The Trouble with Nigeria (III)



This is the concluding part of this three-limbed series in which we sought to interrogate four popular diagnoses of the ‘trouble with Nigeria’.

In the first two instalments, we examined the contentions that (a) the trouble with Nigeria is squarely a failure of leadership (b) that what Africa needs is strong institutions, not strong men (c) that the main problem in this country is corruption and (d) that the greatest challenge facing the country today is the pervasive insecurity in the land.

We argued that the purveyors of these viewpoints have either elevated the symptoms of a more fundamental problem to the undeserved status of the problem’s cause or unintentionally indulged in simplistic analyses of what should be a complex problem.

In this concluding instalment I will argue that ‘the main trouble with Nigeria’ – at least from governance perspective – is the crisis in the country’s nation-building process. This perspective assumes that diversity is not inherently antithetical to nation-building because many of the most successful nations of the world were in fact built from an agglomeration of different ethnic nationalities. Take for instance the United States, which is sometimes referred to as The First New Nation. It started with 13 colonies of diverse origins, which came together to form a new nation and state. Today the 50 sub states in the United States are effectively more than 50 different countries which have been largely moulded into a melting pot of cultures under one destiny. Similarly, the Italian city-states were able to evolve into a nation as were the German city-states which first evolved into the Zollverein customs union and later into a nation. France was made up of different language and cultural groups just as China was made up of aggressively warring kingdoms. In fact as the experiences of Somalia, Rwanda and Burundi teach us, ethnic and cultural homogeneity do not necessarily guarantee the success of nation-building. Some of the most homogenous ethnic and cultural groups in the country such as the Igbo and the Yoruba in fact fought very bitter internecine wars among themselves before colonialism

Nation-building in Nigeria

 Though there is no unanimity among scholars on the meaning of ‘nation-building’, it is often used to denote a deliberate use of state instruments to build trust and create a sense of community among the nationalities that make up the ‘new’ states in the ‘developing’ countries. In essence nation-building generally assumes that someone or something is doing the building of the nation intentionally.

In Nigeria, some of the measures taken by the Nigerian State to create this sense of ‘imagined communities’ include:

Adoption of a federal constitution: In fact even before independence in 1960, the unitary colonial state had seen itself gradually federalized especially from the 1954 Lyttleton Constitution. The character of Nigeria’s federalism has however varied – from the First Republic where the country was more of a confederation or very loose federalism to the period of military rule where it was essentially unitarism in federal clothing to the present situation where there is almost total dependence of most of the States in the federation on the centre for their survival.

Reflection of Federal Character

It is generally thought that the phrase ‘Reflection of Federal Character’ was first used by the late Nigerian military Head of State General Murtala Mohammed in his address to the opening session of the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) on October 18 1975. In its report, the CDC referred to the country’s ‘federal character’ as the distinctive desire of the peoples of Nigeria to promote national unity, foster national loyalty and give every citizen of Nigeria a sense of belonging to the nation notwithstanding the diversities of ethnic origin, culture, language or religion which may exist and which it is their desire to nourish and harness to the enrichment of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.  In Nigeria-speak, the ‘Federal Character  provision in the 1979 Constitution, which  was also adopted by subsequent Constitutions, including the current 1999 Constitution, is meant to give every unit of the federation a ‘sense of belonging’. In fact in 1996, a Federal Character Commission was established via Act No. 34


The National Youth Service Corp scheme was set up in 1973 to further the goal of building unity in diversity. The scheme made it mandatory for graduates from universities and other institutions of higher learning, who are under the age of thirty, to serve their nation for one year in states other than their own.

Creation of States

The initial impetus for agitations for the creation of states was largely predicated on fears of domination by ethnic minorities in the 1950s. The country has consequently moved from three regions to four regions in 1963; to 12 states in 1967; 19 states in 1976; 21 states in 1987; 30 states in 1991 and 36 in 1996.

Zoning and power rotation

The related concepts of zoning and power rotation were introduced into Nigeria’s political vocabulary by the defunct National Party of Nigeria in 1979 and were embraced by the PDP in 1999.  Supporters of this believe that at this stage in our nation-building process, a creative application of  these principles will not only help to give muscle to the Federal Character provision of the Constitution but will also help to allay any fears of majority tyranny.  

Crisis in Nigeria’s nation-building

My position is that the nation-building process in Nigeria appears to have stalled, if not in severe crisis.  In fact all the past efforts and projects at building unity in diversity seem to be unravelling:  there are routine accusations that the ethnic groups and geopolitical zones that produce the presidency  corner strategic appointments and infrastructure – contrary to the principle of ‘reflecting the federal character’ enshrined in the constitution.  The very idea of having sub states and local governments to help promote unity in diversity has  also created its own problem: since the states and local governments are also units for sharing revenue from the Federation Account, the south-eastern part of the country constantly complains that it is short-changed because it has fewer states than other geopolitical zones; the South complains that the North has more states and local government than it has and therefore corners more resources from the Federation Account while the North in turn complains that the principle of derivation used in sharing revenue greatly disadvantages the region. The politicization of the Boko Haram challenge has equally led to several NYSC members preferring to avoid some states in the North – a negation of the original idea of using the scheme to promote integration and intercultural exchanges.

Perhaps the issues of zoning and power rotation – designed to give each group a sense of belonging – have paradoxically generated the most acrimony between the North and the South. It can in fact be argued that the country is still grappling with the after effects of the zoning and power rotation controversy which dogged the April 2011 presidential election in the country.

The above instances clearly indicate that something nasty has happened to the effort to create Nigerians to populate the geographical expression called Nigeria. The crisis in Nigeria’s nation building, it would seem, feeds into the crisis of underdevelopment to create an existentialist crisis for many Nigerians. For many people, a way of resolving the consequent sense of alienation appears to be to retreat from the Nigeria project into primordial identities – often with the Nigerian state as the enemy. I have elsewhere called this a de-Nigerianization process.

Under the above situation, no leader or institution enjoys legitimacy across the major fault lines. A hero in one part of the country can easily be seen as a villain in other parts. This means in essence that it will be simplistic to surmise that the trouble with Nigeria is simply leadership because every action of a leader is likely to be viewed with tinted lenses because of the virtual absence of emotive attachments to the state and its institutions. It also becomes simplistic to argue that ‘the trouble with Nigeria is the absence of strong institutions’.  How can the strong institutions be built when people are withdrawing from the State itself and regarding the State and its institutions as the enemy?  In the same vein, the pervasive insecurity in the land cannot be ‘the trouble with Nigeria’ because insecurity itself is partly attributable to the aggressive contestation over the basis of the country’s statehood by insurgents and terrorists. Similarly, while corruption cannot be completely eliminated from any society, it tends to be less where the nation building process is successful or succeeding.

People, not just leaders, build strong institutions. And strong institutions are often found in countries where the nation building process has succeeded or is succeeding and where rule and law observances have become habituated.

How then do we re-start the stalled nation-building process in a highly polarized and low-trust country like ours where the action of every agent is likely to be viewed with deep suspicion? Attempts to answer this question will reveal how simplistic it is to reduce our problems to leadership, weak institutions, corruption or insecurity.

As complex as the puzzle is, a starting point may be for us to resolve that the change we preach must necessarily start with us.


Adapted from the lead paper I presented at a National Conference on Nigeria’s Socio-economic and Political Dilemmas, Achievers’ University, Owo, Ondo State, July 10, 2013.


  1. In a country highly polarized like Nigeria where ethnocentric tendencies is prevalent, nation-building will be unrealistic as each nation making up the federation will be concerned about achieving her interest to the detriment of other nations and when there is a little conflict of interest culminates into rivalry, tell me then how such country will be developed?

  2. The problem with Nigeria is founded on leadership. when we have the right leaders, right institutions will be put in place and with the right institutions, development is sure to come.

  3. A more favourable and suitable principle of revenue allocation should be adopted to achieve even development, all states benefitting equally.


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