In Search of the Nigerian

Dr Chris Anyokwu


By Chris Anyokwu

There seems to be something of a bizarre and perverse irony, a cruel joke about the idea of searching for what is in plain sight, namely the Nigerian.  Stretched a little farther, this obnoxious irony morphs into tragedy.  How do you search for a people said unofficially to be numbering in excess of 200 million, the most populous Black nation on earth?  The question arises again: Who are the people walking up and down the geographical space called Nigeria?  Aren’t they Nigerian citizens?  The point is that the term “Nigerian citizen” is not as innocuous or straight-forward as it appears on the surface, an intriguing and complex situation which invariably embosses the eternal ding-dong affair between appearance and reality.  What is “appearance”, what is “reality”?   Do you appear to be Nigerian but not Nigerian in reality?  What then qualifies you to be Nigerian?  Your natal provenance?  Your skin colour?  The indigenous “Nigerian” language you speak such as Yoruba, Hausa or Igbo?  Or is because you happen to carry the Nigerian passport?  We shall come to this much later in this article.

The labelling “Nigerian”, for most, feels like an imposition, a deliberate miscategorisation, much like calling a herbivore a carnivore or, if you prefer, calling an animal a plant.  Perhaps this deliberate artificial labelling conduces to the all-comers-affair which the Nigerian citizenship has become.  We pose the all-important question once more: What does it really take to be “Nigerian”?  Can anybody, especially a Black skin, simply cross our borders, our universally-acknowledged porous borders, especially in the northern part of the country, and declare himself Nigerian?  Is all there is to it the ability to learn to speak an indigenous tongue, acculturate and gradually integrate oneself into the host community?  In the same connection, can Beninoise, Togolese, Ghanaians, Nigeriens, Chadians and Cameroonians just walk across our borders and, voila! swell our population as bona fide Nigerian citizens?  This scenario may strike the cursory observer as far-fetched, but the fact of the matter is that the scenario is unfurling like a horror film in real time.  Many of our so-called Sahelian  “kith and kin” with whom our northern compatriots share some similarities such as physiological features, language, culture, and, more crucially, religion are already embedded in our midst, some  of them contesting rights of citizenship with sons and daughters of the soil.

Pastor Tunde Bakare

Pastor Tunde Bakare once raised hell over this, threatening to take the fight to these aliens masquerading as owners of the house.  Bakare spoke of reclaiming Nigeria for Nigerians.  An extremely sensitive problem which was swept under the carpet in untidy haste.  But we know that truth is like an empty gourd, the more you try to submerge it under water, the more it will insist on resurfacing.  Curiously, whilst other nations of the world are busy tightening their border control, we are so lax and laissez-faire with ours, welcoming all-comers much like a courtesan doling out favours a la carte.  Beyond the confusing and confounding demographics that undergird and define Nigeria’s identity, to wit: true versus false Nigerians, we are more concerned with the informing and enabling spirit of nationalism and patriotism which should ordinarily drive every Nigerian citizen to hoist our Green-White-Green flag on any global platform.  Proudly Nigerian, as the slang goes.  Can the “aliens” passing themselves off as patriots demonstrate this?  Can even every day, regular Nigerians sing with pride “I love Nigeria, I no go lie/Na inside am I go live and die…”?  Do they even consider themselves Nigerian?  Is there any emotional or/and psychological tie between citizen and country?  Chinua Achebe in The Trouble with Nigeria posits: “Who is a patriot?  He is a person who loves his country.  He is not a person who says he loves his country.  He is not even a person who shouts or swears or recites or sings his love of his country.  He is one who cares deeply about his country. He is one who cares deeply about the happiness and well-being of his country and all its people.  Patriotism is an emotion of love directed by a critical intelligence” (18).  Achebe adds for consummate effect that: “True patriotism is possible only when the people who rule and those under their power have a common and genuine goal of maintaining the dispensation under which the nation lives” (19).  Using the operative terms contained in Achebe’s remarks as parameters for gauging the varying degrees of patriotism, can we in good conscience say we have in the country today “Nigerian citizens”?  Where are the Nigerians? Where are the citizens? Is the internationally recognised geographical space called Nigeria even a nation qua nation?  In the influential essay entitled “What is a nation?”, Ernest Renan submits: “No, it is no more soil than it is race which makes a nation.  The soil furnishes the substratum, the field of struggle and of labour, man furnishes the soul.

Chinua Achebe.

Man is everything in the formation of this sacred thing which is called a people.  Nothing [purely] material suffices for it.  A nation is a spiritual principle, the outcome of the profound complications of history” (Nation and Narration, p. 18).  Continuing, Renan elucidates further: “A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle.  Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle.  One lies in the past, one in the present […]. A nation’s existence is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite… a perpetual affirmation of life” (19).  Bearing the afore-mentioned constitutive elements of a nation in mind, we are under no illusion that ours is, by no means, a nation.  At best, Nigeria is a nation-state, a country, merely along the tramlines of the Westphalia nation-state paradigm.  But we also know that all that is solid gradually melts into thin air.  The death of distance and the shrinking of the Herbert M. McLuhan “Global Village” have literally rubbished the classic idea of nation, turning the civic space into a veritable coliseum of equal-opportunity journeymen and existential flaneurs.   This further thickens and complicates the plot of our nationlessness.  So, couldn’t the absence/lack of nationhood be at the roots of the general lack of patriotism?  As things stand, there is no unifying or binding plinth or platform informed by a sense of homogeneity, common language, religion, worldview, ancestral memory or common destiny to coalesce the people.  The cobbling-together of the post-colonial patchwork called “Niger-Area” (read: Nigeria) by Lord Frederick Lugard in 1914 has never received the blessing of our founding fathers, let alone their refractory progeny.  Variously dismissed as the “Mistake of 1914”, “A mere geographical expression” and “artificial togetherness”, Nigeria has also been characterised as “a collection of fragments held together in a fragile clasp” (Adichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun).

Where are the Nigerians? Where are the citizens? Is the internationally recognised geographical space called Nigeria even a nation qua nation?  In the influential essay entitled “What is a nation?”, Ernest Renan submits: “No, it is no more soil than it is race which makes a nation.  The soil furnishes the substratum, the field of struggle and of labour, man furnishes the soul. 

Sir Ahmadu Bello’s incendiary statement made during the heyday of Nigeria’s independence that the country was a Fulani estate has continued to exacerbate the fault-lines that at present threaten Nigeria’s existence.  The on-going scourge of Islamist terrorism, insurgency and banditry in Nigeria is a spin-off of the Fulani irredentism.  The resultant feeling of being first-class, second-class or third-class citizens we are witnessing today is testament to the fulminatory past.  Feelings of social injustice and inequality persist as a consequence.  Privileges, positions and power do not circulate equitably among the people as region and religion constitute either a stepping-stone or a millstone for the individual concerned.  Evidence of this rankling favouritism and bias is writ large in our MDAs, schools, the civil service, the armed forces, the police and paramilitary agencies and the corporate world.  Same goes for the different levels of federal presence or infrastructure development across the country, thereby stoking social conflagrations.  The emergence of the phenomenon of ethnic militias is a reaction to feelings of exclusion and marginality.  At all events, the ethnicisation of politics and politicisation of ethnicity is at the core of our culture of my-ethnic-group-first-Nigeria-second.  Nowhere else is this egregiously embossed more than in our party politics: North versus South, Christian South versus Muslim North, Hausa-Fulani versus Igbo or Yoruba versus the Ndịgbo!  The trickle-down effect is such that this cancerous mind-set has permeated the entire social fabric of our body politic so much so that bone-deep ethnic resentment and mutual mistrust are the default fare.  The Nigeria-Biafra War (1967-70) was a tipping-point and even now the storms are gathering again as several theatres of conflict are playing on, full-throttle.  At the Labour Party and Coalition for Peter Obi Leadership Summit, which was held in Abuja, Peter Obi was quoted as saying: “Nigeria is a country, however there are no Nigerians living in our country.  Create Nigerians is what we aim to do”.  He, then, added: “The only way to make people become Nigerians is to instil faith in Nigeria, and the only way that they will have faith in Nigeria is if they see hope in Nigerians”.  Truth be told, it sounds scandalous to declare that there are no Nigerians in Nigeria.

Peter Obi

The implication is that Nigerians so-called are living a lie.  They are not what they claim to be and are no better than foreign interlopers, some of whom are playing havoc with our corporate existence as roving bandits armed with AK-47 and all.  But you do not beat up a child and also forbid him from shedding tears.  It is doubtful or debatable if most Nigerians have enjoyed anything close to the rights and benefits of citizenship.  With the subsisting ruler-ruled relationship, their lot is a little better than that of subjects.  Indeed, the subjection and subjugation of the proles achieved via the weaponisation of poverty and everything else has instilled in the collective mind the vulnerabilities and insecurities of indentured hands.  When Nigerians sing the National Anthem, tears do not roll down their cheeks like we see on TV citizens of other nations dissolving to tears when their own Anthems are being played.  There is something ineffable, something beyond words that connects citizen and country, under normal circumstances.  Ours infuriates us as it neither evokes in us patriotic nostalgia nor steely resolve to “build a nation where peace and justice reign”.  We have rulers but no leaders.  Therefore, we lack role models and mentors to inspire patriotism in us.  It is not enough to seek to use sport as a unifier, a glue to corral us together.  This is empty anodyne at best.  It is only deliberate promotion of the culture of merit that will do.  We must rethink and re-imagine the Federal Character principle.  We must move the country away from consumption to production in order to create enough resources to go round.  Avoiding restructuring is like kicking the can down the road.  It must happen if Nigeria must survive.  All undocumented immigrants and aliens in our midst must be deported and our border control strengthened.  A level-playing field must be created for all Nigerians to aspire to the highest office in the land.  There should also be greater sense of transparency and accountability in governance at all levels.  We must kill impunity and enthrone the doctrine of the Rule of Law.  Then, we may all say: “Though tribe and tongue may differ/In brotherhood we stand, Nigerians all…”.


Chris Anyokwu writes from University of Lagos.