An Analysis of Nationalism in Nigeria: Past and Present

Name: Mohammed Alhaji Mohammed

School: University of Brunei Darussalam

Level: PhD Student

An Analysis of Nationalism in Nigeria: Past and Present


Nationalism, as defined by Google Dictionary, is “patriotic feelings, principles or efforts.” It also considers “patriotism” as one of its synonyms. On a broader basis, Nationalism and Patriotism are not mutually exclusive; one can exist without the other, although they are often used interchangeably. Whereas Patriotism is more of a personalized emotional feelings of love or loyalty to a Nation, Nationalism goes beyond emotional feeling to a genuine sense of pride of belonging to a particular Nation. Nationalism traverses through the moderate state of ideology where one feels just safe or happy being identified with a particular Nation to the extreme forms–such as prejudicial or fanatical extent–where one feels superior to people of other countries. This distinction is very paramount in the context of Nigeria, as we will see in this text.

Nigeria’s Northern and Southern Protectorates were amalgamated by Sir Clifford’s predecessor, Sir Fredrick Lugard in 1914, having being a British protectorate since 1901. This union was not made to foster unity, the very essence of Nationalism, rather, it was made to ease the economic exploitation of the amalgamated communities by the colonial masters.

Sir Hugh Clifford, the British colonial administrator and Governor General of Nigeria (1920 – 1931), described Nigeria as “a collection of independent Native States, separated from one another by great distances, by differences of history and traditions and by ethnological, racial, tribal, political, social and religious barriers.” James Smoot Coleman’s Nigeria, p. 194.

Essentially, the Nigerian patriotism – and or nationalism – as a concept was amiss from the inception. What we ever had as a country was a diverse – but congruent – groups of people with strong affiliation and allegiance to different identities such as tribe, religion, customs and whatnots. The collective sub-nationalism as a status quo was, either by sheer neglect or helplessness, maintained until Independence in 1960.The struggle for the Nigerian Independence from the yoke of British colonialism might have had a united front; however, post-independence events proved that it was only a case of two enemies (the various ethnicities) uniting to do away with a perceived mutual enemy (Britain). Before long, the Nigerian foremost Champions and Nationalists who happened to be from, broadly, the three major ethnic groups and divides–i.e., Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba–had replaced their nationalistic tendencies with regional nationalism. Three political parties–National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) controlled by Nnamdi Azikwe (an Igbo), Northern People's Congress (NPC) controlled by Ahmadu Bello (a Hausa-Fulani), and Action Group (AG) controlled by the Obafemi Awolowo (Yoruba)–participated in the Nigeria’s preparatory election in 1959.

With no majority win in the 1959 election, the Hausa’s NPC collaborated with the Igbo’s NCNC and Nnamdi Azikwe and Tafawa Balewa became Governor General and Prime Minister, respectively. Azikwe would later be elected President and Balewa would remain his Prime Minister when Nigeria became a Federal Republic in 1963. As an emerging Nation with so much potentials but with equally diverse ethnicities, it was only a matter of time before conflicts stemmed. And it did. Regional ill-feelings, distrust and unhealthy competitions became apparent. Indeed, each region and its leader(s) pursued regional agenda, albeit for the benefit of their 'people.'

The straw that broke the camel’s back of united nationalism in Nigeria was the January 1966 coup d'état. The coup was led by largely Igbo Army officials and the victims of the coup were largely Northern Muslims. Tafawa Balewa was among those killed, while President Azikwe, an Igbo, survived–being that he was out of the country at the time, a coincidence that was said to have been communicated with him beforehand. Of the many factors that led to the subsequent bloody battles and loss of lives and properties, two factors were apparent: Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, the Igbo Army Officer that led the coup against the perceived Northern dominated National government was born in Northern Nigeria and was said to speak Hausa–the North’s dominant language–better than he spoke Igbo, his mother tongue. The other reason was that Igbo taunted the Hausas who revered Balewa so much. Another Igbo Army Officer, Aguiyi Ironsi, was made Head of State.

Since Independence, Nigeria has had about 9 coups and counter-coups, each with either ethnic or corruption coloration or both. With each coup, Nigeria’s nationalism was being eroded and corruption that ensued after the discovery of oil buried the little that was left of Nigerian patriotism. Greed replaced nationalism.The people no longer trusted the Government. Ethnic champions and militias would grow from within the ranks of Government officials who felt their interests or those of their people were being alienated. Notable was the Biafra agitation for self-determination by the hitherto Nigerian Igbo Army Officer and Eastern Nigeria’s Governor, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. Biafra would break away from Nigeria and last for 3 years, from 1967 – 1970, with corresponding loss of an estimated one million lives, mostly children due to starvation and embargo on aid imposed by the Nigerian Government led by the Head of State, Yakubu Gowon–a Northern Christian. When Biafra surrendered, it was reintegrated back into Nigeria, but it was–and still is–never the same. Till date, Biafra agitation is very much alive in the hearts of many Igbos.

The masses however did not find it hard to re-integrate and go about their businesses. It would appear that perhaps a typical Nigerian appreciates peace over violence, patriotism over vendetta; majority of Nigerians are (or ready to be) patriotic at heart but unambiguously un-nationalistic. The State aided this ill feature by denying the people basic amenities, a situation that only serves to further exfoliate the sense of nationalism off the minds of Nigerians and reinforces transfer of aggression against one another. Nationalism simply cannot exist where mutual distrust is rife and lack of societal development is obvious. This partly explains the desperation of some Nigerians found wanting in other countries doing all sort of illegal dealings.

Fast forward to the return of full, uninterrupted democracy in Nigeria in 1999. till date, patriotism continues to deteriorate. Poverty index, population and hardship kept rising in disproportionate to infrastructure and good governance. However, unlike in the past, political parties were no longer floated along regional line but the composition of successive government regimes have been accused of favoritism or nepotism. This is true as government officials often see being in government as a rare opportunity to re-direct resources meant for public to their personal purse, and to a lesser extent, their immediate community. The systemic scourge of corruption which has led to poor growth in infrastructure has created a fertile land for the emergence of ethnic militias in all the political regions of the country. In the recent past, we have had ethnic and religious militias with modern firepower such as Niger Delta, the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) in the East (Igbo region), Oodua People’s Congress (OPC) in the South (Yoruba region) and Maitatsine in the North (Hausa region).

Now, we are battling with more cruel and inhumane splinter groups such as Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) that have been blowing up national oil pipelines; Jama'atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda'Awati Wal Jihad (Boko Haram); Ombatse group which had only recently killed over 50 state policemen without a significant repercussion. All these point to the dearth of nationalism in Nigeria. The cumulative effect of neglect on the side of the Government and the ever-growing sense of despondency by the masses has culminated into a scary fad where majority of the people now resort to the age-old maxim of “every man for himself,” which include burgling accessible government properties as we have been seeing recently, a stark feature of deteriorating–if not a total non-existence of–nationalism.

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