Charles Soludo: Are there Nigerians to develop Nigeria?

by Chukwuma Charles Soludo

Our laws emphasize what separates us than what unites us. Citizenship in Nigeria is a mechanical, legal appellation and does not evoke much patriotic feelings. If the current laws persist, Nigeria will remain an assemblage of ‘nations’ with each nation struggling to grab as much as possible for its own ‘citizens’.

Nigeria is a country and its legal citizens are called Nigerians. But do we have Nigerians whose primary and total loyalty, patriotism and commitment are to Nigeria rather than to some primordial sectional, religious or ethnic groupings? Aside from the armed forces which are duty-bound to do so if necessary, how many Nigerians are prepared to lay down their lives in defence of our collective heritage – Nigeria?

How many Nigerians are losing sleep about what they can do for Nigeria rather than what they can scavenge from her? In this piece, our central premise is that not many countries in the world have developed or been transformed without a strong sense of citizenship and nationalism. Put differently, we wonder how far and how fast Nigeria can develop if our constitution and legal system have created a country as a geographical space where ethnic nationalities will perpetually be in conflict over the struggle for a diminishing national cake rather than a theatre of collective destiny and opportunity.

Transformational leadership is not a one-man affair.  It requires a critical mass of people who share a common vision and strategy.  In the case of countries, such a critical mass of leaders often shares an undiluted commitment to the ‘nation-state’. The kind of visionary, selfless, patriotic leadership we all dream for Nigeria cannot emerge and survive in an atmosphere where loyalty lies primarily in the primordial cleavages.

Since Lord Luggard created Nigeria almost 100 years ago, our leaders have struggled with the questions of ethnic nationalities vis-a-vis the Nigerian ‘nation’. The reported exchanges among our founding fathers are instructive. It was said that Nnamdi Azikiwe, eager to forge one nation with one destiny asked Ahmadu Bello: ‘Let us forget our differences’. Ahmadu Bello was reported to have instead responded: ‘No: let us rather understand our differences’. In another case, Obafemi Awolowo was reported as saying that ‘Nigeria is a mere geographical expression’.  These seemingly contradictory visions of the ‘country’ versus ‘nation’ by the founding fathers of Nigeria continue to re-echo today. The unrelenting calls for a ‘national conference’, whether ‘sovereign’ or not, is a reminder that nearly 100 years after, Luggard’s amalgamation remains a work in progress.
The various constitutions and laws of Nigeria have pursued two seemingly contradictory objectives of forging a nation-state with common citizenship on the one hand, and seeking to recognise and accommodate our “differences” through all kinds of ‘federal character’ legislations, on the other. Section 15(2) of the 1999 Constitution states that “national integration shall be actively encouraged, whilst discrimination on the grounds of place of origin, sex, religion, status, ethnic or linguistic association or ties shall be prohibited.” Furthermore, in Section 15(4), it states that “the state shall foster a feeling of belonging and of involvement among the various peoples of the Federation, to the end that loyalty to the nation shall override sectional loyalties.” These provisions are in Chapter Two of the Constitution which relate to the so-called ‘unjusticeable’ ‘Fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy’.

In other parts of the constitution which are enforceable as well as other laws of Nigeria, the provisions create and perpetuate allegiance primarily to ethnic nationalities and states of origin. Ministers are to be appointed on the basis of states and not on the basis of interest groups (such as labour, industry, gender, disabled, etc). Recruitment into public institutions and sometimes even promotions are on the basis of a quota system based on states or ethnic nationalities. There is quota system in the army, police, civil service, admissions in universities, etc. Literally every engagement by citizens comes down to ‘what is your state of origin?’ Since citizens depend on their states of origin and ethnic cleavages to move up in life especially in the public sector, their primary loyalty is to these primordial groupings and not to Nigeria.

If all ministers represent geographical areas (their states) rather than interests, who represents Nigeria? The Federal Executive Council (FEC) looks more like the UN General Assembly than a team united as one nation with one destiny. Our belief is that in so far as geographical locations are entrenched in the constitution as basis for national engagement, the clamour for power rotation and zoning based on geography rather than competence will continue to dominate. Nigeria will continue to move in circles!

The constitution and other enactments have the effect of producing tribal or sectional citizens and not Nigerian citizenship. Our laws emphasise what separates us than what unites us. Citizenship in Nigeria is a mechanical, legal appellation and does not evoke much patriotic feelings. If the current laws persist, Nigeria will remain an assemblage of ‘nations’ with each nation struggling to grab as much as possible for its own ‘citizens’.

Is anyone therefore surprised that under this framework, public policy is tainted by ethnic rather than national colourations? Is anyone also surprised that under this framework, continuity of public policy will remain elusive? A public official assumes office and sees the policies of previous occupants of the position as not favourable to ‘his own people’ and therefore either abandons or reverses them. That is the Nigerian story. I am not surprised that there is no national ideology, because we are not yet sure whether we are just a ‘country’ or a ‘nation’.

In Nigeria, residence means very little. Once you leave your ‘state of origin’, you remain a ‘foreigner’ or a ‘non-indigene’ even in your own country. Even if five generations of your family have lived in a place other than the original state of your forefathers, you are still a non-indigene and will be discriminated against. Let me tell a real life story. Sebastine Nwankwo was born in Kaduna, and was six months old when his parents moved to Abuja in 1985.

His primary and secondary education was in Abuja, and he attended the University of Jos. He speaks fluent Hausa, does not speak Igbo, and his parents paid their taxes in Abuja for over 25 years. When he applied for a federal employment last year, he indicated Abuja as his ‘state of origin’. He went for interview but was queried about his ‘state of origin’. The interview officer insisted that Nwankwo is an Igbo name and could not possibly have come from Abuja.

He called his father to remind him what that ‘our state of origin is’, since he couldn’t remember when last he visited Imo State—which is supposed to be his ‘state of origin’ since his parents come from there. He did not get the job. Imagine what kind of Nigerian he will become and the nature of his allegiance to Nigeria! I know many Nigerians who have now ‘modernised’ their surnames so that no one can determine or guess their ethnic origin or state of origin. You now have such names as Angela Johnson, Jimmy Peters, Edna Jerome, etc. It is the new survival strategy.

State creation has worsened matters.  In many states, the concept of ‘indigenes’ vs non-indigenes has surfaced. Civil servants hitherto recruited in the civil service before states were created were required to go back to their states of origin. Those still remaining in the employment of the ‘old’ state knew that their fate hung on the balance, and were often dismissed without notice. Non-indigenes are often employed on contract basis while permanent, pensionable positions are reserved for indigenes.

Some of us believe that the first step in creating truly Nigerian citizens is to abolish the concept of ‘state of origin’ and replace it with ‘state of residence’. We must create a new Nigeria as a melting pot where every citizen can reside anywhere and proof of residence becomes the basis for all entitlements.

Funny enough, state of origin is the basis for most public sector privileges, but when it comes to population census, no one is asked to indicate his ‘state of origin’ or even his ‘religion’. For revenue allocation, states collect money from Abuja based on the population ‘resident’ in their states. When it comes to extending privileges, employment and appointments we suddenly dust up ‘state of origin’ and discriminate between indigenes and non-indigenes.  Nigeria is a country in denial!

Loyalty by citizens requires some investment by the country on her citizens. What does Nigeria offer its citizens to elicit loyalty?  I recall that in my secondary school days, oil money in the 1970s was used to subsidise education at all levels. In my secondary school, we received double bunk beds.

In the university, we had free tuition and subsidised meals and accommodation. I feel a sense of indebtedness to the country. What about the generations after us? They only hear that some $600 billion have been earned from oil and wasted, and the country cannot guarantee any of the basic necessities to her citizens. For the citizens, if they survive, it is not because the state provided them any of the basic institutions and facilities that citizens of other countries take for granted but largely in spite of the state. In this survival of the fittest, what is the basis for loyalty to the ‘nation’?

A starting point is the deliberate creation of a new Nigerian citizenship with absolute loyalty to Nigeria. Only then can a critical mass of national elite, with a national ideology and strategy emerge to drive sustainable transformation of Nigeria. Page 27 of Nigeria’s Vision 2020 document provides an important first step.

It argues that “the emergence of a merit-driven culture is, therefore, a key outcome of Vision 20:2020 and an area of immediate policy focus. To this end, a comprehensive review of ethnic balancing measures and diversity management related laws (e.g. federal character) will be undertaken with a view to ensuring greater promotion of merit…” Let us get started, and constitutional amendment is step one!


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

One comment

  1. I largely agree with what the professor says and I'm glad there're people who think this way in high places. I wrote about this in 1998 and in my letters to people for us to do Something. You can get my piece at [email protected]/Nigeria, think

    However laws alone can not change the hearts of men.We in Nigeria are dedicated to preserving the status quo and love to undermine incompatible regulations insisiously. Our wrong values: our overarching problem.


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