A cursory glimpse into any of today’s social media networks such as Facebook or Twitter where Nigerians discuss topical national issues might leave one with the impression that frustrated Nigerians are ready to tear each other apart, with the cyber salvos and hateful comments some throw at each other. Even some erstwhile respectable public personalities haven’t been left out. One in particular, in a recent write up, referred to Nigeria as a contrived “forced marriage between the poor husband (the North) and the rich wife (the South)”, effectively confirming his descent into this murky cesspool of mudslinging. In this ripe atmosphere thus, the Fund For Peace’s (FFP) recently released annual Failed States Index (FSI) in which Nigeria is ranked the 14th most failed state in the world couldn’t have come at a more critical time, when Nigeria is grappling with numerous socio-political, economic and security challenges threatening its core foundation. The Index raises a number of issues regarding Nigeria’s impending failure and one wonders whether the Index has sufficiently and accurately captured the peculiar nation-building challenges bedevilling such a country.
The Failed States Index (FSI) is an annual ranking of 177 countries compiled by the Fund For Peace and published by the American Foreign Policy magazine, which places countries on a continuum of most failed and least failing states. Nigeria’s 2012 ranking at number 14 is the same as that of 2011, though its status has been upgraded from an amber “Warning” last year, to a red “Critical” this year, only one step away from the deep crimson “Alert”, the exclusive domain of truly collapsed states like Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The methodology of this ranking is based on 12 indicators placed within three categories namely: social indicators, economic indicators and political and military indicators. Of the 12 indicators however, none seems to have sufficiently captured citizens’ (of these countries) perceptions of their relationship with the state, with each other and other elements of national identity, a key factor in state failure.
In Nigeria, especially in recent times, it is not uncommon to find heated and emotional discussions over Nigeria’s viability and whether it would ever consolidate its nationhood, where inhabitants identify with it and feel a sense of brotherhood towards one another. Suddenly many are mulling over the possibility of Nigeria disintegrating, an unthinkable prospect just 5 years ago — from the confused columnist cashing in on the opportunity to spew their bigotry to the frustrated youth sounding off in cyberspace; the manipulative politician capitalizing on such frustrations to claw out from the fringes of obscurity, to teenagers donned in their sagging trousers and earpiece(s) reciting the late Obafemi Awolowo’s catchy aphorism that “Nigeria is a mere geographical expression” with such precision that you’d think he personally uttered these words to them.
Many Nigerians are increasingly questioning the very foundation on which Nigeria exists, whether a “Nigerianess” which binds people across ethno-religious divides within a single nation really exists beyond the pages of Social Studies and History text books. The FSI and its 12 indicators rightly point out the challenges bedevilling the Nigerian state – such as uneven economic development or dearth of public services – which could accelerate to an impending failure, but the Index doesn’t succinctly capture this nationhood quagmire.
An important element of nationhood and nation-building, especially for a complex and diverse country such as Nigeria is the existence of unifying national values and symbols that bring together diverse people under a single umbrella of a national identity, giving these different people a good reason to substitute broad-based national identities for primordial loyalties and identities. These shared values are mostly represented by symbols such as a national flag and anthem, a glorious history such as the British monarchy’s imperial history — arguably a uniting force in an increasingly multicultural Britain — or shared aspirations, such as the USA’s “American dream”, espousing ideals of freedom and equal opportunity for success through hard-work for anyone in America, their social class or circumstance of birth notwithstanding.
In Nigeria, national values, aspirations and their accompanying symbols are progressively losing their meaning such that with the exception of routine recitals by starry-eyed primary school pupils at early morning school assemblies, the national anthem and pledge mean little to many others. Many a political appointee has been thoroughly embarrassed at a National Assembly screening for their inability to recite the national anthem. Nigerians are increasingly becoming disdainful of and detached from the state and from each other, keen to emphasize on the differences between one’s church and their neighbour’s mosque and vice versa, rather than the poverty or unemployment that afflict them both. This gradual erosion of national identity in Nigeria, as crucially important as it is, is something the FFP’s Index doesn’t quite capture.
This nationhood challenge becomes more crucial when one considers that perhaps a key factor in state failure is when the citizens gradually stop identifying with that state and what it stands for and they increasingly emphasize on how very different they are from one another, as manifestation of a retreat to primordial loyalties of tribe, ethnicity, religion and region rather than a broader national identity. Essentially, people’s bond over broader national values weakens as they feel they have little stake in a state espousing these values, that barely provides infrastructure or guarantees the security of lives and property. As this happens over time, then inevitably insurgent groups with various grievances like Boko Haram, separatist militant groups and other centrifugal forces are birthed, which, if not checked and mitigated could gradually tear the country apart.
At this critical juncture in Nigeria’s history, a key building block of nationhood could entail redefining our national values and reviving or getting a new set of unifying national symbols to fit current realities. In some respects, perhaps this is what Dora Akunyili’s “Rebrand Nigeria” campaign tried to achieve in futility. Thus, rather than focusing on how a Hausa man differs from an Igbo man, the Tiv from the Jukun or the Ijaw from the Yoruba, Nigerians could focus on things that bind us together – that PHCN doesn’t discriminate when it abruptly takes away the barely available electricity just as you’re about to iron that favourite shirt for an appointment or for a date; that when traversing the Kaduna-Abuja, Lagos-Benin or other treacherous death traps we call roads in Nigeria, a silent yet fervent prayer to one’s Deity constantly hangs on one’s lips; that Rice and Stew, a staple in most households across the country is probably the closest we’ll have to a national dish; that regardless of our ethnicity and religion we love our flamboyant and colourful parties, bikis and owambes; that in the midst of other Africans our confidence and brilliance always shines through; that pervasive corruption has ensured that almost every ethnic group has had its “turn” in slicing off hefty chunks of the national cake at the expense of others; and that ultimately, we all desire transformational leadership which will deliver the most basic and intrinsic of public goods — electricity, potable water, security, decent healthcare and education.
Finally, given Nigerians’ remarkable ability to endure despite the most profound difficulties, perhaps the reason why Nigeria has persisted despite its poor showing in most of the FSI’s 12 indicators is because Nigerians still have a reason, relatively, to identify with the Nigerian state — despite all its shortcomings — and the moment this ceases significantly, then the endurance would end and the chaos would begin. Ultimately, it is Nigerians’ identification with the Nigerian state and with each other, the ability to congregate around a collective national identity and ignore the divisive antics of some desperate politicians willing to capitalize on the frustration of Nigerians that might end up actually saving Nigeria from itself.