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Adeshina Afolayan
Department of Philosophy
University of Ado-Ekiti
Ekiti State, Nigeria


One of the presumptuous claims behind the Nigerian state is that it is a nation. At a
superficial level, this could be attributed to the conflation of “state” and “nation” in
normal discourse. A deeper analysis, which this essay attempts, sees the presumption as
an opportunity to problematize Nigerian nationalistic history from colonialism till date.
The main point is that the uncritical appropriation of the colonial legacy especially in the
form of the state structure places the Nigerian leadership in a national strait that makes it
perpetually aiming at an imaginary unity. The real claim is that these attempts are not
genuine (the oil motif that I read into the Bakassi event). I attempt to examine the recent
Bakassi issue in the light of the subtle and explicit desire of the Nigerian state to force
unity on an unyielding diversity. In other words, Bakassi represents an “episode” of burst
nationalism that has no genuine socioeconomic base for transformation, ergo cannot rally
the people, especially the Bakasseans to national identity, and will soon fade away
leaving the people further entrenched in their ethnic enclaves.

KEYWORDS: Irredentism; national identity; Bakassi; burst nationalism; national elite;

the state.

Introduction and background

The indictment of the Nigerian state, which I want to pursue in this essay, is that now, it

is more appropriate since the evaporation of the nationalistic aura that ushered Nigeria

into political independence in 1960, to speak of a burst or quantum of unity with regards

to Nigerian national project. Burst nationalism, in this sense, is conceived as the

perpetual attempts of the national elites to read nationalistic significance into certain

mundane and/or important events and happenings in order to cover up glaring national

failures. In other words, we can speak of an episode of a burst national event which

serves the elites’ yearning for a while and fades into insignificance. This national attitude

is contrasted to another more genuine nationalistic attempt based on an adequate and

critical confrontation of the social question: the attempt of the leadership to improve the

standard of living of its people. Put in another form, any leadership that fails to find an

enduring solution to the social question will always be running after an imaginary

nationalistic unity. Nigeria, it seems to me, provides a good illustration of this

abandonment of the social for the national question. That is, without an appropriate

solution to the issue of achieving a socio-economic relevance for its constituents, Nigeria

will never achieve any national coherence.

The ultimate aim of every leadership is to find means of welding the disparate,

heterogeneous constituents of a state into one “national” whole that will be able to sustain

the nationalist doctrine of a nation as an autonomous and unique entity in a world of

nations. This nationalist’s desire for national identity becomes more crucial as the

incidence of ethno-nationalism has become a source of concern for nation-states caught

in the web of realpolitik.

The progressively unsuccessful attempts by the various governments that had

ruled the Nigerian state from independence till date to construct any meaningful national

mystique necessary for development could be given a simple reason. The euphoric and

naïve anti-colonial nationalistic fervour lost its existential insistence and basis in the stark

realities of post-colonial Nigerian society. The social basis, which grounded the initial

nationalism, was eclipsed by a later, reactionary nationalism confronted with its own

failures. Another reason seems pertinent as a clarification. The destined-to-rule attitude of

some national elites, which characterised their approach to the assumption of power, also

implicated their presumption about the colonial legacy implicit in the Nigerian state. This

led, subsequently to their failure to deliver on the socioeconomic transformation, which

initially motivated the nationalistic mobilization. More importantly, when it became

obvious that they could not sustain the impetus that rallied the people round the

nationalistic slogan, it was then necessary for the national leadership to start ruling

(“rule” as a process of repressing the masses that initially fuelled, but now interrogates

the legitimacy of the government).

The attempts since independence had vacillated between the preference for a

ready-made, all-purpose state institution “with a worked-out routine and clear

procedures” (Campbell, 1997: 151), and the need for the people who must be politically

mobilized to sustain the felt need for national identity consequent on the disorientation of

the masses with national rhetoric sans social content. The history of state building in

Nigeria’s forty-three years of existence offers a fruitful ground for testing the hypothesis

that the successive Nigerian governments have been trapped in this vacillation, and hence

that no significant attempt has been made at a genuine national unity. The concept of

“burst” nationalism points at the palliative attempts by the government to leap over the

social question posed by ethno-nationalism towards the illusion of an imagined national


A score is a goal: The case for an “instrumental” sport

One of the most trivial of such “bursts” derives from the opportunity offered by Nigerian

national sports. These, I believe, are maneuvered towards inducing Nigerians (or rather,

sports-loving Nigerians) to forget their existential grievances and ethnic differences in a

moment of exhilarated or depressed emotional outburst that attend the twists and turns of

the sporting prowess of the national teams. The soccer tournament tagged “Nigeria ’99,”

among others, not only points at the link between sport and nationalism, it also illustrates

the platitude that “sport and its mediation include implicit political content” (Nimmo and

Combs, 1983: 125). In other words, what has been called the “fantasies of the playing

field” possess relevance for those at the corridor of power who attempt to create, transmit

and subtly force the adoption of political fantasies--mediated through series of “national”

events—as realistic views of what takes place (Ibid.: xv).

Sports have always been a crucial issue in nationalist’s rhetoric. The political

undercurrent that victory and defeat hold is manifested in Adolf Hitler’s hostility towards

the triumphant skill of a “subhuman” Jesse Owen at the 1936 Munich Olympics. The US

policy makers found the deviant attitude of the medal-winning blacks at the 1968

Olympics unsalutary. Subsequently, all blacks that raised their clenched fists high over

their bowed heads had their medals withdrawn. In 1956, the functionality of sports for

nationalism reached a bloody apogee when the Hungarian and Soviet water polo teams

met at the Olympics (shortly after the Soviet’s suppression of the Hungarian revolution).

Consider this Nigeria ’99 soccer tournament as one example of burst nationalism.

The importance of this event goes beyond the cultivation of a culture of heroism, the

indulgence of sporting fantasies or the instrumental use of sport stars to further selfish

political ambitions of individual politicians. All of these are pertinent to sport in general,

especially within a nationalistic context. Beyond all these, however, sports make for

patriotic inspiration, especially within the context of the nationalist’s doctrine of a world

of unique and autonomous nations. The cultivation of heroism, for instance, has an

implication that transcends the athletic excellence that derives from the image of

discipline, endurance and stability. It implies, for Nimmo and Combs, “a fantasy with an

important political connection: a nation that is ‘soft’ cannot compete in international

political struggle” (Ibid.: 128)

When the other nations came to Nigeria in 1999, the Nigerian national project

received a boost in that it had an opportunity to invigorate the “self-other” distinction

intrinsic to nationalism. No doubt, the attempt had a measure of success. This is because

the confrontation of the other football nations affords the Nigerian football team, and

indeed all football fans in Nigeria, the opportunity, psychologically speaking, to measure

their success in strong nationalistic terms. It should be an interesting dissertation in

nationalistic psychology to research into the state of mind of the players (and the on-the-

spot patriotic fans) as the national anthem is sung, the pledges recited and the prayers

pronounced. Suffice is to say that the other team presents a self-defining, national target

for “our” national team. In such a state of mind, other existential issues and problems are

seemingly bracketed at that moment of intense national confrontation.

It is doubly significant that while the football tournament was going on, the

Nigerian nation was equally under intense interrogation by its multi-ethnic constituents.

The vision of the Nigerian government in winning the hosting right to the world cup

tournament could not have been limited to the anticipation of an economic boost or the

invigoration of the sense of belonging which, as I have been trying to show, has never

genuinely featured in the national project. My argument is that the influence of

nationalism over sports and all other “national” events necessary for burst nationalism

consist in the engagement of the communal emotions of the participants through the

representation of an ideal national unity which is absent in the existential day-to-day

world of those participants.

The presumption is then that the aura of national unity will achieve a temporary

relief from the collective interrogation of ongoing national happenings. In other words,

Nigerians are to bracket the fact that the Niger-Delta has defied palliative solutions; that

the whole country was still groping from the effects of the siege represented by the

military regimes; that Nigeria is one of the poorest countries around; that she has also

been dubbed as the supposedly second most corrupt country in the world; that there is a

stifling high cost of living occasioned by the profligacy of the leadership; etc. Burst

events are valuable in nationalistic calculation because they become attempts at

sustaining a patriotic unity that will help bridge the invisible socioeconomic, ethnic and

religious cleavages in the country. Sporting events are constructively mediated as a

veritable means of political recruitment and mobilisation to the cause of the national


Bakassi Irredenta: Another attempt at unity

A more significant burst of nationalistic consciousness is the recent Nigeria/Cameroon

debate over the Bakassi Peninsula. On the 10 October 2002, the International Court of

Justice (ICJ) sitting at The Hague ruled in favour of Cameroon as the rightful owner of

the Bakassi area. This area includes part of the villages adjoining Lake Chad in the north-

east of Nigeria through the mouth of River Ebeji bordering Adamawa state (in Nigeria),

and down to the Bakassi Peninsula in the south-eastern state of Cross River (also in

Nigeria). The judgment is the consequence of the over eight years’ legal battle which

started on 29 March 1994 at the instance of the Cameroonian government. Going into

history, 1962 probably heralded the series of events and circumstances that we can

subsume under the concept of Bakassi. That year was the beginning of the wrangling

between Cameroon and Nigeria around the interpretation of history, geography and

constitutionality of the Bakassi Peninsula. The Nigerian government accused Cameroon

of endangering the lives and properties of the Nigerians on the peninsula. The

Cameroonian government on its own counterpoised with the charge of Nigerian

irredentism and oil imperialism around Bakassi.

There are two theoretical angles from which one can analyze Bakassi. The gist of

my argument in this essay is that these angles only serve to corroborate the nationalistic

character of Bakassi. Territorial, exclusionary nationalism of the old type1 thrives on three

strategies, which are supposed to wield the disparate, heterogeneous people under the

same political roof with a national identity. These strategies are the “promotion of a myth

of threat to the nation”; the “perpetuation of notions of a hostile conspiracy;” and “a

persistent tendency of glorification of the national past” (Nikolas, 2000: 11). The Balkan

(Serbia and Croatia) provides a good example of the use of these strategies of nationalism

that sees anything foreign as xenophobic and hence threatening. This is so especially in

Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic. My contention is that Bakassi provides the same

nationalistic façade for Nigeria, more so with the incidence of oil in that region under


The two theoretical angles can both be subsumed under the conspiracy and threat

strategies. (I will argue later that the third strategy is not potent because the Nigerian

national elites do not have such a “national past” at their disposal to glorify.) Both call on

history as a means of untangling the Gordian knot generated by geography and

constitutionality. History also serves as the background that gives shape and coherence to

the tapestry of events culminating in what, from the Nigerian perspective, amounts to the

rape of Nigeria’s territorial integrity.

The first angle derives from the political whims of the colonizers over the

undifferentiated landmass of the colonized. The most enduring legacy of colonialism is

the amalgamation of the heterogeneous people and territories under the same artificial

boundaries to further the colonial administrative convenience. At independence, the

euphoria of self-rule blinded the nationalists to the dangers to national identity inherent in

the “arbitrary states” they inherited. To consolidate this error, the Organization of African

Unity (OAU) declared in its founding charter the inviolability of the colonially created

territories. This colonial context explains the Anglo-German Treaty of 1913 on which the

ICJ’s judgment was based.

For instance, let us examine the specifics of the case. On the authority of history,

it is plausible to argue that the Bakassi peninsula was ceded to Cameroon by the

geopolitical maneuvering of political leaders. At the flowering of the colonial incidence,

circa 1884, the peninsula came under the protection of Great Britain through a treaty

entered into by the kings and chiefs of Old Calabar in the hope that colonialism is

actually laden with the burden of civilization and progress. In 1900, Bakassi became part

of the protectorate of southern Nigeria. However, an agreement between Britain and

Germany in March and April, 1913, and reinforced by the Thomson-Merchand

Declaration of 1929-1930 (as incorporated in the Henderson-Fleuriau Exchange of Notes

between Great Britain and France, 1931) redefined the maritime boundary of the

Akpayafe River (crucial to the Bakassi peninsula) in favour of the colonial German

authority overseeing Cameroon. By June 1975, the then military head of state of Nigeria,

General Yakubu Gowon, in the manner of 17th century kings and in deep ignorance of

history and the complexity of geopolitics, entered into the Maroua Accord with the then

Cameroonian head, Ahmoudou Ahidjo that practically ceded the peninsula over to

Cameroonian sovereignty. Thus, the ICJ decided that,

…pursuant to the Anglo-German Agreement of 11 March

1913, sovereignty over Bakassi lies with Cameroon.
Similarly, the Court fixed the boundary in the Lake Chad
area in accordance with the Henderson-Fleuriau Exchange
of Notes of 9 January 1931 between France and Great
Britain and rejected Nigeria’s claims to the Darak area and
the neighbouring villages…The Court also fixed the
maritime boundary between the two states. Here, the Court
accepting Cameroon’s contention, began by upholding the
validity of the Declaration of Yaounde II and Maroua,
pursuant to which the heads of state of Nigeria and
Cameroon had in 1971 and 1975 agreed upon the maritime
boundary between the two countries from the mouth of the
Akwayafe to a point G situated at 8o 22’ 19” longitude east
and 4o 17’ 00” latitude north (The Punch, Oct. 2002: 11).

The judgment, to the extent that it used history, it is argued, only goes to prove

the arbitrariness of colonial creations. This is because the same history provides contra

evidence to colonial whims. According to Sir Arthur Watts, the Nigerian Counsel at the

ICJ, in the Anglo-German Treaty of 1913, constitutionality is belied by history since the

area where the treaty initiated delimitation ignores the historical territorial authority of

the kings and chiefs of Old Calabar. For him, the ineffectiveness of the treaty is due to

the reason of “Great Britain’s lacking of competence to diminish the territorial interest of

Old Calabar” (The Guardian, March 2002: 1). It is also due to the strange but subtle logic

that transmuted territorial protection into territorial possession. Thus, that Gilbert

Guillaume, the president of the ICJ and a Frenchman, upheld a colonial treaty that ceded

the Bakassi peninsula to Cameroon, a former French colony, goes beyond the boundary

of justice.

The second angle of Bakassi situates the judgment of the ICJ within the context of

the international oil politics involving the US as a major actor. In an interview with The

Punch, Prof. Okello Oculi contends that the reason for this recontextualisation away from

a mere legal hairsplitting is that there is a larger global context that is only meaningful

within the trajectory of American foreign policy:

The US is anxious in shifting its source of oil from the Gulf

States. Arabia was castigated as a breeding ground for
fundamentalists, so also Indonesia and Iran…To prevent
the Gulf states from using oil as instrument of retaliation,
they now focus on the Gulf of Guinea which has easy
passage, because the route from there to the US is on the
international route, unlike the gulf with the Suez canal.
This geographical advantage has to be translated into an
ideological context (The Punch, Oct. 2002: 14).

This hypothesis, for him, flows from the need felt by the US policy makers to make

Africa an “area of vital interest” that will cater for 25% of the US oil import by 2015. To

make this a reality, Prof. Oculi argues that the US stands to benefits more from

Cameroon, which is unlikely to react with hostility to her policy in the Middle East,

especially Iraq, compared with Nigeria with her large Muslim population. Therefore, the

US and France stand to benefit from Bakassi and from the turn of the judgment at the


I do not intend in this essay to critically engage the perspectives of the two

analyses of Bakassi. Rather, I argue that to these perspectives one must necessarily add a

third. Both analyses, that is, neglect a further component that would make for a holistic

mapping of Bakassi. This component involves the two important actors in Bakassi—the

Nigerian government and the Nigerians on the peninsula. Bakassi, I think, raises a

nationalistic point that ultimately can be tied in with the overall project of nation-building

in Nigeria. In other words, either wittingly or otherwise, Bakassi provides an interesting

illustration of burst nationalism similar to, but wider than, that invoked in national

sporting tournament. This nationalism is conceived around a supposedly unanimous

belief of the territorial sovereignty of Nigeria over the Bakassi peninsula, its oil and other

resources, and its inhabitants (in that order, as I will later try to show). This is supposed

to activate a fierce, consensual national pride in the concept of Nigeria against those—the

Cameroonians—who are not Nigerians. For Richard Rose, “In any nation the structure of

values will include a relatively small selection of beliefs about which there is expected to

be consensus; these are the values that mould an aggregate of people into one society”

(Rose, 1985: 86). This set of beliefs is not different from those that are essential for a

people to have a common national identity. Miller contends that to share a nationality, a

people must perceive that there exists among them certain shared beliefs which include:

a belief that each belongs together with the rest; that this
association is neither transitory nor merely instrumental,
but stems from a long history of living together which (it is
hoped and expected) will continue into the future; that the
community is marked off from other communities by its
members’ distinctive characteristics; that each member
recognizes a loyalty to the community, expressed in a
willingness to sacrifice personal goals to advance its
interests; and that the community should enjoy a measure
of political autonomy, normally (but not I think
necessarily) in the form of a sovereign state (Miller, 1996:

It is not fortuitous that Nigeria’s case at the ICJ was hinged on her supposed

relationship with the other Nigerians in the disputed territory, compared to Cameroon,

which, for Nigeria’s leading counsel at the ICJ, Musa Elayo, “has done nothing to assist

the inhabitants, in spite of its claims to sovereignty.” On other hand, he contends that

“significant investments in schools, clinics, administration and infrastructures have been

made by Nigeria in those towns and villages [in the Bakassi peninsula and adjoining

disputed areas]” (The Guardian, 2002: 2. My emphasis). In fact, he insists that “a simple

solution” to the over forty years old dispute is possible: rather than the tortuous legal

routes that brought both countries to the ICJ, the UN should instead raise a fact-finding

team to the area to collate the views of the inhabitants (Ibid.: 1).

The long history of the “Cameroonian aggression” is to be contrasted to the

equally long history of Nigeria’s interest in the well-being of the Bakassi people deriving

from the political, cultural, historical and ethnographic ties the farmers and fishermen in

the Bakassi peninsula have with Nigeria. A testimony to the political obligatory relation

between the Nigerian government and the over 60,000 inhabitant of the Peninsula is

represented by the establishment in 1996 of the Bakassi local council to bring the

government closer to the people (harassed by Cameroonian gendarmes).

The real point, on the contrary, is that in the construction of all nationalistic

episodes, and especially Bakassi, the reality consistently belies the expectations of

national consensus. Such brief episodes, I argue, are expected to shore up the fading

legitimacy of the Nigerian government anchored desperately to the morally dysfunctional

Nigerian state and its bureaucratic apparatus. One such episode is the National Youth

Service Corps (NYSC) scheme, which is expected to magically facilitate “unity in

diversity” by a compulsory injection of mostly reluctant graduates in to far-flung

societies. I suspect that, in most cases, those who are interested in the scheme only

became so for purely mercenary reason: the optimistic chance of getting a gainful

employment and not the endorsement of a national slogan.

Richard Rose again suggests an insight into this analysis. National pride, he says,

“is the psychological hinge that joins self-fulfillment with public purposes of

government” (Rose, 1985: 85). The reality in post-independent Nigeria is that both the

self-fulfillment on the part of the citizens and the public purposes on the part of the

government are lacking. Yet, the government pays lip service to nationalistic slogans.

Burst episodes in post-independent Nigerian nationalism are supposed to serve as a

uniting factor which often is always half-hearted, spurious and lacking in foundational

coordination. Most times, they represent attempts to woo an unyielding and controverting

diversity into an undefined and undefining unity. This is the absurd expectation. Contrary

to Nigeria’s claim to providing significant investments in essential goods and services to

the inhabitants of the Bakassi peninsula, Jolly Nyame, the governor of Taraba state in

Nigeria, in his reaction to the incidence of “Cameroonian aggression” in the disputed

territory, comments that

I personally believe that the government of Cameroon is

taking advantage of our inability to provide social services
to the people along the border. They have very good
medical, education and maybe economic opportunities on
the borders with Cameroon which we don’t have and the
contention is that our people go to Cameroon for health
care facilities; send their kids to Cameroonian schools. The
Cameroonian markets are closer to them so they do more
economic activities with them. This is a little delicate for us
as a government in Nigeria (The Guardian, March 2002: 3.
My emphasis).

If, as I have been trying to argue, Bakassi represents one of the significant

demonstration of burst nationalism, and if the evidence of history, geography and

constitutionality seems concretely in favour of Cameroonian sovereignty over the Bakassi

peninsula, the pertinent question, I believe, is this: if the territorial dispute seems so cut

and dry, why did Nigeria go to so much legal trouble to vex a case she might lose? The

outline of an answer is possible if one notes the charge of Nigerian oil imperialism and

irredentism over Bakassi.

The aim of nationalists everywhere is to imagine and create a nation that, in

Emerson’s words, would be “the largest community which, when the chips are down,

effectively commands men’s loyalty” (cited in Rose, ibid.). This loyalty is expected to be

aroused by appealing to a primordial, emotional attachment to symbols of national

identity i.e. a piece of territory in irredentist nationalism. Here, one can easily note the

similarity between the volknationalism of Adolf Hitler over the Sudetenland and Austrian

Germans in 1938, the Italia irredenta over Trieste and Trentino-Alto Adige in 1919, and

what is most likely, as my argument tries to show, a Nigerian irredentism over the

Bakassi peninsula. Bakassi represents the attempt by the Nigerian government to lay

claim to a filial link with the inhabitants of the peninsula. The strategy involves

strengthening the definition of the “we” against “them.”

On their part, the inhabitants of the disputed territory, faced with a choice

between an imminent national submersion and recruitment into the national space of

another country (the “other”), are supposed to call on an imaginary we-feeling in which

the concept of “Nigeria” will serve as a bulwark against Cameroonian territorial

nationalism. When the judgment was handed down on the 10 October, one would agree

with Emerson that the chips where literally down. According to Senator F. Ita-Giwa who

represents the Cross River South constituency covering the peninsula, “We will not

hesitate to pull out of Nigeria and seek self-determination if Nigeria allows our land to be

taken away from us.” In the same vein, Bakassi traditional ruler adds that rather than

“lose our sovereignty, we will fight to the last drop of our blood. If Nigeria cannot protect

us, we will declare a republic of Bakassi” (The Punch, Oct. 2002: 7).

The catch is that the national interest around which the Nigerian government

expects mobilization of national loyalty is the incidence of oil in the Bakassi peninsula

rather than the redemption of the disputed territory itself on behalf of the inhabitants. In

other words, I believe that the incidence of oil only serves as the “hotbed for the

dissipation of fellow feelings among Nigerians” (The Guardian, Feb. 2002: 1). Yagcioglu

has argued, in his article, “Irredentism: An Inevitable Tendency of Ethnic Nationalism,”

that what is central in many irredentist movements involved with territories having an

ethnic minority or not “is territory and not population, despite the irredentist state’s

assertion to the contrary” (Yagcioglu, 1996: 6). The implication is that the desire for

expansion which in the case of Nigeria is supposedly being interrogated by Cameroon

(and made more crucial given the incidence of oil on the disputed territory), is much

stronger, and often is the only motive for irredentism, rather than the affinity component

which would have reinforced the nationalistic flowering of the Bakassi inhabitants.

Yagcioglu thus concludes that

When minorities are not central, they become a mere pawn

in the irredentist game. The irredentist state is not really
concerned with the well being of the group. It just tries to
use it as a destabilizer. Sometimes the irredentist state
modifies its policies or even postpones its irredentist goals
living the minority at the mercy of the government against
which it helped mobilize (Ibid.)

Within the Nigerian context, burst nationalism contains such ulterior motives such

as Yagcioglu notes about which would consistently difficult for such an episodic unity to

serve as the basis of national identity. The episode is as good as it lasts, and then the

people will quickly return to the reality of their accustomed national issues which

characteristically excite anti-national attitude.

This to be sure would be unacceptable given the nationalist’s ideology (and that’s

over-stretching the imagination that the Nigerian elites are nationalistic). For the

nationalist, the love of the fatherland, given even the present argument that Nigeria’s

concern with Bakassi revolves around the oil more than the people, should overwhelm

the citizens since the state exists for their welfare. This was the argument of Frederick the

Great of Prussia in his 1779 book, Letters on the Love of the Fatherland. In a

correspondence between Anapistemon and Philopatros, Frederick’s contention is to the

effect that the love of the fatherland is a rational sentiment that supersedes any preference

for a cosmopolitan or ethnic sentiment. Thus, Philopatros (meaning the love of the

fatherland) informs Anapistemon that

The good of society is yours. Without realising it, you are

so strongly tied to your fatherland, that you can neither
isolate, nor separate yourself from it without feeling the
consequence of your mistake. If the government is happy,
you prosper; if it suffers harm, its misfortune will react on
you…Do you not see that if the government were to lose
these provinces, it would thereby become enfeebled, and
losing consequently the resources it had drawn from them,
would be less able than now to help you, in case of need?
(Cited in Kedourie, 1979: 11, 12 My emphasis)

This perspective also informs Goethe’s characterisation of the fatherland: “Have we a

fatherland? If we can find a place where we can rest with our possession, a field to

sustain us, a home to cover us, have we not there a fatherland?” (Ibid.: 12). This is an

argument that the Nigerian government can appropriate, but it is doubtful if it can

adequately answer Goethe’s question.

By way of a conclusion: An entangled identity

The analysis of the Nigerian state forty-two years after political independence seems to

justify ascribing Nigeria the status of an irredentist state which emphasizes an

expansionist and territorial logic rather than one motivated by the interest of, and affinity

with, the people on that disputed territory. Earlier on, we made reference to the

progressively unsuccessful attempt by the African leadership to justify the existential

basis and the insistence of pre-independence nationalism and its anti-colonial logic. After

independence, it became immediately obvious that the take-over plans by the nationalists

concealed a very hazy and inadequate blueprint for transforming the socio-economic

yearning of the people into post-independence realities.

The fascination that the colonial state had for the Nigerian nationalists did not

instigate the interrogation of the colonial logic which motivates the state and its

bureaucratic apparatus an instrument of subjugation, exploitation and coercion. When the

harsh reality of post-colonial Nigeria dissipated the presumptuous expectations of the

nationalists, the coercive instrumentality of the colonial state structure served them well

in further alienating the people and their legitimate demands for socio-economic and the

existential post-colonial meaningfulness. In between the leadership, which developed a

siege mentality and the people armed with a confrontational ethnicity, the Nigerian state

became a prized category. The relationship of the leadership and the citizens engendered,

for Ekeh, two public realms: the civic public and the primordial public. For the

primordial public, the state is to be eluded and defrauded at every opportunity. According

to Ekeh,

A good citizen of the primordial public gives out and asks

for nothing in return; a lucky citizen of the civic public
gains from the civic public but enjoys escaping giving
anything in return whenever he can, but such a lucky man
would not be a good man were he to channel all his lucky
gains to his private purse. He will only continue to be a
good man if he channels part of the largesse from the civic
public to the primordial public. That is the logic of the
dialectics. The unwritten law of the dialectics is that it is
legitimate to rob the civic public in order to strengthen the
primordial public (1975: 108)

When oil was discovered in Nigeria in 1962, the value of the Nigerian state

structure as a prized category went up several notches far above the heads of the citizens.

It became the basis for micro- and macro-economic and socio-political calculations.

Simultaneously, Nigeria witnessed a boom and a doom; the oil resources became an

index of prosperity as well as a badge of corruption. And within the unfolding geometry

of power, the Nigerian citizens became useful only as a necessary pawn to be

manipulated and deceived.

Within the context of burst nationalism, the concept of a “national elite”

consisting of ideologues, patriots and theorists who are genuinely and openly concerned

about forging a national identity becomes suspect. This is because the Nigerian state has

become instrumental to materialistic advancement and honorific enhancement rather than

encourage sincere nationalistic efforts. One cannot, for instance, talk of the right-wing

nationalism of Pim Fortyn (in the Netherlands), Jean-Marie Le Pen (in France), and Rush

Limbaugh (in the US); or the left-wing radical debates surrounding, say, multiculturalism

in America, Canada and Australia. In other words, within the Nigerian political context,

the spectrum of political ideology collapses into the mire of political maneuvers. The

burst metaphor thus becomes double-edged. One, it represents the half-hearted efforts of

the elites to appear nationalistic and hence untribalistic and politically selfless; and two, it

illustrates the manifestation of the spasm of state-building confronting ethnic difference.

That is, state-building that has not been tempered by, and which seems immune to the

democratic imagination. While it may be possible for the elites to mobilize the people

around the mythic of ethnic communality, it is distinctive of burst nationalism that it

lacks the features of civic nationalism, which is the natural complement of ethnic

nationalism. Without each other, nationalism will remain perpetually unsuccessful. Thus,

we can argue that burst nationalism is a manifestation of an unsuccessful nationalism,

either ethnic or civic, which is a tool manipulated by the elites in order to shift attention

away from the real issues which they want to avoid, and create in its place artificial ones

(Nikolas, 2000: 11).

One can therefore say, within the theoretical context of Anderson’s imagined

community, that the putative Nigerian political community which is supposed to denote a

Nigerian nation is fictitious in a critical sense: it is an elitist imagination responding to

socioeconomic exigencies, but lacking a crucial moral imperative to command the loyalty

of its citizens. In The Ethnic Origins of Nations, Smith argues that

If the nation is to become a “political community” on the

western territorial and civic model, it must, paradoxically,
seek to create those myths of descent, those historical
memories and that common culture which form the missing
element of their ethnic make-up, along with a mutual
solidarity…This is done by creating or elaborating an
“ideological” myth of origin and descent (cited in Miller,
1996: 90).

In other words, for Miller, the process of nation-building involves the elaboration of a set

of background and constitutive beliefs (the former supporting the latter) which both go

into the conception of a “national character” (Ibid.: 93). This involves essentially a

reinterpretation of the country’s past and a critical confrontation with its national present.

Since independence, the post-colonial task for the Nigerian government has been

the perennial attempt to find a national equilibrium between ethnic and civic nationalisms

which, combined in a proportionate interplay, will facilitate nation building. However,

the goal of the Nigerian nation seems like an ever-receding horizon because the Nigerian

leadership lacks the requisite image of a national past on which to hang the necessity of a

national present. It would seem to me therefore that there is a reasonable logic behind the

conclusion that while the people may feature as an issue in the Nigerian government’s

contention on Bakassi, they only serve as a convenient distraction for the real, pecuniary

oil that explains Nigerian irredentism over the Bakassi peninsula and the legal and

constitutional tussle consequent on it.


1. It is now normal in nationalistic studies to distinguish between Old and New

Nationalism, the former referring to the exclusionary, xenophobic nationalism of
the nation-state against other nation-states, while the latter denote the
inclusionary response of the nation-state to the incidence of identity politics and
the conflict of difference it raises. See, for instance, John Rex, ‘National Identity
in the Democratic Multi-Cultural State,’ Sociological Research Online, vol. 1,
no. 2, <http://> and Gerard
Delanty, ‘Beyond the Nation-State: National Identity and Citizenship in a
Multicultural Society—A Response to Rex,’ Sociological Research Online, vol.
1, no. 3, <http://>


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Cultural Relations (London and Washington: Cassell).

Nimmo, Dan and Combs, James (1983), Mediated Political Realities (New York and
London: Longman).

Ekeh, P. P. (1975), ‘Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A Theoretical

Statement,’ Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 17, no. 1, Jan.

Kedourie, Elie (1979), Nationalism (London: Hutchinson).

Miller, David (1996), “Community and Citizenship,” in Shlomo Avineri and Avner
de-Shalit (eds) Communitarianism and Individualism (Oxford: Oxford University

Nikolas, M. M. (2000), False Opposites in Nationalism, <http:>

Rose, Richard (1985), “National pride in cross-national perspective,” International

Social Science Journal, vol. xxxvii, no. 1.

The Guardian, 8 February 2002.

The Guardian, March 2, 2002.

The Guardian, 7 March 2002.

The Guardian, 17 March 2002.

The Punch, 11 October 2002.

The Punch, 12 October, 2002.

The Punch, 19 October 2002.

Yagcioglu, Dimostenis, “Irredentism: An Inevitable Tendency of Ethnic

Nationalism,” <http:>