The job of unifying the various ethnic, religious, political and socioeconomic assemblage in Nigeria has remained a terrible national challenge more than 100 years after amalgamation in 1914. This is very puzzling considering that all government administrations since independence in 1960 have made national unity their primary agenda. Corollary programmes, policies and mantras including incorporation of the federal character principle, the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), national symbols, National Orientation Agency (NOA), and mantras such as “the unity of the nation is not negotiable”, etc have been espoused to ease national unity in Nigeria.
Yet the gap between the various groupings appears wider as the nation is still beset with ethnic rivalry, religious intolerance, political exclusion, pursuit for self-determination, insatiable appetite for power and violent agitations to mention a few. The challenges to national unity in Nigeria appear to endure because of the manipulations of political, ethnic and religious elites due to monetary gains and enduring competition over the control of state power. Unity remains a sparse product in Nigeria because of the way elites conceived and implement policies to reinforce primordial loyalties. This heightens disagreements and controversies among the diverse peoples and communities, threatening the nation’s existence and development.
Interfusing the diverse ethnic, religious, political and economic groupings in Nigeria for development remains the greatest challenge facing Nigeria as a nation. Nigerian elites must begin to create a true and viable nation out of these diversities. Nigeria was created by the British with the amalgamation of Northern and Southern protectorates in 1914. The amalgamation led to the creation of a mosaic country with over 350 ethnic and religious groups that compete for space and attempt to coexist, in spite of differences in culture, aptitudes and level of development. We must learn how to achieve solidarity in action and purpose in the midst of hundreds of ethnic nationalities each exerting both centrifugal and centripetal forces on the central issue of the nation, bound in freedom, peace and unity where justice reigns. For diversity in itself is not a problem; it is what is done with it that matters. Whether or not sociocultural variety results in strife or collective success entirely depends on how a society chooses to manage it.
However, disagreements and controversies over the best political structure to be adopted, size and responsibility of government, the nature of relationship between and among component units, the type and system of government, as well as how resources are acquired and shared have become a recurring feature of the Nigerian state. In the First Republic, national political leaders, at some point found it easy to mobilize, capture and consolidate power as regional and ethnic champions.
Successive governments have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to address the problem of lack of unity and the tendency toward primitive attachments through deliberate policies and programmes. For instance, following the end of the Nigerian civil war on 15th January, 1970; General Gowon expressed the need to pursue national unity and integration: “We desired to preserve the territorial integrity and unity [national integration] of Nigeria. President Shehu Shagari’s Inaugural Speech in 1979 also recognised the need to bring the various ethnic groups in Nigeria together, proclaiming that the slogan of “One Nation, One Destiny” shall be translated into reality. Importantly, Chapter II, Article 15, sub-section 2 of the 1999 Constitution stated that national integration shall be actively encouraged, whilst discrimination on the ground of place of origin, sex, religion, ethnic or linguistic associations or ties shall be prohibited (FGN, 1999). The National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) Scheme, the Unity Schools, the Federal Character Principle, and State Creation were adopted to achieve this goal. Despite these, the challenge of unity has persisted partly because of the inability of Nigerian elites to steadily provide good governance; harness the many benefits of diverse ethnic, religious and economic groups as a source of strength rather than weakness.
Consequently, after more than 100 years of statehood and almost sixty-one years of political Independence, the search for national integration, stability, peace, order and development remains a dream. It is therefore most pertinent for us as Nigerians to identify the challenges that have continued to threaten the corporate existence of the Nigerian state in spite of many constitutional provisions, programmes and policies to promote national unity.
In a nutshell, efforts by the various governments to overcome the challenges of national unity have not yielded the desired cohesion between and within the different entities that make up Nigeria after sixty-one years of independence. This calls for a change in the approach or strategy in the quest for national unity. Sequel to the above, it is evident that structural, constitutional and policy initiatives cannot engender national unity without appreciable change in the value orientation and material conditions of the citizenry. This brings the issue of the orientation of Nigerians to the fore. National unity will remain illusory without appreciable change in the mindset that blames colonialism for the challenges of national unity, of the elite on what constitutes national unity and how to attain it. Also significant is the change of the mindset of the masses which is the outcome of the warped socialization process and unbridled manipulation of the citizenry by the elite.
The role of the National Orientation Agency (NOA) and other relevant agencies in the process cannot be over-emphasized. The Agency, and even the States’ Ministries of Information and Orientation should be well equipped and funded to enable them realize their mandate through a value re-orientation programme that focuses on fostering national unity. For the change in the mindset of Nigerians to be attained and sustained, the problem of social inequality must be addressed; there has to be an appreciable and corresponding change in the material conditions of the citizens. To achieve social equality the safety nets of the society must be sustained. The above challenges are not exhaustive but if addressed will definitely enhance the prospects for national unity in Nigeria. Specifically, the elite dimension of the challenges of national unity deserves special attention. The eradication of Illiteracy and poverty should receive fundamental attention. This will free majority of the citizenry from the shackles of self-serving political elite that have continuously exploited them as cannon fodders against their political opponents each time they lose elections or do not achieve their political aspirations thereby fanning the ambers of disunity.
As the nation celebrates her 61st anniversary, Nigerians must rise up to the challenge of keeping Nigeria as one indivisible and indissoluble country.
Roseline Irek, writes from the Ministry of Information and Orientation, Cross River State.
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