Change or collapse? – A nation at the crossroads


By Dr Nicole Koeck-Maier


Nigeria is the most populous country and the key driver of economic development in sub-Saharan Africa. It is a country with a wealth of significant cultural achievements and a progressive constitution, and it wields influence across the entire region. 


Today, however, a good 60 years after independence, Nigeria is on a steep downward trajectory. Conflicts seem to erupt at every corner, in every front yard. Lacking real economic prospects, young people jump between temporary jobs, which keep them from planning for the future or building a stable employment history. Religious conflicts flare episodically on the slightest pretext. Children are being kidnapped just for attending school. 


Some of these conflicts seem to subside when external pressure is applied to Nigerian’s government by Western countries. It is only then that the executive seems to succeed in restoring law and order, just as was the case with the Chibok girls. Nevertheless, the kidnappers are still not behind bars. 


How could Nigeria develop this way?


Let us look back to a more stable time, right after the end of colonialism, when those who knew colonialism from their own personal experience and vehemently rejected it because of its brutality were in charge of the state and occupied political positions. 

The experience of the inhuman circumstances of colonialism created a generation that abhorred foreign domination and instead sought the autonomy and self-reliance of the united nation-state because they had grown weary of oppression. 


Soon after independence, however, Nigeria found itself in a devastating secessionist war, issuing from ethnic conflicts and greed over the abundant natural resources available. The military leaders who crushed the secessionist movement prized unity and independence from colonial rule above all, and their victory in the Biafra war solidified the power of Nigeria’s central government over its regions. To this day, the terror and the shadows of the Biafra war hover over the Nigerian political firmament.


Those who experienced colonialism at an age when their individual political consciousness had already been formed, more or less at the age of 20, were born around 1940. They are now 80 years old and appear less publicly in positions of authority or social decision-making. They influence the public and the political discourse decreasingly.


The old social interpretation pattern, which was defined by the refusal of colonial foreign rule and white supremacy, is losing its clout and persuasive power. Until now, Nigeria was held together by the rejection of colonialism and by the victory of independence. 

As those who suffered under colonialism, the bearers of a certain state founding dogma, are now dying, a vacuum occurs: what can, what will be the core myth of the Nigerian federalist state in the future? What is the centre of its specific national consciousness? What will provide cohesion and coherence tomorrow?


Today, the bearers of Nigeria’s national consciousness are a plutocratic elite who became rich on the back of Nigeria’s oil wealth. These elites, who did not earn their riches and are unfamiliar with the hardships of daily life in Nigeria, have no interest in changing the status quo. On the contrary, if they were to combat social inequality and instal real democracy, they would endanger their own extravagant privileges.

Their inaction ensures that no changes will take place. The miserable circumstances of Nigeria continue, just as the lack of perspective for the young people increases, rendering them forlorn. 


The situation is further compounded by the fact that if one does not belong to the elite, it is almost impossible to lead an independent life and fulfil one's role as a responsible citizen. The possibilities are limited to the point of non-existence, at the peripheries of relevance in society. 

Under these conditions, one is then compelled to ask: What could the core of a nation that works for all Nigerians consist of? As creatures of colonial convenience, there is little commonality among the various ethnic groups within Nigeria. These groups differ in language, lifestyle, religion, and most importantly, they differ concerning the roles they fulfilled during the fight against colonialism. In the Nigerian case, one ethnic group benefited from colonialism, while another suffered from it. Some knew how to take advantage of indirect rule, others were considered "not civilisable" and were subjugated.   


The German sociologist Max Weber distinguished between “society”, the formal and impersonal bonds that unite people, such as the legal system, and “community”, a sense of belonging based on shared traditions. As a legal subject, one has certain civic participation rights, such as the right to vote; as a citizen, one is part of a community, a collective, as a whole person. The nation-state is formed from a dialectical relationship between society and community. Using these concepts, one could say that Nigeria is merely a formal society, and not a political community at all. 


If a state is founded on positive law or the content of formal rationality only, political life or the actions of the political sphere will not be based on values such as solidarity or cohesion. Neither could you expect shared notions of justice, as this would require a minimum of common ground, of common values and a sense of belonging. 


It is now necessary to find out what could provide a common ground in Nigeria. So far, this was enabled by the rejection of colonialism. This cannot continue in the future. The colonialist-socialised generation is dying out. A state cannot sustainably rely exclusively on elites; moreover, they are more eager to live outside Nigeria. Hence, a vacuum will be created in the near future. 


It is also conceivable, however, that Nigeria's federal system will disintegrate. This may happen more or less violently. The secessionist war over Biafra is still a vivid, chilling memory, and so there are great fears that similar cruel outbreaks could occur. For this reason, some prefer to avoid proposing the independence of the Nigerian states, or more precisely the disintegration of Nigeria, at all costs. 


Yet, there is a significant difference between a region or a single state separating from the state as a whole (a comparison with Catalonia and Spain or Slovenia and Yugoslavia, for example, is not apt) and the regions of a state as a whole deciding by parliamentary vote to separate from one another. Close relations could still remain, whether through trade, or through free movement within the states that once belonged together.


This would indeed represent a step in overcoming colonialism and creating a self-determined future, in which the separate ethnic groups could reform and ultimately understand each other. Moreover, political participation in Nigeria is still strongly linked to the mastery of the English language, which is usually not acquired through family interactions, on Sunday excursions with relatives, on the street, on the football ground, but in school. This means that success in politics, whose most prominent craft is linguistic persuasiveness, is essentially related to the acquisition of formal education. This fact produces even more inequality. 


If everyone in a parliament spoke more or less the same language, this would advance mutual understanding in political debates among opponents. Using the language of the "colonial masters" merely creates a Babel-like confusion. Perhaps this would allow the autonomy of political debate to be rescued from the oppressive grip of British colonialism. 


These simple observations prove how heavy the legacy of colonialism weighs on Nigeria’s shoulders. It illustrates the seriousness of the dislocations and the lasting depravities caused by colonialism. At the same time, however, there is the opportunity for a transformation, in which Nigeria could play an emblematic role. Now, it is up to the Nigerians to find this out for themselves.


Dr Nicole Koeck-Maier is a German sociologist who works for the German Federal Agency of Employment and  the Diploma Hochschule. She previously taught at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.


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