Leadership and Challenges of National Unity in Nigeria – Nuhu Ribadu Delivers Nnamdi Azikiwe University Convocation Lecture

Leadership and Challenges of National Unity in Nigeria


Nuhu Ribadu


Convocation Lecture Delivered at the 11th Convocation Ceremony of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State.

February 15, 2017





I feel highly honoured to be invited by the Governing Council of this great university to give this year’s pre-convocation lecture. The significance of a pre-convocation lecture as a platform for reflecting on burning issues and charting a course forward for our country is not lost on me. Another significance of this event is the venue; this respected university, located in the heart of Igboland and named after our first president, a great Nigerian, a revered leader and outstanding nationalist, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe.

Looking at the foregoing, it is easy to see why being here today is a momentous opportunity, especially because we are addressing key issues of leadership, unity and peaceful coexistence in a united Nigeria, at a time agitations to reconsider the basis of our existence as a country continue to dominate national discourse. I am therefore happy for this rare opportunity.

Distinguished audience, allow me, with your kind indulgence, to appropriate this lecture and remake it as a tribute to our own Zik of Africa. Without doubt, the departed sage must be proud of this institution, as he looks down on us today, for creating a platform that allows us to talk and reflect on the seminal challenge of unity in Nigeria, a theme that was at the heart of his politics and life.

The sage that he was, Dr. Azikiwe, was the symbolic incarnation of the concept of unity. Born in Zungeru, northern Nigeria, to Igbo parents, but living most of his late youth and adult life in Lagos and the western region of Nigeria, Dr. Azikiwe became one of those moving and itinerant symbols of our collective aspiration to forge oneness despite our differences.

There is a huge message here. History, and the conscious choice of the life he lived, elected him to the role of a missioner for the cause of unity and the representation of the concept of unity in diversity.

It was therefore not surprising that in most of his politics and social action, national unity was an enduring theme and narrative path to the meaning of national development. If there are those in this hall therefore who wonder why, in the face of potentially overwhelming challenges to the unity of this country, we remain steadfast, the answer is in part located in the legacies of ideas and thoughts that people like Dr. Azikwe planted to shepherd us to the land of guarantees.

Today again, therefore, I salute our countrymen and women who refuse, in stubborn association with progress, to give up on the promise of our unity, and the strength and greatness it promises.

As the wisdom of our elders continuously reminds us, a port of arrival is just as much a port of departure, and for this reason, the important task of remaking our nation and cementing its yawning cracks are crucial and urgent.

We wake, in other words, to the day-to-day challenge of that difficult monster called the “national question” –the challenges of our nationhood. While some people believe that the existence of Nigeria as a country is largely settled, agitations to revisit the basis of this existence continue to rise but in truth, every nation is a work in progress and it is therefore important to have a healthy debate on the issue.

Some suggest that after 56 years of independence and over a century after the 1914 amalgamation, there is need to continue to look at ourselves in the mirror in order to identify grey areas of our existence and find ways of perfecting our union.

For all these years of our existence as a country, Nigeria has grappled with several challenges. There is mutual suspicion and ethnic jingoism that has deprived us of reason, sense of justice and fairness. We laugh and hug in public and plot against each other when we retire to our ethno-religious enclaves. Once in a while, this mistrust finds grotesque expression among our people as we witness bloodbaths premeditated by ethno-religious contempt for each other. Development is low in almost all parts of our country and there appears to be nothing to be proud of in almost all spheres aside cases of personal achievements of resilient citizens. Basic amenities are lacking. Issues that other nations have long taken care of are still hard for us to crack. Nigeria still ranks poor in many development indices while the menace of corruption is threatening to choke the country to death due to the excessive stealing of our resources by some handlers of our affairs.

Clearly, our challenges of nationhood are linked to the inadequacies of some of our leaders at all levels. Yet, another compelling argument explaining our developmental backwardness is failure by citizens to take ownership of their country. A lot of us, to quote late Chief Bola Ige, prefer to adopt a siddonlook attitude in the affairs of our nation. Therefore, addressing the leadership question without tackling the absence of this fundamental emotional investment in the country, would not be enough answer to our challenges.

The Leadership Question

It is said that if other countries are afflicted by natural disasters, Nigeria’s own disaster is leadership failure. This metaphor may be exaggerated, but it is certainly not too far from the truth. We have burned out decades of self-rule moving in circles from one problem to the other, often caused by poor leadership challenges.

This leadership inadequacy has contributed in compounding a number of our problems, from widening the parochial divisions among the citizens to active participation in plundering our patrimony.

On this issue, I have been an advocate of top-bottom approach to solving societal problems, convinced that leadership is key to whatever social change is desired. It is the leader that charts and navigates the way for the flock to follow and it is the leader’s action, inaction and body language that dictate the tunes for the dance steps the public will take. As I have noted before, if a leader eschews corruption, it will be difficult for those below him to indulge in such practice; and if the leader is deep neck in it, it becomes a free-for-all.

What we missed at independence and for most of the years that followed is a true national leader with a clear determination and focus to unify the country. Having such a unifying person would have been one big leap because it would have taken care of the most central challenges of our country.

Modern nation states, as we have seen from examples in sister African countries and elsewhere, succeed largely when you have a leader that is focused, open-minded, cosmopolitan, yet firm and unrelenting. The leadership examples of Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and much later, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and Paul Kagame after the genocide in Rwanda, point to the importance of how a good leader can shape the fortunes of any nation. Outside Africa, we can also point to the shining examples of Singapore and Malaysia.

Addressing the ‘National Question’

The widespread belief today is that Nigeria is an artificial creation. The truth is that, as late Dr. Yusufu Bala Usman pointed out, not a single region in what is now Nigeria was home to just a single ethnic nationality living all by themselves before the coming of the colonialists.

Exclusive ethnic identities are inventions of our political elite. Nigeria was a stretch of land hosting many city-states where in the South-west, the Ijebu and the Egba people didn’t consider themselves as one, talk more of being Yorubas.

In the South-east, it was a taboo to infer that the people of, say, Arochukwu and Onitsha were one—none accepted identification as Igbo. Hausaland too was not homogenous as today’s Hausamen from Kano or Katsina would rather identify with their city-states than with any corporate ethnicity. But while they each had their distinct identities, they also welcomed anyone who could come and contribute to the city or state. They welcomed anyone who desired to be a citizen.

As I illustrated earlier in this speech, nothing illustrates this more than the biographical sketch of Zik, an Igbo man from Onitsha, who was born in Zungeru in Niger State and succeeded in dominating the politics of Lagos for a long time.

The framers of our constitution at independence had this kind of diversity in mind when they came up with the idea of federalism. The aim was not to play up our ethnic or religious differences by ascribing each region to a particular ethnic group, but for each region, made up of Nigerian citizens from diverse ethnicities, to work to the best of its abilities for the benefit of those who call the region home.

However, practitioners of the system eventually ended up distorting this important principle of the constitution by skewing the system in favour of ethno-religious groupings. Smaller groups within those regions found it difficult to aspire, giving rise to cries of marginalisation. This has been part of the reasons for the continuous agitations of state creation, and lately, the calls to review the federal system.

These concerns are expected in a country as diverse as ours. The issue is not that these problems exist but that we have not been able to confront them in a way that is enduring and holistic. That is where the question of effective leadership comes in.

The leader of the Nigerian renaissance must therefore be strong, tough, and inclusive in his or her own capacity. He or she must not be an opportunist who grows on the back of citizens to entrench a regime of dictatorship that weakens our institutions and in turn end up annulling our democracy and its values of freedom.

Looking Down the Line

In the past 56 years, this country has recorded significant milestones. We have survived severe cold similar to what led some countries to sneeze to death. Fortunately, we remain standing, though someone once wrote that we are standing still! Yes, he could be right! But we also have a lot to be grateful for.

The country is endowed with abundant natural resources and brilliant human capital. Yet, the paradox is there is widespread poverty due to misused resources and untapped potentials. It is therefore true that wherever Nigeria is mentioned, what comes to mind is Boko Haram, oil theft, kidnapping and corruption.

This is not to surrender to pessimism. I strongly disagree with those writing off Nigeria as a failed country. Agreed, we could do a lot better based on what we have in terms of natural resources and demographic advantages. Nigeria’s problems have shifted from the actual, which is the collapse of our institutions after many years of military, political and bureaucratic imprudence, to an invented assumption that suggests that our peoples are unwilling to live together.

The foundation of this country can only be understood when you go around the country and interact with the larger masses, who are the actual patriots, from markets to schools, and to social gatherings where identifications are based only on our humanity and individual characters.

Nothing exemplifies the Nigeria we should aspire for than the gregarious nature of the Igbo man. It is a common joke that whichever village you go in Nigeria and you don’t see an Igbo man, you should take to your heels. Though taken simply as a joke, this speaks to the industrious and adventurous nature of a typical Igbo persona and illustrates how rooted the Igbo are in this country.

In many cities and towns across Nigeria, if the Igbo decide to wind up their businesses, they could bring that city, whether it is Lagos, Kano or Abuja, to its knees.

In the same mould, you can talk about the Fulani herdsman, who combs the length and breadth of the country with his herd, in search of opportunities. The Fulani herdsman is blind to political borders, the language we speak or religion. Like the Igbo, what matters to him is where it is convenient to survive.

There is no clearer demonstration of our interwoven existence than this. It also signifies true unity in diversity.

It is pertinent to state here that our strength as a country is not in oil or any other natural resources that dot our country. There is no doubt that these resources have given our nation immense prosperity and a pride of place in the comity of nations. But they are finite and may not be there forever. So our real strength, which is likely to endure forever is in our population and other demographic wealth, which are anchored on our resolve to live together peacefully.

Our people are bound by a common goal, the desire for individual progress and to have their lives improved by those in the helms of their affairs. They are united in the same struggle to have functional public institutions because their sufferings, their poverty and deprivations, have neither ethnic nor religious identities. And the exclusive sufferings amongst them, like insecurity as a result of religious and ethnic differences, can as well be traced to our politics and ill-advised political decisions and indecisions.

Permit me to dwell a little more on this issue which, to my mind, has been neglected so much to the detriment of our progress as a people and as a nation. Conventional view and discourse around the most urgent challenge we face as a nation today tends to revolve around difference or what the social scientists among us here conceptually term as othering.

But let’s take a minute to review the case against homogeneity a bit and see if there is balance in the argument. Let us address the metaphor of Somalia first and ask what lesson it offers us. Somalia is a unique country that projects the fact of one ethnicity, and one religion. On the basis of the argument of those who scorn diversity, Somalia ought to be a model country of unity, of growth, and of development. Almost all its population are Muslims, and speak a language. But what is the reality on the ground? Somalia is indeed our region’s best case of state failure where lawlessness and mindless acts of terrorism dragged the country to its knees.

Let us also look at South Sudan. Before it broke away from Sudan, the assumption was that it would know more stability, prosperity and unity after its independence in 2011. But the country has continued to suffer ethnic violence and has been in a civil war since 2013. As of 2016 it has the second highest score on theFragile States Index.

Leadership therefore has meaning only when it emphasises unity in diversity, and lifts up the people, investing them with hope and promise. It is so when it sets up purposeful action through the force of example. I am convinced that the leadership that will lead us to the next mile cannot tolerate degenerative values that allow discriminatory practices to thrive; and cannot stamp its feet to affirm than an ‘injury to one is an injury to all’- that violence and impunity will not be tolerated and will be met with overwhelming counter violence in the interest of the larger Nigerian community.

To be sure, ladies and gentlemen, no prize is higher than ensuring political stability in this land because it is the bedrock of any possible growth and development. Stability has the rifling effect of sparking development and addressing challenges of struggle over resources and even the corruption bug.

Moving Forward

We need a paradigm shift in governance that urgently allows us to tackle the alarming inequality in our country as well as the mass poverty and misery it nurtures. This really is the ticking time bomb that is about to unravel our common destiny, and our collective future. History is rich of great civilizations and nations who ignore to address the social compact and ended up in regret.

If we have a society of one religion, one ethnicity but ignore to address the ravaging threat of inequality and poverty, the outcome will be worse than Somalia, more so in a diverse society like ours.

I spoke about Somalia earlier on. But let me also say something about Rwanda, a country that is substantially ethnically homogenous but which descended into one of the worst incidences of genocide known to man in 1994? When a segment of the country held out against the other, the combatants ended up slaughtering thousands in the fastest mass massacre ever known to our world. What that incidence taught us all is that the homogeneity of a society in terms of religion and ethnicity is not necessary an antidote to disunity and mindless violence. The solution to those problem, to my mind, is a more just world, rooted in good governance and social justice.

Related to the question of inequality is the challenge of ensuring that we build a society that offers security and which safeguards the rights of citizens. Security of life and property are not flaky concepts. Without security, society easily degenerates to its worst Hobbesian prehistory. It is for this reason that I strongly make the case that for a society of opportunity and progress to emerge, both citizens and leadership must partner to eradicate inequality and poverty, as well as provide security in a tangible sense that makes human rights vivid and real.

Let me illustrate the meaning and import of this social compact for easy appreciation here. We must ensure freedom and relative ease to access the opportunities of education, housing, health, jobs and justice. It is not enough to make provisions for them in the constitution, they must breath with life and meaning. Above all, they must be concrete and tangible rights. This is the social compact we must invest in as quickly as possible.

Contrary to some popular notions, attempts at continuous tinkering with our national architecture through policies like state creation and micro-ethnicity will never, I repeat, never get us to the promise land. The truth is that a minute after a new state is created, the agitation for smaller unit is triggered.

Breaking states into small entities have not helped much in this country. Agitations that triggered the formation of new states have largely remained in the entities created. Because of lack of time, I will only cite a case here. When Akwa Ibom was created from Cross River in 1987, the assumption was that the cries of marginalisation would end with the emergence of the new state. That has not happened. The state remained divided along its ethnic lines, with the Ibibio, the Annangs and the Orons consistently feuding over access to political power and resources. The same situation exists in my own state – Adamawa. We still facing challenges of cohesion despite having clamoured to get out of the old Gongola state.

The answer I insist, is for us to invest heavily in social Justice; in political justice; and in the promotion of a regime of freedom as broadly as possible. It surely makes no sense for me as a Fulani man to complain against injustice from a Yoruba, Izon, Ibibibio or Igbo man. If I fail to recognize that injustices exist in my own community also, as indeed inside every community that constitutes the larger Nigerian family.

Thus, let’s give consequence to the statutory language in our constitution but above all let us move with a bold determination to create a national identity in the country such that any child regardless where they are from in this blessed land, can look up and be proud to be a Nigerian.

Conclusion and recommendations:

Our continued existence, I make bold to say therefore, as one indivisible entity, very much depend on how we decide to be each other’s keeper. We should consciously refuse to give in to the weight of that which divides us.

Rather we should celebrate our shared experiences, connections and togetherness, which, I believe, far outweigh whatever differences we may have. We must resist all temptations by enemies of our collective progress, and resist the influence of hate mongers be it politicians or religious leaders. This can be achieved by increasingly showing respect for one another and deliberately promoting peace among our people through carrot and stick approach.

This approach should include investment in law and order to ensure that there is zero tolerance for violence and hate speech. On the other side, fairness and justice should not be only notional abstracts, it should be seen to be on display through every action of the state and our individual leaders.

There should be a deliberate policy on campaign for the love of Nigeria and patriotism in various ways, including promotion of religious and cultural tolerance. To achieve this, we should build more bridges and strengthen the existing ones like the NYSC and Unity Schools.

The demography in our universities should also as much as possible reflect our ethno-cultural diversities. I am sad to note how our universities are becoming increasingly provincial in terms of students and teachers’ population, thereby ending up producing narrow-minded graduates. Government should do everything to change this, perhaps including considering giving special assistance to students studying at universities far away from their states of origin, and making a quarter of staff to consist persons from other regions.

We should de-emphasise factors that underscore our fault lines such as regional socio-political associations. We should look into our common bonds as basis of our shared humanity and associations, not Arewa bloodline, or as members of the Igbo race, or as Yoruba, or any other tribe or religious groupings.

Recently, a university owned by the Katsina State Government, did something commendable in this regard by recognising only essential students’ unions, thereby banning all small intra-religious associations and tribal unions. That university demonstrated clearly that it would not allow religious, ethnic and local governments divisions on its campuses. I think this is a lesson not only for other universities to follow but also for the country to emulate at all levels.

I am a believer in the age-long saying that united we stand, divided we fall. It is in unity that we can find strength and ability to conquer evil. If we are not united we cannot fight corruption, insecurity, or anything evil.

It is therefore right to say that what the country needs is honest and modern leadership that would be a rallying point for citizens, one that can tame the consuming tides of corruption and evolve creative solutions to our myriad of problems. It is my belief that firm and sincere leadership is the precursor for industrious and patriotic followership.

This will enhance national development and bring an end to current mutual mistrust that is shaking the foundation of our nation. Managing Nigeria’s diversity in the context of justice and fairness is a pathway to progress. If we address these existential and leadership challenges, we are more than half-way into addressing all our problems.

Thank you all for listening.

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