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Opinion: Richard Sklar on Nigeria’s National Question

Richard Sklar

By Ebere Onwudiwe

My good friend and co-author, Richard Sklar, professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a past president of the African Studies Association (USA), is among the most accomplished students of Nigerian politics since the second half of the 20th century.

His thinking on the nationality question in Nigeria is worth revisiting in these uncertain times in our national history.

Several events in the past couple of years have awakened Nigeria’s nationalities.

They have stirred into movement the Middle Belt Forum, the Afenifere, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), the Pan-Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), and others.

The situation offers positive or negative opportunities. We have to either take steps to consolidate them into one Nigerian nation or, in a fit of chauvinistic disregard, watch disintegration happen.

The consolidation requires that the government should listen to the criticisms of nepotism and sectionalism in federal government appointments, at the expense of the Federal Character Principle.

The strident criticism of marginalisation by some ethnic groups and the many citizens who grumble about the system’s unfairness and injustice.

And there is the judicial disenfranchisement of some people’s right to choose their leaders in their states.

All these and more combine to create an unhealthy country; one in which many citizens’ desire to identify with the state, despite ethnic or religious differences, approaches zero.

This situation informs the national question in Nigeria that Professor Sklar discusses.

He addresses the background to the seemingly complicated obstacles to achieving loyalty for the Nigerian nation, above and beyond individual differences. Let’s start with history.

Sklar dissects the founding fathers’ positions, the “Big Three” politicians of the late colonial period, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and Sir Ahmadu Bello, who were the leaders of what he called the nationalist resistance to colonial paternalism.

His main point is how the “Big Three” differed among themselves on each nationality’s political role. Of the three nationalists, Sklar writes that Azikiwe was the foremost pan-Nigerian.

He believed that Nigerian nationality should not depend on ethnolinguistic identity.

On the other hand, Awolowo strongly favoured establishing what Sklar describes as an ethnolinguistic foundation for governmental institutions.

Simultaneously, Bello believed that reformed traditional authority that could function effectively in modern times in public life was the way to go.

These different positions of the “Big Three” are still at the heart of Nigeria’s national question. In all ethnic groups, some detribalised Nigerians today believe in the Nigerian nationality’s legal independence, like Azikiwe did.

He, along with many people in his Igbo base, thought that ethnicity must not be given legal status and should only connote cultural and political identities.

Still, the country’s current situation shows that this metaphysical conception of the Nigerian nation may no longer be an Igbo thing.

This fact suggests that Azikiwe’s transcendental notion of Nigerian nationality was a wrong reading of the Nigerian condition.

Sklar interprets Awolowo’s position to mean that to be a good Nigerian, one should be a good Kilba, Ijaw, Tiv, Ogoni, Efik, or Bini person first; in other words, first be a good member of one’s ethnic group.

He suggests that this principle of Awolowo’s has proven a better reading of Nigeria’s reality.

That’s why some Igbo thinkers and leaders now believe that Awowolo’s reading of Nigeria was right on the money.

Careful observers of the Ohaneze and Afenefere meetings can see an emerging alliance built on Awolowo’s ethnic selfdetermination principle.

Unlike that of either Awolowo or Azikiwe, Sklar concludes that Bello’s political perspective did not centre on the nationality question, implying that he could care less about ethnicity.

Instead, according to Sklar, Bello focused on his political party’s control of power in a future multinational state.

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This state-centered thinking remains among his northern Nigerian followers today.

Take away: Who would have thought that with all the accusations of nepotism and sectionalism in today’s northern dominated federal government, the region’s founding father was the least concerned with ethnicity among the “Big Three”?

Richard L. Sklar, who also taught at the University of Ibadan, turned 90 this year. Happy 90th birth anniversary, Professor!

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Augustine Aminu

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