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Nigeria is 55 year-old as an independent nation. Again, as is the norm, we will roll out the drums in celebrating our continued existence as a nation in spite of the factors that have threatened to tear us apart.

It is indeed worthy of celebration that in the face of the numerous perils that continue to bedevil our nation- Boko Haram insurgency, civil unrest, Niger Delta militancy, government malfeasance, kidnapping – the nation has managed to remain sovereign even though tottering and gasping for breath.

Nigeria will celebrate, and rightly so because, as is often said, “while there is life there is hope”, and as the Preacher said in Ecclesiastes, “A living dog is better than a dead lion”.

However while we celebrate, we should also examine ourselves in an objective and uncritical light, comparing notes and drawing lessons with nations who have successfully navigated the path we are on, winning the never-ending journey of nation-building.

It is necessary to note that that there is hardly a nation on our planet that has not experienced a period of turbulence, crisis, and unrest in a quest for a democratic nation founded of the concepts of freedom, equal rights, justice, and peace.

For instance, the world's oldest democracy, the United States of America has a history of class struggle of which the most notable of her struggle is the civil war which was fought from 1861 to 1865 to determine the survival of the Union or independence for the Confederacy. Among the 34 states in January 1861, seven Southern slave states individually declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America.

The Confederacy grew to include 11 states, and although they claimed 13 states and additional western territories, the Confederacy was never diplomatically recognised by a foreign country.

The states that remained loyal and did not declare secession were known as the Union or the North. The defining issue that led to the war was slavery, especially the extension of slavery into the western territories.

After four years of combat, which left over 600,000 Union and Confederate soldiers dead and destroyed much of the South’s infrastructure, the Confederacy collapsed, slavery was abolished, and the nation embarked on the long road of restoring national unity and national development.

While it would be inaccurate to state that the US did not experience further crisis after that, it is an established fact that the nation remains the most advanced democracy in the modern world as it continues to advance the cause of freedom and equality across the globe.

In the case of the French, the first appearances of the crisis and conflict occurred during the French Wars of Religion (1562–98) which was a period of civil infighting and military operations, primarily fought between French Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots).

The conflict involved the factional disputes between the aristocratic houses of France, such as the House of Bourbon and House of Guise (Lorraine), and both sides received assistance from foreign sources.

During this time, complex diplomatic negotiations and agreements of peace were followed by renewed conflict and power struggles. Between 2,000,000 and 4,000,000 people were killed and the wars weakened the authority of the monarchy, already fragile under the rule of Francis II.

Again we find that in the case of France which was threatened by the religious cum theological differences, the nation overcame these challenges and rose to become a secular state in which no religion supercedes, or is superior to another. Today, France remains a bastion of religious freedom and freedom of speech.

It is instructive to note that none of the developed nations to which Nigeria and other African nations run for aid, were exempted from the challenges and obstacles to be experienced in the course of nation-building. What distinguishes these nations, and what ensured their overcoming the problems is the nationalistic and patriotic spirit with which the leaders in those nations confronted their problems, and the concerted efforts of their citizenry to support the leaders.

A failure, on the part of these nations, to overcome these challenges would have resulted in the emergence of what is referred to as a “failed state”. Such is the case of Somalia. Once considered a potentially lucrative location early on by British and Italian colonialists in the 1900′s, it is now largely considered to be an “outlaw state” – a state embroiled in civil conflict driven by clan warfare and a failed state nesting a humanitarian tragedy.

Somalia's plunge into state failure is due to a combination of internal and external factors and the nation's status as a failed state did not come as a revelation but was to be expected, as the nation's leaders treated what were signs of an impending storm with kid gloves.

Somalia ignored the popular maxim “a stitch in time saves nine” and in so doing descended into anarchy; therein lies the message for Nigeria as the nation clocks 55.

As earlier stated, the nation deserves commendation for preserving its sovereignty amidst the numerous storms that have threatened it with shipwreck on its journey to self-determination as a nation.

It is however even more necessary to identify and highlight the various booby-traps that continue to threaten our continued existence as a nation.

The insurgency in the North-East continues to rage, threatening the peace of Nigerians domiciled in that region while the spate of kidnapping across the entire 36 states continues on abated.

Tribal and ethnic differences continue to perpetuate schisms amongst the citizenry as decade-old suspicions and inter-tribal hatred are being handed down across generational lines.

Vice President Yemi Osinbajo highlighted this recently in a speech delivered during an inter-denominational thanksgiving service held to commemorate the nation's 55thbirthday.

Hear him: “Our nation is sharply divided and has been divided for long. Our nation is divided along religious lines, is divided along tribal lines but the word of God says in Mathew 12: 35 that a kingdom divided against itself shall be left dissolute, it also says a city that is divided within itself cannot stand. It does not matter whether that is a nation or a city. I have travelled the length and breadth of this nation, especially in the Northeastern parts in the last few months and I have seen children, women, men who were bomb victims. I have seen the dead, the wounded, and the sick. The truth of the matter is that the bulk of all those that I have seen, there were Moslems, there were Christians, there were those who professed no particular faith, but were all Nigerians, and one thing that united them was that they were all poor, and in IDP camps. When a bomb goes off in Potiskum or in a market in Maiduguri or Gombe, it does not ask if you are a Christian or a Muslim, it does not. It never asks if you are Yoruba or Ibo, or Hausa. The moment we are divided among ourselves, we cannot stand. We should not create further division; religious and political leaders to emphasize only what would unite the people of Nigeria rather than what divides them.”

Corruption continues to rob the nation of its revenue and resources and even though there is a semblance of an active drive to confront the scourge, there is a valid debate as regards whether it is an unbiased push against corruption or not.

As the nation draws closer to its 55thbirthday, it is necessary to take stock, and use our 'compass' to crosscheck whether indeed we are on-course or whether we have lost our way as a nation.

The nations that have gone ahead are the best indices by which we can do this. While it would be unfair to conduct unhealthy comparisons between our nation and other well-established and developed nations without recognising the fact that Nigeria is little more than a 'suckling babe' as a nation in terms of national development, we would do well to take heed to the African proverb which advises concern when a three or four-year old persists in crawling instead of running and jumping around like normal kids would do.

Another common proverb asserts that the visionary observer can infer the weather conditions of days that would follow from present weather conditions.

It would be wise for us to ask ourselves hard questions: Where are we? Where did we come from? How did we get here? Where do we want to go? How do we get there? Are we on the right path? How do we find the right path?

The Chinese say that “the best time to plant a tree is ten years ago, and the next best time is now”. Now is the time to wake  from slumber, now is the time to embrace the work of nation building, now is the time to make necessary sacrifices, if we are to emulate the good work of nation-building as exemplified in the United States, Britain, and France, while avoiding the most unfortunate examples of Sudan and Somalia.

The nation-building work of Singaporean leader Lee Yuan Kew comes to mind as I write this piece. While the physical transformation of Singapore from Third World to First is well-known, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew's lasting achievement was building a Singaporean nation out of its diverse people.

Throughout his entire political career, Lee Kuan Yew had also scrupulously adhered to his dream of building a united nation in spite of the prevalent diversities as he worked to build a nation out of a multi-ethnic society.

The builder of the present-day Singapore never feared confronting realities, and the nation fared better as a result. For instance, one of the eternal hard truths of Singapore was its sharp fault lines along racial, religious and linguistic lines.

To Yew, it was clear that without developing a sense of unity among the populace, the island Republic would fail to takeoff politically and economically. Worse still, it faced the danger of imploding from within as experienced by similar plural societies such as Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Cyprus and Fiji. The Nigerian situation at present is no different from this and therefore it would be wise and prudent for navigators of the Nigerian ship to emulate Yew.

The visioner of a new Singapore never forgot the ethnic origins of Singaporeans either. He deplored the colonial policy of ethnic enclaves in which British colonial policy towards a plural society encouraged people to mix and not integrate such that the people came together but remained separate, holding on to their respective religions, cultures, languages and orientations. Lee Kuan Yew realised the danger of this policy and upon his emergence as Prime Minister in 1959, he reversed it, creating the nation-in-making that Singapore is. The national outpouring of grief following his death is a testament to his enduring legacy and shows how far Singapore has advanced as a nation since 1959.

President Buhari would do well to embrace this path to accommodate our legendary diversity as a nation and harness it for the potential embedded within it.

In Singapore, the question was: what type of nation should Singapore be? The realities of history, geography, demography, economic dependence and geopolitics were identified and harnessed to carve a unique, tolerant multi-racial nation through a policy of unity in diversity. At 55, it is high time Nigeria's leaders confronted this all important question too: “What kind of nation should Nigeria be? What kind of nation do we aspire to build?”

The president and other political stakeholders should ignore cosmetic quick-fixes and take the less-travelled and tougher road of galvanising everyone into the process of building a new nation as stakeholders, requiring Nigerians to give up something and adopt new values of peaceful coexistence in a multi-tribal and multi-religious setting. In redefining Nigeria, government should eschew cheap chants of “rebranding” or “good people, great nation” and instead work towards imbuing Nigerians with a sense of ownership and a sense of attachment to Nigeria. If the president succeeds in doing this alone in a nation where no one wants to take responsibility, he would have succeeded in establishing an immortal legacy for himself.

In fostering national integration, it is imperative that government gears its effort at creating social harmony by pursuing policies that would promote economic growth in what today is a highly divisive social terrain further fractured by the scramble for squandered resources.

Ethnic, religious and linguistic identities should be safeguarded to provide cultural ballast and accommodate the aspirations of a largely growing modern African society. New national values should be imbued with the principle of meritocracy determining social mobility and excellence in society.

It is also necessary that the government, through subtle and robust measures, adopt an integrated approach to transform the nation through a plethora of policies in education, housing, national service, sharing of national economic wealth, job security, health care, efficient transport system, cleanliness, modern sanitation and provision of physical security.

It should be noted that nation-building is an emotional and psychological process, therefore working on the 'heart-ware' i.e. the attitudes of Nigerians, is as important as hardware- our various institutions. It is about creating a new political consciousness in which the ultimate aim is not just feeling good about Nigeria but more importantly, feeling firstly, like Nigerians to whom Nigeria is important. This involves a psychological mindset shift about believing in a Nigerian spirit.

It is only then that a new nation, a New Nigeria, midwifed through good governance will emerge. The nation will rise to its pride of place only when it heeds wise counsel such as that given by the Vice President as earlier quoted. Will Nigeria find in President Muhammadu Buhari, our very own Lee Kuan Yew? Only Time will tell.

Happy Birthday, Nigeria
***Olukayode Ajulo is Principal Partner, Kayode Ajulo & Co. Castle of Law, Nigeria; Founder/Chairman, Egalitarian Mission for Africa and National Secretary, Labour Party.

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