We Can Build a New Nigeria, By Yemi Osinbajo


The last two decades in Nigeria have witnessed the quickened retreat of the Nigerian elite to their ethnic and religious camps.

I would like to emphasise the fact that this was essentially an elite phenomenon – unity and disunity are promoted by the elite, to which the vast majority of the Nigerian people were only later conscripted.

In these past few years, more and more, we began to hear expressions such as Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities; we began to see more identification by race and geopolitical zones – Ndigbo people, Arewa people, the Yoruba people, South-South, North-East, South-West, North-West and South-East; and other parochial description that were hitherto unknown.

The rise of ethnic chauvinism rode on the wings of several agitations. The narrative of most agitations centre around alleged marginalisation and fears of dominance of one faith by another.

In the 2015 elections, the ruling party repeatedly tried to cast the opposition as a party of Islamists determined to Islamise Nigeria. The expression Janjaweed party took root.

Most ethnic agitations are centered around getting a larger share of the national cake or more favoured placement in the food chain, because they are essentially elite claims: the vast majority of the populations of the ethnic groups that win some concession or the other never really benefit.

So, the mere fact that a South-South person became president did not necessarily translate to prosperity for the tribe, neither was it the case when a president from the North-West emerged, nor one from the South-West.

Asides a few individual beneficiaries of some appointments or the other, there is usually nothing to show for the ethnic group of those who emerge in Nigeria’s numerous ethnic contests for power. Yet, the contests of the tribes are heightened by the elite, usually for personal political or commercial ends.


When you hear a person say that my tribe has been marginalised, usually what he is saying is: Appoint me. The ethnic card is an effective bargaining tool.

A major drawback of ethnic chauvinism is the way that it is used to mask wrongdoing and promote impunity. Notice that when people are charged with looting public funds they quickly find a counter-narrative. It is because I am Yoruba, Fulani or Igbo; or the Christians or Muslims are after me.

Appointments in the public service are no longer even judged on merit. The question is: How many are from my own ethnic group. This is a terrible affliction, when you consider that what we are looking for are men and women of integrity and talent to run our economy and create a future for our children. Why is that when we want to win at football we don’t ask which ethnic group the players are from? But, perhaps, at its most extreme and dangerous are hate-filled agitations for secession or autonomy.

In the past few weeks, we have, as a nation, witnessed the escalation of such agitations usually couched in deliberately intemperate and provocative language. The reckless deployment of hate speech and the loud expressions of prejudice and hate, the name calling of those of other ethnicities and faiths is a new and destructive evil in our public discourse. But even more divisive are words, expressions, and actions calculated to create fear and uncertainty, which have also been freely used.

Young people in the South-Eastern states under the aegis IPOB, issued a stay-at-home order as part of actions to prove support for their agitations for secession. In the Northern states, young people under the aegis of the Arewa Youths, issued an ultimatum to Igbos living in the Northern states to vacate before the 1st of October.

The problem with hate-filled and divisive speech is that they tap into some of the basest human instincts, bringing up irrational suspicions, fear, anger, and hatred, and ultimately mindless violence. People who have lived together as neighbours and friends suddenly begin to see each other as mortal enemies.

The truth is that our nation and national unity is worth preserving and protecting. We are the pre-eminent power in Africa today in terms of population, size of our markets, natural resources and economy.

The tensions that led to the killing of over 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus considered Tutsi sympathisers in the Rwandan genocide, were roused by hate media. The most notorious was the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), which became immensely popular as a young, hip alternative to the official voice of the government. It played popular music, and encouraged the public to phone-in and participate in radio broadcasts. Amongst its listeners, RTLMC attracted the unemployed youth and Interhamwe (Canadian NGO). The station also became notorious for its covert and overt naming of Tutsi individuals who it claimed deserved to be killed.

General Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the UN peacekeeping operation in Rwanda at the time of the genocide, said: “Simply jamming [the] broadcasts and replacing them with messages of peace and reconciliation would have had a significant impact on the course of events.”

Fortunately the purveyors of this tragic hate media did not escape unpunished. The ICC in Arusha eventually sentenced the owners of the hate radio stations and newspapers to long prison terms.

Some of our youth groups urging secession already are deploying hate media, using radio and social media. The language on those media are inciting, provocative and insulting to the individuals who are named, and to the beliefs of others.

While we must remain irrevocably committed to freedom of expression and the tenets of a free press, we must draw the line between freedom that conduces to a healthy democracy and that which threatens and endangers the entire democratic enterprise. It is an important balance that we must strike. Failure in any way will be tragic.

The truth is that our nation and national unity is worth preserving and protecting. We are the pre-eminent power in Africa today in terms of population, size of our markets, natural resources and economy.

We are a factor in the geopolitics of the world and no one can ignore a nation-state that is home to one in every four black person on earth. Being smaller is weaker, not stronger, today.

History and experience have shown that countries can alter their destinies. Italy, India and Nigeria – to use just three examples, share one thing in common: at one point early in their existence, people questioned their viability as nation-spaces, and spoke of them in terms of being no more than mere geographical expressions.

Indeed not many Nigerians seem to know that the often quoted line about Nigeria being a “mere geographical expression” originally applied to Italy. It was the German statesman Klemens Von Metternich who dismissively summed up Italy as a mere geographical expression exactly a century before Nigeria came into being as a country. Churchill, describing India, said it was no more a nation than the equator (which is just an imaginary geographical line.)

But what fate saddles a country with, and what that country makes of itself, we have since learned, can be two very different things. India, for example, has over the last couple of decades built itself into a technology and software powerhouse, and has also made impressive strides in nuclear and space technology. It has successfully created an alternative narrative to the one of ethnic and religious divisions.

Italy, on its part, has made its mark on the world in fashion and automobiles; so that when people think of it today, they are more likely to think of its venerable cuisine and fashion houses than its still-very-real faultlines.

What the stories of these countries tell us is that we do not need to be a perfect union before we can be a great country and there is no better example of that than the United States of America – a country that thrives, not in spite of its diversity, but because of it.

It is my respectful submission that the responsibility for a similar kind of greatness here in Nigeria lies in our hands as the country’s elite. We must rise above unproductive ethnic and religious sentiment.

The great challenge and the wonderful opportunity for this generation of the Nigerian elite is to build a new Nigeria. Out of the rubble of cynicism, division and suspicions, we can build a new nation.

We must develop the emotional intelligence required to cope and adapt in a swiftly and constantly changing world. We must adopt a global mindset that seeks to learn from the experiences of other countries, far and near, so that we do not waste valuable time repeating mistakes that we should have learnt to avoid.

One of those lessons is that today’s wars never really end. This should be a sobering lesson to us all in Nigeria, as we contend with the forces that seek to stoke violence and bloodshed in our country.

Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and closer home, the Central African Republic, Libya and the Democratic Republic of Congo; these wars have raged for years. Some of them have, in fact, gone on so long that they have been tagged as ‘forgotten wars’. Contemporary wars, we have learnt, are extremely easy to start, but difficult to end.

Another lesson is that in the 21st century, the theatre of war is increasingly shifting to cyberspace. Terrorist organisations, purveyors of hate speech, all of these and many more who seek to destabilise the world are busy staking out territory on the Internet, and scoring significant victories and conquests for themselves. As members of the Armed Forces, with a mandate to protect Nigeria from all forms of internal and external aggression, you will increasingly be judged as much on the basis of your success online as on your successes on the conventional battlefield.

The Internet has altered or disrupted every sector we know of: politics and elections, business and commerce, governance; and is changing the very nature of warfare. Websites teaching on how to make and use IEDs and other explosives are numerous.

Today a great deal of the threats facing Nigeria are being nurtured and cultivated in the vast spaces of the Internet. The rumblings of secession, the dangerous quit ultimatums to ethnic groups, the radio stations and blogs that spew divisive speech and exploit our faultlines; all of these are now to be found online.

This means that the military and its officers and men must themselves devote resources and talent to these new battlefields, where mindless verdicts on the continued unity and existence of Nigeria are daily being delivered.

Even though the days of military rule are now well behind us as a nation, the role of the military is still as critical as ever – and not just in the traditional areas of deterring threats and protecting lives and property.

The military of the 21st century must realise that it has a role to play in supplying reinforcement to the good side in the clash of ideas that define the world today: ideas of moderation, tolerance and being sensible as against ideas of extremism, xenophobia, and terror. The Boko Haram terrorism is a perfect example of the types of scourges that the world faces.

The battle is not just to defeat the terrorists, the greater battle is to defeat the ideology and mindset that feeds the madness and to cut off its oxygen, money and publicity.

The great challenge and the wonderful opportunity for this generation of the Nigerian elite is to build a new Nigeria. Out of the rubble of cynicism, division and suspicions, we can build a new nation.

A new nation built on trust, consensus, love for one another and love for our country is possible. A nation where the rulers do not steal the commonwealth, where every Nigerian is safe to live and work, where the State takes responsibility for the security of each and every Nigerian, where the state knows every Nigerian by name and can find and locate each one of us, a Nigeria where the Ibo or Ijaw man can live peacefully in Sokoto, and the Fulani man can live peacefully in the Niger Delta.

But building is an act of the human will. It is a practical, routine, sometimes dirty, sometimes frustrating enterprise. This is why no great nation was ever built overnight or without the sacrifice of group compromise, the pain of not getting all you want, the feeling that your ethnic or religious persuasion could be treated better. That is the sacrifice of nation-building; of give and take; a little here, a little there. No one group can have it all.

Our leadership must be courageous. Courage means willingness to be abused and insulted by our own people. The humiliation of being heckled at for making concessions is the price of the privilege of leadership. The greatest leaders are those prepared to take unpopular decisions or make compromises unpopular with their constituencies but crucial for long term goals.

Yes, they may be unpopular in the short run but their eternally greatness is guaranteed. Nelson Mandela, after years in prison and decades of the inhumanity and oppression of apartheid, preached reconciliation, to the shock and amazement of his black constituency. An unpopular move in the short term but no contemporary political figure is as revered as he is even in death.

The opportunity to go down in history as builders of the new Nigeria now beckons. I trust that you will heed its call.

Yemi Osinbajo (SAN) is acting president of Nigeria.

This is the text of the speech delivered by Professor Yemi Osinbajo at the graduation ceremony of Senior Course 39, The Armed Forces Command and Staff COllege, Jaji, Kaduna State on Fridat June 23, 2017.

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