Photo by Mike Von

Nigeria, a country with a rich history and diverse culture, celebrated its 63rd independence anniversary on October 1, 2023. However, the story of Nigeria is not just one of celebration, but also of division and conflict. As Nigerian writer Dipo Faloyin notes in his book Africa Is Not a Country, Nigeria's story can be anything from the "celebration of greatness to an act of barbaric cruelty." In this article, we will explore the reasons why Nigeria remains divided and offer suggestions for moving forward.

Nigeria gained independence from Britain on October 1, 1960, after nearly 80 years of colonial rule. However, the country that emerged from this independence was a mere geographical expression, as noted by Nigerian independence leader Chief Obafémi Awólòwò in his book Path to Nigerian Freedom. The British had amalgamated the Northern and Southern British protectorates into the Nigerian Federation in 1914, without regard for the historical, cultural, or socio-political differences of the numerous ethnicities and peoples that inhabited the region.

One of the main reasons for persistent disunity in Nigeria is the depth of ethnic and religious division. Nigeria is home to over 300 ethnic groups, with the Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, and Fulani being the major ones. Each group has its own language, culture, and traditions. Nigeria is also divided along religious lines, with the North being predominantly Muslim and the South being predominantly Christian. These divisions were exacerbated by the arbitrary borders drawn by the British during colonization, which bundled together starkly different cultures, lands, and peoples.

Another reason for Nigeria's division is economic disparities. The British governed their conquered colonial territories through different systems of authority, which translated into different levels of economic development. In the North, the colonial government relied on existing political structures of "centralized governing systems with a reputation for their bureaucratic, administrative, and judicial institutions" – mainly relics of the Sokoto Islamic Caliphate in the region. In the South, however, the colonial administration revolved around artificially created authorities, usually in the form of warrant chiefs. These different governance systems were allowed significant autonomy under the colonial system of indirect rule, creating different levels of economic development and disparities.

Identity is also a significant factor in Nigeria's division. Nigeria was conceived by the colonial government as a business enterprise corporation, not as a nation. British rule promoted the ideas of "the 'North for Northerners,' 'East for Easterners,' and 'West for Westerners' within Nigeria." After independence, Nigerian leaders wasted the opportunities offered by the gains of independence to dismantle the inherited colonial fissures of their societies. Leaders such as the Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Chief Obafémi Awólòwò, and Sir Nnamdi Azikiwe championed the cause of their respective ethno-regions, translating into a series of coups and conflicts, including the civil war of 1967 in which about a million people died.

A lack of nation-building is another reason for Nigeria's division. Nation-building requires state-building, and nation unity comes on the heels of effective action being taken by the state. However, the Nigerian state is often absent, and citizens resort to their identities as tools for survival, further widening ethnic fault lines and creating new ones. A lack of investment in the infrastructures of the state has also created deplorable conditions for ordinary Nigerians, leading to the proliferation of conflicts and violent clashes.

Moving forward, Nigerians should focus on advancing and celebrating their soft cultural resources, such as comedy, sport, food, music, movies, and a general sense of hope and positive interaction. This ground-level, soft but courageous and clear-minded activism has the potential to restore hope in the nation and achieve more. The Nigerian state must also open its doors to the people and address their economic hardships and insecurity. If this does not happen, the danger is that Nigerians will abandon democratic ways and turn to violence, as we are witnessing across West Africa and the Sahel.

In conclusion, Nigeria's story is one of celebration and division. The country has made deliberate attempts to knit a cohesive nation from its legacy of division, but leadership failures and missed opportunities have led to persistent disunity. Ethnic and religious division, economic disparities, identity, and a lack of nation-building are the main reasons for Nigeria's division. Moving forward, Nigerians should focus on advancing and celebrating their soft cultural resources, while the Nigerian state must address the economic hardships and insecurity of its citizens. Only then can Nigeria truly celebrate its greatness and move beyond acts of barbaric cruelty.