Managing Diversity in a Multiethnic Country

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By Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha

In a sense, the modern state is all about managing diversity. Cultural and political diversities take prominence in the contemporary world, more so in African states in which many disparate peoples have been unduly yoked together by geographical and political circumstances. Africa, whose original name was ‘Alkebulan’ or ‘mother of mankind’, currently has 54 countries, according to the United Nations. To be sure, these 54 countries are a modern creation, especially after the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 and subsequent historical and political developments. The Zulu, Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Edo, Fulani, Kikuyu lived independent lives as we glean from the history of African empires on the continent from Tekrur through Songhai, Mali and Ghana, not to mention the ethnic kingdoms that dominated the space that is now Africa. Ali Mazuri’s Triple Heritage documentary which shows ‘an indigenous heritage borne out of time and climate change, the heritage of Eurocentric capitalism, and the spread of Islam by both jihad and evangelism’ clearly demonstrates the triple heritage that is Africa in his groundbreaking study of religions in the continent. Nowhere has this been so dexterously handled as in southwest Nigeria where Muslims, Christians and traditional religionists exchange gifts and mutual celebration at different times of the year.

Ethnicity has always been a problem once the modern states in Africa were created. Erstwhile enemies became clubbed together in one country as a new concept of governance developed. There is hardly any linguistically or culturally homogenous state in Africa. Even where there are cultural or linguistic similarities, these peoples are often too conversant with their histories that the points at which they split and migrated into different areas have become a sore one. In Nigeria, there are over three hundred and fifty ethnic groups, with each claiming a level of autonomy. It was because of this diversity that the first national anthem preached the sermon of ‘though tribe and tongue may differ in brotherhood we stand! What has become of that Nigeria?

Whereas in the old Africa military might determine who controlled power, in the modern state, the power of the ballot box has come to gain ascendancy, especially after the years of military misadventure in politics and governance. That is, population is crucial to attaining political power. However, if the big ethnic groups seize power through the ballot box, the small ethnic have a high nuisance value especially as it is in Nigeria where the mainstay of the economy is in the geographical region controlled by the minorities. It is this power that was powerfully exploited by the Niger Delta Avengers and Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) that made late President Mus Yar’Adua negotiate with the militants.

With the power of social media and the spread of education, no one ethnic group can perpetually lord it over others. The bloody experience in Sudan that led to its separation into two countries largely on religious and ethnic lines is an eye opener to power misadventurers. My thesis therefore is that anybody who aspires to a leadership position in Nigeria must be adept in managing cultural diversity. POL 101 should take off from managing a marriage of two persons with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds! Very many families have successfully managed cultural and religious diversities. Even the Holy Bible talks about allowing the tares and wheat to exist side by side till judgment day.

At independence, the joy of self-rule overshadowed all the doubts, somewhat. In pre-independence negotiations, there was mutual suspicion fanned especially by departing colonial powers. Britain was palpably guilty of this in the arrangements which ultimately produced the Nigerian configuration. Even if we do not admit it, most of these nations remain mere ‘geographical expressions’ as articulately expressed by one of the founding fathers of modern Nigeria, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Sir Ahmadu Bello also expressed similar sentiments, as he saw the other ethnic groups within corporate Nigeria as vassals. The result is that there was a contest of wills from Day One on take-off of the newly-created country. Sixty-odd years after independence, we still hear such expressions as the ‘mistake of 1914!

Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia have witnessed splits. Nigeria is on the brink of disintegration. This is no news. But we seem to move closer and closer to the brink by the day. In the prelude to the Civil war of 1967 to 1970, there was not this level of disenchantment with the federal authorities. After that war. Nobody ever imagined that any government could mismanage our cultural and ethnic diversity as the incumbent government has done. The open challenge which some non-state actors have posed to the federal government should disturb anyone who is familiar with the history of Nigeria. If an Ojukwu equivalent, that a state actor were to emerge in any of the regions, it would be difficult for the federal government to muster inter-0regional support as it did in the war to bring back the south east into the federation. This should be a source of worry to Abuja and the cohorts of ethnic chauvinism as witnessed in the seizure of federal power by the Fulani hegemonists.

Nigeria is not negotiable to the extent that it must be redefined. The truth is that Nigeria as currently configured favours some people. It automatically disadvantages some groups. This is the background to the strident calls for a restructure of the rules of engagement. What is the Nigeria we want? Which Nigeria do we have currently? Why is the threat to the corporate existence of Nigeria so palpable? Without water in my mouth, there is no gainsaying the fact that the Buhari administration has not properly managed interethnic relations. Even politicians from the APC are worried though they do not declare this to the public. They live with the people. They buy and sell. They feel the pain. But party loyalty has become an albatross. But they should remember that the overall good is more important than the interests of a few.

No one ethnic group, no matter how populous, is more Nigerian than the other. None should assert itself by seizing state power through stealth and cunning. It is a sure path to loss of faith in the union. If the union must survive us, we must build it on equity, fairness, justice, and truth. We are all Nigerians with equal stakes. What the minorities lack in population they have more than made up for in human and natural resources. Ours is not the only multiethnic nation in Africa. Ghana, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Kenya are all multiethnic nations. The spirit of give and take is crucial to managing diversity. If, like the ostrich, someone buries his head and believes others would stupidly cede control of all other ethnic groups, then they do not understand history and the character of human beings in the quest of survival. The time to step back and ask where the rain began to beat the Nigerian nation is now. The time to ask and answer all the hard questions is now. The time to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of the system is now. The time to strengthen the federal system is now. ‘Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counsellors they succeed’, so says the Book of Proverbs.