National Social Cohesion Dialogue Organized By The Africa Polling Institute

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Let me commend the Africa Polling Institute for convening this important forum to discuss the ever topical theme of sustainable peace, national unity and social cohesion. The selection of the subject could not have been more timely. There is no better time to reflect on the verities upon which our union is built and to put forward ideas that can promote commonality.

An abiding feature of being a Nigerian (as you have heard repeatedly today) is our optimism. We are forever hopeful about our prospects and this is not necessarily a fanciful belief in miracles or some kind of slothful reliance on happenstance or good fortune.

On the contrary, our capacity for hope is a creative optimism. Every day, millions of our people armed with their faith, skills, determination and their wits, take their destinies into their hands, working hard to forge a better life for themselves and for their families.

Nigerians of this ilk are everywhere; repairing, healing, building, trading and doing business. They believe that tomorrow will yield a greater harvest than that of today and that as long as they have breath in them they can change their material conditions.

It is this capacity for hope that makes us resilient in the face of sometimes, very incredible odds and even in the teeth of adversity. This is who we are as a people and it is why I believe that we will prevail over today’s tribulations.

We are an unbreakable people and in the face of the challenges confronting us, we must remind ourselves of certain truths.

The first is that our present challenges are neither unique nor exceptional. Various nations at various points in their histories underwent similar tribulations. Whether it is lifting people out of poverty, promoting economic growth and securing territory from domestic or foreign enemies or healing communities or settling grievances, addressing historical injustices, and forging a common identity in a diverse society – many nations throughout history and across the world have had to tackle these same tasks. Many are still doing so.

It is within our power to address these issues and emerge from them even stronger as a people.

The second is the fact that despite the divisive rhetoric of demagogues and the utterances of those who profit from disharmony, Nigerians do not hate each other (we have heard that said here more than once today). Every day, millions of Nigerians of different ethnicities and creeds, comingle, make common cause and forge friendships across our fabled fault lines. They partner to do business, to engage in philanthropy and advance their political goals. They are trading, intermarrying and migrating across this land in search of better livelihoods.

In any diverse society with such a variety of persuasions and pedigrees, degrees of friction and conflict are inevitable. While we have our share of such acrimony, the situation does not support the narrative that we are a nation of fragments condemned perpetually to be at each other’s throats.

What matters is how committed we are to the constructive management of diversity and the peaceful resolution of such conflicts. This is where we can and should certainly work much harder. The fair, swift and equitable dispensation of justice to address both everyday grievances and long-suffered wrongs is essential for fostering social cohesion (and we heard Dr Abdu talk about transitional justice and the various mechanisms that can bring about them). We must strengthen institutions that at every level can deliver justice, inclusion and mutual security. In many quarters, there are feelings of alienation and exclusion.

To this point, thirdly, we must recognize the ways in which we perpetuate institutional discrimination and cause people to see their identities as weapons for procuring opportunity, often at the expense of others.

We see this whenever Nigerians are denied opportunity on the basis of their State of origin or because they are “non-indigenes.” We see it when a Nigerian that has been resident in a State all his life is suddenly excluded from admission into an educational institution or an employment opportunity because he is not considered an “indigene.” When a young Nigerian that has served in a particular State during his National Youth Service Corps year and is suddenly excluded from opportunity because he or she is dubbed a “non-indigene” of the State, not only do these practices subvert social cohesion, they also feed profound resentments.

All Nigerians have a constitutional right to live, work and enjoy their lives in peace and safety under the law. The classification of Nigerians as “indigenes” and “non-indigenes” is a form of apartheid and contradicts our declared aspirations towards equality and unity.

Our Constitution enjoins the Government to “secure full residence rights for every citizen in all parts of the Federation” and this is imperative that we must commit to across all tiers and levels of Government. I think it is important to point that it is all tiers of government. The Federal Government does not do admissions in States, does not carry out the functions of the State governments. State governments have their own autonomy to carry out those functions, and our people live in the States. It is important for the sub-nationals and local governments to see their role in all of what is being said.

All that should matter in evaluating ourselves is where we live and fulfill our civic obligations. I should not pay tax in Lagos and be considered a non-indigene of Lagos or be excluded from any social political or economic activities in that State.

This is why when we launched our Social Investment Programmes, the eligible beneficiaries were selected based on their States of residence and none was discriminated against on any basis. So, if you lived in any Local Government Area, wherever you are from, so long as you apply, and met the requirements, you are taken. And that is still the case with the Social Investment Programmes especially the N-Power scheme and several others.

This was in keeping with the idea that the only true path to national progress lies in broadening access to opportunity for all Nigerians without qualification.

Our constitution guarantees a full portfolio of civil liberties and it is the responsibility of Government at all levels to give life to these provisions. For example, States should as a matter of deliberate policy ensure the freedom of worship and provide spaces in which citizens can lawfully erect places of worship, which is a constitutional enablement that needs to be enforced at the State level and indeed at the local government level.

As we address the challenge of insecurity and the profusion of threats to public safety, we are increasingly turning to multilevel policing strategies that are consonant with our federal architecture. It is important that the localized security mechanisms being established by subnational authorities are constituted in an inclusive manner and reflect the true diversity of those that live in local communities.

This way, the whole community, will gain a sense of belonging and more importantly feel that they have a stake in protecting their homesteads from criminals. No truly sustainable security umbrella can be built on the basis of exclusion. And so, when we talk of community policing and civil policing at various levels, it is important to recognize that in every one of those communities we have a diversity of people, so we cannot set up ethnic militias or ethnic civil protection groups and expect that people will feel protected.

On a related note, we must also ensure that the actions of criminal elements do not divide our communities and destroy relations that have been built up over generations. When a disagreement arises between individuals or a criminal act is committed by one against the other, we must ensure that we see it for what it is – a criminal act that must be punished according to the law and not an ethnic conflict. Criminals must not be seen or treated as anything other than as criminals and certainly not as representatives of any ethnic or religious group.

By the same token, it is unjust and criminal to harass an entire community for the crimes alleged to have been committed by some of their members. No aspect of our jurisprudence ascribes guilt on the basis of ethnic or religious affiliation or punishes groups for the crimes of individuals. We will not defeat crime by dividing ourselves. We can only overcome it by uniting against our common enemy – the criminals who terrorize our people.

Fourthly, let me stress that our diversity is not the problem, it is the allocation of access to social, economic, and political opportunities on the basis of identity that frequently foments strife. Because people are compelled to emphasize their ethnic and religious identities to access opportunity, there is a tremendous incentive to engage in polarizing identity politics and to mobilize along even smaller group identities.

Under these circumstances, in times of adversity when resources are scarce, people tend to see their fellow citizens as competitors and rivals instead of compatriots and eventually begin to demonize each other as “enemies.”

Many of us have grown accustomed to articulating our socioeconomic and political grievances in the language of tribal fragmentation and disintegration. It is an inaccurate and dangerous framing of the issues, but this is part of the challenge of having to create sufficient social and economic opportunities for one of fastest-growing young populations in what is also one of the world’s most plural societies.

In this context, many of the calls for separatism and secession are best understood not as cries for self-determination but as the desire for self-actualization. I remain convinced that the majority of Nigerians want to succeed not secede from Nigeria. These voices of separatism tend to overlook the strength of the social-economic and filial bonds that keep us together and this brings me to my fifth point.

We must acknowledge and harness the natural and man-made strategic assets that make unity an economic necessity for us.

Since ancient times, trade has always linked our diverse communities and it remains a true Nigerian ethic. From our huge open-air markets which are nodes of vast trading networks to the luxury bus fleets and the haulage businesses that traverse the length and breadth of this nation all day and all night, there is a vibrant and dynamic informal economy that is often overlooked when discussing our collective prospects as a people.

Our size and population offer a large domestic market that provides entrepreneurs and investors with deep wells of demand for goods and services. Our long history of internal trade has created synergies between our communities which have become strengthened over the course of centuries. Places like Onitsha, Sagamu, Lagos, Kano, and Aba are trading terminals serving vast local and transnational supply chains.

Indeed, our principal cities developed around trade. Our size also means that we have a much larger expanse of territory within which our people can venture to seek their fortune.

There is now a dense web of socioeconomic mutuality that has created strong bonds of complementarity among our people. The truth is that Nigeria has evolved beyond the sort of easy balkanization that is proposed by some separatists. Politicians who continue to traffic in division and discord are behind the times and have failed to take note of how much more integrated our society has become.

We are obviously not as united as we would like to be, but national integration is a journey and we are further along on that journey. Our destinies have become so interlinked as to be inseparable.

This is why this administration is investing heavily in transportation infrastructure – road, rail, sea, and river ports – to reduce the distances between our people and link localities to markets, and enable trade, travel and tourism.

All over the world, the dominant tendency is convergence today, not divergence. In other words, people are coming together to create larger and deeper markets which means the broadening of opportunities for mutual economic gain. Nigeria has what it takes to perform and operate favourably in this world.

Our geographical location has positioned us as a regional economic gateway. We are at an important intersection between North and Central Africa and at a nexus between Anglophone, Lusophone and Francophone regions. We have access to the Atlantic Ocean and therefore to one of the busiest maritime trade corridors.

In terms of geo-economics, these attributes – access to the sea and therefore not being landlocked, a large territory and a sizeable population – all make a difference to our chances or to any nation’s chances of prosperity and growth. The enormous advantages of large markets is why all of Africa is signing up to the African Continental Free Trade Agreement to make us the largest free trade zone in the world.

Certainly, Africa’s largest market, Nigeria, will be a great loser if we were to break up when we see the greatest economic advantage to our size about to come to life.

In short, staying together as a collective affords each of our communities far more opportunities for prosperity than they would have if they went their separate ways. We have all that it takes to be truly more than the sum of our parts. It is our responsibility to harness and consolidate these assets for the common good of all Nigerians. We will continue to work hard to create an umbrella of inclusive prosperity over our people. This is the defining task of our generation.

Let me conclude, when we highlight our resilient character is not to downplay the challenges confronting us. It is clear that we must renew the social contract and deepen the meaning and durability of our citizenship. Nation-building is hard work and is an intergenerational endeavour. It is also about how we express our humanity.

In 2019, I had the honour of receiving Mallam Abdullahi Abubakar, an 83-year-old Islamic cleric who saved the lives of hundreds of Christians from terrorists in Barkin Ladi in Plateau State. On June 23, 2018, Mallam Abubakar and his assistant, Umar Abdullahi, hid and rescued over 200 people inside the mosque and in his home. These were Christians fleeing from terrorists. When confronted by the terrorists, he insisted that those he had given refuge were his guests and that the bandits would have to kill him before they would do harm to anyone under his roof.

In this instance, it did not matter that Mallam Abubakar is Hausa or that his assistant is Fulani or that the people that they protected at great risk to their own lives were of a different faith. All that mattered was their shared humanity which transcends fault lines of tribe, tongue and creed. Part of my hope for our country lies in the heroism and humanity of people like Mallam Abubakar and examples like his are more common than we appreciate.

Earlier this year, Shasha market in Ibadan, another of our great trading localities where Nigerians from North and South have come for generations and have intermarried and coexisted, was beset by rioting and killings. The incident was widely reported as an ethnic conflict between Hausas and Yorubas, however on the ground and as reported by Premium Times on February 19, 2021, members of both groups protected and shielded each other from harm.

A resident of the community, Alhaji Adamu testified that it was his Yoruba neighbours who saved him from being killed by hoodlums and they took him to a hospital to receive treatment. Another Yoruba resident of the area, Ronke Aremu, told of how it was her Hausa neighbours in the market that saved her from being lynched and how one of the Hausa men that rescued her was shot while trying to ensure her safety.

Just recently, when Jos was tragically plagued by a bout of violence, reports emerged of how some Christians had rescued Muslims from their assailants. According to the Daily Trust of August 16, 2021, one of the survivors, Muhammad Ibrahim, narrated his rescue by a Christian tricycle operator who had helped disguise him with a face cap and driven him out of the chaos into the city where he alighted at the Jos Central Mosque.

The Secretary-General of Jama’atu Nasril Islam, (JNI) in Plateau State, Alhaji Sani Mudi also testified that some of the victims were rescued by Christians, saying that the first person rescued was brought to the Jos Central Mosque by an Igbo resident. I cite these stories of common humanity and shared heroism to make my final point.

In the battle for the soul of this nation, we tend to overemphasize what the forces of hate, terror anarchy are doing, ignoring the fact that there are forces of peace and humanity in this fight that represent all that is good in us. What matters is whether we are building or destroying the nation by our acts and by our words.

Neutrality is not an option and we must all pick a side knowing that we cannot build a Nigeria that works for all of us with bricks of hatred. Our resilience as a nation owes a great deal to this truth – that Nigerians are deeply warm, peace-loving, humane people and they are capable of great courage and compassion.

Our task as a people, whether in government or civil society is to strengthen and transform our institutions so that they better reflect our best values.

On this note, I would like to congratulate the Africa Polling Institute for producing this hugely important work of social research. I have no doubt that the insights it contains will help drive a more informed and constructive debate about our nation’s present and future.

Thank you very much for listening.


An abiding feature of being a Nigerian (as you have heard repeatedly today) is our optimism. We are forever hopeful about our prospects and this is not necessarily a fanciful belief in miracles or some kind of slothful reliance on happenstance or good fortune.