Broken truths: Nigeria’s elusive quest for national cohesion

  • “As a rogue state continued to exploit its citizens, what we have had and still have is a nation too divided and distracted” – Bishop Kukah.

INTRODUCTION: The Truth of our Nigerian Story?
Let me start with a conceptual clarification regarding the title and topic of this lecture. Not unexpectedly, my first reaction is to ask what is a broken truth? What does an unbroken truth look like? When we speak of truth, we immediately recall the trial of Jesus before Pilate: When Jesus said to Pilate that He had come to bear witness to the Truth, Pilate replied, ‘Truth, what is that’? (Jn.18:38).

Truth has been and remains a contested concept precisely because its very veracity depends on a range of other options.

Today in the court room, an accused person takes the witness stand, with a holy book in one hand, and promises to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Sadly, even up to the completion of the hearing of the case, we are often not sure which truth has been told; we are unsure what part, version or fraction of the truth the judge or the jury may have heard. It is often said that to get to the truth, it is important to hear both sides of the story. Yet, even after both sides have told their story, we do not necessarily get to the so-called truth. There are often at least three sides of a truth, that is, his/her side, the other side, and ‘the’ truth.

We will all agree that knowing or finding the truth is integral to the attainment of justice. Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, the legal legend of blessed memory, came up with the dictum that “Justice is a three way street: justice for the perpetrator, justice for the victim and justice for the larger society.” I remember saying to him once that I thought there should be a fourth leg of Justice: that is, Justice before God. Of course, since we believe that only God is Truth, one would hope that the quest for justice on earth would be guided by and therefore somehow reflect God’s Justice.


Bishop Kukah

But, let me here return sharply to the substance of this lecture – I have undertaken this philosophical excursion merely to serve the fact (truth) that this is a multifaceted conversation, which can only be enriched by a multiplicity of views.

As I was reflecting on what to speak on, this title came to my mind. I thought it would be a useful guide to help me address the issues concerning the collective sense of cynicism and anomie that has gripped our land and indeed our world today. We are surrounded by walls of lies, half-truths, and innuendos, which have become woven into the tapestry of our national history. I dare anyone to try to present one definitive narrative about any of the epochal events in our nation’s history.

We have no comprehensive history of the civil war. We have no exhaustive history of the various coups that took place in our country. We have no complete narrative of the history of political formations and culture in Nigeria. Every phase of our recorded national history is a mish-mash of half-truths, stratagems, and incomplete stories, drawn from rumor, allegations, and outright lies fed to the public, as well as of course the fact that each of us sees reality from our diverse perspectives. Indeed, as Napoleon Bonaparte stated, “History is a set of lies agreed upon.”

But where are the truth-tellers?
How did all the mighty citadels of learning in our country, along with their Theatre Departments, Parks, Gardens and Staff Clubs suddenly become abandoned wastelands overrun by cultists, drug peddlers and rodents? Who can forget the Faculty of Social Sciences in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and other Marxists havens in the Universities of Port Harcourt, Calabar or Ife? Where are the colleagues, students and successors of the likes of the late Professors Bala Usman, Patrick Wilmot, Mike and George Kwanashie, Eskor Toyo, Monday Mwangvat, Claude Ake, Sam Oyobvaire, Adele Jinadu? Where is the generation whose intense scholarship gave us the phenomenal work, The Kaduna Mafia?

Today, to survey the intellectual landscape in Nigeria, is to see stalks cut low by the scythe of the grim reaper. After the heamorrhage of the generation that President Babangida accused of ‘teaching what they were not paid to teach’ in the mid 1980s, the University environment became a conquered land of surrender where playing safe became the basis for survival. As Military Generals who themselves had no university education began to appoint Vice Chancellors and even some from within their ranks to administer the Universities, so began our slouch towards Bethlehem, to quote Yeats.

Today, a band of illiterate so-called herdsmen have taken an entire nation hostage. A movement, Boko Haram, led by an illiterate, has taken on the entire security apparatus of the nation. How did we come to this sorry state? Will the next generation dream great dreams and hope they can be realized or will they forever remain trapped in nightmares of the mass violence that has become their diet? What narrative shall the next generation inherit? Today, we rely on comedians for ephemeral comic relief. We have no Nobel Prize winning authors to celebrate in our Universities, no academic feats worthy of international recognition. There is need to interrogate the consequences of the choices we made or did not make and their impact on where we are today. To this I now turn.

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Nigeria: The Road Not Taken
I have always loved to return to this great poem as a source of inspiration. It offers us an opportunity to speculate about what might have been had we made different choices. I will quote just the first and the last verses of Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth.”

“I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

Even before independence, what would later become Nigeria had a rather distorted history cast in competing, even conflicting, narratives and experiences. A century before the invasions of the British, the peoples of most of what is now the Middle Belt had lived with the traumatic experiences of war, slavery, compulsory conversions to Islam, and the destruction of their cultures and habitats in the course of the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate. The scars were deep, but not being a literate society, and with no written records about their own history and experiences, this subjugation had become embedded in the individual and collective psyche, surviving only in tales told by forbearers.

For instance, as children growing up, my siblings and cousins would gather around our grandmother at meal-time and whenever we seemed to be eating in a hurry, she would yell: ‘Why are you eating as if you are running away from Fulanis?’ I had to wait for over forty years, going to the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, to stumble on the meaning of these words in the course of my research in the library. When I stumbled on a narrative of the days of slavery, it said that in the days of the Caliphate, communities to be invaded for slave raids could see the horses of the raiders by the dust they raised by day. As a result, the raiders took to raiding communities for slaves at night. They would often follow the direction of the cooking fires and strike at families in the middle of their meals. As such, families took to eating very quickly so they could put out the fires and go into hiding! Clearly, our grandmother knew we were too young to grasp the complexity of the history, but it was her life.

I am nostalgic about the days of Bala Usman and his radical movement, which enabled the generation of the time to address the primary contradictions and then set up a higher ideological platform that enabled scholars to unite and confront the secondary contradictions of a rogue state.

The dreams of a non-sectarian society articulated by the left have been replaced by the divisive rhetoric of those who now use religion and ethnicity to further divide our society.

As a rogue state continued to exploit its citizens, what we have had and still have is a nation too divided and distracted, a nation whose elite has been caught up in fighting so many little civil wars and squabbles that it has had no reserve energy to fight the larger war against the real enemy, the rogue state. As it rides rough-shod over its citizens, the Nigerian state leaves in its wake, death and destruction. Rather than unite to confront it, its citizens continue to compose dirges in their vernaculars as they bury their dead, lamenting about marginalisation. We now face the predicament of the axe and the forest trees, namely: The axe was felling the trees, and all the trees kept falling as the forest disappeared but the trees could not rebel against the man hewing them down because the trees said that the handle was one of them!

From independence till date, we have lived with horrible leadership and we have excused the rogues on the grounds that they are our tribesmen, our fellow religionists, and that those who raise their voices are enemies of our tribe or religion. Unlike Frost’s traveler, when we got to where the road diverged, we opted for the comfort of taking what seemed the easier road. Instead of the high road, in Michelle Obama’s rendering, we took the low one. Choosing the road less travelled was too difficult. This is where we are now. So, what have been the consequences of these choices? It is to them that I now want to turn very briefly.

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The Colonial legacy and Independence
Before independence, the British tinkered with the system in a way and manner that literally sowed the seeds for our enduring conflict and convoluted history. We know of the anecdote that stated that had Nigerians disappeared, the colonial administrators in the north and south of Nigeria would have gone to war because of the intensity of their differences. We now know that the disparity in background, social status and ideology meant that colonial administrators in the north and south had different and conflicting views about what the new nation would look like. It is clear that we became victims of these world-views.

For example, in the area of Education, the colonial officers in the North believed that education was meant to merely consolidate the stranglehold of the northern feudal classes over the masses of the people. Indeed, in 1922, when Barewa College was established, it was meant to educate those that the colonial administration considered would be the leaders of the north and Nigeria. Indirect Rule as a system of government merely reinforced the powers of the Emirs who appropriated residual powers from the colonial state especially in the areas of taxation and used these to subjugate the non-Muslim communities.

In the south on the other hand, in 1834, almost one hundred years earlier, the Methodist Church established the first Primary school in Badagary, and in 1859, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) established the first Secondary School in Bariga, Lagos. Within that same period, inroads were being made in such areas of southern Nigeria as Efikland and Igboland. Thus, even before the British arrived, a local elite, primarily made up of descendants of the Liberian experiment, had emerged in the Lagos area. Missionary education, unlike the straightjacket impression that the colonial state sought to create in the North, had a more liberating, humanitarian, egalitarian dimension. It was not only open to everyone but was also presented as the means for breaking open the doors of the bastions of exclusion.

The British were determined to ensure the supremacy of the North in the new nation. They took three key steps to ensure that this happened: First, they decided on a regional system of government which was skewed to favour the North. Three quarters of the landmass were allocated to the areas of the northern part of the country that were coterminous with the boundaries of the Fulani caliphate, which the British themselves had overthrown.

Second, the British closed their ears even to the realities of their own investigations through the 1958 Willinks Commission and refused to acknowledge the loud cries from the Minorities for the creation of a Middle Belt Region.

Third, they offered independence but only on the terms that were agreeable to the North.
Thus, whereas, the South, represented by the young Anthony Enahoro, wanted independence in 1956, the British opted to accept the proposition of the North, that independence would be, as soon as it is feasible ! The agitations were renewed after independence. With the Tiv riots (1962), and the political crises in the western region (1965), the coups of 1966 and 1977 threw the country inexorably into the cauldron of a civil war whose details should be the subject of a different project. Was there another road to be taken? Well, the military thought so and it is to them that we shall now turn.

Enter the Military: Paradise Postponed
The wheels of the new nation had barely begun to turn when the vehicle hit a major gulley, the military coup of January 15, 1966. The new nation would then go into a tailspin, dragged into a corrosive system that would prove to be worse than the colonial state it had just come out of.

Military intervention coincided with the rise in the commercial value of Oil, which had been discovered in the Niger Delta region of the country before independence. The sweet taste of crude money wetted the appetite of the military elite who then proceeded to destroy the foundation of Democracy and institutionalise a military command structure.

This is not the time or place to review the consequences and impact of military rule on the life of the nation.

Seduced by the notion of the choice of a lesser evil, the military was often welcomed as heroes, messiahs that were praised for sacking a corrupt civilian administration. The accusations against the civilian regimes were often based on unproven claims of massive corruption, with the military promising to rid the country of the cancer of corruption. As it turned out, successive military regimes proved that their cure was worse than the disease they came to treat. The best place to look for the broken truths is in the speeches of the successive military coup plotters.

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The speeches themselves illustrate very clearly a simplistic perception of changes in the society, a limited understanding of the complex issues of managing diversity and governance. What we find in the speeches is repetition of catalogues of the mess created either by their predecessors in the military or civilian governments. An exhausted citizenry, tired and pained by the chaotic state of things would time and time again buy into these ill thought-out speeches which promised social and welfare services, only to discover that they had been duped. Curiously these speeches would all end with an appeal to the citizens to stay tuned to their radios for further announcements, showing clearly that the coup plotters had no agenda and no idea what they would do next.

The motivation for coups was never as patriotic or as forward looking as the planners would make them out to be. They were largely cases of settling old scores or serving sectional class interests.

For example, when Major Nzeogwu came on January 15, 1966, he said in his speech that he and his colleagues had come to… get rid of those who took bribes and demand ten percent….those who seek to keep the country permanently divided so that they can remain in office…we promise that you will no longer be ashamed to say that you are Nigerians. When a revenge coup was staged in 1967, it was to correct or avenge the severely strained events that had rocked the foundation of the country. In his speech of May 1967, General Gowon, the Head of State, to avert a civil war decided on the creation of twelve states. In his speech, Buhari stated that: We have now reached a most critical phase where what is at stake is the very survival of Nigeria as one political and economic unit. His efforts towards saving the country as one unit did not succeed as the nation ended up in war.

Sadly, after the war, the military did not return to the barracks. Instead, an extensive economic Development Programme was put in place, along with a post war rehabilitation programme which came to be known as the three Rs (Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation) and which got buried in military ambition. The Gowon regime decided to shift the goal posts only to invite another coup, which came to correct the mistakes. The military dug in their heels. Hmmm.

When Buhari came in1983, he said that the new government… will not tolerate kickbacks, inflation of contracts and over invoicing of imports. It will not condone forgery, embezzlement, misuse and abuse of power. When he himself was overthrown, General Babangida lamented that: it turned out that Major General Buhari was too rigid and uncompromising in his attitude to issues of national significance.

Efforts to make him understand that a diverse polity like Nigeria required recognition and appreciation of differences in both cultural and individual perceptions, only served to aggravate these attitudes.
And on and on the military coup plotters went, telling tales to a naïve nation and citizens too dazed to see through the deceit. It is interesting that even by 1997 with the last coup that was foiled, the controversial Diya coup, a text of the proposed speech against the Abacha regime had planned to make the same claims to justify the reasons why the military had come again, reasons based on accusations against the Abacha government and promises to do better.

Looking back, we can see that frustrations within the military had produced a culture of coups and intense infighting and corruption within the institution. The more the coups were staged, the weaker and divided the military institution became. By way of counter-penetration, civilian influence began to play a significant role in military interventions. Regional, traditional, religious and economic and social class interests held sway as these elite groups often funded military interventions to either forestall the erosion or the preservation of the influences of these groups. The end result was that a more divided, distracted, fractured and confused military severely became a threat to national cohesion.

The sense of a national security apparatus was lost, thus opening the country up to the multiple stabs from aggrieved sectional, national and international interests. More or less, this is the story of Nigeria today. As I said earlier, it is a sad story of an accumulation of lies, half-truths, and of subterfuge, of fractured hopes, like the jagged edges of broken bottles. The idea that today, semi illiterate and illiterate herdsmen have held the country to ransom under the Boko Haram insurgency and the endless killings across the country suggest how low we have sunk in the quality of our security systems and in terms of levels of cohesiveness in our society. An aggregate of these is what constitutes what I call, broken truths. By way of conclusion, let us look at the prospects of the future.


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