Viewpoint: What it means to be Nigerian

By Mannir Dan-Ali
Focus on Africa Magazine

Image caption,
The disparate groups in Nigeria join together to back the national football team

Why are we Nigerians not vociferously proud of our nationality?

I suppose patriotism is not the sort of thing that excites a lot of us. In fact any talk of patriotism is likely to induce a yawn or suspicion about the motive of the person raising it.

But that is not the same as saying that Nigerians have no sense of pride.

To understand patriotism's uneasy place in Nigeria, you have to go back to 1914 when the Southern and Northern protectorates and Lagos Colony were brought together to form a single country.

In the process about 250 disparate groups - including the three major ones of Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba - were welded together in a "Tower of Babel" of sorts.

To this day, this uneasy coalition is still struggling to stay upright.

In fact, the story of Nigeria for the past 50 years seems to be characterised by a great deal of mutual distrust and suspicion between the various groups. And this state of affairs means that most Nigerians, consciously or not, see things from their tribal or factional perspective rather than from a common national point of view.

It appears that what many eminent Nigerians, including the celebrated writer Chinua Achebe, have referred to as the country's "failure of leadership" has meant a weakening of the national commonwealth and subsequently a lack of patriotism among its citizens.

Still marginalised

At the centre of this is the growing corruption of Nigeria's elite which has given rise to anger and disillusionment throughout the country.

The fragility in the Nigerian project - or a lack of patriotism, call it what you will - is even visible online.

Raise any issue that mentions Nigeria in an internet forum and you are likely to see many comments which betray the ethnic, sectional or religious bias of the writer. In reference to the challenges that we face today, some still refer to what they call "the mistake of 1914".

On a more serious scale, such perceptions have also fed into the muted separatist tendencies of organisations such as the Movement for the Actualisation of Sovereign State of Biafra (Massob).

This group came to prominence during Nigeria's civil war 40 years ago and is still hankering after an independent Biafra state - home largely to the Igbo people. Although today Massob seems to be a fringe group, the sentiments it champions continue to resonate among a surprising number of Igbos.

Many feel that they are still marginalised because, in the years since the end of the civil war in 1970, they are yet to hold the presidency.

In the oil-producing Niger Delta region, an uneasy amnesty programme has eased some of the separatist innuendos of the former militants who, earlier this year, swapped their weapons for some skills training and a promise of jobs.

But with general elections around the corner, it is unclear if President Goodluck Jonathan, an indigene of the Niger Delta who took the reins after the death of Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, will be able to get an elected term on his own.

If he is fails, who knows what this could mean for national pride in the troubled region?

Patriotic awareness

But not all belief in a united Nigeria is lost.

Image caption,
Nigeria's government wants people to be more patriotic

You need look no further than sports competitions - especially football - for evidence of our patriotism. It is there that you will find Nigerians, irrespective of age, tribe or creed, enthusiastically cheering on the national team.

In fact, a growing trend in Nigeria's major cities is the display of the country's flag on vehicles whenever Nigeria appears in a tournament. That rare display of pride in something Nigerian is what many of the country's leaders want to see in other areas.

As a result, many government programmes now promote patriotic awareness and zeal.

An example is the current rebranding campaigns to show the positive sides of Nigeria and efforts to get people to buy Made in Nigeria products. The problem is that these efforts have not produced many tangible results, apart from providing the country's intrepid stand-up comedians with something to poke fun at.

While the comedians provoke mirth and laughter, it pains me to see the way we sometimes denigrate our national institutions in the process. A prime example is the army which, at the very least, has been making efforts to serve its civilian authority democratically.

But I am always proud as a Nigerian when at a gathering, everyone joins in rendering the national anthem without the aid of a recording. And when you go abroad you can always tell the Nigerian from other Africans judging by his self-confident, some would say cocky, way.

The biggest mistake a non-Nigerian can make is to try to criticise the country or to even innocently join the Nigerian pastime of self-condemnation. That is when you see that, in spite of all the negativity, Nigerians care for their country and still believe that one day its much talked about potential will be realised.

With the continent's biggest population of over 150 million, almost a million square kilometres of mostly arable land, vast quantities of mineral resources - most of which remain untapped - and the can-do spirit of its people, it is difficult to see why not.

I believe that in the next 50 years, Nigeria is likely to confound those who have been telling tales of its fall. Better elections will help to strengthen democracy by producing leaders who are more likely to inspire others who believe that it is possible to have a Nigeria where differences in creed, tribe and tongue are no barrier to nationhood.

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