Opinion: The mantra, ‘Nigerian unity is not negotiable’, is pseudo-nationalism

by Jideofor Adibe



Nigerians love mantras – statements or slogans repeated frequently enough that they begin to sound like established facts or self-evident truths. Recently in this column (on June 22, 2017), I interrogated the mantra of ‘generation shift’, which was renewed with vigour following the victory of Emmanuel Macron, 39, in the recent French presidential elections. In that article, entitled “The New ‘Generation Shift’ Mantra” I tried to show that contrary to what the purveyors of the mantra will have us believe – namely that the problem with the country is because the ‘old brigade’ have refused to hand over to younger elements – it is actually the young who have been the ones calling the shot since independence. This means, following their logic, that the over-60s can rightly claim to have been ‘marginalized’ in leadership and therefore may have some right to start a campaign for ‘generation shift’. For open disclosure, I am not in that age bracket.

In this piece I will contest the mantra that ‘Nigerian unity is not negotiable’ – a mantra that is very popular with Nigerian leaders, (serving and former), former senior military officers who fought the civil war on the federal side and of course opportunists who pretend that they are more patriotic than the rest of us by masking their personal, ethnic and other chauvinistic interests with false nationalism.

In daily garden or beer parlour conversations, a sub-theme within that mantra – “please let us put sentiments aside and be patriotic here” – will often be thrown on your face at the slightest disagreements with the political views of their proponents. I have come however to believe that in such conversations the notion of ‘patriotism’ bandied around is never neutral but used as a veneer to gain mileage during political disputations.

It is gladdening that Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate, has opened the gate for the interrogation of this mantra. In Kaiama, Bayelsa State, on July 14, 2017, he disagreed with the notion that the unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable, insisting that what should be non-negotiable is the right of the people to self-determination and to freely and peacefully decide their future.  Professor Soyinka also contended that the notion that the ‘unity of the country’ is non-negotiable is dictatorial.  I agree with him:

One, to say that Nigerian unity is not negotiable is an oxymoron – a contradiction in terms. For instance when the 8th National Assembly marked its second year anniversary in June 2017, Senate President Bukola Saraki was quoted by the Vanguard of June 7 2017 as saying that “Nigerian unity is non-negotiable”.  The same Senate was quoted by the Vanguard of June 15 2017 as asking the Acting President Professor Yemi Osinbajo to “urgently forward the report of the 2014 National Conference report for appropriate legislative action”. In other words,  while the Senate  says with ‘one corner of its mouth’ that Nigerian unity is not negotiable,  with another ‘corner of its mouth’ it tries to pander to ‘restructuring advocates’ that want  to renegotiate Nigerian unity on the basis of the 2014 Confab report.  In fact, it could be argued that the essence of the law-making functions of the National Assembly is to continually re-negotiate the basis of Nigerian unity through its law making  or activism – as we saw when they evolved the ‘doctrine of necessity’ during the terminal days of the Yaradua presidency –  to save the country from a certain drive towards perdition. Nigerian unity is in fact constantly being negotiated and re-negotiated (such as when we evolve new revenue sharing formula)  – unless of course ‘negotiate’ no longer has its dictionary meaning of  “deal or bargain with another or others” or  “to arrange for or bring about by discussion and settlement of terms”.

Talking of this oxymoron reminds one of another funny way in which some Nigerians try to lay greater claim to the Nigerian state or discourses around it – the notion of the ‘de-tribalized’ Nigerian. Technically the word ‘de-tribalized’ is used to describe an ethnic or cultural group that has lost its characteristic customs and cultures either by adopting a different custom or through ‘cultural cleansing’. In Nigeria-speak however, we use it to refer to people who have supposedly suppressed or ‘killed off’ the ethnic/cultural part of their identity. I am not sure this is possible.

Two, the right for self-determination is not incompatible with being patriotic or loving one’s country. In fact the constitution of most advanced countries contains the right for federating groups to determine if they want to continue to be in the union or not. In the United States for instance, separatist demands are not uncommon despite its success as a nation. In fact by 2012, residents in as many as 30 of America’s 50 states had filed secession petitions with the “We the People” programme on the White House website. Similarly shortly after Donald Trump was elected President of the USA, there were clamours for California to secede from the American federation. Each agitation however fell on the strength of its inability to compete with contrarian ideas. The same is also true of the 300-year separatist demands by the Scots in the United Kingdom and the ageless Quebec separatism in Canada.  Also virtually every business or social contract has an exit clause. So who is afraid of nationalities discussing their future? I am against the dismemberment of the Nigerian federation but that is a personal opinion. In fact rather than encourage separatism, the right for self determination could force the Nigerian state to be fairer to all its constituent parts which could convince them beyond doubts that the benefits of remaining in the federation fair outweigh the benefits of going it alone. The right to self determination also ensures that agitations for separation can be mainstreamed rather than driven underground where they are glamorized.

Three, another common tendency among the purveyors of the mantra that ‘the unity of the country is non-negotiable’ is to mistake groupthink for unity. Groupthink is a term coined by the American social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972. Janis explained the concept as “the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive in-group that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.”  In groupthink, loyalty to the group requires individuals to avoid raising controversial or non-conforming issues and ideas or even alternative solutions. In other words, purveyors of the mantra that Nigerian unity is non-negotiable will regard it as unpatriotic or even treason to interrogate the character of the unity they are propounding. I believe that it is the danger of mistaking groupthink for patriotism that goaded Stephen Nathanson, professor emeritus in philosophy at Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, to write: “While patriotism is often lauded as an unquestionable value, the status of patriotism is a problem for many thoughtful people.  It is particularly troublesome for people who care about the common good but are alienated by the all too frequent use of patriotism and patriotic symbols to stifle debate, tarnish the images of rival candidates or arouse popular support for aggressive military policies.”

The use of  uncritical ‘patriotism’  or ‘nationalism’ to stifle debate or blackmail people into joining the bandwagon in servicing narrow interests or accepting values they do not agree with is also what Samuel Johnson, the English poet and essayist had in mind when he called patriotism “the last refuge of the scoundrel”.  The unfortunate thing is that as the Nigerian state becomes more polarized, it concomitantly generates more groupthinks that support and feed the various polarities that widen the social distance among Nigerians.

Four, an important question raised by the above reflection is whether separatists could be called ‘unpatriotic’ Nigerians. I am not sure because patriotism is not just about one’s love for particular geographical expression (country), it is also about one’s location in the contending arguments about how that country should be constituted, organized and run. Separatist groups- just like several insurgency groups in the country- are largely individuals and groups who feel alienated from the Nigerian state and therefore choose to delink from it. Individuals and groups have different reasons for feeling alienated. And  every part of the country  has its own institutionalized memories of hurt,  injustice and feeling of marginalization, hence you have separatist elements from across the country – Boko Haram for a Caliphate,  advocates of Biafra Republic, Oduduwa Republic, Niger Delta Republic, Arewa Republic and of course those who talk of the ‘North’ as if it were a separate country.

Following from the above, I feel anytime any one tells us that ‘Nigerian unity is non-negotiable’, it will make sense to ask the person to define what he or she means by ‘unity’.

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

The author tweets @JideoforAdibe



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