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Should Nigeria rethink its national motto?

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Should Nigeria rethink its national motto?

The 50th anniversary of the Biafran civil war has opened up fresh discussions over the relevance of the motto on Nigeria’s national coat of arms and therefore its sense of direction.

National mottos or slogans reflect the dreams and aspirations of nations, as well as their fears and preoccupations. As Nigeria focuses on the 50th anniversary of the start of the Biafran civil war, it is appropriate that we take a critical look at its motto to see if it is still relevant in today’s turbulent times.

Unity and Faith, Nigeria’s national slogan emblazoned on its official Coat of Arms at independence in 1960, encapsulated the country’s early obsessions and fear about its own territorial fragility.

Other countries have adopted the ‘Unity’ phrase but usually aligned with strength, in the context of staying together. The Haitian coat of arms, with the motto “Unity Makes Strength”, captures this sense. Given the series of peoples’ wars engaged in to abolish slavery and achieve independence from the French in 1804, it’s not surprising to see why Haitians valorise this combination as part of their national identity.

In the Nigerian case, the combination of Unity with Faith is strange. Faith in what? The future? God? In global surveys, the country, with its Christian and Muslim split, always scores highly as one of the most religious in the world. Perhaps Faith reflects this deep sense of God awe, but why then combine it with unity? Or is it simply a blind faith in unity itself, without question?

One is tempted to say that this is the case. During the Biafran war for instance, the mantra of the Nigerian leader, General Yakubu Gowon, was: “To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done”. Beyond blind faith that perhaps the Creator itself had put this country together so nobody should break it asunder, there didn’t seem to be any real reason provided as to why this task must be done.

However, this reading would be too simplistic. The country itself, beyond blind faith, has been having a parallel conversation, which as in Biafra, has sometimes been violent, about what “unity” means. Indeed in 1979, the country added the words “Peace and Progress” to the “Unity and Faith” motto.

Like other global entities having the same conversation, such as the UK and the EU, the issues turn around two arguments about unity, peace and progress. The first assumes a basic acceptance of the state itself and the argument is simply about the distribution of competencies and control of resources between different parts of the state – from a centralised state to a highly decentralised one.

Unity and Faith, Nigeria’s national slogan emblazoned on its official Coat of Arms at independence in 1960, encapsulated the country’s early obsessions and fear about its own territorial fragility.

This is the basic argument that the UK has been having with the EU as part of its ongoing Brexit; and which the Scots in turn are having with the rest of the UK. Both the UK and the Scots accept the broad liberal order, but their “nationalism”, whether English or Scottish, can be interpreted as simply a desire to return all competencies and retain “control” for an assumed greater progress.

Sense of nationalism
A similar sense of “nationalism” lay behind the Biafran war, when the Igbo and other minorities in the Eastern part of Nigeria, argued initially at the Aburi peace talks for an acceptance of the basic Nigerian state order, but also a looser confederal system, to return more competence and control to the federating units. When the deal agreed at Aburi was rejected in 1967, independence was declared by Biafra, and bloody conflict ensued. The war did lead Nigeria to embark on the creation of additional states (from 12 to 36 over 50 years) to deal with the issues of decentralisation, peace and progress within a basic unity.

However the decentralisation has in fact not worked as the country’s major resource – oil – and the security apparatus that protects those who control the oil, is still massively centrally dictated, producing inequalities, corruption, inefficiencies and lack of progress that have led to insurgencies in the Niger Delta and new calls for Biafra. The second unity argument is even more intractable as it assumes that the basic ideological order of the state is itself in contention. For instance, underlying the Boko Haram insurgency is the demand for a Muslim state and the imposition of Sharia. Faith literally looms large again, potentially destroying Unity, Peace and Progress.

Is is time to rethink the national motto?


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Written by Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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