Home Columinists Nation-State Formation and the Current State of Nigeria

Nation-State Formation and the Current State of Nigeria

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by Godknows Boladei Igali, PhD

The formation of nation-states involves the emergence of an entirely new political system or community through the process of political integration of various ethno-cultural groups. Before the emergence of the modern states system, the dominant political system or community the world over was known as the empires, kingdoms, city-states, and the like. Before we digress further, it is imperative to define the concepts of’ nation’ and ‘state’ to enable us to have a better understanding of what it is all about.

Wikipedia encyclopedia defined the ‘state’ as a political and geographical entity while the ‘nation’ is defined as a cultural and ethnic entity. Therefore, a ‘nation-state’ is a geographical area that can be identified as deriving its political legitimacy from serving as a sovereign nation. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘nation-state’ as a sovereign state of which most of the citizens or subjects are united by factors that define a nation, such as a language or common descent. The above definitions underscore the fact that it is a political entity that is guided by a cultural identity that derives its legitimacy by successfully serving all its citizens.

The concept of the nation-state is connected with the rise of the modern states system and is often linked to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Since then, the state’s system has grown to become a kind of ‘god on the earth’, controlling man’s life from the time he was born, gets married, dies and to the time he is buried. The concept of the nation-state is explicitly explained in my books titled ‘Global Trends in State Formation’ and ‘Perspectives on Nation-State Formation in Contemporary Africa’.

Ambassador Godknows Boladei Igali

It is a general conception in philosophical and political studies that the state exists as a social contract between it and its citizens, which is expounded in the social contract theory. A social contract is an agreement entered into by individuals that result in the formation of the state or of organized society with the prime motive of being protected by surrendering some of their personal liberty. That is why the founding fathers of the early nation-states in the western world enshrined in their constitution equal protection before the law without any form of discrimination. This is inspired by the fact that the overall wellbeing of an individual in a society is measured by the level of happiness. Therefore rights exist in human society because they are necessary for human happiness. It is clearly stated in section one of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States that:

‘All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of the citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’

Therefore the issue of ‘equality before the law’ as an offshoot of the natural law which states that ‘all humans are born equal’ is captured in the constitutions of every country around the world for the sole purpose of creating of happiness for the individual wellbeing, even though it is not enforced in most countries where some people are seen as being above the law.

The process of nation-state formation in Africa and most especially Nigeria came with so many challenges on issues of national identity and unity. The process of generating national unity and identity has both legal, practical, infrastructure, and human dimensions, all of which underscore the enormity of the work that the African states and leaders have to undertake to achieve a credible level of national integration emergence of their countries as nation-states.


In recanting a personal experience while commuting a bus from CMS to Ajegunle in Lagos State, Nigeria in October 1996, in the normal overcrowded Lagos urban transportation, one could pick excerpts from a heated conversation between two elderly passengers seated in the adjacent row, dressed in the uniform of the Nigerian Legion. Unlawful conduct had just been performed by another commuter, and the two were attempting to impute blame for what had happened. They were arguing thus:

Speaker A: There are too many problems in this country. People are now very inconsiderate and are not bothered about what happens to others. All these problems are caused by people from your Yoruba and from Hausa ethnic group.

Speaker B: God forbid. Although I understand and speak the Yoruba language, I am not one of them. My ‘country’ is Urhobo. Besides, to say the truth, the problems of the country cannot be blamed only on the Hausa and Yoruba people. Your people from Igbo ethnic group are also guilty. As a matter of fact, we are all responsible. Perhaps the white men should return to administer us.

As we can discern from the dialogue, speaker A does not bother to cast blame for the overall problems of the country on either social questions or issues of political ideology, but instead on the attitude of some particular ethnic groups, which of course excludes his own. The intention here is not to say that people at this level of discussion are oblivious to non-ethnic factors such as corruption, abuse of human rights, and the budding democracy of national politics, all of which continue to pose challenges to national development. As a matter of fact, there exists a current opinion among other political scientists, showing with fair merit of empiricism, that the problems of Africa are more of a class nature than an ethnic one. They hold that the ruling elite and bourgeoisie only play on the ethnic card when necessary in order to continue the parasitic exploitation of the masses.

B, of course, refused to be identified with any of the groups mentioned despite the fact that he understood and spoke one of the corresponding languages. But then, speaker B went further to identify his own group with the expression ‘country’. In a nominal sense, what speaker B did was again just another well-intended direct translation of the variety of ideas or words from his own language into the English language. Nonetheless, on a deeper philosophical reflection, he has unwittingly underscored and highlighted an entire state of mind of what various people in such a multi-ethnic environment consider their own units to be. No matter how small the territorial and demographic mass of an ethnic group maybe it has been observed that members often consider themselves to be not just another tribal group, especially with the derogatory and rather trivial significance put forward by that word, but a ‘people’ or a distinct ‘nation’ within a wider nation-state. Although speaker B is more open in his interpretation of the persisting political circumstances by not throwing stones at any of the other ethnic groups, his assertion of sub-national identity is equally fraught with serious implications.

Therefore, the main challenge of state formation is the responsibility of the leadership and citizens of Nigeria themselves. It is unnecessary to seek external solutions or on external empathy or blame outsiders. The people of Nigeria must recognize not only their challenges and the difficulties but also the resources and opportunities provided by the present state, no matter how they were brought together. The existence of previously politically distinct communities that were brought together in a new nation-state by external imperialism or even internal expansions is neither new nor peculiar to Nigeria. Human groups of diverse origins that make an inherited former colony are best accepted as potential positive ingredients for the making of new nations. If they are so perceived as potentially positive resources for the construction of new nation-states, then the chances are brighter than they would indeed become positive elements for nation-building. If on the other hand the diverse peoples and heritages are perceived and described as problems and used as poorly digested ingredients, then the process of political integration becomes more complicated and seems unachievable. This is because diversities are now used by political entrepreneurs as weapons of division and disunity rather than building blocks of integration and unity.

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