Nigeria and Catholic marriage
On August 24, 2016, Prof. Attahiru Jega, immediate past chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission, was guest speaker at the second annual lecture organised by the National Broadcasting Commission in Abuja. In “Broadcasting Democracy and the Challenge of the New Nigeria,” a brilliant expose widely reported in the Nigerian media, the learned professor of political science deployed an intriguing analogy.
Prof. Jega described Nigeria as a marriage of ethnic groups. Despite admitting that the marriage is not a perfect union, he went on to propose that it is, like Catholic marriage, indissoluble. The union is, in his words, “till death do us part.” He, therefore, counseled that Nigerians should strive to do anything humanly possible to prevent the annulment of this imperfect marriage. To prevent its annulment, says Jega, Nigerians must embark on an acceleration of democratisation, institutionalisation of good and democratic governance, and consolidation of democratic order.
As a Catholic theologian, I consider it necessary to offer a friendly response to Jega. His use of the analogy of marital indissolubility amounts to kicking the ball into his own net because Nigeria is a forced union that fails to meet a basic requirement of Catholic marriage. In Catholic theology, and in the Catholic Code of Canon Law, a forced union eminently qualifies for declaration of nullity, a declaration that there was no marriage in the first instance. There might have been a wedding.
I do not know if Jega has ever witnessed the celebration of a Catholic marriage. If he had, he would have observed that the first question the couple is asked is: have you come here freely to be united in marriage? Freedom of consent is an absolute requirement for the validity of Catholic marriage.
It is, however, a well-documented historical fact that the diverse ethnic communities that constitute the geographical entity called Nigeria were forced into this “union” by colonisation and amalgamation. The British colonisers never sought the consent of the various ethnic groups. Consequently, Nigeria is not a marriage, not a union in the proper sense of the term, but an amalgam of ethnic communities held together at gunpoint. Between 1967 and 1970, a region of the country attempted to liberate itself from the amalgam. That attempt met with bloody resistance in the so-called war to keep Nigeria one.
I strongly believe in the Nigerian project. I do not subscribe to the position of those who advocate the disintegration of Nigeria. Like Jega, I recognise that the relationship among the diverse ethnic and religious communities in Nigeria has been difficult, sometimes bloody. I believe we should ask ourselves whether or not we want to be one nation and I nurse the optimism that if Nigerians were asked to vote to be or not to be one nation, majority of Nigerians would vote to remain together. I believe the cost of disintegration, whether by peaceful or violent means, would be staggering.
Nigerians have intermarried over the years. Despite the delicate relationship and mutual suspicion, there are good examples of friendship across ethnic and religious divides. Nigerians have investments in parts of Nigeria outside their ancestral roots. There is nothing to guarantee that if the different ethnic groups were asked to form their own nations they will live in peace. We must not forget that there were intra-ethnic wars going on before the imposition of the pax Britannica. For these reasons, it would be quite naïve to think the best way is the way out of Nigeria. No doubt many Nigerians are angry. But anger is an emotion, and emotions can becloud reason. I firmly believe it is in our interest to remain one.
At the same time, there is another dangerous type of naiveté we must avoid, and that is, to simply presume and declare that Nigeria’s unity is non-negotiable. I would rather say that Nigeria’s unity is politically and economically desirable and obligatorily negotiable. We must negotiate into a union.
A nation is a union formed and regulated on the basis of shared core ideals. Americans speak of their shared core ideals as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What do we Nigerians identify as our shared core ideals? What else but football? We are united only when the Super Eagles are playing. When we desperately need a goal, and when the goal is scored, we do not ask about the local government or state of origin of the scorer before we unite in eruption of jubilation.
A state is a network of institutions working in a simultaneous and coordinated fashion to protect the people who form the union and the land on which they live as they pursue the actualisation of their shared core ideals and their individual and collective potentials. These institutions are established by the constitution that the people who form the union have given themselves.
I would propose that we adopt as our shared core values solidarity and collaboration. If we would agree to live in solidarity in our diversity and collaborate to actualise our individual and collective potentials that would be the beginning of nationhood.
It is on the basis of our agreement around shared core values that we would write, and by referendum, adopt a constitution. The referendum would serve as ratification of the union. The 1999 Constitution and its identical twin—the 1979 Constitution—were imposed on us by the section of the military that emerged as conqueror after the first two military interventions of 1966. Despite its numerous defects, defects which make it difficult to operate without avoidable dissension in the polity, Section 9 of the 1999 Constitution makes necessary far reaching amendments a mission impossible.
A constitution that reflects our shared core ideals would regulate the union by providing answers to three fundamental questions. First, what ought to be the relationship between the state and the citizen? What we have now is a state that is more powerful than the citizen, an antithesis of democratic governance. Secondly, what ought to be the relationship between the different tiers and institutions of government established by the constitution? Addressing this second fundamental question is necessary if Nigeria is to be transformed from an empire to a veritable federation. And thirdly, what ought to be the relationship between a citizen and a fellow citizen? That question needs to be addressed so that citizens do not violate each other’s rights.
As a little boy during the Nigeria-Biafra war, I recall hearing this slogan on radio: “To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done.” Unfortunately, we never unpacked the concept of unity. Unity is the absence of division. Close to 50 years after the war, what we have is not union but division. We have failed to build a nation. We have remained a state held together at gunpoint. This is simply uncomfortable. We need to embark on the journey of nationhood instead of presuming that we are a nation. That, I believe, is the real task that must be done. It is in our interest to assume this noble task instead of dangerously asserting that Nigeria’s unity is indissoluble and non-negotiable.
• Father Akinwale teaches Philosophy and Theology at the Dominican Institute, Ibadan, Oyo State.