Nigerianism: Towards a National Identity in Nigeria (I)
On a good day, it is not really my business what sort of color-riot any African country decides to be identified with; but the West African scenario is almost a laughable exercise, with due respect to the affected countries therein. You see, when Ghana wrenched control of their gold-laden country from the clutches of colonial British in 1957, the founding fathers had broken new ground in Africa. So, while the fervour and euphoria of independence and nationalism swept Kwame Nkrumah and company into power, a team of dedicated and patriotic Ghanaians were given the honorable task of coming up with the usual objects and paraphernalia of nationhood. This included a Coat of Arms, a National anthem and of course the quintessential rectangular cloth otherwise known as National Flag.
Now, given the paradoxical ‘benefit’ of telescopic retrospect, I believe the designers of Ghana’s flag might decide to choose other combination of colors today. Not because Red-Yellow-Green (aka the ‘Reggae’ colors) and a Black Star are not suitable to describe the Kwames and Kofis of that nation; but it would seem that afterwards, almost every other freed West African country decided to have a Reggae Flag of their own. That’s why countries ranging from Senegal, up to Burkina Faso, down to Republic du Benin (and even Cameroon) have adopted or adapted the colors of the Rastafarian movement. At this point any reader who is a lover of reggae music is advised to stop licking his/her tongue because this is not an article intent on glorifying Dreadlocks or Ganja.
Frankly, it seems every other West African country (with the exception of Cote d’ Ivoire) that freed itself from the shackles of Britain’s Union Jack or the France’s Tricolor took Ghana’s flag and simply removed the black star in the middle; or changed it to a green star, or rotated the flag by 90 degrees or even by 180 degrees. In fact, some belated countries that ran out of options by 1962 or thereabout, simply re-arranged the order of the Red-Yellow-Green into Green-Red-Yellow and voila! C’est la Flague. But no matter what trick or optical illusion they may have done to Ghana’s flag, I for one cannot help but remember Ras Kimono every time I see any of these Reggae Flags from West Africa. But then, lots of kudos is due to Ghana for inventing the ‘real thing’. Imitation is the truest form of compliment.
It doesn’t matter if the other West African countries tell you that these colors mean something to them too. In my honest opinion, the rather cheap design of these flags smacks of ingenuity and almost outright laziness. Note that a flag is not just about color, it’s about the design in its entirety. Could it be that the same poorly-paid road-side artist got the commission to design ALL these flags? Or maybe as the colonialists were kicked out, independence came in such unexpected and hurried circumstances that the fastest route to a National Flag was to plagiarize Ghana’s design. Personally, I get so confused about which country owns what flag, so much that I often refer to most West African countries as ‘the Reggae Countries’.
My intention above was to provide some perspective to a real issue which few Nigerians seem bothered with today. So saying, I am not hammering on my keyboard today with the sole objective of demystifying the carbon-copying of West African Flags. As a matter of fact, any country can elect to have a mechanic’s uniform as a national Flag, but that is IF the people so encircled by the political boundary AGREE to be represented by dirty Brown Khaki sprinkled with engine oil and grease. No problem. So my discourse here is aimed at sparking debate about our own country’s flag. I would have said our own Nation’s flag, but each time I re-look the meaning of ‘Nation’ in a dictionary, I get this weird feeling that Nigeria is not quite the best of examples - forgive my attention to details, please. The reasons for our fragmented sense of cohesion as a nation are classical topics which are regularly dealt with in countless forums, from akara joints to AIT. There are probably more solutions to Nigeria’s problem than there are tribes. For now, my point of focus is that for a country that has 36 states, peopled with the most vociferous, self-aggrandizing, hardworking and proud members of over 250 ethnic tribes - comprising of more than 1000 dialects - the Green-White-Green is highly unrepresentative of what we are as a people. In fact, with respect to the realities of today, our flag is almost a disservice and a humongous understatement to our collective sense of (sometimes-detached) belonging as a people. Nevertheless, I honestly appreciate the effort of Mr Michael Taiwo Akinkunmi who designed the Nigerian flag, I hope you got a national award for your effort and I hope you get a street named after you in Abuja…(oh, I also hope that you got your last pension…). But the naked fact as I see it now is that we need a flag that we ALL (i.e. democratic majority via referendum) can agree to its meaning and feel it is representative of our varied interests. After all, cultural and social tensions of the last 8 years (i.e. our longest stretch of freedom and democracy) under Obasanjo (of villainous memory) have revealed that we are not as nationally monolithic as we oft deceive ourselves to be.
Okay, students and enthusiasts of Nigeria’s chequered, beleaguered and squandered history will tell you that Green stood for Agriculture and White meant peace. Hmmmmm…. In fact, I should say “HMMMMM….” in capital letters because any honest Nigerian reading this piece will know that the neither Agriculture nor Peace has made Nigeria its home in the last four decades- ever since the Oil Boom and that mishap of a Civil War. There are writers out there who have tried to trace the chronology of our Agricultural malady and our Economic malaise from Gen. Obasanjo to President Obasanjo, but that’s a topic suitable to gurus like Rueben Abati and Mohammed Haruna. Its just that as a matter of fact, Agriculture and Peace are not even neighbors of Nigeria at all today. They have become evicted tenants of our geopolitical real estate. If you don’t believe me, ask Mr Michael Taiwo Akinkunmi (or his descendants as the case may be) whether Nigeria is a bastion of Agriculture or Peace today. Lets face it, the last time Agriculture or genuine Peace were attributable to Nigeria, Tafawa Balewa was a Prime Minister in a vibrant and incorruptible Parliament (…devoid of 419 legislators); and Nigeria was competing with Ghana and Ivory Coast in other matters besides football. I mean, we were the second or third largest producer of Cocoa after these two countries. The last time we knew real Agriculture in Nigeria, our farmers from Kano made the Egyptians look dumb because we were making pyramids out of food; out of ordinary groundnuts! Oh yes, we were that prolific with the hoe - check out the old 50 kobo note for evidence, in case NEPA has ‘taken light’ in your memory.
The last time there was enduring peace in Nigeria, Palm oil was flowing so freely in the land of Ndigbo, that the Malaysians had to come and get some seedlings to try out in far away Asia. What happened next is history in its most annoying, ironic and unkindest form, because (1) the Malaysians have been exporting beauty soap and shampoo to us; (2) they have since celebrated the manufacture of their one millionth car; while (3) our village youths are now using their hoes to pour laterite inside potholes along our highways. At the same time (4) the urban folks are looking for candle to light the premises of NEPA so that the staff can find the switch that puts on the generator. Should I continue with (5)..?
Let me rub it in for good measure: Malaysia produced 14 million tones of palm oil from just 38,000 square kilometers of land in 2004. Malaysia is not only the largest exporter of palm oil today but Finland and Singapore have concluded plans to use Malaysian palm oil to produce Biofuels; and the Singaporean plant will be the largest such plant in the world in 2 years time (by 2010). Meanwhile we are still playing hide and seek with Tom Ateke in the swamps of Niger Delta, while Shell and Chevron are refusing to drill for oil in his backyard. I agree with you, we need our heads examined by a team of psychiatrists and witch doctors.
In all honesty, Nigeria’s problem is so multi-facetted and complex that it probably takes a combination of guts, grit and (maybe) greed for anyone to volunteer taking the drivers seat. But methinks that a careful scrutiny of our national quagmire would reveal that firstly, we need serious social Renaissance along with national Re-orientation and Remodeling. Call it my 3R’s, if you like. If Nigeria is to make sense to the next generation, we must make them believe in the spirit of Nigeria. I mean we need to ask the hard questions that Awolowo, Sardauna, and Zik never asked; or were not allowed to answer. What does it mean to be a Nigerian? Who IS a Nigerian? In pidgin: “wetin be Nigeria sef?”
Just because one mistress of mustachioed cohort of Queen Elizabeth decided to concoct a name out of a river does not mean we must accept his definition and intentions, be they political, social, economic or whatever. Lugard and his wife have long gone but our problems are still here, and some of them (like corruption and under-development) have taken up the rooms vacated by Agriculture and Peace. For Nigeria to make sense to you and me, it needs to be all-embracing for everyone who has had the vexatious destiny of being its citizen today. We therefore need a new flag that makes more sense. That way, we can at least have a rallying point; and when our football supporter’s take on Ghana’s league of trumpeters the next time we meet 11 versus 11, everyone of us will be clutching our flag with genuine passion and patriotic frenzy. Our sportsmen will participate in games out of genuine desire and not worried about bonuses; they will play football with the kind of dedication and determination seen on the face of Samuel Eto’o and Freddie Kanoute whenever they wear their respective Reggae Jerseys.
When we have a true national identity symbolized by such a flag, our school children will look up to the flag every morning with the kind of desire and hope that was last seen when Idiagbon and Buhari flogged the living daylights out of our undisciplined buttocks. But then, we cannot coercively demand patriotism from our selves. Any such attempt will only bring about photogenic results or ‘eye service’. We must cherish and desire the fatherland. We must feel and BELIEVE that we belong. A flag has that capacity to make people belong. When we have a flag that an Agwai nomad or Ijaw fisherman can genuinely identify with (e.g. put pictures of cows or fish on the flag if you have to); then we will see people willing to defend Nigeria everywhere from goalposts to foreign embassies. Nigerians will defend Nigeria to the last shot, whether such a shot is by football or by a gun. As it is now, some of us won’t think twice before wiping okro soup from our lips with our so-called national flag. Take my word, fellow citizens; the only country worth dying for is the one worth living in. You can quote me wherever you like. If Cameroon were to theoretically become stronger than us militarily and she goes after bigger chunks of our land; how many of us will volunteer to the war front and charge at the gendarmes while clutching this present flag? How many of us are afflicted by the patriotic disease called Nigerianism? Who among us is ready to confront invading armies apart from our soldiers?
Identifying with Nigeria by Nigerians is an intangible but real issue that is deeper and more authentic than carrying plastic identity cards; which can (and have been) fabricated by crooks. Nigerianism is a conceptual issue, a philosophical matter and a solemn duty for anyone who has a claim to its paternal roots. To be a Nigerian is something that should be un-fakable, if I may be permitted to invent that word. So saying, Green-White-Green is NOT (in my sacrosanct opinion) the ideal symbol of Nigeria of today. Therefore, as a matter of National ‘urgency’ (or ‘National emergency’ as the cliché seems to be in vogue – besides someone in Aso Rock may actually read this piece) we need to begin a serious process of re-defining and re-branding Nigeria. Case studies aplenty exist all over the world, from Uganda’s Cock to the Stars and Stripes of the USA. These are nations whose flags have some reflection of the people, either socially, culturally, emotionally, politically or all of the above.
Sadly, our own flag as it flies now, merely flutters aimlessly in the winds of suffering, institutional neglect, social injustice, nepotism and wanton waste. It is neither inclusive nor meaningful to most Nigerians and I challenge anyone to conduct a fair poll nationwide to test this hypothesis. I have already explained earlier that the Agricultural and Peaceful connotations of our flag are inconsequential for Nigeria of today. It is not about sticking to tradition and the history of our current Flag’s colors just because we are scared to ask ‘why?’ Rather we should jettison our prejudices, ignore our fears, and confront our diversity; we should chin-up and square up to a meaningful tomorrow by asking ‘why not?’ Why should we not redesign a better flag? Don’t we have the right to deserve better? Some of you may not be aware but until recently (up till January 2008), Spain’s national anthem (La Marcha Real) was all tune and no lyrics at all. The Spanish government has just commissioned someone to put words in between the trumpets and drums. So, who says a nation cannot re-evaluate itself and be more relevant to its people and the contemporary times? Why did the USA keep on adding a star to its flag each time a new state or territory is born? A flag MUST represent a people as fairly and as accurately as possible; otherwise, it is just a glorified handkerchief – or a Rastafarian scarf in disguise. Forgive my bluntness but this is my honest opinion, which I am entitled to.
Again, I must stress the need for serious debate and dialogue on this issue. We truly need to have a new Nigeria; one that embraces it’s cultural, religious and social diversity and not living in denial. The first and best place to reflect our diversity is on our flag. We are more diverse than idikaingkong mixed with gbegiri, stock fish and miyan kukah soup. We need a nation where (apart from Ambassadors and Government Ministers) ordinary citizens will proudly display a miniature of their flag on their office desk or by the side mirror of their ‘okada’ bikes. We deserve a country where people will proudly display the National flag from their bedroom windows, on their rooftops, by their doorways and in the market place. We need a flag, ladies and gentlemen, that will make a profound statement wherever she flies.
When such a flag is born, this will be a country, nay, a nation peopled by die-hard patriots who will protest and besiege the Spanish (or any) embassy en-masse the next time one of our citizens is gagged, bundled and choked to death in the name of deportation. When a Nigerian is manhandled to tortured, we will feel his or her pain and display such publicly in the spirit of brotherhood. Every Nigerian is more than a mere statistic. We deserve a country full of proud citizens, who are worthy ambassadors of a strong black nation. For us to evolve from mere ‘existence’ into living fulfilled and envious lives in our country, we urgently require a new sense of cameradie and comradeship that can be found in a flag. A flag which will really unite us, which anyone will be proud to have his casket wrapped in; a flag which means to us what we mean by it. Such a flag will ideally have (as accomplices of national symbolism), a unique, meaningful and all-encompassing anthem along side a Coat of Arms. Speaking of which, I believe much more meaning can be found by the critical eye that beholds our Coat of Arms compared to our current flag. Nigeria’s Coat of Arms is a simple symbol that includes two horses, an eagle, and the confluence of two silver-white wavy colors over a black shield - albeit with a sprinkling of flora here and there in the foreground. There is a unique meaning, a good reason and sound logic behind each and every item and its exact position on our Coat of Arms. The meanings of these objects are quite clear to all those readers who were not plucking mangoes during Social Studies classes.
And as for those who may at this point begin to yawn in boredom about the theme of this write-up, let me assure you that a flag IS important. In fact, a flag is arguably the first and most important symbol of a people. Even states and local councils in other countries have flags. That is why angry protesters in a given country sometimes burn flags of other countries which they perceive as unfriendly. So what we need here is more than just white color between two green stripes in a rectangular shape. Revolutionizing Nigeria socially and otherwise can start from such a simple step as a new and better flag. In short, we need a flag that will evoke tears and pain if it is burnt or manhandled (not that I am desirous of this sort of misfortune). Artists and cultural critics can argue over popcorn and groundnuts about the exact colors and details of the proposed flag. Currently, I am more concerned with the conceptual representation of any given set of national colors. Maybe, green and white will feature again in any new flag, but in a more intelligent (and MEANINGFUL) arrangement or design.
Maybe, we will include Red, for the endless blood spilt in the making and reshaping of this country. Maybe we will include Black, to represent either Crude Oil, our status as the leading Black Nation or it could mean both. Hey, maybe we will even include a Cross, a Crescent and some Cowries to represent our over-religious tendencies to put God (and gods) into every issue even if we don’t seem to fear any Supreme Being. We could even add a Red Cap with a Feather or two, since many a Nigerian is a chief, a religious pilgrim or a holder of some inconsequential traditional title. Or maybe we will just take the meaningful Coat of Arms and slap it into the middle of the Green-White-Green. In the long run, let the new flag have relevance and true meaning. Let it evoke emotions at first and every sight. All I know (or hope) for now is that we shall not adopt the Reggae combination of colors or else, I may just relocate to Jamaica.
Zulfikar Aliyu Adamu
Dhahran, Saudi Arabia