This monster of ethno-religious politics, loyalty and consciousness has destroyed the existence of the Nigerian youth.

Gideon Onyedi

As a patriotic and nationalistic Nigerian who has been emotionally, physically, economically, socially, and psychologically affected and traumatised, along with other Nigerians, by the political culture and practices of our national and regional leaders over the years, I have elected to take this step to approach you, the elders, leaders and custodians of our common heritage as a nation to ask you all to rise up without further delay to save this country, else, Nigeria may become a nation that once existed, years from now.

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As you read this analytical letter, please, sirs, do not take things for granted. There may not be another chance to salvage this nation, other than now. Former President Shehu Shagari has just died, leaving Nigeria worse than he met and governed it.

For our nation, Nigeria, the present, the future and beyond do not appear to hold the answer to this century-old question threatening its survival and continued corporate existence. Atiku Abubakar may not be able to help her, though he has the disposition and determination to serve creditably. The present administration has not been able to help, so far, in spite of all its efforts. The answer remains unknown to other unknown or known ambitious candidates wanting to rule the nation.

By experience, you all are aware that it is only when one is in the saddle that one understands that one does not really know what one thought one knew. The North appears not to be interested in the answer and the solution. The South appears not capable of finding the answer and the solution. Only the brave can confront our age-long intractable ‘national monster’ and deliver this nation. But at a grave cost. So, they may not have the courage to try it. Things may get worse. Or we may cease to exist. However, there is a solution. But who will bell the cat?

Many years ago, in 1983, one of the few incorruptible intellectuals of this nation, viewing with the lenses of objective analysis the ‘undefinable’ and situationally ‘insurmountable’ socio-economic and political woes and burdens in Nigeria, concluded in no uncertain terms that the problem with Nigeria ever since has been a leadership problem. That intellectual was no less a scholar, than Chinua Achebe.

Achebe, in “The Trouble with Nigeria,” expositorily and patriotically argued that leadership ineptitude had caused incalculable harm and damage to our national life and psyche.

Without any disregard or disrespect to the acclaimed view and position of Achebe, one of the finest novelists ever to come from Africa, I crave your indulgence to humbly differ a little from this long-held, generally-accepted position. Or, rather, view it from another perspective. As men of timber, calibre and character who have had the rare privilege and trust at one time or the other to preside over the affairs of this country, you must agree with me and other Nigerians that, of a truth, leadership has always had its negative toll on this nation.

Leadership failure, since Independence in 1960, no doubt, has in many ways played very ignoble roles in the problem, disequilibration and disillusionment that have come to consistently haunt and stunt the progress of this nation and, like an insatiable, blood-thirsty vampire, wasted the lives of millions. It has been the ever-raging destructive inferno, which many waters cannot quench, and which ravages the wealth worth billions of dollars, over the years.

The avoidable civil war of 1967 to 1970 was a colossal leadership disconnect. The communal clashes, ethno-religious crises, agitations, growth of extreme insurgency and terrorism are all grand ‘celebrations’ and eloquent symptoms of leadership resignation. Our education system as it is today is evidence of leadership ineptitude and lack of national vision in leadership. The selfish and mindless deployment of our youths on the streets for political purposes and ethno-cultural sentiments is a show of loss of leadership focus, tantamount to the killing of the souls of the youth and the future. Many past leaders of this nation have in one way or another contributed to this problem.

In spite of the above-stated situations, all of your respected personages and every true and faithful student of history and politics would be one with me that Nigeria as a whole, from the regional perspective, has not been lacking or wanting in tested and proven leadership personalities altogether. This issue of great leadership personalities at regional levels is the albatross hanging on this nation, and to which I am calling your attention.

The concept and analysis of leadership should be context-based, predicated on the regional-historical perspective, a little shift but a very consequential paradigm, just to see something else that is the main burden on the political shoulder of this nation, outside mere leadership ability.

I humbly crave your indulgence, and request that you go through the facts about leadership in Nigeria as stated below, as leaders of this nation, in order to truly determine how and what leadership has been or not been in Nigeria, and what defines typical Nigerian leadership, and the leadership problem.

Leadership issue in Nigeria is a contextualised, real-time phenomenon. If, therefore, leadership is a matter of dispositional apathy towards a people who are not historically and culturally related and blendable with one’s own, and for whom one may not be responsible, as it has been in ethno-religious Nigeria since history, then we may not really be having a leadership problem.

On the second hand, if leadership is not a matter of serving with equal zeal and commitment a people you neither share identity with nor the same ethno-cultural sensibilities and values, as it is in Nigeria, then there is no leadership problem.

Third, if leadership does not have to do with attending to a people who do not owe you any ‘histrio-cultural’ immortalisation and beatification after you have died and eternally gone, as we have here, then there is no leadership problem and failure. Furthermore, if leadership does not have to do with practically discouraging the undermining of a people who are perceived as competitors and rivals, though co-existing within the same larger polity, such as Nigeria as we have witnessed over the years, then there is no leadership problem and failure.

Again, if leadership does not have to do with faulting and discountenancing the neglecting of groups who are practically not considered as stakeholders, and seen as not really needed in advancing a cause, achieving a goal and promoting the essence of a particular natural but sub-collective existence, religious or cultural, within a suprasystem or artificial but larger collectivism like Nigeria, then there is no leadership problem in Nigeria.

If leadership is a context issue, a culture issue, a communal issue, a consanguinity issue, a competitive issue, as we have always experienced in the hands of previous leaders, some of whom are members of the National Council of State today, then there may not be leadership problem in Nigeria.

I trust that the import of my exposition in this letter will not be lost. Leadership is indeed contextually defined here as it is contextually applied in our nation, at least to a large extent. In history. In culture. In faith and creed. In identity. Leadership has a sense of stake for the leader, and an unmistakable common appeal for fulfilment and accomplishment between the leader and his people. “His people’ here is defined by common ‘culture,’ (religious or otherwise), history and ancestry. Leadership has a base. The people are the base. It starts from the bottom of that base. Grassroots. Not from a strange heterogeneous top. Leadership has communal culture, belief system, faith, existence, continuity, posterity, and civilisation as bases and defining paradigms. ‘Conquest’, preservation and sustainability, ‘cultural globalization,’ and pride of race as focus. Leadership has a projection. Projection of its values. Projection through conquest, social infiltration, ‘domination’ and preservation of roots and landmarks of historical identities.

Summarily, leadership may choose to ignore any group of people and focus on a few or locality and make the preferred people appreciate and applaud its selflessness and inspirational relationship with them. And may choose or ‘forbear’ to expand its frontiers in inspiration, transformation, integration, mobilisation, development, etc. This has always or largely been the case in Nigeria.

From the foregoing, there is no gainsaying the fact that ‘Nigeria’ has been able to produce leaders of great honour and courage. Leaders of great ideals and of deeds. Leaders of great convictions and accomplishments. Leaders of great minds and gallant missions. Leaders who had at one time or the other showed great and uncommon sacrificial love and commitment for their people.

It may be of some purposeful necessity to take a short character journey through the annals of leadership in our various ethno-cultural societies within the larger Nigerian political expression. As I do this, one thing should be both evident in the analysis and paramount in our understanding: Nigeria may not be able to get a true national leader, even in the next 50 years, except we sacrificially do away with one very double-edged sword and controversial characteristic that defines us and which we are obviously seen to be eternally and mortally proud of, as I foreshadowed introductorily, above: our ethno-religious identity. Our ethno-religious and cultural consciousness, commitment, and pride. That is, if there will still be a Nigeria in less than 50 years from now. If this great nation does not continue, it is neither because of corruption nor lack of leadership in general. It is because of the primacy and preference of ethno-religious ‘nationism’ over true and patriotic nationalism, and because of great leaders and unmatched loyalty that abound at the regional levels at the expense of the national level.

Looking at the old Northern Region, a very well organised region in terms of administration, commerce, and culture, we owe much, on account of such development, discipline, devotion and dominance to the father of modern civilisation and service in the North, one of the founding fathers of this nation Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto. He was a man of honour, truth, commitment, focus, undisputed integrity, true and inspirational religious faithfulness, and great leadership quality among his people.

This was a man who, like Prophet Moses, in Egypt, rejected to become the Prince, who could later be the succeeding Pharaoh in Egypt, because he loved his people (the Israelites), and chose to suffer affliction with his people than to enjoy the pleasures of life for a season. That was Sir Ahmadu Bello. That was the quintessential leader who despised and rejected, without the slightest dint of regret and pretence, the highest office in the land, at the centre. That was the man who loved his people and chose to be with them. To feel what they felt. To understand their needs and plight. To protect and preserve their values and pride and, at the same time, help them achieve greater heights. That was a leader indeed. By all standards. By the greatest standards. That is people-and-cause-oriented inspirational leadership at the grand level. For his people. For the North. Our undoing as a nation is not really leadership problem, especially at the grassroots.

Again, we take an informed look at the present South West, the old Western Region. We behold, with some regional nostalgia, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. The late sage. The late intellectual. The honourably remembered, self-made, unabashed, galvanising, centripetal political force in the Western Region.
Awolowo was a leader with education, civilisation, and vision for his people. He never left anyone locally and internationally in doubt of his descent. An Oduduwa of the Oduduwa. A proud Yoruba who celebrated his heritage with pride and sophistication. This man could not be surpassed in show of leadership quality, philosophy and commitment to his people.

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At his death, the late Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, in acclaimed acknowledgement of his sterling leadership stamina, scintillatingly described him as the best president Nigeria never had. The strides of his leadership were and still remain evident and indelible among his people. In education. In development. In mobilisation. His personal conviction and his political philosophy made him and his followers become identified and respected as hitherto ideological opposition political philosophers. He introduced what I call opposition political philosophy rooted in some kind of existentialism, regional existentialism, in political philosophy and practice with emphasis on political loose-coupling in relation to other regions at national level. That was it.

Awowolo was, unarguably, a loving, committed leader of his people. He was not just a leader, he was a leader who believed in transformational leadership for his region and was awesome at the level of inspiration, motivation, and mobilization. He was a leader. For his people. For the West.

Turning to the old Eastern Region, for the purposes of this analysis, I elect to look at one man, a man known to all of your respected persons. Regarded by his people as a legend. Among his people, he is described as the man who died and yet lives and speaks from many controversial fronts. The man who represents and means different things to different people and groups. The late Ikemba of Nnewi, Eze Igbo Gburugburu, the People’s General, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumuegwu Ojukwu.

Despite the egalitarianism of the Igbo, this was one man the Igbo accepted as their leader. He cherished his Igbonness with unqualified pride and preached it as a gospel. He loved his people. And did not hide his true intention and deep passion to serve them in the best and only way(s) he could, and deemed fit. He sweated and bled for them. He elected to pass through the torrents of bullets, and the misery of missiles for his people. And everything he did or did not do was for his people. He remains one of the few believed among the Igbo who were never ready to betray the Igbo. He was a leader. An administrator. A philosopher. Frederick Forsythe, a British writer, described him as a leader who had what it takes to motivate and inspire a people to pursue a cause no matter the cost. The Igbo showed what he meant to them in his lifetime and at his death. He was a leader indeed. For his people. For the East.

Apart from the above, there abounds quite a number of leaders who time and space would fail me to talk about, who loved their people and never abandoned them in times of danger and difficulty.

One indisputable fact about the three legendary leaders discussed above is that they were and remain the most influential, inspirational and motivational of their people at the grassroots in the history of Nigeria’s political development. Their ‘sojourn’ on the socio-political landscape and theatre of Nigeria proves that this nation has not been altogether lacking in exemplary leadership personalities, especially at regional levels. If the old Northern Region had been an independent nation under Sir Ahmadu Bello, it would have had unsurpassed patriotism and more. If the West had been an independent nation under Pa Awolowo, it would have had unmatched civilisation, sophistication and pride. If the East had been an independent nation under Ojukwu, it would have had unequalled advancement. I am emphasising the great leadership qualities of these regional personalities. Not the viability of dismemberment. But we are one Nigeria. We are one nation. One sovereignty, however, without one leader in the mould of the discussed three at the national level, with corresponding national consciousness and unquestionable patriotism, devoid of ethno-religious bias, sentiment, pressure and considerations.

This is the problem.

Our great regional leaders never cared about the other regions. Neither loved nor genuinely embraced the other regions and never promoted the advancement of the other regions. It was not their responsibility.

Our great regional leaders unwaveringly developed and influenced their respective followers to begin to think, plan, and work along regional lines and for regional interests over and above collective national interest.

They did a very good work in their domains. But they did it so well that it is today undermining collective national ideals and interests, and seriously threatening the future of this great nation. Some of these followers of the late sages who later became national leaders, past and present, regrettably continued to promote ethno-religious politics, in order to remain relevant.

What defies logic and sanity is why and how a nation that fought a deadly war in order to remain together and united could turn around to promote the divisive and monstrous culture of ethno-religious politics, demonstrating in unmistakable terms that there is no trust among them. Clearly demonstrating that there is mutual fear among them, thereby fanning the embers of disunity. And yet they must remain together and united. How? Why?

The Yoruba see the Igbo and Hausa-Fulani as competitors and unwelcomed rivals. The Hausa-Fulani see the Yoruba and the Igbo as rivals and unwelcomed competitors. The Igbo see the Hausa-Fulani and the Yoruba as rivals and unhealthy competitors. This is the negative side of extreme ethno-religious consciousness and orientation. Once it gets deep, as it is today, it will take years and a whole lot of education, orientation, reorientation, selfless and sacrificial leadership and uncommon integrated politics to begin to curb it and mitigate its spreading, pervading, defining and destructive effects on the politics and development of the nation.

The depth of this intractable national monster of ethno-religious orientation in politics is such that even if Sir Ahmadu Bello, Pa Awolowo and Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu were to come back to life and were to form a government at the centre, with their great leadership qualities, Sir Ahmadu Bello would concentrate on accomplishing his originally chosen task of development in the North and for the North. Pa Awolowo, would concentrate on using even if it is just 24 hours in office to promote his philosophy and development programme starting from the West. And Ojukwu would be interested in securing a sure and safe place for the Igbo. It will still be ethno-religious politics all the way.

This is the main problem of Nigeria. It cannot be solved even in 10 years of consistent national orientation and education. It has taken many decades to fester and muster. It cannot be taken away just in a few years. This monster of ethno-religious politics, loyalty and consciousness has destroyed the existence of the Nigerian youth. There is nothing like the Nigerian youth today. No. The Nigerian youth does not exist. What we have are Arewa Youth, Ohanaeze Youth, Ijaw Youth, Niger Delta Youth, Afenifere/OPC Youth, the Middle Belt Youth, etc. They all have their programmes and projects. They have their beliefs and common grounds. They stand for their people, ethnic nationalities and regions. They have unflinching loyalty to their regions, which surpasses national commitment. But there is no Nigerian youth. They have all been swallowed up in ethno-religious political traditions and loyalty. The youth of any nation is the future of the nation.

Where is our future without the Nigerian youth? We know that it is not just about any registered umbrella national youth organisation or council, which is essentially for pecuniary and selfish political purpose. Where is our future without unmistakable national consciousness and patriotism? God is my witness. My heart aches.

No politician, neither Atiku Abubakar nor President Muhammadu Buhari, neither any from the North nor from the South, not even one from the so-called minority, which I choose to call the humble numerical groups, has the solution to this problem. Not even President Olusegun Obasanjo, who would unarguably be recognized as a leader who truly thinks Nigeria, dreams Nigeria, and lives as a true Nigerian.

Not even President Ibrahim Babangida, whose institutional strides in office still stand today, example is MAMSER, which has been renamed National Orientation Agency, with some repositioning, to achieve national cohesion and patriotism. Not even General Yakubu Gowon, whom I call the Reborn Elder Statesman, with his laudable and heaven-backed Nigeria Prays Movement. Not even General Abdulsalami Abubakar, with his peace mediations. Not even President Goodluck Jonathan with his political sagacity. Not even the just dead President Shehu Shagari with his wisdom and gentility. None can single-handedly deliver this nation from imminent strangulation in the hands of ethno-religious extremism and nepotism in Nigerian politics. All these leaders, in one way or another, deliberately promoted and encouraged ethno-religious politics, and therefore owe Nigeria the restitution of joining hands to salvage this nation.

Nigeria needs a concerted effort. All hands on deck to fight this monster. All the leaders, past and present, are guilty in varying degrees.

Let me agree with the saying that it does not matter who occupies the White House, 10 Downing Street, or Aso Rock; criminals and Corporations run the world.

Therefore, I say that no political leader can change the influence and effect of ethno-religious politics in Nigeria, except a lion-hearted once-in-a-lifetime generational leader, with the people’s support.

A humble word for President Buhari, and other eminent members of this Council, including Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, and other aspirants desiring to govern this country, if at all they would be able to see and read this. (Such people are never allowed to look where the solution to the need lies by their associates and lieutenants, for God-knows-why). For any leader of this country who truly has the future of this country at heart: a rebuilding process is very important. Whoever they are, they should start a rebuilding, reorientation, reintegrating, proper education, and national consciousness process at the outset.

The key public institutions that should be totally repositioned, prioritised, and enabled to help in achieving genuine national consciousness, true integration, peaceful coexistence, and development, are the National Orientation Agency, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Youth and Sports Development, the Ministry of Labour and Employment, and the Federal Character Commission, among others. Appointments into and administration of these institutions should be less politicised.

From the foregoing, the citizens of this nation should weep for her uncertain future, because monstrous situations that would negate the continued sustenance and progress of this nation may continue to exist, if nothing is done. We all should, therefore, rise up, join our hands together, encourage the leadership, and eschew politics of ethnicity and religion, and lay the foundation for a new, strong, united, and prosperous Nigeria. Neglecting to do this is to deepen the already unfathomable sinking, and unquantifiable damage done to this nation by ethno-religious politics and lack of patriotism among the leadership at national level since independence.

Religion and politics in Nigeria


Onyedi is founder/president, Diamond-Crest for Youth Education Foundation; [email protected]; +2347060760601.