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Nigerian Exceptionalism – OpEd

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Nigeria is a unique and vibrant country. It is regarded as the giant of Africa. It has the biggest population on the continent and it is the leading economy. Nigeria is exceptional in so many ways. Her people are vibrant, dynamic and energetic, and are of an exuberant temperament. Nigeria’s exceptionalism is the reason why a nation of 250 ethnic groups cobbled together by the British has been able to cohabit and co-exist, despite the stress and strains pulling at the seams threatening to tear the fabric apart. Instead of giving in, Nigeria constantly rebounds from the edge of the precipice, to the consternation and shock of both her friends and foes. It is fitting to say that Nigeria is the exception to the rule. Her strength lies in her diversity.

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But, clearly, Nigeria is a work-in- progress. Since gaining independence from Britain, it has witnessed several back-to-back coups, some violent and bloody enough to see three heads of state killed — one civilian and two military. The nation has been visited by the holocaust of a bloody civil war and sectarian violence. And now another bloody insurgency has blossomed and ballooned in its northeastern region. Besides, full-scale banditry in the northwest and parts of the north central has added a new dimension to the security situation. This has also given birth to a generation of malevolent kidnappers.

Significantly, the grave illness of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua which precluded him from excercising presidential powers in 2010 threw up a Constitutional crisis as his deputy was precluded from assuming presidential powers based on primordial sentiments and considerations. However, as the polity heated up and the nation drifted, Senators came up with the doctrine of necessity which enabled the Vice President, Dr Goodluck Jonathan assume presidential powers in acting capacity. The action of the Senate helped pull the nation from the brink. Eventually, Dr Jonathan stepped into the shoes of his principal when the president died in May 2010. Once again, this demonstrated Nigeria’s capacity to rebound from the slippery slope, despite the push and pull forces tugging at the heartstrings of the nation.

Still, this country of diverse tongues seems to continue to wax strong, consolidating on its strength and working on its weaknesses. It has defied all odds. Dire predictions were made that things would fall apart with the 2015 general elections, and that the world would gather to sing the nation’s funeral song. But things turned out quite the opposite. The elections came and went without a whimper.

Nigeria is always giving birth to surprises. Why is this so? What makes Nigerians tick? In my opinion, their remarkable personalities stand out in so many ways. They are unique beings. They derive tremendous joy from living, and truly believe in the pursuit of happiness. Being happy spirits, they are seemingly untouched by the storms and tempests of life. They are serene, peaceful and composed at all times. They are a cross between stoics and epicureans. As stoics they accept whatever fate throws at them, but as epicureans they live for today. Although, this stoicism could be taken for docility. Again, their ability to adapt to situations is legendary. They are creatures that can be stretched to the elastic limit and will bounce back with renewed vigor and energy.

Perhaps the most fitting tribute to the resilience and indomitable spirit of the Nigerian is the seamless manner in which the Nigerian Civil War was resolved. The warring factions reunited after a bitter, fratricidal 30 months of conflict which lasted from 1967 to 1970, after Nigeria declared its independence in 1960. Soon after the war, a chorus of pundits and analysts, among whom were John De St Jorre who captured the story of the war in his book ‘The Nigerian Civil War’, and Fredrick Forsyth who reported for the BBC during the war and later wrote ‘The Biafra Story’ were pessimistic about the outcome of the war. Both men expected the worst, fearing a renewed bloodbath. There were apprehensions that the major ethnic groups (primarily Igbo against the Northern-dominated government) would be at each other’s throats and blood would flow like water because the fate of the Igbos was still hanging in the balance after the war ended.

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Over the course of his fieldwork, Fredrick Forsyth had expressed genuine fears for the Igbos. General Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria’s war time leader, had declared — after the unconditional surrender of Biafra by Major General Phillip Effiong — that there was “no victor and no vanquished”.

All of this notwithstanding, foreign observers had genuine fears that despite the Biafran surrender the Igbos of the then Eastern Region could face reprisal attacks if they returned to the north and other parts of Nigeria. It is worth recalling that there were mass killings of the Igbos in the North after the 1966 counter coup led by the Northern majors, which subsequently lead to the mass migration of Easterners (Igbos) to their homeland. These killings in the north were regarded as the first genocide on the African continent.

The counter-coup snowballed leading to a civil war. It was a reaction to the January 1966 coup led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. It resulted in the killings of the Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and the Premier of the defunct Northern region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, both of whom were Northern leaders. The cast of ring leaders in the January coup were mostly Igbo officers and the coup was perceived as sectional. These coups unleashed the beast of tribalism, as it were. And this roaring monster almost consumed the fledgling nation recently bequeathed to its people by the British.

However, things turned out differently than expected. Many were shocked as Nigerians dropped their guns and turned around to embrace each other in fellowship and friendship at the end of the war. This peace lasts today in many communities. Though this peace is gradually being shattered by sectarian violence and the herders-farmers conflicts in many parts of the country.

Overall, Nigerians have integrated through a conscious effort of the government to build Unity Secondary Schools where children of school age from different parts of the country live and study together. Again, soon after the civil war, the National Youth Service Corps was conceived which made it mandatory for graduates from tertiary institutions to undertake one year compulsory service in states other than their state of origin.

However, since the onset of the Buhari administration, there have been strident agitations in the southeast for Biafra Republic more than fifty years after the Civil War ended. The agitations are being spearheaded by Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). Also, there’s an incipient clamour for Oduduwa Republic in the southwest. Despite these brush fires from the nation’s underbelly, the nation soldiers on in the hope that, as usual, things will be resolved amicably, sonner than later. Yet, observers blame the Buhari administration for poorly managing Nigeria’s diversity.

Without a doubt, the typical Nigerian is an unique creation of God. He views life through a sunny prism. He strikes one as an incurable optimist. Naturally, he cultivates the belief that things will work out well in the long run, and that nothing but good will come his way. He holds onto the belief that no matter how dire the situation, somehow in the morning there will be sunshine. There is a silver lining to every dark cloud. He always sees the glass half full, not half empty.

Generally, he is a happy and genial being. Even the BBC had described Nigerians as the happiest people on earth, despite being surrounded by an avalanche of problems. In 2003, BBC News Africa programme released a survey of more than 65 countries that concluded that Nigerians are the most positive people in the world, and that “Nigeria is the happiest place on earth”. And all this in spite of widespread poverty, corruption and violence.

It is quite amazing that the Nigerian still manages to keep his head held high despite the despondency and hopelessness in the land. The staggering insecurity has added a cruel mix to the problem. In general, this despondency arises out of poor leadership and a litany of corruption that’s has become the bane of the political class and military adventurers. Governance in the past three decades has been a tale of woe. Yet, the average Nigerian soldiers on in spite of this seething cauldron of corruption created by a parasitic and short-sighted ruling class and their collaborators. Most often the average Nigerian only grumbles and wrings his hands in utter helplessness, instead of challenging the excesses of the political class and setting himself free.

Moreover, the average Nigerian is backward in some ways. He tends to see things through his ethnic blinkers. There is little sense of national consciousness, and the people see the central government as belonging to nobody. Everyone seems to approach the government as though it were a gold mine where one would go there with a shovel, a pickaxe and a pan to dig.

In a way, the Nigerian is complicit. He holds the view that public office provides ample opportunity for everyone to feather his own nest. This explains why tribal jingoists and ethnic champions who steal public funds are given red carpet receptions in their communities. There is a kind of supreme indifference to graft. What’s more, there is a sort of complacent forbearance towards things that are seemingly “not right”. As President Buhari rightly observed when he took over power in 2015, the situation was such that “it was everyone for himself and God for us all”. Even though, President Buhari had vowed to fight corruption, but midway into his tenure the fire in him seems to have petered out.

In effect, the Nigerian is a hybrid creation from an amalgam of various ancient kingdoms and empires. Prior to the onset of colonialism, several different independent and autonomous kingdoms existed across the geographical space that later became Nigeria: the Benin Kingdom, Oyo Empire, Kanem Bornu Empire, the Hausa States, Kwararafa Kingdom, the Nri Kingdom, Ijaw Kingdom and the Kalabari Kingdom.

These diverse tapestry of kingdoms and empires, with multiplicity of tribes and tongues have interwoven and are now interconnected in so many ways, which explains why the nation seemingly surmounts any crisis, no matter how hopeless the situation may appear to be.

*Kola King is a Nigerian journalist and novelist, and currently the Managing Editor of Nigeria Now, a news magazine based in Abuja, Nigeria.

This revised article was originally published in the Missing Slate Literary Journal

Kola King

Kola King is a Nigerian journalist and novelist. He worked for more than two decades as a reporter, correspondent and editor in major national newspapers in Nigeria. He's the founder of Metro newsletter published on Substack. His debut novel A Place in the Sun and was published and released in 2016 by Verity Publishers, Pretoria, South Africa. His writing has appeared in Kalahari Review, The Missing Slate Literary Journal, The New Black Magazine and Litro magazine. He earned a Bachelors degree in Mass Communication from the University of Lagos.

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