Remembering the Past, Rewriting the Future Creating a New Nigerian Narrative

Nigeria has now been independent for over six decades. The major conundrum of our country’s recent history has been the struggle to create a national identity that all Nigerians can rally behind, regardless of ethnicity and religion. As Nigeria prepares to usher in another government in 2023, forming a clear and cohesive national narrative is crucial.

Though the facts surrounding Nigeria’s formation remain incontrovertible, the interpretation of these facts vary widely. Cynics often see Nigeria as nothing more than the artificial creation of the British empire for the purpose of profit. The fatalistic and religious have regarded it as a divine creation. Scholars such as Max Siollun, tend to posit that Nigeria’s existence is little more than the outcome of balancing the colonial accounting books. The government and United Nations Development Programme’s recently published Imagine Nigeria report described Nigeria as a ‘near-miracle’ of a country.  

None of these views are exaggerations. The circumstances that led to Nigeria’s formation, as well as the fact of its continued existence as a national entity—despite its vast ethnic diversity and decades of sociopolitical challenges—are astounding. Varied perspectives notwithstanding, the story of Nigeria’s origin has already been written. Its destiny, however, is malleable, and the outcome of the drive towards a more united country depends completely on the resolve of Nigerian citizens. 


Before 1960, the unifying force behind Nigeria’s political leadership was the opposition to colonization. That unifying force no longer exists. The major conundrum of Nigeria’s recent history has been the struggle for either the creation or preservation of a national identity; that is, a universal truth that all Nigerians can rally behind and one that promotes a sense of collective identity and relation with the state. The ‘One Nigeria’ mantra espoused by the national anthem and championed by various socio-political actors, remains a popular social mobilization tool. 

 Unfortunately, the rhetoric has never been reflected in societal realities. Feelings of socio-political exclusion have been a staple of the Nigerian system since independence in 1960. These feelings reached their peak in 1967, resulting in a civil war (1967-1970). Despite peacebuilding efforts by successive governments including the establishment of unity schools and the establishment of the National Youth Service Corps or ‘NYSC’, separatist agitations in Nigeria have persisted, and have experienced a major resurgence in recent times through groups such as the Nnamdi Kanu-led Indigenous People of Biafra or ‘IPOB movement.  

Other groups, like the militant Boko Haram, have chosen the path of insurgency, violently attempting to create a nation within a nation. These agitations and movements have been at great socio-economic cost. It is estimated that more than 1 million people died as a result of the Civil War. More than 350,000 people have been killed in Nigeria since the beginning of the Boko Haram insurgency with over 2.1 million people internally displaced.  

Nigeria has also suffered a massive brain drain over the last few years, with over 1.4 million people emigrating from the country in search of greener pastures. Research by the Pew Research Center in 2018 showed that 60 per cent of Nigerians were dissatisfied with how democracy was working in the country. Now, with Nigeria at a major crossroad in the lead up to the 2023 general elections, the cost of a lack of a cohesive national narrative is one that Nigeria can no longer afford. 


Nigeria’s issues notwithstanding, the country is full of human and material potential. Nigeria is the seventh most populous nation in the world. The Imagine Nigeria report confirms that one out of every five Africans is a Nigerian. Nigeria also has the largest youth population globally, with nearly 70 per cent of its population being under the age of 25, and in a dynamic world characterized by rocket-paced development, a burgeoning youth population is an important asset.  

Nigeria has the twenty-fifth largest economy in the world and the largest in Africa. It has one of the top three film industries in the world and its music industry is among the most influential globally. Additionally, Nigerians are constantly breaking new ground within and outside Nigeria, from being listed among the world’s most productive scientists to breaking world records in athletics. Furthermore, Nigeria is one of the few countries in Africa that experienced ethnic strife in the 60s and 70s that has not relapsed into intergenerational conflict. The major challenge remains how to convert the ‘potential’ to the ‘actual’ as far as Nigeria’s contribution to the global economy is concerned. 


The task of, as the Imagine Nigeria team puts it,forging commonality out of the plurality of identities and persuasions in Nigeria’ must be centred on the intentional mobilization of Nigeria’s socio-economic capital. This involves the development and implementation of innovative, pro-democracy policies. It also includes breaking down protectionist barriers to free trade and upholding globalization ideals in the economic space. Most importantly, it involves rebuilding broken trust in our political and government institutions. The Imagine Nigeria report outlines three key strategies on how to achieve this much needed transformative national mobilization.  

First, there must be a sense of belonging instilled into every Nigerian; the conviction that they have a voice that matters. This will entail revitalizing integrative institutions such as the NYSC scheme and designing robust civic orientation programs that decolonize Nigeria’s history, engage popular culture and create a pantheon of heroic examples.  

Another key aspect of reframing Nigeria’s identity, this time from a leadership standpoint, involves building a truly democratic, inclusive governance structure. The current position leaves much to be desired in this respect. From a leadership standpoint, a key aspect of reframing Nigeria’s identity is a democratic, inclusive governance structure. The current position leaves much to be desired in this respect. 49 per cent of Nigeria’s population is female and women accounted for 47.1 per cent of voters in the 2019 elections. Yet less than five per cent of Nigeria’s lawmakers are women. Here, Nigeria can take a cue from its east African counterpart, Rwanda, who overcame its own ethnic crises to develop one of the world’s most gender-inclusive governance structures. 

Finally, Nigerians must learn to appreciate that though the nation’s ethnic diversity and turbulent socio-political history adds an extra layer of complexity to establishing a transformative national identity, we can still achieve a stronger, more united Nigeria. The complexity created by heterogeneity must not be overstated. Contrary to certain perceptions, Nigeria’s evolution is not an arbitrary fusion of mutually alienated communities. Before colonization, many of the tribes and kingdoms that would eventually form Nigeria had devised ways of collaborating and cooperating with one another, and forged relations through various means. An example is the precolonial trade relations between peoples of the Delta region and their Igbo, Ibibio, Efik and Yoruba neighbours. The development of parochial interests was learned behaviour, and thus, can be unlearned in favour of a loftier goals such as national transformation.  

The United States and Canada are examples of heterogenous nation-states that have been able to create a national identity despite each having deep ideological divisions brought on by federalism and confederacy. A key ingredient to the success of each country has been the recognition of the supremacy of their legal system and strict adherence to transcendent democratic principles and systems. Nigeria needs to learn from these examples and sanitize the judicial and executive institutions responsible for its interpretation, implementation and possible revisions of the Nigerian constitution. 

Recreating Nigeria’s image and establishing a coherent national narrative will not be easy, but it is not impossible. It can be achieved through a commitment to leveraging our socio-economic capital, rebuilding fundamental institutions and appreciating that we share a common destiny. With the right approach, Nigeria can become a country where, in the words of Muhammad Abdulkarim, ‘resources are used to their full potential and individuals are united by a common purpose of national progress and development.’

This essay was developed with the support of the Federal Government of Nigeria and UNDP.

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