We’re reminded that Nigeria is the only former British colony that is still intact. That is a sign of strength, not weakness. What is left is for us to draw strength from unity in diversity. And I hope I’m making common sense. [Thank you, Senator Ben Murray-Bruce.]

When I watched the ministerial screening on TV in November, I felt an Obama was possible in Nigeria. After her screening, Amina Mohammed, the ministerial nominee from Gombe State, received a warm handshake from Murray-Bruce as she was walking out of the chamber. Mohammed, now minister of the environment, had a British mother; Murray-Bruce had a Scottish father. Are these two public figures alone not capable of making ethnic jingoists in the country look stupid?

Phantom lakes — that’s what I call the ethnic card politicians have created to pursue their selfish goals. The good news today is that young people are building bridges across the phantom lakes. Let me repeat what I wrote two years ago:

Whenever the political atmosphere seems charged, one potent way of extracting concessions from the other side is to play the ethnic or religious card. Reputable academics, professionals and politicians have been implicated in this crime. While it may be true that the nation is today more divided than it has ever been, it’s also true that this division exists only in the minds and thinking of the political elite. Ordinary Nigerians –the silent majority – are not worried about the stereotyped classifications of people of other tribes and religions as good or bad. I have listened to conversations in which people of the south-east praised the humility and kindness of their brothers in the north. Several villages in the north are populated by Igbo people who speak and dress like their hosts. And Segun Nweze born and bred in Ibadan does not really understand the gospel of separation he occasionally hears on television. So do Abdullahi Momoh, James Abubakar and Chuwang Agbese. By now, the number of such Nigerians must have risen to millions.

The real threat to the nation’s existence (not the nation’s unity), however, has been poverty. It is the mass poverty and ignorance in the country today that have enabled these disgruntled politicians to ply their trade openly. That’s why the UN report that 10.5 million Nigerian kids are out of school should worry all patriots. And the trend of schools churning out almost a million youths yearly without hope of finding jobs or being employable should cause all right-thinking leaders sleepless nights. Wrong education and its collapse partly inspired the name Boko Haram – Western education is forbidden.

As I said, the occasional threats of secession have been creations of the political class. The ordinary people recruited to fight and die in the civil war of the late 1960s, for instance, did not even understand why they had to fight and kill their brothers. Most were brainwashed to fight the “enemy” they did not know. Politicians also threatened secession during the June 12 struggle. Those who predicted that Nigeria would not survive the annulment of the presidential election of 1993 are still in politics. Some of those prophets of doom are today envisaging “disintegration”, unless President Goodluck Jonathan refuses to seek re-election in 2015. It’s all politics!

Nigeria’s greatness lies in its unity in diversity. Regardless of the messages of hate we read daily, ordinary Nigerians love one another. The two major religions, both of which took roots from the Middle East, canvass love and peace. So, anybody using religion as an excuse to hate other people must be a fraud. Often, those who discriminate against adherents of other religions are poor, ignorant or malicious politicians. I’m sure that, if jobs had been available for many and the nation’s economy was prospering, only a few Nigerians would have been interested in knowing what goes on in Aso Rock or the state government houses. Just as in the United States: Americans have greater interest in the weather than in what Obama and Congress are doing. When people are busy, when they can feed themselves and their families, they care little about what political parties and politicians are doing or saying.

Several times, I have recounted the dreams of Nigeria’s founding fathers, and the frustrations of those of them that lived up to the 1990s. All that the present politicians are doing is climb to fame and riches using the names of these founding fathers. On campaign grounds, they keep mentioning Zik, Sardauna, Awo, Tarka, Aminu Kano and others. We even see these sages’ photos on some posters! But one thing today’s politicians cannot do is live by the examples of our heroes past.

To win independence for Nigeria, Zik (who spoke Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo fluently) knew he could not fight alone. Until he died in 1996, he never stopped giving the credit for Nigeria’s independence to all his teammates. He often decried the lack of unity and the quest for material things among the leaders that succeeded them. I wonder what Zik’s generation would be discussing on the other side, seeing what we have got today!

Our real heroes, then, are the leaders of the First Republic and earlier. It was in their era that tribes were noticeable; it’s not like today that almost everyone speaks dogo turenchi – in fact, languages like Igbo are vanishing because “enlightened” parents do not speak the “ancient” language to their children. Yet, our founding fathers got along very well with one another. The famous exchange between Zik and Bello – “Let’s forget/understand our differences” – was a mirror of true nationalists at their best.

Apart from speaking the three languages, Zik also gave his children Yoruba and Hausa names. He was not alone: We know the famous mathematician that gave birth to the [former] MD of AMCON, Mustafa Chike-Obi. I have read and heard how Sardauna travelled to Ilorin in 1962 to congratulate the current Catholic archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, when he excelled in the WASC of that year.

The inter-ethnic marriages of three and four generations ago – like between the parents of (retired general and later senator) Ike Omar Sanda Nwachukwu, between Yoruba and Tiv, between Angas and Fulani – show that ethnicity was never an issue. More than a century ago, Fulani nomads settled in Ibagwa in present-day Enugu State; their progeny today speak not just Igbo but the Ibagwa dialect; you cannot distinguish Fulani from Igbo except that the former worship mainly in mosques. It’s the same story in parts of Kwara State where you find Fulani that cannot speak Hausa or Fulfulde anymore but speak Yoruba fluently. I have no better way of describing these full-blooded Nigerians than “bridge builders of modern Nigeria”.

It is hoped that attachment to tribe or religion will disappear from this blessed land in the nearest future. They can only make us miserable. There is more than enough for everybody in Nigeria to enjoy in Nigeria – a nation blessed with human and mineral resources. Greed and selfishness have not allowed us to enjoy these bounties.

It’s not enough to agitate for “resource control”, “power shift” or “our turn to rule”. Even if all the oil in the Niger Delta is left for Niger Deltans alone, poverty and squalor will persist in the area. Cows, rams and goats reared in the north-west, and the yams, onions, ginger and groundnuts cultivated in the north-central and north-east contribute more to the nation’s GDP than oil. Similarly, if presidents of northern extraction remain in power for 60 years, the poverty and hopelessness in the area will not disappear.

–By ANIEBO NWAMU

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