[Opinion] The art of nation building – and the matter of the Nigerian Dream

(#NewLeadership Series with Chude Jideonwo)


If you listen often to Nigerian motivational speakers, you might have heard them ask what seems like a pretty reasonable question: “You’ve heard the Americans talk about the ‘American Dream’. Ask yourself what is the ‘Nigerian Dream’?”

These speakers go ahead to identify this as the root of our problems as a nation – we do not have a codified, popularised concept of where we want to go as a people, and the long-term sense of mission to stay on that path, and achieve greatness.


Before one goes on, it is important to note that the first recorded use of the phrase ‘The American Dream’ was in a 1931 book (The Epic of America) by a man called James Truslow Adam; written two centuries after that country was established. Therefore, Americans didn’t essentially have their dream codified and made plain before the nation could work towards it. Also, many other successful nations don’t have this same document viz. The Chinese Dream or The German Dream. Neither do the British, an advanced people who do not even have a written constitution.


Be that as it may, these speakers are on to something important to the extent that these nations still have a compass: that sense of a common vision, a common essence of why they exist and what they want their nation and their people to achieve; to become.


Truslow said for America it is “The dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” A sentiment aptly pre-empted by the Declaration of Independence for the United States– “… amongst which are life, liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”


A visit to many parts of the United States – conservative or liberal, big city or small town will reveal that essence.


Like America, every society has its character; its inbuilt essence – the collectivity of its peoples’ behaviours and worldviews; the intangibles that inexorably define the way they engage themselves and the world.


For the British, someone has described it as ‘focused around the concept of ‘Deep England’ – the desire to live a middle-class culturally conservative lifestyle in un-spoilt settings – while still co-existing with modernity”. That’s certainly a vision the Royal Family lives through as the ultimate symbol of English life.


That deep sense of a people’s collective essence is also responsible for the openness of Europe (save for outliers like Germany) to progressive, liberal social values as well as its propensity to provide a life that is paced and perhaps leisurely for its people.


In Nigeria unfortunately, that process of thinking through and defining who we are seems to never have happened – disappointingly, history seems to show that those who birthed the Nigerian nation never gave thought to understanding its essence and harnessing that to build it for the future.


Chinua Achebe succinctly captures this failure of depth in The Trouble with Nigeria: “In spite of conventional opinion, Nigeria has been less than fortunate in its leadership. A basic element of this misfortune is the seminal absence of intellectual rigour in the political thought of our founding fathers – a tendency to pious materialistic woolliness and self-centered pedestrianism.”


So they presented to us a problem that we will need to solve.


Unfortunately, because our nation has not yet begun to function as any nation should and having already launched into 50 years of life of independence, we first have to deal with our urgent and important existential challenges: things like food or roads or basic security.


But when we are done with that, then let it be known that we are actually just getting started.


To actually deliver a society that is, apologies to Jim Collins, built to last; we will have to construct it; brick by brick.  We will have to mentally and then physically build our country based on an understanding of where we are coming from and where we can go: based on a set of ideas and concepts that are inspired by and guided through the sociology (who we are), history (where we are coming from), philosophy (how we think), even cosmology (how we view the unseen) of both our constituent parts and the constructed whole.


To address this complicated challenge, we will need builders; leaders who understand the imperative and the mechanics of how truly great societies have been built. These will be leaders who deeply understand complexity – who have studied (or are studying), as far as contemporary nation-building goes, how emerging powerhouses like China have constructed their politics, and business and education around these precepts.


Indeed, China is a perfect living example – warts and all. The leaders who constructed the China we see and adore today did it with an understanding that they are not America, are not Russia and will be making lethal mistakes if they simply transplant foreign values in building their own country.


China, at heart, is a big country ruled essentially an emperor, and as Singapore’s visionary Lee Kuan Yew noted in TIME weeks ago, little emperors across a vast expanse who “exercise great local influence”. They also have cultural habits that “limit imagination and creativity, rewarding conformity” as well as a “language that is exceedingly difficult for foreigners to learn sufficiently to embrace China and be embraced by it.”


The Chinese are sociologically known for fear of chaos and this natural sense of caution ultimately directs the actions of its elite who have stood against the potential instability of a multiparty system. As Yew noted, these are a people who, in their over 5,000 years of recorded history, have never counted heads; and rulers lead “by right of being the emperor”. It is the reason China has decided it will not give in to the temptation of adored Western systems and function as a liberal/parliamentary democracy; and it is at the root of the ultimate failure of the Tiananmen Square revolution.


They have built a system of government and businesses that is based on this understanding; eschewing both the loud, boisterous democracy of close-by India as well as the militant individualism of America. And because of this, China (at least today, disregarding debatable theories on its eventual stagnation) flourishes – turning from a poor society to the second largest economy in the world; still predicted to be number one in half a century.


It is a challenge that Yew is eminently qualified to discuss considering that in delivering the Singapore Miracle, his book From Third World to First details a man who basically built the society stone on stone, stubbornly resisting the influence of the Americas and Europe, and employing the intrinsic, sophisticated understanding of his own people’s culture, attitudes, location and ambitions to transform that country over 30 years from “a simple trader of commodities” into “a sophisticated hub of finance and technology.”


Yew, like many revolutionary leaders across the world worked with the nation’s strongest hands and sharpest minds to take apart their societies as they met them and to re-shape them, as if it were architecture.


The proponents of both a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) and ‘True Federalism’ in Nigeria understand this imperative. Their solutions might not be workable (the SNC for instance doesn’t appear to be an idea that is practical), but they are perfectly reasonable, some would say inevitable: to build a society that works, we have to take into consideration the vast differences that define us and think through how to harmonise them for our development.


For instance, there is a dissonance that has lived with us through history in trying to govern our constituent parts in the exact same way. How can we hope to do that when, for instance, the Igbo sociology (the “Igbo have no king”) is fundamentally different from the Yoruba (where the concept of ‘parapo’, loosely defined as togetherness, is important)? Even the etymology of the names of the pre-eminent cultural organisations (Oha’Neze, Afenifere, Arewa) across the country speak to a sociological divergence. It cannot be ignored. You cannot build a nation through ‘wuruwuru’ to the answer – what a thing can be is largely dictated by what the thing is.


It is the point we missed from Achebe’s There Was A Country in our predictable ‘knee-jerkness’, demonstrated by echo-chamber rejoinders. Achebe spoke about the culture he knew best to try and explain how much we can achieve if we, to put it modern speak, “believe in ourselves”.


In telling the victories of the Biafran spirit, from the Ogbunigwe weaponry to the literature and anthem and in speaking with deep sadness about the defeat of the vibrancy and its linkage to much of our national stagnancy, Achebe was reminding us that we will need to go back to the basics.


It is also a point we miss when we continue to champion our empty ‘nationalism’ and accuse people like Wole Soyinka of ‘ethnic jingoism’ when he says he is first a Yoruba man before he is a Nigerian. But that is who he is. That is his identity. Why should we ignore it if we are serious about building a country of people who believe in, and live out, those identities?


Interestingly, it is not just the respected like Soyinka and Achebe that have understood this. It has been communicated by at least two Nigerian dictators who could have done great things if they had disciplined their ambitions – Ibrahim Babangida who has continually insisted that our character does not support a multi-party system, at least not now; and Sani Abacha who, in a rare instance of intellectual clarity, insisted on a  “home-grown democracy’. He was adamant that countries we admire like America should be inspiration but not necessarily role model.


What will best suit us? Maybe a system of government that emphasises the local government and leaves the center weak. Maybe a system that enforces accountability through our keen sense of community. Whatever it is, we will have to decide definitively, and it is not an ‘ozugbo-ozugbo’ (quick-quick) process.


A mentor of mine brought this point home to me recently in speaking about the Nigerian economy. Nigerian banks speak of credit worthiness and the rampant-ness of debtors not paying up. But is that who we are as a people, or who we have become because we haven’t learnt like the Asians how to build our finance institutions around our sociology?


Whilst this instance might be simplistic, don’t debt-collectors in Mushin or Onitsha routinely get loans paid and run an efficient community finance system? Where are the visionaries who will begin to study that and scale it up, perhaps working with Nigerian intellectuals in our universities who understand our character, our evolution? Why are we focused on aping HSBC if we can build a better system based on what we have always had?


We had societies and a collectivity of character before we were colonised. Yes we did. We need to understand, and believe, deeply in our core, that like the British or Roman Empires or the defining French Revolution, we had defining moments; we had the Benin and the Oyo Empires; and we had sophisticated philosophies expressed by the likes of Uthman Dan Fodio.


In building the Nigeria which we all want, we will need to begin to wrestle these questions; and we will need to engage its complexity. The result of that process will birth our Nigerian Dream, whether or not we write it in a book or in a declaration.


It will be an understanding driven and grasped by our leaders and passed on through a structured process of mentorship and knowledge-exchange to each new generation of leaders. These leaders will then need to communicate this to the Nigerian citizenry so deeply that we can understand with our minds or, even better, with our hearts.


The first challenge, as you might notice, is to find and elect/install leaders who have the intellect and depth to understand this imperative.


The best example I can find of men who did were Odumegwu Ojukwu and, more credibly, Obafemi Awolowo, a man who is famed for, amongst other things, balancing his budgets. Awolowo was a deeply flawed, perhaps even bigoted, man but he is deified for good reason; he didn’t just act – he acted based on a well of important knowledge.


That knowledge informed his excellent building of a vision for the Yoruba society in Nigeria.


He took the fabric of the Yoruba culture and infused it into the way they were governed; from folk songs to modern village squares. He weaved values central to the Yoruba psyche into politics and economy and education and society – and made the people proud of and in tune with their way of life in a way that motivated them to preserve and then advance it.


This was a success because of one simple but unyielding truth: nations don’t evolve into greatness.


It doesn’t just happen. A nation doesn’t just become great. It is a deliberate, almost academic process of theory and practice hand in hand. That’s how nations from Germany to America, Japan to Singapore have done it; led at the top by leaders who appreciated the art – and it is an art – of nation building.


They will lead us in building what system of government we need, what theories our economy should follow, the relationship between church and state, the place of our traditional institutions in a modern society; the grund-norm of our legal system; the philosophy for our education.


Sadly, this is not a conversation that a new generation of leaders is having. This is understandable – we first need to be good, before we can be great, and right now, our nation is barely managing to stay afloat.


But we need to have it at the back of our minds that this is a task that will have to be done; one that we cannot escape. Nigeria will eventually have to discard this invented, and inverted, identity and find its place in the world by understanding the core of who we are.


Let those who are passionate about the future of Nigeria begin to think through these questions – and I am fervently hoping that there is a serious minded transformational leader in or out of government somewhere who will help (or who is already helping) take up this challenge of getting serious-minded people together to provide the answers.


If there isn’t, well the next best time to plant a tree is today.




Chude Jideonwo is publisher/editor-in-chief of Y!, including Y! Magazine, Y! Books, Y! TV & YNaija.com. He is also executive director of The Future Project/The Future Awards. #NewLeadership is a twice-weekly, 12-week project to inspire action from a new generation of leaders – it ends on March 31.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here