Defining and re-defining a nation — Hope Eghagha

By Ikenga Chronicles July 26, 2016

Defining and re-defining a nation — Hope Eghagha

Every nation defines, or ought to define itself, its character, its focus, and its short and long-term goals. Self-definition comes through actions, through historical experiences, through contemporary choices, good and bad. Sometimes, self-definition comes through deliberate, institutional preferences; at other times, it is accidental or imposed by extraneous forces. For example, an intra- national war, or a profound political conflict or the abolition of a monarchy or the scourge of famine could be part of a nation’s consciousness. In cultural terms, every nation or individual, in Chinua Achebe’s words, must know ‘when the rain began to beat them’. It is a question which the leadership of all African countries ought to ask every five years. It is true that some nations do not acknowledge the fact that they are being beaten by rain. For such nations, it is business as usual; they have no sense of history, no sense of the future. The temporary pleasures of the present are enough aphrodisiac for them.

The key point to be made however is, a nation that takes itself seriously must have a long term plan, into which the midterm plans should fit in with the passage of time. Human capital development, infrastructure, self-sufficiency in food production, education, and a strong export base are all issues which a country should spend a lot of time on. For this reason, a strong and reliable civil service is crucial and mandatory. Any government which deliberately weakens the civil service is dangerous to the health of the nation. Governments, good and bad, come and go. But a reliable and committed civil service remains, often with guaranteed tenure, to ensure continuity. They then serve as a bridge between administrations and faithfully keep the vision of the goal going.

Just as a man is ‘the sum of his memories’, so too a nation, in a sense, is a sum of her memories. Nations draw or ought to draw their contemporary trajectory from memories, from historical experiences. If, as a people we decide to return to the old path of incipient and fundamental lapses in planning and implementation, not even God would come to our rescue. So when Nietzsche says that the ‘tragedy of man is that he forgets’, he reiterates the importance of the past in coming to terms with the present. He also defines the importance of memory in self and national development. In defining our nation, such questions as, ‘what kind of nation are we? What kind of nation do we want to be, what circumstances got us where we are now? are crucial, if not fundamental to the process of growth. For this essay, the crucial question is: what is the character of the Nigerian nation?

To be sure, cultural norms, political history, economic means and quality and type of leadership help to define the character of a nation. Leadership must be considered at all levels, from all perspectives. It is not a question of mouthing rhetoric or proclaiming an arrival. It is a question of what we are willing to do as a people. In all of this, consistent national discipline is required to give the nation a focus. Apart from the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War, Nigeria never had any serious security issues until the emergence of ethnic and religious crisis through the Maitasine, the Niger Delta movements, and Boko Haram. The truth is that for many decades, Nigeria was relatively in a state of peace to foster long-term growth. Of course, we are aware of the incursion of the military in governance which truncated the entrenchment of democracy.

A nation which carries a permanent negative baggage cannot lift itself from the cesspit of underdevelopment. There comes a time when the people through leaders must decide to break with the past and create a brave new world. Through affirmative action and words, a nation could tread a new path to the road to greatness. At such times, everybody in the chain thinks of the common good. I must hasten to observe that not everyone in the process believes in the common good. Some do not believe that the common good is desirable. They believe that once it is good for them, then it is good for the others, for the country.

Defining a nation is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. Until we actually define and accept our sense of identity, there would be too many disparate and dangerous forces pulling the structure in different directions. When we indeed learn from our past, we no longer allow the mistakes of commission or omission to re-occur, whether deliberately or inadvertently. NEVER AGAIN becomes an operative expression in our collective unconscious. In a federal state (with different ethnic groups) which is working towards achieving a national consensus on all issues, we ought to be conscious of the sensibilities of all stakeholders in the union. Omissions are often perceived as commissions.

In defining the Nigerian nation, let us remember the last stanza of the nation’s first national anthem which we all lustily and passionately sang: “Our flag shall be our symbol/that truth and justice reign/ help us to build a nation/ where no man is oppressed’. When constituents of the federation begin to question the basis of the nation, then we must take steps to rein them in; not through force, but through discussions and a re-visit to the drawing board. The Nigeria-Biafra War to which we have said, and continue to say NEVER AGAIN is part of our national experience.

All through history nations that have allowed external forces to define their character have never been on solid ground. For such nations, governance is not in their hands. They remain puppets to foreign and personal interests; no respect for the common good. It is nearly sixty odd years since we gained political independence from Britain. The character of the nation we met in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s is different from what we currently experience. Gradually, cultural and social norms which were held dear and sacrosanct are giving way to flip flops. Perhaps, this is why the young men and women who currently parade the streets do not share the passion that some of us the older ones have for Nigeria.

Whatever we say, the fluid Nigerian character has been resilient in the face of provocative lopsided notions of development and who gets what in the economy. In a general sense, we have not defined the character of the Nigerian State in positive terms both to ourselves and to the external world. Sadly, the scandalous behaviour of some citizens has given the nation a soiled name in the comity of nations. This accounts for the ‘fantastic’ exaggeration given by the last British Prime Minister before Brexit fantastically forced him into a fantastic resignation. Whatever the world thinks, we know that there are more persons who do right in the country that those who always swing to the side of evil. For this reason, those involved in the positive image project ought to define the character of the Nigerian State, championed by the government in power.

Prof. Eghagha is of Department of English, University of Lagos


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