From Nigeria to 'United African Republic': development or stagnation?

Image credit: Emmanuel Ikwuegbu via Unsplash

It has been roughly over a month since Adeleye Jokotoye, a tax consultant in Lagos State, proposed the idea of changing Nigeria's name to 'United African Republic' before the nation’s House of Representatives. Since then, the public response has been quite hostile overall. Instead of igniting feelings of patriotism amongst Nigerians, it has awakened stronger demands for improved societal necessities. Can changing Nigeria’s name in attempts to erase colonial marks within the constitution serve as a wave of development in Nigeria’s history or rather a form of stagnation?

A little too late?

As opposed to some other African nations, Nigeria did not change their colonial name upon declaring independence. In 1957 today’s Ghana became the first African country to formally declare independence from colonial rule and changed their name from the Gold Coast to Ghana. Similarly, in 1960 former Upper Volta changed to Burkina Faso as the nation perceived the former name to have represented the colonial era.

The truth is, many Nigerians are beginning to question whether changing Nigeria’s name is  'a little too late'. Unlike Ghana, Burkina Faso and some other African countries, Nigeria did not immediately make a formal decision to erase its colonial name. Will 'United African Republic' really serve to remove colonial traits when colonial names of streets and buildings still exist? It is certainly debatable but we can not ignore that this proposed act is reasonable and somewhat necessary, solely given that the name 'Nigeria' pertains to British colonial rule. It is simply not a name that was chosen by the people of Nigeria but instead 'inflicted' upon them.

However, the issue here is timing. Nigeria is currently faced with more vital issues that are not being tackled effectively by the government. So this seems to be more of a form of performative activism rather than a genuine attempt to restore unity and eradicate colonial influence.

A performative action?

It is very difficult to ignore that Nigeria is currently confronting harsher conditions than merely retaining their colonial name. Though the public response to 'United African Republic' has been varied, overall it has been denounced in a humorous manner by the general public. Upon its announcement, tweets flooded in from Nigerians sharing jokes and also condemning the government’s blatant disregard for the more serious domestic concerns at stake. Reality TV star Tacha tweeted

“United African Republic?? Renaming Nigeria is not Nigeria's problem!! Give us good roads, security, electricity, health care... Just give us basic amenities”.

If one takes into consideration the history of the naming of Nigeria, it is completely understandable as to why it should be changed. The name was coined in the late 19th century by British journalist Flora Shaw who was later to be married to the British colonial administrator Lord Frederick Lugard. Simply due to the colonial history behind the name, 'United African Republic' might foster more unity amongst Nigerians and emancipate the nation from the traits of its colonial past that still remain after the declaration of independence in October 1960. A name change, however, does not seem to be of dire need when taking into account the fact that it fails to address the nation’s several problems. One that is causing particular concern is a current nationwide twitter ban hinting at a governmental adoption of authoritarian methods.

The recent nationwide twitter ban ordered by President Buhari has proven not only the chaotic state of the country, but also signals a use of dictatorial means to secure power over the citizens’ freedom of speech. This decision came after the President’s tweet was deleted due to claims that the context incited violence against secessionists in the South-East region of Nigeria.

The idea of separatism is nothing new to Nigeria. The most prominent attempt at tribal secession dates back to the Nigerian Civil War in 1967. The Igbo region declared itself independent under the name 'Biafra' which sparked a civil war in a federal attempt to unite Nigeria. Though ethnic tensions have prevailed continuously in Nigeria, this was when it was at its peak. Igbo pogroms were prolific leading up to the outbreak of war. Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes a fictional interpretation of the events in her fictional book 'Half of a Yellow Sun', noting how some Igbo citizens heading for the Northern part of the country would disguise themselves as typical 'Hausa-looking' individuals to avoid confrontations.

Today multiple ethnic groups in Nigeria seek independence on the grounds of nationalism, indicating the futile nature of Nigeria as a united country, which raises the concern of the likelihood of 'United African Republic' being written into legislation. Ethnic nationalism continues to grow and some argue that President Buhari’s presidency is largely to blame.

Image credit: NewAfrica via YouTube

There is a desire for autonomous power at the hands of ethnic groups given a long history of tribalism, which continuously prevails in several ways. An example of this can be traced back to the early years of independence in which Nigeria was divided into three major geopolitical regions based on the three major tribes - the Hausa-Fulanis of the North, the Yorubas of the South-West and the Igbos of the South-East. As the political parties (Northern People’s Congress (1), Action Group (2), and National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (3)) were predominately based on ethnic-nationalism as opposed to ideology and the Hausa-Fulanis overpowered the Yorubas and Igbos population-wise, the NPC consistently secured control over the government. This population advantage ultimately meant that the three tribes struggled to co-exist in newly independent Nigeria.

Social and political discontent among tribes across Nigeria has paved the way for the rise of separatists across the country in places such as the Igbo, Yoruba, Niger Delta, and Hausa regions. In the Igbo region there are calls for a rebirth of Biafra, whereas in predominately Yoruba areas there is pursuit for the Oduduwa Republic. In the Niger Delta region there are demands for a Niger Delta Republic and increased interests in autonomous control over the region’s resources. Whilst in the North there have been calls for an Arewa Republic in which the region would be separated from Nigeria. However it is difficult to determine whether the voices of separatist activists represent those of Nigerian citizens in the respective areas, but it is a clear indication of the increasingly fragile nature of Nigerian unity which ultimately questions the benefit of 'United African Republic'.

So if Nigeria seems to be on the brink of a tribal conflict and its citizens are unhappy with the government’s handling of domestic issues, is 'United African Republic' really the answer to these concerns? Whilst it may restore some form of short-term sovereignty, it will certainly not prove to be a long-term solution to the alienation of its citizens. Is this proposed name simply a mechanism to divert public opinion from domestic failures? It seems highly likely due to the historical roots of tribalism and the performative nature of the proposed action, but only time will tell.

(1) Northern People’s Congress (North), supported by the Hausa-Fulanis.

(2) Action Group (South-West), supported by the Yorubas.

(3) National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (South-East), supported by the Igbos.