Our overdose of unity rhetoric

Historically, unity as pre-condition to security or democratic governance and rule of law did not become prominent in the country until the mid-1960s. Before that time, harping on unity as the challenge facing Nigeria’s development became popular among politicians during the trial of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, particularly in the mouths of those who preferred a one-party system for Nigeria. After Awolowo was sent to jail, the ruling group continued to plead for unity while the aggrieved people of Western Nigeria continued to demand for justice, particularly after the rigging of the parliamentary elections in the region in 1965.

Between the first and second coup, the ruling group (then General Aguiyi-Ironsi) brought the spectre of unity back to the nation’s political and media space, principally through his Unification Decree that turned the four regions into provinces and national governance into a command system manned by an overlord surrounded by prefects in the provinces. With the success of the second coup, regionalism quickly replaced unity as a mantra. And not surprisingly, unity as an end became strident again during the civil war and the slogan “to keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done.” But unity lost its prime of place in the nation’s political discourse once the war was over, giving way to return of unity and fighting corruption as excuses for each new coup maker.

However, once some sections of Nigeria called for re-structuring or restoration of federalism in the wake of annulment of MKO Abiola’s election and after the election of Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, the rhetoric of imperative of national unity returned to the political sphere to crowd out the call for structural and social justice. Even the transition to democracy programme was constructed as an attempt to reunify the country, hence, the decision by military men in charge of transition to civil rule to make a member of Abiola’s native community the presidential candidate of the party that attracted most of the military generals, just as Shonekan, from the same community with Abiola, was recruited as Interim President after the annulment of Abiola’s election.

Yet Obasanjo’s election as president did not end the eternal search for unity. To sustain Unity Discourse in the media, Obasanjo convened a conference on political reform to look for how to keep the country united, apart from sponsoring a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But all references to the conference died out soon after its sittings in Abuja. Similarly, the Jonathan era revitalized the unity discourse, first to counter the threats from Boko Haram and later to silence citizens that were calling for restructuring. Jonathan’s administration organized a national dialogue, and like Obasanjo’s conference, the recommendations were archived shortly after they were delivered ceremoniously to Jonathan, leaving self-respecting delegates to justify their time at the conference by insisting, after Jonathan’s departure, for implementation of recommendations of the conference.

At the time of the 2015 election that unseated Jonathan, politicians in all parties did not act as if there was any threat to the country’s unity, apart from the Boko Haram menace in the Northeast. The party that won the election came to power not on the theme of unity but on the manifesto of change. The party campaigned noticeably on the theme of structural, political, economic, and social justice, which many citizens considered to be a recognition by new rulers of the solidity of the country’s territorial and political unity. Voters, especially in the Southwest also believed that APC’s promise of change was not at variance with the call for true federalism, which the presidential candidate and the party at large endorsed with the promise to “Initiate action to amend our Constitution with a view to devolving powers, duties and responsibilities to states and local governments in order to entrench true Federalism and the Federal spirit.”

The mantra of unity got renewed when security of life and property of citizens started waning noticeably in 2017, particularly when herdsmen started moving into farmlands across the country and without any respect for the property rights of fellow citizens who own farms. As the number of violent acts grew, so did the stridency of the song of unity grow. As complaints from farming communities grew, so did excuses from the federal government increase about the presence of foreign herders in the country and the importance of national unity.

While no foreigner was ever arrested and prosecuted for illegally entering the country to commit crimes against citizens, the federal government in charge of the borders turned up the noise on the need to keep the country united. Its pundits informed the country about the need to understand the sociology of a Fulani group across West and Central Africa with no sense of borders and full expectation of impunity while roaming their cattle across national borders to feed. To charges of many of such foreign herders entering Nigeria with AK-47, attempts were made to link such aberration to availability of such weapons in post-crisis Libya.

Fasting forward to 2021, when Ondo State governor ordered unregistered herdsmen out of the state’s forest reserves, it was Miyetti Allah, a Nigerian association for cattle owners, that cried foul about efforts of the chief security officer of the state to disrespect the fundamental rights of Fulani herdsmen to live anywhere they desire in compliance with the 1999 Constitution. Many political leaders and sociocultural organizations including Miyetti Allah continued to emphasize that it was foreign Fulani herders that inhabited the forest reserves and farms in many states with complaints about dispossession of farmers by herders; rape of girls and women in farming communities, and kidnapping of farmers for ransom.  Although no national or international herdsmen have been arrested for crimes against Nigerians so far, the rhetoric of unity in government circles and among sociocultural organizations has been returned to the screen for citizens to notice.

Leaders in all political parties need to come to terms with the reality before the country: decentralization of the polity and economy. If governor Akeredolu had been like governors in other federations, he would have had the police to prevent illegal herders—local or foreign—from residing in forest reserves. Similarly, if governor Makinde had state police, there would have been no reason for Sunday Igboho to take on the responsibility of protecting Ibarapa people from marauders—domestic or foreign. The on-and-off recourse to unity as an end in the last 60 years and as a means of making calls for justice and restructuring sound like avoidable distraction seems to be wearing off in terms of significance. Citizens are beginning to see the rhetoric of unity as a bogey to create fear for believers in the role of justice and security of life and property of all citizens in sustaining national unity in a federation.

Any unity that needs to be mystified as ours has been on-and-off since 1966 has the tendency to make search for national unity an eternal and only task of government, while emphasis should be on protection of liberty and security in all parts of country for all citizens. Any attempt to make unity an end rather than a means cannot but constitute an overdose for citizens who expect more from their country than recurrent verbiage about national unity.

Instead of pumping more steroidal unity rhetoric into citizens, the Buhari government needs to acknowledge that there is more to holding a multinational federation together than selling the message of unity to citizens, ahead of selling the message of justice, equality, and self-rule to subnational governments in a federal polity. National unity is not the problem of the nation at present, it is security of life and property of all citizens that is under severe threat. What needs to be fixed is how federal and subnational governments can have a constitution that empowers both levels to provide with equity effective security in the country.

This piece first appeared in 2017 but it has been re-touched to make it relevant to current events in the country.  

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