AfDB President Akinwumi Adesina gave an impassioned speech at the graduation ceremony of American University of Nigeria on Saturday, advising Nigeria’s leaders on how the country’s diversity can best be managed to stop the agitations for secession.
He used the example of Singapore, a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation like Nigeria, to drive home his point.
He urged the young graduates to turn the page in order to forge a new Nigeria, without the old prejudices.
Adesina argued that diversity should not be Nigeria’s problem, it should rather be its strength.
He thus urged leaders at the helm of affairs to address the fundamental reasons for agitations, by listening, understanding, removing prejudices, and allowing for open, national dialogues, without preconditions, but with one goal: build one cohesive, united, fair, just and equitable nation for all, not for a few or for any section of the nation or religion.
Excerpts from the convocation lecture:
Nigeria is blessed with incredibly rich diversity: of people, of cultures, of religions, of mineral resources, oil, and gas, an amazingly rich biodiversity, that should make us the envy of the world. We are blessed with abundantly diverse agro-ecologies, that should also make us a land of bountiful harvests with capacity to feed Africa.We are a religious nation, so we should understand that God loves diversity. The diversity of rich and brilliant colours that we see in our forests, oceans, seas, and in flora and fauna, reflect the beauty of the Creator.Therefore, our diversity is not our problem. Diversity is our strength.But when mismanaged, diversity becomes divergence. Rather than unite, we become splintered, with each entity believing that, somehow, it is better without the other.We must manage diversity for collective good.Take Singapore as a case in point.It is a very diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious society, made up of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasians. Singapore is a nation of diverse people and national origins.Yet, this nation was able to forge a unified identity that has powered its extraordinary economic progress and development.Think of it: Chinese represent 74%, Malay, 13.4%, Indian, 9.0%, and others, 3.2%.Think of their religious diversity: Buddhism ((33%), Taoism and folk religion (10%), Christianity (18%), Catholicism (6.7%), Protestants and non-Catholics (12%), Not religious (18.5%), Muslims (14%), and Hinduism (5%).There is religious harmony, not religious supremacy, or polarization.The people see themselves first as Singaporeans!At its independence in 1965, Singapore’s per capita income was just $517 compared to $1,400 for Nigeria at its independence in 1960.Today, the story is different. The per capita income of Singapore is now $60,000. Today, the per capita income for Nigeria is $2,250.This highly diverse nation now ranks 4th in the world in terms of GDP per capita, with massive wealth and prosperity for its people.The evidence is clear.Singapore managed its diversity to create wealth — shared wealth.By better managing its diversity, Singapore has been able to forge an incredible economic growth, which benefits all in the country.They have 100% access to electricity and 98% access to water and sanitation. Their schools rank among the best in the world.Today, Singapore is a AAA-rated economy by the global credit rating agencies.But Singapore did not have it easy either.They faced challenges, just like we are facing in Nigeria today. They had very divisive ethnic and race riots in the 1960s that almost pulled the nation apart. But they overcame this by getting some things right.They focused on fusion of national purpose and identity.They put in place cultural policies that ensured no one ethnic group or the other dominates or assimilates others, but rather, promotes multiculturalism.They put in place a constitution that reinforced national fusion. Article 12 of the constitution forbids discrimination based on race, descent or place of birth. It reads, “We the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language and religion, to build a democratic society based on justice and equality”.It goes on to say, “there shall be no discrimination against citizens of Singapore on the grounds only of religion, race, descent or place of birth in any law or in the appointment to any office or employment under a public authority or in the administration of any law relating to the acquisition, holding or disposition of property or the establishing or carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation or employment”.What is the lesson here?The Singaporean society is based on meritocracy, not aristocracy or ethnocracy or religiocracy.Any society where meritocracy is subjugated to aristocracy, ethnocracy or religiocracy eventually tends towards mediocrity.Nigeria must learn from this experience and forge a new way of engaging among its diverse ethnic groups and religions.Nigeria must start managing its diversity for prosperity.We must drive for national cohesion, not ethnic nationalities.We must address the fundamental reasons for agitations, by listening, understanding, removing prejudices, and allowing for open, national dialogues, without preconditions, but with one goal: build one cohesive, united, fair, just and equitable nation for all, not for a few or for any section of the nation or religion.A nation, unified by a sense of common wealth, not a collage of ethnic nationalism. A nation driven my meritocracy, not ethnocracy, religiocracy or aristocracy.One of the things that Singapore did well was to have four national languages: English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil. Nigeria needs to put in place the compulsory teaching of its major languages in schools, from primary through universities, to ensure multilingualism, cross-cultural understanding, and to build a strong socio-cultural capital that unifies.The National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) was a very good idea: it allowed graduates from tertiary institutions to have one year of national service, largely (ideally) outside of their places of origin.The real test, however, of “national service” is that it often revealed the lack of diversity. After one year of service the NYSC graduates are often not able to gain employment in governments where they served, simply because they are not indigenes of those States.That in itself, is an irony!The young graduates are strangers in their own country. A country they pledged to serve. opportunity is denied just because they were not born in those states! Even if they were born in those states, they are told to return to the States of their origin.Yet, their origin is Nigeria, not their States!In Nigeria, regardless of how long you have resided in any place, you cannot run for political offices in those states or locations, just because you were not born there. State governments, therefore, largely reflect nativism not residency, which further sends a message to non-indigenes that they do not belong.Over time, this has created greater insularism, splintering, a lack of inclusiveness, the promotion of ethnic and religious chauvinism, instead of promoting national cohesion, trust and inclusiveness.This needs to change.Governments must be open to representation based on nationality not on ethnicity, to build a society of mutual trust, where diversity is well managed.Unless someone can live in any part of the nation, work within the laws and not be discriminated against, based on religion, race or culture, or place of birth, they will always be strangers in the nation.I love the Nigerian National Anthem. My favourite stanza is the one that says, “to build a nation, where peace and justice shall reign”.I get emotional whenever I sing it. I remember when I was a Federal Minister, each time we gathered at the Federal Executive Council and had to sing, or at any other function strong emotions would well up within me, for a nation I love, serve, and will always serve, selflessly.I know that we can be better than we are. We have everything and every reason to be.
For Nigeria to be all that it can be, the youth of Nigeria must be all they can be.