By Dakuku Peterside
The Economist Intelligence Unit 2009 ranked Nigeria in the world’s top five most diverse countries. It simultaneously ranked the country as the 45th of 47 countries sustaining national diversity. Diversity management and inclusiveness are essential and contentious issues in Nigeria today as it was in 1960. As acknowledged by President Tinubu in a recent foreign trip, our diversity ought to be an asset for nation-building and development. Promoting diversity and inclusion is crucial for social cohesion, economic development, and the nation’s well-being.
This great country is an intricate assemblage of cultures, faiths, and languages. With a populace that surpasses 220 million, Nigeria prides itself on an impressiveness of over 250 ethnic groups, with over 500 languages lending voice to its diverse populace. Managing and celebrating this diversity is essential for national unity.
Our incredible diversity is a double-edged sword; it made us a great nation, a melting pot of rich diversity that, if properly harnessed, will make Nigeria one of the best countries to live and work in. Harnessing positive cultural traits brings great rewards to all. You see this in our culinary expressions, music, and arts. It is little wonder Nigeria dominates all other African countries in these aspects. Our food, music and arts are synonymous with African food, music, and art. The second side of the sword is the challenges our diversity has created in making Nigeria a cohesive and united state. People from many of the ethnic nationalities that make up Nigeria place their identity and loyalty first to their ethnic nationality before contemplating their Nigerian identity. It is little wonder some have described Nigeria as a mere geographical expression devoid of the bond of nationhood that makes a great state.
Historically, the unholy union of many ethnic nationalities into one dominant protectorate (Northern and Southern protectorates, respectively) for administrative ease by Britain without due consultation with the nationalities or due consideration to their historical engagements created tensions that revibrate to our time. Rival and enemy ethnic nationalities were lumped together and expected to coexist peacefully without correcting the historical malice, stereotypes, and innuendos that had existed for hundreds or thousands of years before colonisation. As if this was not enough, in 1914, the British colonialists performed the unholy marriage of the Northern and Southern protectorates to create Nigeria. This marriage was clearly for administrative ease and not any well-thought-out plan for creating a nation-state.
There was no clear evidence that the first experiment of bundling the ethnic nationalities into protectorates brought them together other than for administrative benefits. Each ethnic nationality maintained its identity and never wholly surrendered to the new identity. Scaling up forced union by the amalgamation of 1914 without giving proper attention to making ethnic nationalities bond together created a Nigeria of many ethnic nationalities that were suspicious of each other. This suspicion and sometimes outright hatred among ethnic nationalities served the British colonisers’ divide-and-rule approach well. In 1914, we had a nation-state made up of ethnic nationalities that were neither not interested in it nor suspicious of everything about it to place complete loyalty to Nigeria.
The post-1914 Nigeria saw many activities geared towards making a ‘Nigeria’ out of the dominant ethnic nationalities. Several constitutions were made, and several state institutions were created to exert the influence of a state. There was also a uniting vision of getting Nigeria to become an independent country, a rallying ideology for all leaders of the major ethnic nationalities.
Apart from these uniting tendencies, a chequered history of mistrust, hatred, and suspicion led to pogroms, ethnic clashes, and wanton destruction of lives and properties. The 1960 independence happened under this context of fear and distrust among the ethnic nationalities. Little wonder Nigeria’s civil war killed millions a few years after Independence.
Since the end of the civil war in 1970, Nigeria has been battling to create a cohesive nation-state with blurred ethnic lines. The Nigerian state has tried to fight nepotism, tribalism, and lack of access to opportunities based on ethnicity. Some of the measures, although created with good intentions, created unintended problems. For instance, creating the Federal Character Principle to give access to opportunities to people from various ethnic backgrounds became counterproductive when meritocracy and value were sacrificed on the altar of equal access in Nigeria. The death of meritocracy in Nigeria due to clannishness, nepotism, and irredentist tendencies has stopped Nigeria from harnessing its best resources for socio-political and economic growth.
Unfortunately, 63 years from Independence, we have yet to make a significant improvement in managing our diversity well, much more in harnessing it to our advantage. Today, we are still dealing with the issues of dismantling ethnic nationality loyalties and subjecting all allegiances to the Nigerian state. We are brutally confronted with diversity challenges daily in politics, social existence, communal relations, and religious differences. Any little issues of national importance are seen by many from the narrow prism of ethnicity and religion. We are a nation silently at war with ourselves based on ethnic and religious loyalties. The last national elections exemplify this. I must acknowledge that some progress has been made, but recent events show an erosion of this progress. Recent calls for secession, banditry, terrorism activities, farmer-herder crises and communal crises are a few examples of worsening tensions in the union. Prof. Anya, a distinguished Nigerian merit Laureate, has this to say, “We can no longer say with certainty that we have a nation”. Niger Delta leaders, South-Eastern leaders, Middle-Belt leaders, and Northern Elders Forum have not remained quiet.
The key driver of the challenge of managing our diversity is limited economic opportunities and politics of exclusion. Lack of opportunities or unequal access to opportunities exacerbates feelings of exclusion and anger, especially in a struggling economy. Poverty and greed of the elite combine to divide the nation. Poverty creates an atmosphere of shame and blame and quickly pushes people to resort to divisive ethnic and religious sentiments. And over 130 million Nigerians are multidimensionally poor. Besides, ignorance and illiteracy promote conflict and hinder inclusion. Our greedy elite are comfortable with fantastical corruption that leads to a few siphoning our common patrimony for themselves and their cronies. Any plans to manage our diversity and create inclusion must address poverty and corruption that leads to unequal or no access to opportunities.
Therefore, we must develop more ways of celebrating our ethnic and cultural diversity. All must resist any tendency to promote cultural superiority. Promoting religious tolerance and understanding is crucial to maintaining peace. Although English is our official language, we must keep the local languages alive. We must ensure that education is accessible to all, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or socio-economic background. We must promote workplace diversity, inclusion, equal opportunities, and fair employee treatment.
Government must be the critical driver of promoting diversity and inclusion through legislation and policies. Political leaders must aim for equitable representation of diverse groups in government and public institutions and that no one group dominates the rest in government. This has direct political consequences – political leaders must be deliberate in the equitable distribution of infrastructure, resources, political offices, and accommodation of different cultural expressions in our country. Our political leaders need to focus on building trust and creating a culture where everyone feels free to aspire to the best Nigeria can offer them. They play a critical role in managing ethnocultural divisions, gender biases, and most recently, youth bulge. They have a responsibility to create and sustain an inclusive environment for all. Our recent experience shows that the country suffers many mishaps if the political leadership does not manage our diversity and create an inclusive environment.
Civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) must play a vital role in advocating for diversity and inclusiveness and monitoring and holding the government and private sector accountable for their commitments. And all stakeholders must support initiatives to promote cultural understanding, tolerance, and acceptance to bridge divides.
Managing diversity and promoting inclusiveness in Nigeria is an ongoing and multifaceted challenge. It requires concerted efforts from the government, civil society, the private sector, and individuals to ensure that all Nigerians, regardless of their background, can participate fully in the country’s social, economic, and political life. Embracing diversity and inclusiveness is a moral imperative and a pathway to a more prosperous and harmonious Nigeria.
Dr. Dakuku Peterside , a former member of the House of Representatives is a turnaround development expert.