The Patchwork Nation
In 2005, the National Intelligence Council, an independent group that advises Washington's director of central intelligence, published a report that raised the specter of 'the outright collapse of Nigeria.' It echoed an earlier council report on global trends through 2015 that was pessimistic about the future of the so-called giant of Africa.
The findings struck a nerve. They were repeated ad nauseam in Nigerian newspapers, over the airwaves and in beer parlors throughout the land, inflated with each retelling to the point that many Nigerians actually came to believe that the United States government was predicting their nation's imminent collapse.
Regardless of its accuracy, the anxious chatter reflected the fears of many Nigerian citizens that their country, which promised so much at independence 53 years ago, has delivered so little. Despite its great wealth, Nigeria today has a worse rate of infant mortality than neighboring Liberia.
Much of the problem lies in the sheer ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity of this patchwork country - a legacy of the British empire. It is common to talk about the 'largely Muslim north' and the 'largely Christian south,' a characterization that is itself something of an oversimplification (there are plenty of both Muslims and Christians in either region), but a deeper problem is the existence of some 350 competing ethnicities.
Just three groups (the Hausa/Fulani, the Igbo and the Yoruba) comprise roughly 70 percent of the total population of nearly 170 million people. All the rest are minorities.
In the years before independence in 1960, the smaller tribes all expressed fear of domination by the three largest ethnic groups once, as one early nationalist put it, the 'restraining and liberalizing' hand of Britain was removed. In an effort to address those fears, the British appointed the Willinks commission to examine how best to reorganize the soon-to-be liberated country. But its report, published two years before independence, hardly helped their cause.
'It is seldom possible to draw a clean boundary which does not create a fresh minority,' the commission concluded.
The result, in any case, was the creation at independence of three, semi-autonomous regions for the three main groups - and for the minorities the subjugation they had foreseen and feared. The worst affected groups were those in the oil-rich Niger Delta, which accounts for at least 80 percent of the country's foreign exchange earnings. The problem was displayed most brutally in 1995 with the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, an environmental activist and author, for demanding a more equitable share of his patrimony.
The struggle between the Big Three groups for dominance led to civil war and long years of military rule, which finally ended in 1999. In the process, the role of the federal government was strengthened while the three regions (and a short-lived fourth) were dismantled, first to form 12 states, then 19, then 21, then 30 and, finally 36.
In other words, and no doubt unwittingly, the country is gradually breaking up into the smaller and smaller ethnic-centered units that the Willinks Commission feared. As presently constituted, they are almost all dependent on their monthly allocations from the federal administration (i.e. oil earnings), but this is only because of the suffocating powers vested in the central government.
There is no reason why the states should not be able to form alliances for their mutual interests - except that this is forbidden by the Constitution, which also forbids the states from even counting the people they are supposed to be governing. Only the federal government can conduct a census, only the federal government can generate electricity, only the federal government can run the railroads. ... The list is a long one.
The result is a dysfunctional country that nobody cares about, except the cabal that milks it for all it is worth. Meanwhile, things fall apart, as the late Chinua Achebe presciently titled his famous first novel, published the same year as the Willinks report.
The most obvious manifestations of the slow slide to disintegration are the Islamic fundamentalists in the 'largely Muslim' north, and the Niger Delta militants in the 'largely Christian' south. But the lawlessness includes widespread kidnappings and armed attacks on both commercial and private vessels off the country's long coastline, apparently without any response from the navy.
Unfortunately, President Goodluck Jonathan, who is fixated on retaining his post until the 2015 election - to the exclusion of all else - appears to believe that we will somehow muddle through. The irony is that Mr. Jonathan himself is a member of a Niger Delta minority. His own Ijaw people launched an armed struggle against what they saw as an illegitimate government in the wake of Mr. Saro-Wiwa's execution. Evidently, things look very different when you're in the driving seat.
That Nigeria will have to restructure is not in doubt, but it is a great pity that we are about to miss an opportunity to do so in a peaceful, constructive manner. There are good reasons why Nigeria should stay together. With its natural wealth and gifted people, it has the potential to become a serious presence on the world stage, one of the few African countries with the wherewithal to do so. But to do this it needs to devolve power to all its component parts, thereby giving them a stake in its future.
The alternative is a great fracturing into yet more African countries, each with its own flag, national anthem and seat at the United Nations, but doomed to survive on the goodwill of others.
As the late Nelson Mandela put it: 'The world will not respect Africa until Nigeria earns that respect. The black people of the world need Nigeria to be great as a source of pride and confidence.'
Adewale Maja-Pearce is a writer and critic, and the author of 'Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Other Essays.'