Dr. Yusuf Bala Usman and the ‘National Question’ in Nigeria: Reflections on Some Lingering Problems

As if written yesterday


Posted by: adminon: August 14, 2021 In: De-Escalation

Dr. Bala Usman, Elite, masses, National Question, National unity, Restructuring

Intervention is the happier for it. Beyond the rising readership is the joy with the clash of narratives of Nigeria. Two days ago, Mike Kebonkwu, a radical in his own right, fired the piece, There is, Indeed, No Place Like Nigeria. Intervention gave itself the license to describe his as a piece fit to be called the manifesto of the pessimists about Nigeria. Now, Ambassador Usman Sarki, the diplomat radical, has fired a piece fit to be called the manifesto of the optimists. How one wished that this clash of views were taking place without the bloodletting going on in the wider society. Still, it is from the clash of views that the qualitatively better future will be born and there is, therefore, no shying away from the battle of ideas!

By Ambassador Usman Sarki

“Coming to grips with the reality of the process of the formation and transformation of our society beyond banalities and quibbling on ethnicity is clearly essential for comprehending one of the most serious political problems facing the peoples of this country”

– Dr. Y. B. Usman in “History and the Basis for Nigerian Unity” from For the Liberation of Nigeria, 1978

The most profound thoughts and ideas must ultimately be grounded on the reality of the human condition for them to be of any relevance or significance. The dictum of Karl Marx that the point of philosophy should be to change the world rather than interpret it becomes more poignant in this respect than any other postulation on the affairs of mankind.

Much discussion is now taking place in Nigeria about the situation of the country especially around its governance structures, policy directions, and the way and manner democracy is being practiced. These issues form what has been inappropriately termed the “National Question” by commentators in Nigeria.

These predicaments and discontents have largely constituted the contexts of the analysis of Nigeria’s internal contradictions and dissonance, as well as the proffering of a way out of these strictures.

Understanding Nigeria’s current predicaments and looking for solutions to them will entail both the conscious and conscientious study of her past and an examination of her present conditions based on factual assessment of the internal dynamics that have influenced her economic and political development over the years.

In those days when the storm troopers had not seized Nigeria and the Gambo Sawabas, Bala Usman and Wole Soyinkas set the agenda

Making a recourse to the authorities in their respective fields of study to seek for inspiration and guidance is always the best course of action in times of challenging circumstances and contradictory postulations about the manner and process in which Nigeria’s fortunes are being shaped or formed.

A recourse to the ideas and precepts of Dr. Yusuf Bala Usman has, therefore, become imperative now more than ever before, on account of the seemingly chaotic and discordant notes that are being sounded with regards to the way Nigeria should be governed, and how her fortunes might be retrieved and channeled toward better and effective delivery of services to the people. Beset with myriad and egregious difficulties, Nigerians are bewailing their misfortunes while desperately looking for solutions to their exasperating problems.

This essay is a reflection on these contemporary dilemmas and an attempt at pointing to the essential solutions that have been provided decades ago, by the perspicacious and prescient studies of Dr. Y. B. Usman in many of his articles and speeches during his lifetime of intellectual labour and social and political struggles.

The book For the Liberation of Nigeria published in 1978 still remains one of the most influential and authoritative writings on the governance and administration of the Nigerian State and an expose of the deficiencies and improvisations that have beset the progress of the Nigerian nation from colonial times to when the book was published.

The lamentable situations in Nigeria that Dr. Usman tried all his life to expose and correct still remain with us, unfortunately, and this requires that all Nigerians of goodwill should see it as their patriotic duty to continue to be seized with such challenges and seek remedies within their individual abilities and compass of existence.

This much, or this little, as the case may be, is what every Nigerian should be called upon to render to their country. The first prerequisite for doing so is the correct understanding of Nigeria’s history and the processes that shaped her evolution and progress to this day.

Without such a foundational requirement, it will be futile to attempt to contextualise any discourse, or propose any solutions to the challenges confronting the country, and satisfactorily addressing issues surrounding the “National Question”, as currently being understood.

Understanding history both in the theoretical and practical contexts will aid us in following the antecedents, and understanding the processes, while searching for the remedies, to a wide variety of issues that have made the situation in Nigeria so perilous and disconcerting today.

Only in this way, I believe, as did Dr. Usman and many other thinkers of his age, can we appreciate the genesis of situations and offer correct remedies to the challenges that are hindering the emergence of Nigeria as a united, peaceful, prosperous, progressive and truly democratic country. One issue underlying the discourse on the “National Question” in Nigeria today is the issue of ethnicity and identities and interests linked to it.

The exploitation and framing of this issue as the most important factor in the “National Question” seems to be the most challenging and also the most exasperating difficulty facing all attempts at seeking reconciliation and amelioration of the problem of national unity in Nigeria.

Try as we may, we seem to be blocked like an immovable obstacle by this monolithic object placed before our mental faculties, that is preventing us from seeing clearly where our collective interests lie, and where our detriments are being sown and reaped and by whom.

The fact that most endeavours and discussions on the Nigerian condition today have been made rather subjective and reduced to ethnic issues and their associated intricacies and imagined discontents points to the paucity of original ideas among the commentators and discussants of the contemporary situation in our country.

This lack of originality has meant that other tenuous tendencies and ideas should be found to replace jaded and impractical ideas so as to make it impossible for deceptive and misleading propositions to be placed before the Nigerian public as remedies to their problems.

One such “remedy” that is recurrently placed before Nigerians, and by which they have been befuddled, is the notion of restructuring of the country that has now become the mantra in many public declarations and discourses. The other, of course, is the elevation of tribal interests and objectives over and above any national outlook, thus leading to the whipping up of hysterical sentiments among the masses in some parts of the country around separatist agendas and ethnic nationalism.

It has become possible to generate and sell such vacuous notions to the masses in the absence of any concrete ideas and examinations of the challenges facing the country and her people, based on the correct diagnosis of the problems, and the historical perspectives as to their origins and development.

For the Liberation of Nigeria offered clear backgrounds and progressive prescriptions toward understanding and remedying the problems besetting the Nigerian nation, including a correct appraisal of the elements of the “National Question”.

Its chapters are replete with analysis of various existential issues and subjects, along with prescriptions toward finding solutions to many of them, both at the academic and governance levels. Most of the problems that were raised and examined in short articles in the book are still confronting Nigeria and continue to stunt her development.

Such matters as national unity, national development, national planning, the civil service, and the wider issues of governance around which the fortunes of the nation are advanced or marred, are taken up and conscientiously discussed, within the limits or restraints placed on the author by the nature of public speeches and newspaper articles.

These are the issues that today resonate loudly and disconcertedly in our debates about our democratic governance and distribution of the national wealth, for instance. They are also the underpinning issues surrounding the discourses on the “National Question” with the fanciful notions of restructuring the country and the abrogation of the national constitution at its heart.

These suppositions are based on the misconception of Nigeria’s historical evolution and the interrelationships between and among its various ethnic groups before colonialism and its aftermath. Nigeria as constituted today has no discernible external threats or enemies, but her own citizens who seek to destroy the country at the slightest pretext and more so on the basis of some spurious questions of ethnic nationalism.

The arguments about “ethnic nationalities” and their growing significance and centrality to the “restructuring” debate and separatist agendas also point to the negation of the historical realities of Nigeria. False premises about the separate and distinct nature of the different ethnic groups that comprised Nigeria existing independently of each other before colonialism are now being propagated to bring about the forced restructuring of the country and advance the agendas towards separatism and her dissolution.

The fact that before the imposition of British colonial domination the different ethnic groups in Nigeria have been interacting in concrete, defined and interchangeable manners with one another across different divides and boundaries, seems to have been willfully ignored or downplayed by the proponents of restructuring and the agitation for separation.

It is also a clear indication of the ignorance of Nigeria’s history or the belittling of its significance in the contemporary scheme of things in the country. This atomisation of the nation along ethnic lines has ensured that no genuine and rational constructs can be created along important elements of the “National Question” such as the progressive development of policies and programmes towards the enhancement of the quality of life of the people.

The fact that all attempts at basic endeavours like the conduct of a national census or the crafting of national development plans have eluded us point to the inability to arrive at national consensus on most matters of great significance.

The difference between the time when Dr. Usman lived and now, is that rigorous scholarship was observed and practiced to a very large extent by the ideologues and academics of the age, unlike today when they are liberally in disregard of these issues of integrity and credibility in research and making their findings public.

While in those days painstaking examination of issues underlined critical thinking and studies, today they are characterised largely by “banalities and quibbling” to quote Dr. Usman himself, with issues of dubious provenance being paraded and peddled as “gospel truths” on matters that affect the wellbeing, peace and security of the entire country.

For the Liberation of Nigeria does not merely offer insights into existential issues for Nigerians, but goes beyond this to outline concrete programmes of action towards attaining a better and progressive Nigeria, and in the process, an exalted status for the Black people all over the world.

It is a visionary project if one can call it so, and a simplification of fundamental issues to make them more intelligible to the average person. It is not a book about polemics or ideology, but a practical guide to correctly understanding social, political, economic and other issues surrounding the mystical notion of government, which it totally demystified in basic and unassailable manner.

While Nigerians were recently entrained by the National Assembly in the debates on the adoption of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) and the dramas associated with its controversial passage, Dr. Usman had already written in the 1970s on the essential aspects of the petroleum industry in the Nigerian economy, as the first subject matter in chapter one of his book.

The related subject of the role of multinational companies in the development of the Nigerian economy was also taken up and examined in the same breadth in chapter one, thereby forming a link between the two underpinning factors governing all other developments be they political or social in the Nigerian milieu.

The much discussed and overly contentious issues of governance and administration which are the relative superstructures of the state based on the foundations of the economic system of the country were also not neglected by the penetrating insight of Dr. Usman. He dwelled, for instance, in chapter two on constitutional issues, democratic practices, the military administrations of the past and the public service as key components of the growth and evolution of the Nigerian State around which the “National Question” could be correctly understood and analysed.

Unlike during Dr. Usman’s time, today’s discussion on the national constitution, for instance, has been reduced to mere posturing on its “acceptability” or not, and the “desirability” or not, of its continued existence as the fundamental legal document of the state and country. Much hype as he would say has been heaped around the notion that it was a “military” constitution therefore; it should have no place in a democratic dispensation such as ours today.

This argument conceals a fallacy and self-serving deception about the general deficiency in the way democracy has been practiced in Nigeria since 1999. The concept of “true federalism” and resource control and other superficial distempers created around these questions also fall into the same category of misinformation and manipulation.

More importantly, it conceals and obfuscates the failure of the ruling classes to ameliorate serious discontents among the masses by providing them with honest, upright, conscientious and accountable governance that attends to their basic needs like healthcare delivery, education, decent housing, food security, and all other basic necessities that should make their lives wholesome and enjoyable.

The argument about “restructuring” glosses over the inability of succeeding administrations in Nigeria from 1999 to adhere to the fundamental tenets of the national constitution as provided for in Chapter 2 of the document, where the principal purposes and directive principles of the Nigerian state were enunciated. None of those provisions have been consciously realised by the Nigerian ruling elite in the last twenty-two years of democratic governance.

As a result of this situation, the country has been thrown into serious existential crisis and general confusion underlined by dwindling confidence and trust in government and in the democratic system.

The greatest and most remarkable failure of both the political and bureaucratic ruling classes is the inability to provide a direction for the whole country toward which it would progress in confidence and assurance, with the united purpose of excelling as a nation and leading other Africans in turn.

This manifest failure has created room to division, dissension and disquiet all around the country, with expressions of separatist sentiments now in the ascendancy. Such distempers are now being exploited by an assorted group of malcontents who today pose the greatest threat to Nigeria’s unity and collective wellbeing.

The most spectacular dissonance is created around religious differences, whereby deep seated sentiments of the people are exploited to create fissures that have today become wide chasms or gulfs between practitioners of the two dominant faiths in the country.

This “malice of religious zeal” as Edward Gibbon termed it has so pervaded the national space that it has become a dominant factor in the mental conception and appreciation of who we are, or what we should ultimately seek to become. No other idea or sentiment has captured and enthralled Nigerians today more than this intrinsic instrument, whose very objective should ordinarily reform, improve and guide our manners and approaches to mundane matters of existence.

Dr. Usman treated this melancholy subject with great erudition and finesse in his article “The Manipulation of Religion in Nigeria Today: Its Social and Political Basis”. This analysis still serves as a basis towards understanding the issues surrounding the religious dimension of the “National Question” and the most insidious threat to Nigeria’s unity and progress which is being maximally exploited by the enemies of our country.

The liberation of Nigeria today first and foremost, is not from some foreign domination or imperialist control per se. It is actually from the clutches of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois elite classes that have been ruling the country and have succeeded in running her into the ground through their incompetence, lack of patriotism and clear understanding of the place of Nigeria in history and current situation of the Black people in world affairs.

This is the fundamental task of politics today over and above the mere exercise of the freedom to elect our representatives and leaders in periodic exercise of some ill-understood franchise that has little or no significance anymore to our collective wellbeing and interests. It is this form of domination that Dr. Y. B. Usman addresses in ‘For the Liberation of Nigeria’ in sequentially arrange order, touching upon the essential elements of the “National Question” in their concrete manifestations and not in their idealistic and superficial renderings as is the vogue in the public discourses in Nigeria today.

For us to clearly, intelligently and constructively discuss the “National Question” in Nigeria and indeed the larger aspect of the “Nigerian Nation” itself, we must follow the prescription of Dr. Usman and answer the questions – what state, whose nation? The answers are provided in the article of same title in the book, which should be the beginning of any genuine inquiry into the Nigerian State and Nation and the current conditions of the country. The existential quest for national unity should not, therefore, be left in the hands of the detractors of Nigeria.

As Dr. Usman warned, “For this class, whose economic and political role has been compared to a gateman collecting tolls, national unity is not a means of forging the productive and political forces of the nation into new, coherent and enduring synthesis. National unity is for them merely an arena for bargaining. And the discontinuities, imbalances and blockages in the national system enhance their bargaining capacity”. Let Nigerians pay heed and take whatever steps that are necessary to retrieve the fortunes of their country and draw her from the brink of destruction and oblivion.

The author is a former Deputy Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations, New York

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