Monday, February 3, 2014

It's Time to Reimagine Nigeria

 (Text of my speech at the commemorative national centenary edition of the Abuja Literary Society’s Night of the Spoken Word on Friday, January 24, 2014)

The idea at the heart of this nation’s birth was racial redemption. At the beginning of the 20th century, race was the barrier that divided the world. The colour line split humanity into an allegedly superior white race and a supposedly inferior black race. The generation of agitators that formed the nationalist movement saw Nigeria as an opportunity to register the black man’s presence in the modern world. They wanted to show that Africans could build a pinnacle civilization of their own. Nigeria was to be a showpiece state and an exemplary nation – incontrovertible proof that blacks had something positive to offer humanity.

In order to achieve this, our founding patriarchs had to have a certain kind of faith. They believed in a cosmic sovereign will operating in history. They believed that this being had impelled diverse communities from far-flung places to migrate over the course of centuries and eventually congregate in this space that would one day be christened Nigeria. They also believed that a force greater than Frederick Lugard’s penmanship had ordained the nation’s existence. Consequently, they did not see Nigeria as a whim of the British Empire but as the will of providence.

Now, the patriarchs were usually fractious on many issues but they were of remarkable agreement on one matter: Nigeria was unique and exceptional. Thus Nnamdi Azikiwe declared that Nigeria would be “a country of consequence” and “a force in world affairs.” As he took office as Nigeria’s first indigenous Governor-General in 1960, Azikiwe declared that Nigeria had a duty to “revive the stature of man in Africa and restore the dignity of man in the world.” Adegoke Adelabu described Nigeria’s independence as “a cosmological imperative.” Ahmadu Bello, who at one point famously described the nascent Nigerian nation as a mistake, predicted that with independence she would rise to become “first among equals in Africa.” Chinua Achebe once described Nigeria as a nation favoured by providence and burdened with a historic purpose that no other nation can fulfill

This belief in Nigeria’s manifest destiny energized the nationalist struggle and earned us independence from the British in 1960. This ended the first chapter of our national odyssey.

Our learning curve as a nation since that time has been steep. We have since learned that liberation is different from nation-building. It is one thing to achieve freedom from colonial bondage; it is another thing to seize control of the post-colonial Promised Land. The journey from servitude to sovereignty has been very challenging. We have been through so many traumas – the fall of the First Republic and the abortion of the heady promise of independence, the civil war, the cycle of coups and counter-coups, the oil boom that gave us more wealth than we knew how to usefully spend, the subsequent era of recession and austerity, the age of SAP, the structural adjustment programme, decades of military dictatorship, chronic ethno-religious violence, terrorism – through all of these plagues, we have survived resiliently against the odds. We are still here. And that fact alone gives us the impetus to face the future boldly.

Here are three lessons from our national odyssey that we must take to heart.

1. Nations are not transformed in electoral cycles but in generational cycles. It took a generation of nationalists to earn our independence from colonialists. It took another generation of nationalist pro-democracy activists to confront military despots and win us democracy. And now it falls on another generation, ours, to expand the borders of the freedom that we have now. For democracy means more than just the right to vote. Ultimately, it must mean that everyone has the means to live their dreams and be makers of their own destiny.

For our purposes, a generation is not defined by the coincidence of belonging to the same age bracket. A generation is defined by shared values. So however young or old you are, if you believe that this land can and should be better and will work for its progress, then we belong to the same generation.

2. We live in a society that constantly reminds us of our differences – distinctions of creed, clan, tribe and language. ‘Divide and rule’ was a weapon that the British used against the nationalists and delinquent political elites have long used it against the Nigerian people. But the fact is that from Talata Mafara to Brass, Shendam to Oshogbo, Nigerians want the same things. They want to dwell in peace and raise their children in safety. They believe that no condition is permanent; that tomorrow’s harvest will exceed today’s; and that the stars are ever in their favour. They believe in ‘Live and Let Live.’

We should certainly understand our differences, such as they are, but they need not define us or limit us. There is a meeting of hearts and minds that transcends geography and genetics. The diehard nativists and tribal fundamentalists may insist that blood is thicker than water but a nation is much more than a bloodline. It is as Edward Renan said “a spiritual principle” and “a moral consciousness”. We do not have to be kin to be kindred spirits bearing the burden of a common destiny. The fact that we do not speak the same language does not mean that cannot find solidarity in our suffering.

Throughout our history, our finest moments as a nation have occurred whenever we transcended these so-called differences. All our transformational struggles – the struggle for independence from colonialists and the struggle against military tyranny for democracy – were waged and won by movements that transcended our differences. These movements triumphed by welding northerners and southerners, Muslims and Christians, humanists and agnostics, the faithful and the faithless together in the patriotic agony of shared purpose. This is what we must do in our time.     

3. Thirdly, Nation-building is an act of constant imagination and re-imagination; of constant invention and reinvention. The soul of a nation is forged in the crucible of its imagination. It is poetry and prophecy, prose and propaganda; it is faith and praxis. We are all moved by the majestic proclamation of the U.S. Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men were created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

But when these words were written, these truths were not at all self-evident. The Declaration had fifty-six signatories, all white males. There were no African-Americans. At the time, blacks were considered less than human and fit only for slavery. Indeed, some of the signatories were themselves slave-owners. There were no Native Americans. The Native American civilization had been virtually wiped out. And, of course, there were no women. Now, we can look at this contradiction as an act of high-sounding hypocrisy on the part of those who wrote the declaration. But I suggest it was something more. When those men wrote those words, they were reimagining their nation and reaching for an ideal that could inspire generations after them.

It is possible for us, as a generation, to re-imagine our social, political and economic realities. It is within our powers to declare new possibilities and to reach for new ideals that will shape the next one hundred years. The future will not come until we become it; in our words, creativity and craft, in our activism, in our politics, in the narratives we are producing about ourselves and the examples we are setting for our children. Franz Fanon said that each generation must discover its calling and either betray it or fulfill it. Tonight our calling is clear. One hundred years after Lugard’s amalgamation, fifty-four years after independence and fifteen years into the Fourth Republic, it is time to re-imagine Nigeria. Thank you.