a basis for Nigeria’s unity? Certainly, there is!
Our commonalities stem from our collective deprivations. All Nigerians regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds have been victims of deprivation. Poverty, unemployment, poor education, corruption, lack of social amenities and physical infrastructure, indiscipline and bad leadership are pervasive all over the country. To those who are actively campaigning that one ethnic group or part of the country dominates the others, they will see that all ethnic groups have been devastated by these deprivations. There is not a single part of this country that is fulfilled or less deprived. We are all equally victims of our deprivation, so if there is some basis for Nigeria’s unity it is our collective deprivation and suffering and working together to over-turn the tide.
The truth that many of these ethnic bigots whose nationalistic sentiments are similar to the Alt-Right anarchists of America and Neo-Nazis of Europe are afraid of embracing is that the rot that our country has become is not because of the “other people”, it is because of the collective choices that our leaders and all of us as people have made over the years. It is our leaders and their excesses and the grand and system indiscipline and corruption that are the causes of our ills, and their ability to spin and manipulate us with ethnic and religious prejudices as well as our gullibility that have been the bane of our national development.
So, Nigerians wake up, shake-off the lies of ethnic and sectional prejudice, identify our common enemy – deprivation and all the forces that create and sustain it – and fight it!
In the words of acclaimed leadership writer, John C Maxwell, in his ‘101% Principle’: let us find the 1% that we agree on and give it 100% of our effort to resolve. If not, we will allow the 99% that we don’t agree on to destroy us!