In our series of letters from African journalists, novelist and journalist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani considers the greatest challenge facing Nigeria as Africa’s most populous nation marks 60 years of independence from the United Kingdom.
How do you keep a multitude of ethnic groups united and content? This was the biggest hurdle Nigeria faced in the first decade of its independence – and continues to be the case 60 years later.
The lively national conversations usually revolve around which ethnic group gets what, when and how. Or how fairly one person from one group was treated compared to one from another.
A major policy of promoting systemic equality was initiated by the Nigerian government nearly four decades ago, but it has led to further balkanization and bitterness.
Nigeria is home to over 300 ethnic groups and three dominant groups: the Igbo in the southeast, the Yoruba in the southwest, and the Hausa in the north.
These groups were separate entities before the British merged them into a single country that operates today as a federal system – with power concentrated in the center and distributed among the 36 states and the capital, Abuja.
Power struggles at the center or concerns about unfair treatment have at different times led to pogroms, demonstrations and violent conflict, including the 1967-70 civil war, sparked by an attempt by the Igbo to secede and to form a new nation called Biafra.
To promote inclusion, the “federal character principle” was enshrined in Nigeria’s 1979 constitution.
It includes a provision allowing public institutions to reflect “the linguistic, ethnic, religious and geographic diversity of Nigeria”.
At first it seemed to appease all sections of the country.
But, today, it is one of the most controversial government policies, with many Nigerians complaining that it has done our country more harm than good.
Local newspapers regularly make headlines such as “Federal character is a curse for Nigeria” or “Group calls for end to federal character”.
To begin with, the “federal character” has not been accompanied by any strategy to end the vast educational inequality that has always existed between the predominantly Muslim north of Nigeria and the predominantly Christian south.
This disparity is the result of a complex combination of factors, such as religion, culture, past colonial policies and, more recently, the militant Islamist insurgency of Boko Haram.
the highest in the world, according to Unicef, and more than 69% of them are in the north.
As a result, the region has the lowest literacy rates in Nigeria, with some states only registering 8%.
Yet this same region has yet to meet its quota of public institutions – a fairly massive share, with 90 million people out of the 200 million in Nigeria and 19 of 36 states, plus Abuja, or 20 in total.
“Unfortunately, the ‘federal character’ has become a euphemism for recruiting unqualified people into the civil service,” said Ike Ekweremadu, former vice president of the Nigerian Senate.
“These employees reduce productivity, weaken our public service and ultimately make it inefficient. “
These unqualified people can easily overtake their more qualified colleagues, as the “federal character” is also applied when filling senior positions in public institutions.
In addition, the rivalry between ethnic groups often leads people to raise as many relatives as possible once they are able to do so.
Northerners ruled the country for 38 of Nigeria’s 60 years of independence, mostly through military coups.
I have listened to many Nigerians tell bitter stories of hard work without reward while some colleagues just lingered on the path to promotion because their parent was in power.
Thanks to the “federal character”, ethnic solidarity and the effort to occupy positions of authority tend to take precedence over self-improvement and excellence.
Almost every year, frenzied social media posts, newspaper columns and parliamentary debates follow the release of cut-off scores for the exams that determine who enters the best secondary schools run by the government of Nigeria.
Students from some northern states of Nigeria sometimes require scores as low as two out of 200 for admission, compared to students from southern states who require scores of at least 139.
“Best aligned team”
Merit and excellence are often sacrificed for the sake of diversity when appointing heads of ministries, as the “federal character” also requires each state to have a representative in the president’s office.
Many of the best minds in Nigeria never get the chance to move their country forward ignoring their knowledge and skills as there is a large pool of talent in their state.
When Nigeria won the U-17 World Cup for the fifth time in 2015, critics of the “federal character” were quick to point out the lack of diversity within the national team.
Nigeria simply went to the tournament with their best.
Ahead of the game, national coach Emmanuel Amuneke was criticized for apparently populating the squad with players from his south-eastern region.
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He was forced to explain that he had simply chosen what he considered to be the best, without paying attention to their place of origin.
Some Nigerians argue that the “federal character” is essential to national unity and simply needs tweaking to work.
Qualified people exist in every region and just need to be found.
After all, some of the best globally recognized Nigerian brains in many fields hail from the educationally disadvantaged North.
“I think we should have Nigerians from all over the country in the civil service,” said Lamido Sanusi, a former central bank governor and emir of Kano in the north, who was deposed in March by his government under circumstances. controversial.
“But all of these Nigerians have to be good people. There has to be a merit test, a skill test. “
Power politics in Nigeria:
- October 1, 1960: Nigeria gains independence, followed by two coups d’état in 1966
- 1967: Three eastern states secede, triggering a three-year civil war in Biafra
- 1979: Elections bring to power Shehu Shagari, who was ousted after four years – and a series of coups and military governments followed
- 1993: The military cancels the elections when the preliminary results show the victory of Moshood Abiola
- 1999: Democracy returns one year after the death of military leader Gen Sani Abacha
- 2015: Muhammadu Buhari becomes the first opposition figure to win a presidential election since 1960
President Muhammadu Buhari has been frequently vilified even by opponents of a “federal character” for appearing to abandon this policy.
“I don’t have a problem with any part of Nigeria, but I do have a problem with the way the government runs its appointments,” Ekweremadu said during a heated session in parliament in 2018.
At present, 17 of Nigeria’s 20 service heads appointed by Mr Buhari are from his northern region, while 16 are Muslims like him.
And 15 of the 21 serving deputy police inspectors general are from the north, while 16 are Muslims.
In defense of his boss, President Garba Shehu’s spokesman told me: “Are you going to give your command posts in the army to people you don’t trust?” “
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, once a supporter of Mr Buhari, recently accused him of “mismanaging diversity” and of being responsible for a Nigeria now more divided than at any time in the past. history of the country.
Nobel laureate and writer Wole Soyinka shared a similar view last month, referring to “a culture of sectarian privilege and the will to dominate.”
However, Mr Buhari’s spokesperson pointed out that previous administrations also faced the same accusation.
“When you are not seated [in office], you always see the misdeeds of others, ”Mr. Shehu said.
“When Obasanjo was in office he was also accused of appointing people from the southwest.”
Some radical groups in the south now believe that the only solution is to divide Nigeria, with each major ethnic region becoming a separate country.
Some politicians and pundits prefer “restructuring” with each region having more autonomy, which would keep Nigeria united but greatly reduce power at the center.
Whatever resolve Nigeria takes as it enters its 70th decade of independence, one thing is certain: the country’s future depends on the success of future governments to maintain unity in diversity.
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