Nigeria and Europe: not so distant cousins

European Business Review

ISSN: 0955-534X

Article publication date: 1 October 1999




Oguntimoju, D. (1999), "Nigeria and Europe: not so distant cousins", European Business Review, Vol. 99 No. 5.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 1999, MCB UP Limited

Nigeria and Europe: not so distant cousins

Nigeria and Europe: not so distant cousins

Dele Oguntimoju

Dele Oguntimoju is Director of Publicity, Movement for National Reformation (UK).

Keywords: Nigeria, Europe, National cultures, Government

In its Leader for the week ending 18 June, The Economist observed on Nigerians that "the name and the football team are about the only things that unite them". This appeared alongside the conclusion it had drawn from the evident voter apathy in the recent European elections namely that nationhood is not something that can be imposed from on high.

I do not know whether The Economist intended a linkage between the Nigerian experience and the European experiment, but someone who is in no doubt about the parallels, and who is principally qualified to speak to the issue, is one Sir Peter Smithers who was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of State and the Secretary of State in the Colonial Office from 1952-1959. He is also, as fate would have it, a former General Secretary to the Council of Europe.

The letter which is reproduced below from The Times is one that Sir Peter wrote in June last year following the sudden death of General Abacha in Nigeria:

Sir, During the negotiations for the independence of Nigeria the view of the Secretary of State at that time, with which I agreed, was that in Nigeria we should attempt to put together a large and powerful state with ample material resources, which would play a leading part in the affairs of the continent and the world. This was attractive but it involved forcing several different ethnic and cultural groups into a single political structure.

The negotiations were complex and very difficult, the chief problem as I remember relating, significantly, to the control of the police and the military.

In the retrospect of 40 years it is clear that this was a grave mistake which has cost many lives and will probably continue to do so. It would have been better to establish several smaller states in a free-trade area.

In exculpation it must be said that we did not then have the examples of the collapse of Yugoslavia and of the Soviet Union before our eyes. It should now be clear for all but the wilfully blind to see that it is extremely dangerous to force diverse racial and social entities into a single rigid structure such as that which is being built upon the foundation of the Maastricht treaty. Recent history suggests that it would be best to complete the development of the Common Market and to call a halt to political integration in Europe.

The connection that Sir Peter makes is more clearly grasped when the reader realises that "Nigeria" is not a nation in the classical sense of a people with a common origin, tradition and language: there is no language called "Nigerian". The word "Nigeria" is nothing more than a geographical expression that describes the amalgam of a large number of smaller nations to be found in the surrounds of the area of the River Niger (hence Nigeria) which were put together without regard to the historical integrity of the distinct cultures, borders and languages of these ancient nations.

This reality is normally obscured in popular commentary by references to these robust, proud and wholesome nations as "tribes". My people, the Yoruba, with their distinct language and traditions and of which there are close to 40 million, are no more a tribe of Nigeria than the English, who number 56 million, are a tribe of the UK.

Like the nations of Europe, the only thing the nations that make up Nigeria really had in common before their enforced political marriage was skin colour, geographical proximity and trade. The language of the Hausa, the Igbo and the Yoruba (to mention just the three largest of the constituent nations) are as distinct from each other as the language of the English, the French and the Germans within the similar expression Europe. In fact, while the nations of Europe can at least look to the Christian faith as providing a foundation for shared values, the nations of Nigeria had and still have no common faith (as The Economist has noted football is the nearest we have come): while the constituent nations in the South have embraced Christianity from the West, most in the North have embraced Islam from the East.

No effort has been spared by the supporters of ever closer union to get the people to abandon their culturally rich separate national identities in favour of the synthetic "Nigerian" identity: they have been cajoled, scolded, bribed and harassed to buy into this designer identity. Those who sing to the One Nigeria hymn sheet are rewarded while those who prefer the ideal of live and let live are sidelined and condemned as tribalists.

The need to promote the One Nigeria ideal has meant that competence has been forced to take a back seat to equal representation as the selection criteria for filling key posts in government. Similarly, critical economic/industrial policy decisions are taken not on pure commercial considerations but on the basis of the need to allow all regions to feel part of the family. Thus oil refineries are situated in the far North even though the crude oil to be refined is produced in the far South.

Rather than economic policy and development strategies being tailored to the unique resources and competitive strengths of the component nations (such as would allow the Igbo for example to capitalise on their flair for manufacturing), the different nations have been compelled to march to a "national" economic goose-step. Nothing highlights this push-me-pull-you quality of the Nigerian State more than the field of education. While the Christian half of the country has always placed great premium on formal education, the Moslem half has not. Rather than each side being allowed to live according to the priorities of its own people, the Moslem half (that has had political control of the country since independence) has imposed its own values by deprioritising education, as a result of which the once respected Universities of Ibadan, Lagos and Nsuka are now no better than sixth-form colleges. As well as deliberate under-funding of education, the motivation to pursue the highest standards in education has been undermined by positive discrimination legislation that operates against the Christian half.

Far from fostering a shared sense of identity, the result has been to create a welfare dependent mentality amongst certain of the nations which has given rise to feelings of resentment and contempt amongst those nations that have had to stand back to let others through. Not suprisingly many in the Christian parts have voted with their feet by setting up camp in the West.

The imperative of destroying the original national identities to make room for "the Nigerian" dictates that local governments cannot be trusted and there must be increasing centralisation of policy. In the immediate aftermath of independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria had a parliamentary system of government with three strong regional governments (Northern Region for the predominantly Hausa territories; Western Region for the predominantly Yoruba territories; and Eastern Region for the predominantly Igbo areas). The Eastern Region's attempt to secede to form Biafra and the resultant civil war provided an excuse for increasing centralisation. Thus, while still wearing the tag of the "Federal Republic of Nigeria", the country is in fact a unitary and highly centralised state. Thus policies on education, health, the economy, taxation and industry are all centrally planned.

The Nigerian experience is that when different nations are placed into a single political structure, they become preoccupied with their relative internal positioning. Until such time, if ever, as a single identity emerges, their collective performance in relation to external competition will be a secondary concern to the constituent nations as they drag each other down into a state of uncompetitiveness. This is the nightmare that Nigerians have been enduring since independence. We have spent our time checkmating each other while more homogenous nations the world over have been pulling further and further ahead.

Given the experiences of the peoples of Nigeria, the nations of Europe are mistaken if they think political union will make them more competitive as a whole. The natural tendency will be for the larger nations to jostle for the leadership position so as to impose their values on the others. In the process the bigger nations who fancy their chances as top dogs will provide all sorts of inducements to the smaller nations, who are only interested in being looked after, in order to secure their support. The seeds of such sentiments were there to be seen in the haggling over the location of the European Central Bank.

At a political meeting in Oxford recently, I was fortunate to hear one of the speakers define democracy as a state of affairs where there is such a degree of homogeneity amongst the people that the minority are able to submit to the will of the majority. William Hague in his recent contribution to this publication said the same thing when he said "a nation is a group of people who feel enough in common with one another to accept government from each other's hands".

I would venture to say that the vast majority of the British people have no experience of living or working with Germans just as the vast majority of the Yoruba in Nigeria have no experience of living or working with the Hausa. Indeed the Yoruba in Nigeria feel more at home in the Republic of Benin, where their fellow Yoruba who were cut off by the crude boundaries of Nigeria live, than they do in Abuja or Enugu. It is this reality that explains why the democratic experience in Nigerian elections, as in European elections, is a hollow one.

One consequence of such hollow democracies is that candidates and policies that would be unsaleable to the local electorate can be pushed through at the supranational level. The evidence is there to be seen in recent employment law emanating from Europe such as the Working Time Directive. It is also to be seen in the means by which General Olusegun Obasanjo came to become President of Nigeria even though his own people, the Yoruba, and even his townsmen, made it clear through the ballot box that they did not want him: he did not need their support because he was loyal to the One Nigeria cause.

The related problem arises from politicians rendering their account of their stewardship in some far away parliament. The void between trustees and the beneficiaries on whose behalf they act is the breeding ground for corrupt and inefficient practices. Because a man cannot steal from himself, when the governed and the government are in close proximity the chain of accountability is shorter and the scope for corruption is reduced. The problem arises as governors are given charge over larger and larger constituencies. As the chain of accountability becomes longer, and intermediaries are interposed, the opportunities for, at best, inefficient allocation of resources and, at worst, corrupt practices becomes greater.

If the political consequences of these synthetic mega-nations are as unappealing as I have suggested, what drives people towards them?

Part of the answer can be gleaned from Sir Peter Smithers' explanation that the motivation for forcing the diverse nations of Nigeria into a single political structure was to "create a large and powerful state with ample material resources" so as to be a global player. This is also part of the thinking underlying the drive to ever closer union in Europe.

What we often forget is that the priorities and values of the world of business are, more often than not diametrically contrary to our priorities as social creatures: while "social man" sees ( and wants to see) the world in all its colours and variations, "business man" sees the world as one: a profit is, after all, a profit whether it is expressed in Pounds, Francs or Lira and profits are best maximised through standardisation combined with critical mass. The holy grail of business is a mass market, with one currency, one language and uniform laws.

It should therefore be no surprise that super-nations like Europe and Nigeria are driven by the consummate desire of the business community for standardised and larger markets. But while growth through mergers and acquisitions may be a valid strategy in the world of business, when you are dealing with man as a social animal, any growth strategy for the social unit which is anything but organic is destined to be demerged in the longer term.

The other group of sponsors of supra-national states are those politicians who cannot tolerate diversity. Under the guise of promoting the brotherhood of man, they are secretly bent on converting all heathens to their values, beliefs and way of life. For these people, there can only be peace on earth if we are all Catholic, Christian or Moslem depending on which camp they belong to.

By 1 October next year, Nigerians will have spent all of 40 years trying in vain, in King Canute like fashion, to beat back the sense of real national feeling that the constituent nations have within themselves. In our efforts to cast out the demon of cherishing the identities and values that our ancestors lived by, we have tried the British parliamentary system and the American presidential system; we have tried multiparty and two-party democracy; we have had no less than six constitutional reviews; from the three regions immediately after independence, we moved successively to four, to 12, to 19, to 21 to 30 and most recently to 36; the soldiers have had a go and the civilians have had a turn; we started with Balewa, and then there was Ironsi; Gowan followed him who was followed by Muhammed and then we had the first coming of Obasanjo; he handed over to Shagari who was shoved aside by Buhari and who in turn was elbowed out by Babangida who, making as if to pass to Shonekan, handed over to Abacha, who died in mysterious circumstances and enabled Abubakar to hold the fort until the second coming of Obasanjo.

All the time, effort and resource that has been spent trying to cheat nature through genetic modification of the human spirit could have been used so much more constructively if only we were prepared to embrace diversity by saying to each his own.

The first step towards resolving any problem is to understand the problem. I content myself with knowing that what goes up must one day come down: Nigeria will sooner rather than later have to come to terms with the experience of the Roman Empire, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Nigerians will need help in doing so to ensure a soft landing.

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