The phenomenon of ethnic nationalism in Nigeria is certainly not new. But under the Muhammadu Buhari presidency, it has become significantly accentuated and widespread. Broadly, ethnicity becomes a form of nationalism, when it assumes a political (and often territorial) dimension that challenges the status quo, and in some cases, the legitimacy and stability of the state in question by becoming a catalyst for intra or inter-state conflict.
The central political tenet of ethnic nationalism is that ethnic groups are entitled to self-determination. The outcome of this right to self-determination may vary, from calls for self-regulated administrative bodies within an already-established state or society, to an autonomous entity separate from that society, to a sovereign state removed from that society.
Today, President Buhari’s quaint insistence on externalising his seething inner vision of a new Nigerian state and seemingly acting as the arrowhead of ‘an ascendant’ ruling ethno-religious group are seeding new ethnic pushbacks and perhaps, incipient national breakup. Here’s why.
According to Alade Rotimi-John, lawyer and political analyst, “The failure or reluctance of the All Progressives Congress (APC) to keep its promise of a restructured Nigeria on assumption of office and the arrogant self-deception of the presidency are hinged on the patently false premise that Nigeria may continue to operate a rogue constitution as her grundnorm and yet, remain as an indissoluble entity.”
More: “The internal contradictions of a promised policy position and the reality of a hegemonic disposition that is in oppositional relationship to vote-catching drivels on the campaign dais has landed the APC leadership in a quagmire regarding the requirement of a clear position on the issue of restructuring.
“The party’s leadership from the Southwest has been particularly compromised and cast in bad light as it had been the ardent promoters of that socio-political model. Today, it is awe-struck even as it has lost face among its embarrased constituents.”
Clearly, the linkages between the smug indifference of the ruling political leadership, a parochial governance template, uncontained bloody depredations without stern consequences, systematic, violent invasion of the Middle Belt and Southern forests and farmlands have birthed grassroots separatist or secessionist characters like Sunday Igboho and the Nnamdi Kanu.
Today, the Fulani, navigating with ethno-religious homogeneity and calling the shots in Nigeria, is seen as the number one and perhaps, most astute ethno-nationalist group staking their claim. The Hausa, socio-culturally subsumed by the Fulani, appear to be waking up and putatively reasserting its shredded identity.
On their part, the Middle Belt tribes, under the searing heat of suffocating domination by the core North are exhuming Joseph Tarka’s vision, which much earlier had disowned Ahmadu Bello’s One North vision.
In the South, ethno-nationalistic impulses are scaling up with significant differences in the sophistication of their approaches. The Yoruba of Southwest and Igbo of Southeast are leading the charge.
Although separatist proclamations are disowned by the governors and ageing elite of both regions, they clearly run deep in the populations’ psyche. Should the Yoruba and Igbo overcome their differences and close rank, many pundits believe rightly or wrongly, it will quickly end the historical core Northern domination game.
But the wily core North is certainly not sleeping on its oars. That many of these Southern folks quietly see the Sunday Igbohos and Nnamdi Kanus in clearly empathetic lights speak to what the future could hold for the troubled Nigerian state. Though leery of both the Yoruba and Igbo agenda, the many Southern minority tribes are weighing their options as they watch the unfolding events, even as Buhari seemingly opts for military force to stamp out separatist activism.
Worse, either stemming from incapability or unwillingness of the central government and national parliament to initiate fundamental, as opposed to cosmetic constitutional changes to renew the national journey, the much trumpeted restructuring remains mere rhetoric.
Commenting on the troubling incidence of ethnic nationalism in Nigeria, a former military president, retired General Ibrahim Babangida, told THISDAY in a previous interview with this reporter, that the existence of multiple ethnic nationalities does not by itself necessarily constitute a problem or an issue with political consequences.
His words: “This situation alters in the process of social change or modernisation, when the interests of ethnic groups become elevated to the political realm.”
Restating the need to appreciate that Nigeria’s cultural and social diversity constitute an asset rather than a liability, Babangida held that purposeful leadership could tackle the challenges, which multi-ethnic nationalism poses for governance.
“The task before leadership at all levels of governance is the use to which government apparatus and public resources are ordered around public policy in order to reduce the destabilising dimensions of multi-ethnic nationalities, and the forging of a wholesome Nigerian state within the federation,” he held.
Noting further that one must expect that in a country like Nigeria with its diverse nature, there was bound to exist such tensions, he stated that, “Ethnicity, or ethnic nationalism has historically being part and parcel of the political process, economy and statecraft of Nigeria.
“I recall this gave rise to the colonial investigatory committee usually referred to as the Willink Commission, which became the precursor of the multiple creations of sub-system state in the country between 1963 and 1996.”
By holding that “purposeful leadership could tackle the challenges, which multi-ethnic nationalism poses for governance,” Babangida has essentially written off Buhari’s governance template and temperament.