For the Record: ‘When, truly, is a nation?’ – Text of speech delivered by Gov. Kayode Fayemi at the Gani Fawehinmi Memorial lecture

by Kayode Fayemi


Rather than revel in celebrations or a jamboree, this presents the chance for a very sober reflection and re-contemplation of all the structural and institutional warts that are hindering our attainment of community in the country, as a way of re-inventing a truly national identity.

The anticipated centenary of Nigeria as a ‘country’ on January 1, 2014 speaks to the amalgamation and yoked co-existence of the constituent units of the Northern and Southern Protectorates of the territory bound on its northern fringe by the Sahara, its southern rim by the Bight of Benin and the Gulf of Guinea, and its western and eastern extents by Benin and the Cameroons.

This was carried out through a ‘proclamation’ of the colonial Governor, Sir Fredrick Lugard in 1914 to ease the administrative convenience of managing this sprawling territory that was increasingly becoming of economic importance to British imperial interests.

The various scholarly and general literature of this willful act over the decades is replete with accounts of how a vast number of otherwise distinct and heterogeneous peoples, ways of life, worldviews and kingdoms – from the Oyo and Ife Empires, the Fulani Emirates, the Benin and Jukun sovereignties, etc. – were forcibly bonded and strewn together in a manner that continues to be a volatile admixture.

Hence, the territory marked as Nigeria is a composite of territories and people who, even a hundred years after, are yet to perfect their union and is more of a geographical expression that has not attained the rank of a cultural expression. As such the act of the colonial Governor and his Secretary of State in the United Kingdom is still considered in a number of quarters as the “mistake of 1914”.

This line of thought or argument might appear persuasive when considered within the purview of the ethnic, religious and cultural tensions that have defined Nigeria’s faltering nationhood through the greater part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century.

We have witnessed the rise and resurgence of ethnic and religious militia, communities and groups who have taken up arms against each other and the state, the privatization and erosion of the state towards narrow gains and selfish interests, the lack of subscription of diverse people and groups to a common mythology or purpose, the desertion of the state, and host of other indices that reveal the essentially problematic nature of citizenship in the country. All of these, and more, have tended to seek the implosion of the British experiment in binding different people into a common destiny without their consent.

That Nigeria has trundled along in the past 100 years despite its explosive composition is without doubt, but the testimonies of the last couple of decades have revealed its essential need for re-invention or re-creation, as the centre and structure cannot hold for much longer without fundamentally damaging consequences.

These have been what have inspired and instigated the national and nationalities question with its attendant upheavals, blood-letting and internecine conflicts; the redounding calls for a national conference, whether this be ‘sovereign’ or ‘ordinary’; the agitations for a truer form of federalism and its immanent fiscal manifestations; and other forms of concern pertaining to the character of the Nigerian state.

The case for a Nigerian Centenary celebration, as made by the Federal Government, is premised on its perception of the country as not evolving from some sort of ‘historical accident’ but a ‘pre-ordination’, which is “the product of a long and mature consideration.” The federal position observes that, “the social tensions of our national evolution only made us more united as a people, with the aggregation of human and material resources that has enabled us play historically significant roles in world affairs.” Also, “our unity symbolizes our common destiny, continued existence and development”, which serves as the basis for a rising global profile.

Hence, the Nigerian centenary celebration is anchored on the theme of the Great Promise of Nigeria’s federation, its unity, indivisibility, virility progress, and its potential for being one of the leaders in world affairs and the world economy. It signposts 100 years of a cohesive nation with an uncommon biodiversity, rich human resources, and a cultural diversity and economic opportunities that very few countries can lay claims to.

In support of this fairly romantic notion of nation-hood, the federal government intends to keep rolling out the drums over the period of a year, from the original instance of February 14, 2013, and engage in arts expos and literary festivals, photo exhibitions, film festivals and carnivals, unity rallies, music, entertainment, sports and fashion shows, alongside the creation of legacy projects including the new Abuja City Gate, the Abuja Centenary City, etc. All these smack of what has been described across a few quarters as the engagement in an extensive ‘jamboree.’

The Man for Whom the Bells Toll

Chief Abdul-Ganiyu Oyesola Fawehinmi, who unfortunately passed on to eternity on the 5th of September 2009 at the age of 71, was well-known for his disdain for frivolity, as his essence was driven by what Professor Oluwole Soyinka aptly described as the quest for justice being the first condition under humanity. An author, publisher, social conscience/critic, civil and human rights advocate, he was the quintessential crusader for fairness and freedom.

He was the colossus that straddled those bizarre moments in the history of our country when darkness came crashing in from the precincts of power, and held out a beacon of light, life and hope. He never flinched at every opportunity to speak truth to power, even when his comfort was compromised and his life threatened.

Fawehinmi was extremely passionate and tireless in his struggles against oppression, misrule and corruption, over a span of three decades from 1969, which saw him incarcerated in some of the most dehumanizing circumstances about two dozen times. He was harassed, tortured and detained, while his property and international passport was confiscated severally, and he was shot at in his legal chambers in Anthony Village, Lagos. The weight of these travails through numerous years was crucial to what ultimately impaired his health and led to his untimely demise.

If Gani Fawehinmi’s vision was to see a Nigeria in which everyone thrived under the conditions of justice, freedom and equity, his mission was in deploying his inimitable courage and the tools of his legal profession to create a country free from the distortions and avarice of power; a truly federal space devoid of ethnic or group rancor, and in which nationalities, groups and communities can enjoy their naturally endowed resources, whilst developing at their own pace. This was what led to his becoming a defence counsel during the ‘inquisition’ of the environmental rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, during the regime of the military despot, General Sani Abacha in 1995.

A 1993 recipient of the prestigious Bruno Kreisky Prize and the 1998 International Bar Association’s Bernard Simmons Award, due to his lifelong commitment to the fight for human rights, a Senior Advocate of the Masses (SAM) for ages, before being elevated to the rank of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), the highest honour in the Nigerian legal profession, Fawehinmi was regarded as the “scourge of irresponsible governments.” He was equally, “a sphygmomanometer with which the blood pressure of dictators is gauged, the veritable conscience of the nation and the champion of the interests and causes of the masses”. Also, if Nigeria’s great century, since the fiat of Lugard in 1914, has been about the search for community and a commonality of values across its diverse nationalities and groupings, Gani Fawehinmi was the moral beacon and oft-times lonely crusader for justice, whose work, life and times holds up the standards of equity and justice that makes community possible within a sea of diversity.

The Faltering Journey Towards Community

The original instance for the journey towards ‘community’ in what came to be known as the political entity, ‘Nigeria’ was, no doubt, located within the self-seeking act of the colonial amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates in 1914. Without that fusion of culturally diverse people, Nigeria would never have emerged as the country that it presently is.

Yet, the fault-lines that have led to the numerous dissensions and crises in post-colonial Nigeria and forestalled the attainment of community have been due to the character of the State that was constructed and handed down to Nigerians by the colonialists from 1914. This state was both foreign in its conception and organisation, and derived its logic from the colonial state. The British brought together ethnic nationalities that were autonomous political, cultural and economic units – even when they shared certain affinities – and governed them without attempting to blur or ameliorate the divisive religious, social and class fissures that existed among them. It was these fault-lines or discordant fissures that fossilized in the colonial and post- colonial periods that made the elite classes of the different groups to engage in competition for political and economic advantages in the attempt to govern and control the resources of the state.

Hence, many of the issues and concerns that have prevented the attainment of community across Nigeria’s plural and multi-ethnic societies, and which have been couched and framed as the National Question – dealing with exclusion and marginalization – arose from the structural deficits and imbalances evolving from the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates of Nigeria to form a unified colony by the colonial Governor-General, Lord Lugard in 1914.

These imbalances have deepened and enabled a skewed ontology allowing certain groups within the emergent state to persistently thrive and incur benefits from what ought to be a national communion to the exclusion of others, even when these groups do not necessarily possess the material base to justify such privileged advantage. The fallout of this has been an heightened state of intolerance, insecurity and strife, routinely assuming religious and ethnic expression, as actors within different groups struggle to access the privileges of the State at the expense of others.

As such, the occasion of Nigeria’s centenary affords the opportunity to revisit our sense of community in the country and to retrace its fault-lines in the effort to address the National Question and its embedded concerns around citizenship, exclusion and marginalization, which have the capability to move the country from a geographical into a cultural expression.

Rather than revel in celebrations or a jamboree, this presents the chance for a very sober reflection and re-contemplation of all the structural and institutional warts that are hindering our attainment of community in the country, as a way of re-inventing a truly national identity. Also, this necessitates the evaluation of the character of the Nigerian State in terms of its federalism, the need for better regimes of the devolution of state powers, fiscal responsibility and responsiveness, etc. This could take the form of conferences, symposia, national re-orientation programmes, etc.

Besides, how worthy is a sense of celebration that re-enacts an insidious imperialism, the problems of which persist till date in such a crucial issue of identity as in the Language Question, whereby English has successfully displaced our local languages as authentic vehicles of national communication and identity, and maintains an hierarchical relationship to them? Hence English has constituted an attritive medium of power, through which foreign values and ideas are ingrained into our consciousness and are made to occupy our cultural imagination. Thereby, celebrating amalgamation could be seen as a way of commemorating the genius of British colonialism, as it has come to upturn our ethos and value systems.

It is Still the Structure!

Essentially, the nature and character of the Nigerian state needs to be engaged, interrogated and restructured before the major factors and tendencies overheating thepolity and restraining the attainment of a sense of communal identity can be resolved. The question of the national structure is the central issue that will not go away in Nigeria’s quest for community across its different nationalities and groups.

The questions that need to be answered in all its attendant ramifications include: what is this nation called Nigeria? What does it mean to be Nigerian? What is the relationship between the citizens, communities/groups and the State? Can the State survive in its present unitary and over-centralized form? What is the nature of inter-governmental relations and how does this impact upon or affect diverse communities/groups?

These contentious questions will need to be decided through a national dialogue, before Nigeria can attain real democratic consolidation, effective governance, and an enduring sense of community.

These are essential concerns that need to be contemplated and addressed at this very critical juncture of our history in order to make the Nigerian centenary worth its advent.


Excerpts of a speech delivered at the Gani Fawehinmi Memorial lecture.


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

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