I learned two separate but related lessons from a keynote speech delivered by Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, the governor of Delta State, at the 2021 Annual Lecture and Symposium organised by Ripples Centre for Data and Investigative Journalism (RCDIJ), held Wednesday, August 25, 2021, at Sheraton Hotel, Lagos.  The lecture had a theme; Rebuilding Trust in a Divided Nigeria: Advancing the Conversation.

The lecture brought deeper conviction that there was indeed a sincere desire at independence in this country to build and move toward a genuinely great nation, and that if such move was allowed, there would have been a great increase in the nation’s socioeconomic fortunes in this direction, rather than the present gradual decline.

On how the nation challenge/division/disunity started, Okowa was frank and emphatic. Quoting Bayo Ogunmupe, in “The Chequered History of Secession in Nigeria,” Okowa observed that the first attempt dates back to 1950 at the Ibadan Constitutional Conference where the ratio of representation was fixed at “44:33:33 for the North, West and East (respectively). Northern politicians rejected it and the Emir of Zaria said their share must be 50 per cent of the seats or they will secede from Nigeria.”

The above threat and others to secede, he said eventually petered out, following negotiations and amicable resolutions of contentious issues. Today, the crux of the matter, he said, is that the absence of a national ideology that all the component parts of the country subscribe to is why we are yet to forge that sense of oneness and unity. In the absence of a shared national vision or aspiration, primordial loyalties and sentiments largely hold sway among the citizens. 

The lack of political will to devise a constitution that supports true federalism. The 1999 Constitution (as amended) centralises political and economic powers in the Federal Government and emasculates the states by denying them powers to secure their own territories and control their natural resources for the development of their territories and people.

Okowa admitted that we are better and stronger together, and that, with appropriate, visionary leadership and good governance, we can turn our diversity into a great source of strength and a springboard to build a strong multi-ethnic and multi-religious country that will be the envy of other nations. 

The Federal Government must frontally and transparently tackle insurgency, banditry, kidnapping, criminal herdsmen operations and all purveyors of insecurity in a way to obviate the popular impression that they are executors of a pre-planned genocide. He concluded that there should be stiff penalties for electoral violence and other malpractices, regardless of which party is culpable. Election results should also be transmitted electronically at the point of counting the votes at the polling units to remove the opportunities for later alterations of figures.

Glib, official declarations like “The unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable” or “The unity of Nigeria is sacrosanct” cannot diffuse the tension, resentment, anger and sectarianism prevalent in the country today. Only conscious, consensual action to remove the causes of mistrust and disunity identified above can.