Nigeria: complexity of identity and the national problem

John Otim


In the wake of Boko Harum and its campaign of violence it‘s common to hear many Nigerians speak of their country as going to the dogs. It is true that Boko Harum has inflicted an enormous damage on the national psychic, perhaps equal in scale to those inflicted by the civil war more than forty years ago.

Today Boko Harum still holds about 300 teenage girls it kidnapped more than a year ago while they sat for exams in their school in northern Nigeria. It is terrible to imagine the fate. of these girls The sect has left no one in doubt how cruel and brutal it is.  It has embedded itself in the Nigerian body politics and become the hardest nut to crack since the creation of Nigeria. Its trail of bloody deeds has left the usually fun loving people of Nigeria puzzled, dismayed and confused.

Yet beyond the horrors of Boko Harum life goes on in Nigeria. The country could even be considered a success story. From patches of wilderness it built itself a brand new capital worthy of any country in the world. Its athletes and footballers continue to earn for themselves a proud spot in international areanas. Until they messed it up some years ago with the help of the IMF, Nigerian universities were among the best in Africa. The country’s cinematic industry while it is rough and crude in many ways, enjoys world wide fame. Recently Nigeria surpassed South Africa as the continent’s biggest economy. It sounds like success.

Perhaps more significantly there has emerged over the last half century of nationhood a personality recognizable in most countries of the world as Nigerian. In its mannerism (not always the most attractive), in its style (ever flamboyant) and in its outlook (always optimistic) this new personality has indelibly registered itself in many minds worldwide, as typically Nigerian. It is loud, it is in your face, and it is colorful.

In countries like Uganda or Kenya despite loud talk mouthed by officials and others, about “our African culture”, there is no equivalent national personality profile existing or emerging. Where a Nigerian dress mode and dress style has emerged out of its rich and diverse histories, in East Africa there are men and women clamoring to dress themselves and their children in the English manner. Their news anchor men and anchor women daily sell this image on television. Their leaders and politicians do likewise. Not surprisingly a large part of clothing and outfit in the region is purchased from the second hand cloth market, rejects and hand me down from Europe and North America. To be sure there is a second hand cloth market in Nigeria too. But it is insignificant compared to the trade in local fabrics.

Yet despite its successes Nigeria faces intractable problems. Brazen corruption abounds but this may be the least of its problems. Developed countries like Italy and the United States were once corrupt too and still are. In Italy there is still a big mafia problem. Miracle India is full of corruption. Even China, the world’s second largest economy, reels from corruption now and again.

The real problem in Nigeria is the lingering divide between the north and the south of the country. This is in many ways a heritage the British left them. Sometimes the problem expresses itself in ethnic terms. At other times it manifests as a religious issue, and here and there, bursts into violence as it did in the period preceding and leading up to the civil war (1967-70). Boko Harum is only the latest and barring the civil war, the severest manifestation of this divide. Skillfully like an invading parasite the sect has embedded itself within the divide and now exploits it with impunity. This is the reason it has proven so very difficult to get rid of it. Religion is a sensitive matter in Nigeria.

Many people in the south of Nigeria regard the north of their country as uneducated and primitive. They think that the north is wholly Muslim and fanatical. Many people in the north return the favor. They think of the south is full of practitioners of the deadly art of witchcraft. They think the south is wholly Christian and sold to Europe. None of these is the truth, but the trouble is, such beliefs feed popular imagination. And this leads to trouble.  The question is, what will it take for the people of Nigeria to unite and to overcome this impasse of their politics and their history?

Politicians in the capital city of Abuja and in the various state capitals are blasé and are like ostriches burying their heads in the sand. They say that the country has put all its problems behind it. They point at the famous national policy, styled the Federal Character. The policy demands that, every federal institution, must reflect the federal character of the nation, especially in terms of personnel and where possible, location. (Indeed many Nigerian institutions abide by these strictures.

But many prominent politicians are reported to keep in reserve a lumpen proletariat of under educated and unemployed youth, who they unleash on the streets of the nation to cause mayhem when it suits them. The frequent mass riots and ethnic or religious conflicts that in the past rocked not quite a few Nigerian cities, could be seen in this light. There is no doubt that Boko Harum benefits from the mass poverty and mass unemployment that despite the oil money still abound in Nigeria.

The solution to Nigeria’s intractable problems associated with ethnicity and religion will be long drawn but it could begin to be tackled through the kind of development that riches ordinary people and promotes in the country the climate of democracy that go beyond the basics of the ballot box. It may be worth repeating the following tenents of a working democracy:

  • A decent education for all citizens
  • A level playing field in the economy
  • Free speech and freedom of association

Once these tenents are followed and favorable new conditions created by them become widespread, the North-South divide that has plagued Nigeria for the last one hundred years will wither away and Boko Harum will be no more.