Nigeria has always struggled with its national identity. The narrative of our nationhood has remained more aspirational than practical. In debate and policy, it is common for Nigerians to try and define who they are and where they are going.
In Chinua Achebe’s words, ‘being a Nigerian is abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting'. The excitement comes from what is still possible, but the frustration is a reflection of how miserable we feel today.
Ideally, there should be a connection between all of us because of shared history and geography. This should be a nation that matters, first to us, then to Africa and finally to the world. But the problem is we have not yet fulfilled our apparent potential to become a powerful nation-state. Unfortunately, we have not yet agreed on the idea that makes us matter and how that defines everything else.
Who are we?
We need to answer the questions of why we exist as a nation and the benefit of our existence to every citizen. Nigerians understand the basic structure of our government in terms of institutions, agencies, and political actors. We know the symbols of our state; our national anthem, flag, and coat of arms. Yet we still have to connect the high ideals these symbols represent with our everyday lives as Nigerians. A country is not a country until it connects in this way.
We have almost been through it all. In 1999, what we thought was democracy returned to Nigeria. It took sixteen long years. At the May 29 inauguration of the new (but old) Commander in Chief, Olusegun Obasanjo, there was a sense of hope and a vigorous optimism about the opportunities ahead.
But, Nigeria never fully adopted democracy. The elections between 2003 and 2011 were all heavily disputed, destroying trust in our political process. The 2015 elections ‘changed’ political parties, but two years on we still grapple with the reality that political change is not nation-building.
What seems to be missing?
The high ideals of national life were conspicuously absent in all these elections. In retrospect, we never had proper conversations about who we are as a country. Nobody articulated how to enforce the broader or specific ideals of our Constitution and guiding principles. The political parties sought power and made promises, but they had no broader themes, did not paint a picture of what Nigeria could be, and did not strive to create a narrative that connected all our aspirations. Many politicians do not even seem to know what kind of country their policies seek to create. Most do not seek to lead or govern but simply to rule. And citizens are only slowly figuring this out.
The Nigerian who operates outside the prebendal system that is inherent in our rent economy can see the unfairness in the system but can still do nothing. In the end, we remain removed from true national building.
Where are we going?
There might be two answers to where we are going.
If you ask a woman who has no access to power or the perks of power she might say that we are going nowhere, and very fast. She might opine that unemployment is up, inflation is up, crime is up, infrastructure is non-existent, and access to land and capital is concentrated at the top.
If you ask a woman with access to power, she might tell you we are out of recession, unemployment is stable, inflation will come down and there are opportunities for growing the economy in the next quarter. The different views point to the larger problem of the lack of a viable social contract between the governed and the governing.
Since there is no common ground or connection between these two groups, there are two countries, two experiences and two types of citizens in the same country. We are not quite a country because we have not yet connected and do not have any common ground on which to build a country.
Fortunately, we have a document that lays out, at least in theory, who we are as a nation. And within that Constitution lies the theoretical link between citizen and state, the purpose of our nation and the important steps needed to live up to that purpose.
Chapter II of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999) is headlined in powerful language: Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy. It is both an objective and a direction. If you have never heard of this section allow me to hit the high notes for you: it seeks to frame Nigeria as a mostly centre-left, non-aligned, mixed economic state with welfarist policies like universal healthcare, free education, progressive taxation, and a minimum living wage.
The catch is that these ideals, or the lack thereof, cannot be argued in court. You cannot enforce Chapter II. Section 6 of the very same Constitution removes the power of the courts to enforce any of the items listed in Chapter II. The Chapter does say the Government must strive to accomplish the spirit of the law but no court can compel it to do so. It is basically a gun but with no bullets and as such, the objectives and the direction of our state policy remain a mirage. A social contract agreed but not executable.
Where we must go.
In our political history, despite multiple administrations, we have failed to realise anything akin to a social contract between the citizens governing and the citizens governed. Two generals and two teachers later, we have not advanced or learnt anything around strengthening the link between our two types of citizens.
Chapter II reminds us that there is a missing link between agreeing to the ideals of a great nation and becoming one.
It is clear that we must understand our national ideals in order to achieve them. Perhaps our best ideas about who we are, where we are going and where we must go have been answered in our Constitution. It is not that it is a panacea for all our ills. It is not a utopia by any means. It is simply a good place to start.