There are numerous ways to construct national identity and or national integration. By national identity and or national integration, I mean the process through which citizens of a country boasts individual and collective sense of self, patriotism, belonging and longing for their country. This process may include concerted efforts at discouraging unhealthy ethnic and regional competition, building institutions, depersonalizing the rule of law, and transforming the economic space. In addition, they formulate and implement power-sharing formulas. And then there are the symbolic but powerful effort at promoting and investing in the national flag and national anthem, the promotion and use of a national language, and a conscious effort at creating myths and expelling primordial sentiments. Veritable constitution and related documents also helps the process.

In place where these steps are not taken, the nation becomes susceptible to continuous and prolonged instability, and perhaps, disintegration. Nigeria, as many have averred, is a mere geographic space: a space devoid of individual and/or collective sense of belonging and nationhood; a space where people’s first allegiance is to their ethic and regional groups as opposed to the country. And so it is that ninety-seven years after amalgamation and fifty years after independence, ethnicity trumps patriotism. Ethnicity, like corruption and corrupt practices, has a strong hold on the country. To be sure, Nigeria, as with many other countries in and outside of the continent, has its problems and challenges. In this instance, one of the problems that have come to characterize Nigeria is the question of oneness, of nationhood.

And while some problems and challenges are generational -- the question of nationhood which has been niggling Nigeria since 1914 -- is cross-generational. For the pessimists, this problem may never be resolved. The rational optimists considers it a mere challenge that can be resolved if certain steps are taken. In the first two paragraphs, I touched on some of the factors that help toward a sense of belonging and nationhood. Another factor that should be considered is the role and place of the boarding school. In other words, boarding schools, if well administered, may be great instruments for bridging our national chasm. Boarding schools are fertile grounds for acquiring civic and patriotic attributes.

Except on rare occasions, many Nigerians discount their Nigerianness. Many are suspicious of their neighbors to the north, the south, the east and the west. Most of us act as if public service is a virtuous avenue for theft, wastes and excesses. At the other end of the spectrum is the Nigeria government that treats its citizens as if they are the wretched of the earth: a people to be abused, used and raped. And so it was that whatever gains that were made in the early years of our independence evaporated two decades thereafter.

Recounting a personal experience may be germane here. I am an alumnus of a boarding school: Government Secondary School Ilorin, Kwara State. Three-plus decades after leaving, my boarding school experiences still rest warmly in my heart. Everyone I knew who attended boarding school, tells me that their experiences ranks amongst the best and most satisfying experiences they’ve ever had. I should know. And I know. I know because few experiences in the first four decades of my life have come close to the enriching and wonderful times I had at GSS, Ilorin. The lessons one learnt are still invaluable; the love and support one got are incomparable. Within the boarding school setting, ethnic and religious demarcations were almost non-existence. Your best friends could be of different religious orientation, and are likely to be from other ethnic groups.

As teenagers, we fought and argued; yet, we made up and basked in this ocean of love that our environment provided. In many ways, we were different; yet, we learnt how to tolerate our differences and in the process accepted our diversity and then learnt from one another. The boarding school setting taught us many of life’s lessons --- including how to cope with defeats and victories. You not only go through school, the boarding culture passes through you. In the end, therefore, it helps to sharpen your intellect, gave you the needed street-education, and expanded your worldview. Something else: the faculty and non-faculty staff, to my knowledge, did not encourage excessive individualism. They never encouraged bigotry. And they certainly never encouraged any of the troubles and grieves that have come to characterize modern Nigeria.

I remember that on weekends or during breaks, one may be at the home of a Muslim, a Christian, an Animist, or at the loving home of a Gentile. We were Nigerians. Nigerians! No one ever asked what an Ijaw lad was doing in and around the Emir’s palace. Chief Cornelius Adebayo, whose home I frequented, never asked what I was doing in his house. Ilorin was that kind of a place, and my boarding school was that kind of a place, too: accepting and welcoming. My school environment aside, there were a number of things about the people and the city one would never forget. Chief amongst these were the peaceful coexistence of tradition and modernity, between Christians and Muslims, between a time that once was and a time that is.

In one part of the town were ancient buildings; on the other side of town were the contemporary ones. In some zones, both could be found side by side. Either way, it was easy to move from one era to another, from one mindset to another. It was a case of two worlds that never collided, two ideologies that never competed. Under the Ilorin sky, one learnt how to live in accord with every one else. One learnt the big things and the small things. We went in as boys, but came out as men. It was a time when being a Nigerian was just so joyous!

Nigeria has changed and so too have the educational culture and the boarding school environment. And frankly, boarding schools may no longer hold the same allure and mystic they held in earlier times through the 1980s; still, they can and should be revived. It is even likely that fewer schools now offered the boarding school option. This too should change. There is a lot to be said for boarding schools. A lot! It is an intuition that helps mold good and enviable character. It allowed young minds the freedom to roam intellectually. The setting allowed teenagers to argue, to fight, to negotiate, to protest, to compete, to fail and to succeed. I all of these, was unity of purpose.

The structured life and living (not rigid) enabled boys and girls to learn the art and science of responsibility, duty, honor, commitment and sacrifice. It was an environment that allowed you to do, or to imagine great things for yourself, for your brothers and for your community. Boarding schools that are well managed -- the way Government Secondary School Ilorin was -- are fertile grounds to learn the very things that makes nations great. It is where students learn the art of law and order and of crime and punishment. We didn’t know it then; but really, it was where we first became exposed to the idea of Ubuntu -- that great African philosophy that, amongst other lessons, teaches that we should live our lives in the service of our community and for the common good of all. This is, perhaps, one of the greatest lessons Nigerians are lacking.

Sabella Abidde is on Facebook and can be reached at: [email protected]

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