Feyi Fawehinmi: We do not have to like each other to be one nation

So, following on from what I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I want to see if we can break things down into small chunks and work our way up from there.

Here’s the purpose of all this — can we get people to agree on a common set of ideas or organising principles and put those ideas above any other differences they may have? Well, I don’t know. But I want to find out.


Let’s make an assumption. This is the first step before we can agree on anything. If you are ok with this basic assumption, we move on to the next step.

Nigeria will remain for the foreseeable future. That is, the physical map of Nigeria will remain unchanged —it will remain as one country.

Nigeria will remain for the foreseeable future

Now, I know there are a lot of people who find it hard to take a long-term view on Nigeria. But let me try to explain.

It is possible for Nigeria to remain as it looks on a map today but to be radically different inside. The borders remain the same but the relationships inside are different.

We do not have to like each other. This is very important. So if Nigeria is to physically remain as it is today and we don’t have to like each other, how is this supposed to work?

The first thing to know is that it will not be unique to Nigeria. There are countries where different sets of people who don’t particularly like each other manage to co-exist in prosperity. During the recent European Football Championships, Scottish people were openly supporting Iceland against England. This is quite ‘normal’ even though England and Scotland have been one country since 1707. There are many other examples including the United States. Wave after wave of immigration meant that there have been different groups of people who dislike each other living in the same country for many years. There are people who don’t like Jews and there are people Jews don’t like. New York used to be a place with a lot of tribes. It is an American state, of course, but different people used to have their own ethnic enclaves, some of which persist till today.

One Nation Under What?

So it is not impossible for different people who do not particularly like each other to live under one roof. It is not easy but it is not impossible. The question is how?

The first thing to ask is this — what are the things we don’t mind doing with each other even if we don’t like each other? Yorubas have all sorts of derogatory names for Igbos and Igbos think Yorubas put too much oil in their stew. Even among Yorubas, it is not uncommon to hear the ‘conventional wisdom’ that if you happen upon an Ijebu person and a snake at the same time and you have only one shot to take, you should spare the snake.

But, in spite of all this, where is the common ground where the Hausa man and the Igbo man will meet? It is not religion. It is not language. It is not politics. It is not education.

It is trade.

Whatever we might think of each other, we can still manage to do some trade together. One Yoruba ‘joke’ that used to make the rounds some years ago was that there was an accident and 12 people and one Hausa died. But whatever Yorubas think of Igbos and Hausas, they can all trade together, somehow. Hausa beef and tomatoes nourish much of southern Nigeria and the population in the north is a market for a lot of Igbo traders.

So let’s come together under the idea that the number one principle of our co-existence is to trade with each other. Don’t laugh, this is serious. Let that be the foundation of this Nigeria that is physically the same as it is today but different inside. Everything else is secondary. And it is what will make it worth it to remain as one country. We have the potential to be a huge and attractive market internally. But it is no more than potential right now.

The shape of things to come

If that is agreed, then it does not stop at just words. The number one task of the government will then be to do things that make it easier for Nigerians to trade with each other. A bridge linking north and south will be of more importance than appointing ministers from each state. Everything else goes down the pecking order. The facilitation of peaceful trade between Nigerians becomes the number one priority. It will be unconstitutional to block the ability of Nigerians to trade with themselves. Internal security will be geared towards making as much trade as possible happen. This will be the job of the government at the centre — to build roads and bridges and trains to make it easier and easier for Nigerians to do trade with themselves.

Outside of trade, states can do anything they like as long as it does not clash with this core principle. And it will come with a right of every Nigerian to trade with any other Nigerian. On top of this basic principle, you can then construct other rights. But that will be the foundation.

Don’t let this vision sound small to you. When people freely trade with each other, there is a lot more going on than just the exchange of goods and money. Going back to Scotland, in 2014, Scotland exported £48.5bn worth of goods to the rest of the UK (mainly England). Everything it exported to the rest of the world combined (mainly the US and the EU) came to £27.5bn. Yes, if you put the English national team on the pitch against a team of pigs, Scots will probably support the pigs but trade is trade.

By coming together under the common purpose of trade, Nigeria can remain. But if the purpose of remaining together is to share the spoils of power, then I don’t know how long such an arrangement can last. There are only so many appointments you can make to satisfy people.

Adding extra floors

I am asking you to think about what a Nigeria based on internal trade and mutual co-existence will look like. See if you can imagine it. Close your eyes if you need to (ok, I’m just joking). Think of a Nigeria that is a big market for any and everything. Millions of different people trading with themselves even though they don’t really like each other.

Trading is of course not the only thing people do with each other. If we agree trade as a basic principle, then you can start to add extras on top. Every state can have its own football team but we can agree that it is more practical for us to have one team to represent Nigeria. Same thing for a military —it is more efficient to have a national army to defend the country’s borders even though each state might have its own police to handle internal security. How about tax? Since we have decided to come together to trade, it makes sense to agree a set of tax laws that are the same across the nation. So you know that VAT and income tax is the same across all states. Worst case, we can agree on a maximum tax rate so states are free to reduce their rates to be competitive.

There are other things. But where you start from determines how those things take shape. Under this new arrangement, the centre does not need to be anywhere near as powerful as it is now. I doubt you need as many ministries as you have now and certainly not as many civil servants in Abuja doing nothing but consuming a large chunk of the resources in the budget. You definitely don’t need 500 legislators in Abuja pretending to write laws for the country.

Conversations are about to start

I’m not sure that forming a new political party is the answer to Nigeria’s problems right now. It might be, but I’m not sure. But even if you form a political party, what will be the idea to congregate under? If the ideas are not clear and agreed, the party risks falling under the fallacy of ‘we are better people’. That is, you want the power to do things better than the current set of people and not to push new ideas.

But I strongly believe that people need to agree on a shared vision of what the future will look like. Once that goal is agreed, we can then work backwards to write down how it will work in terms of laws and policies.

I sense that Nigeria is quickly getting to the point where conversations about the structure of Nigeria will become inevitable. The collapse of the oil-rentier economy has exposed a multitude of sins. We can wake up tomorrow and the conversation has started. For those who have a much larger stake in the future than the current political class, it is important that they are ready for this conversation when it starts. If you do not have a vision, one will be imposed on you. You have to have an opinion or else…

Let’s begin to talk about these things so we are ready when they become formal. I will be lying if I say I know how best to go about this. There are several options to drive the conversation forward. But what is most important is to have an agenda, a shared vision, an outline of the future, things that are mutually agreed. You can even call it federalism if you like.

Go back to the history of Nigeria. People were trading with each other long before the white man turned up. It was not always peaceful trade and slave raiding was a particularly violent form of ‘trade’. Lord Lugard did not decide to amalgamate Nigeria to create political spoils to share. He did it for trade and economic reasons.

There’s no shame in admitting that this is why we came together in the first place. And in a way, Lord Lugard was right — the thing we do best with each other is trade. It is when we add religion and politics that things begin to explode. We do not have to like each other. But we can get along.

Start to imagine this.


– This article was first published on Aguntasoolo.co


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