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Opinions of Sunday, 9 January 2022

Columnist: Prof Tunji Olaopa

From emotional patriotism to Nehemiah complex

Prof Tunji Olaopa Prof Tunji Olaopa

I believe in Nigeria. This is an affirmation that I do not need to prove to anyone. It is just a simple affirmation that sums up my professional commitment to the very idea of a Nigeria that would regain her capacity to become great.

Greatness, with regard to the Nigerian state, comes with a historical demand. Like most African states, the amalgamation conditioned Nigeria into a plural entity made up of various ethno-cultural constituents willfully merged together into a mechanical unity that lacked any organic wholeness. Unfortunately, that mechanical unity seems to have been grafted wholesale into the constitutional framework that holds the Nigerian state together. And this began with the 1914 amalgamation and compounded by Ironsi’s 1966 unitary illogic. And from 1966 to date, Nigeria has been struggling with the debilitations of that structural albatross. Everything that is wrong with the Nigerian state, from misgovernance to underdevelopment, derives from that historical misstep.

It is this historical misstep that has made a mess of the issue of national integration, what we all call the Nigeria Project. It seems a pretty simple project: Nigeria needs to convert the ethno-cultural loyalty of her varied constituents into a civic nationalism that makes Nigeria the centre of an energetic patriotism, the type we witness with other nations. Nigeria needs to transform herself from “a mere geographical expression” into a fulsome nation made up of patriotic believers who have infrastructural backstops for their belief in the greatness of Nigeria. Nationhood derives from the conversion of Nigeria’s ethnic capital into national capital. And that conversion rides on the performances of the structures and institutions that undergird Nigeria’s democratic experiment. Without these performances, demonstrated by a high productivity profile and infrastructural development, the possibility of the national integration project manifesting is shaky.

It is my ardent belief in such a possibility that is driving my institutional reform agenda. For me, leadership recruitment dynamic, values reorientation and institutional reform form the bedrock of Nigeria’s striving for greatness. And I have located this reform imperative within the governance space, and especially within the public administration system. In theory and practice, the public service, constitutional order and a development-rooted national value system are the genuine complements to an effective democratic governance. This means that, in the case of Nigeria, when the state system itself is caught within the grasp of Nigeria’s historical predicament and cultural illogic, the only change management instruments to deploy are reform, governance and institution. I believe in Nigeria because I hold strongly to the possibility of unleashing Nigeria’s greatness through an institutional reform of her governance and policy space in ways that are sufficiently developmental to backstop the efficiency of democratic governance.

In a critical sense, Professor Oyewale Tomori’s emotional deliverance in the last few weeks lamented Nigeria’s institutional capacity that had gone bad. Everything he had to say about his educational maturation within a context of national security and moral dynamics pointed at a time when Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief Simeon Adebo had a firm understanding of the relationship between politics and administration as the basis for good governance. It was a time of an acute awareness of the proper roles of the regions as genuine federating units for Nigeria’s emerging federal stature. And then, everything went historically and politically berserk

My belief in Nigeria speaks insistently to the possibility of a providential and institutional rescue of her greatness. My fervent belief dispenses with any form of historical determinism founded on either the amalgamation or the entire colonial narrative and its epochal significance. A firm grasp of the political and socioeconomic dynamics of the present seems to lead inexorably towards pessimism. Gloomy statistics confirm and reinforce the harsh reality of living in Nigeria. It is as if we are tumbling towards a precipice. Even 2023, as the moment for an electoral repositioning of Nigeria’s fate, holds no succour given the level of political scheming that is already going on at the moment to secure or retain power by parties without any ideological clue as to where to direct the ship of state. However, if politicians do not have a clue, intellectuals and well-meaning patriots have the responsibility to provide one.

This is where the Nehemiah narrative holds the most theological and political appeal for me. What sets Nehemiah’s patriotic blood boiling? It was just the news that more than half-century after the temple was completed, the walls of Jerusalem still lay in ruins. He just could not bear that news and all it connoted. He broke down and wept. But then as he wept, his mind was already exploring possibilities of remedying the situation. And his plan required theological understanding, leadership forthrightness and political acumen. In other words, he needed to know what God’s will is and, even more important, how God would enable him to walk the tightrope of getting the permission of King Artaxerxes. This was crucial because building the wall of Jerusalem was a secular matter (compared to the religious assignment of building the temple, given to Ezra). Rebuilding the walls had a significance for the restoration of the State of Israel, and the possible threat that could connote. But Nehemiah was a pragmatic believer! He did not just sit lamenting the broken walls and waiting for God’s intervention. He acted. And his 12 years serving as the governor of Judah, with the economic and religious reforms that heralded his successes and achievements became significant.

This is what I call the Nehemiah complex for rebuilding the fallen walls of the Nigerian state. The lesson is simple: the walls of the Nigerian nation-state are broken. And we have reasons to weep and lament. But then, after lamentation, what’s next? Like Nehemiah, I hold strongly to a belief about a providential understanding of the place of Nigeria in global order and in the transformation of the lives of Nigerians. But then, the evidence of that providential assistance lies in the reform imperatives for transforming the predicament facing the Nigerian state. The key element of the Nehemiah imperative, as I read it for the Nigerian condition, is two-fold. The first is the need to restructure the Nigerian polity. The second lies in the urgency of building a coalition of patriotic leadership across different sectors and strata of Nigerian society.

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In calling for the restructure of the Nigerian polity, I know I am threading a dangerous path. It is dangerous essentially because of the abuse of the concept of restructuring. There are many who hear the word and just tune off, not least the present crop of political class in Nigeria. Many members of this class hold the misplaced fear that restructuring is synonymous with the dissolution of the Nigerian polity. Nothing could be more illogical. What is logical is this. There is no one who does not agree that our federal structure is not working because it is lopsided under a unitary framework. No one will also disagree that outside of a functional federal arrangement, Nigeria’s democratic governance is doomed to keep failing. Nigeria’s strange contraption of unitary federalism denies the federating units the capacity for creative governance that regionalism afforded the regions in the first republic. To restructure therefore simply means opening up Nigeria’s plural dynamics to a constitutional arrangement that allows for the sharing of power among, in Nigeria’s case, three tiers of government. This federal arrangement not only allows for the various ethnic nationalities and cultural constituents to enjoy a modicum of self-determination that allows for the expression of their ethno-cultural identities, it also facilitates a measure of fiscal autonomy for the federating units. The constitutional situation now, on the contrary, is that only the Federal Government enjoys constitutional overlordship at the expense of the state and the local government (of course the states also virtually obliterate the presence of the local governments and their autonomy). With this unitary arrangement, no federating unit is motivated to explore its comparative advantages. This is because there is now a bail-out mentality that drives everyone to Abuja to partake of the dividends of Nigeria’s virtually bankrupt mono-economy.

The promise of fiscal federalism makes it possible to consider the six geopolitical zones as the regional alternative for rethinking federalism. These zones become economic corridors that function on the internal economic and cultural dynamics and advantages of the regions in ways that undermine the illogic of Nigeria’s mono-economy. And second, these zones take the burden of governance away from the Federal Government which is then allowed to focus on core national issues like currency and international relations. This regional alternative is not new; it is only Nigeria that is decidedly ignoring its possibilities. Or to recast, it is Nigeria’s political elite that has refused to take up the challenge of articulating that regional vision of federalism. And this is where the second leg of the Nehemiah complex becomes significant: if the political class is not seeing the connection between Nigeria’s lopsided federal arrangement and the need to restructure it, there is the urgency of building a broad-based coalition of leadership that has the capacity to see the situation as Nehemiah saw it. In building the walls of Jerusalem, Nehemiah called on those who saw the walls and what needed to be done the way he saw it. We need leaders across generational divide, from Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, Prof. Pat Utomi, Prof. Attahiru Jega, Olisa Agbakoba, Akinwunmi Adesina, Aisha Yesufu, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for instance, to what we can call the #EndSARS generation; and from corporate professionals to intellectuals and scholars—people who share the patriotic desire to see Nigeria become truly great and responsible for the well-being of her citizens.

Nigeria needs more than her political class. It needs all those who believe in her greatness—all those who can see the wood for the trees; those who are capable, unlike the political class, of seeing what needed to be done in taking Nigeria out of her predicament.

As should be obvious, the whole Nehemiah complex requires committed leadership—a new breed of patriotic individuals and political elites who instinctively understand what is required to make Nigeria great. This new breed of Nigerian leadership will be committed to a pan Nigerian ideal or dream—a pax Nigeriana—around which a strategic governance framework can be built to rally Nigerians to the urgent imperatives of sound development blueprint, good governance and social justice. It goes without saying that such a leadership will immediately recognise the significance of education and value reorientation as key elements in the restructuring of the mindset and attitudinal behaviour of Nigerians.