On July 1, 2017, Canada, the world’s second largest country after Russia, will be 150 years old. There is a year-long celebration of this milestone for a nation that prides itself on being one of the best, if not the best country in the world. Before the European colonialization in the early 16th century, Canada was inhabited by aboriginal people (the indigenous people of Canada). Canada’s history of colonialism dates back to July 24, 1534, when French explorer, Jacques Cartier, in the name of King Francis I of France, set up a French colony in New France, the area colonized by France in North America. As conflicts between colonial powers raged, Britain would later supplant France and take control of much of what is Canada today.
On July 1, 1867, the British North American Act came into being. It led to the fusion of the colonies of Canada (later Ontario and Quebec), New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia to form the semi-autonomous federal dominion of Canada. With time, other British colonies and territories joined with or were ceded to the new nation. From four provinces in 1867, Canada today has ten provinces and three territories. It wasn’t until 1982 that the country became a fully sovereign state. It was that year that Canada eliminated the last vestiges of legal control the British Parliament had in the amendment of the country’s constitution.
It is not for nothing that the country has been described as the best place on earth. According to a 2015 study by the Reputation Institute, “Canada is the top country in the world for studying, visiting, working, and living.” It was ranked first for “best quality of life” by U.S. News Best Countries Ranking (2016) and named the “world’s most welcoming country” by the 2015 Global Nation Brands Index. Beyond its picturesque countryside, tundra, prairies and beautiful snow-capped mountains that stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific and northward into the Arctic Ocean, Canada provides a breathtaking kaleidoscope of multiculturalism, diversity, inclusion and freedom that other countries can take a cue from.
Of course, Canada is not a perfect nation. No nation is perfect. Nation-building is not a tea party but a work in progress, no matter how old a country is. One of the most decentralized federations as well as one of the most ethnically diverse and multicultural nations in the world, Canada, a country of 35 million people, (2016 census) has continued to push the boundaries of what it means to be a modern nation-state.
Last week, as part of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebration, the country’s High Commissioner in Nigeria, H.E. Christopher Thornley, held a reception in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, for Canadians and friends of Canada in Nigeria. Ambassador Thornley spoke about Canada’s “strong and enduring relationship with Nigeria, and commitment to continuing our friendly and productive relations for many years to come.” He also spoke about Canada’s “diversity and inclusiveness, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, youth, and the environment.”
There are plenty of lessons Nigeria can draw from Canada. Like Canada, Nigeria is a member of the Commonwealth, an organisation of countries that were colonized by Britain. Of course, there is a difference in how both countries emerged—while Canada’s three original British colonies agreed to come together to form a semi-autonomous confederacy in 1867, the Northern and Southern Protectorates in Nigeria were amalgamated by the British in 1914 to create Nigeria. From two protectorates to one country in 1914, Nigeria grew to three regions in 1946, four regions in 1963, 12 states in 1967 and today has 36 states. While Canada’s expansion was through accretion and concession, that of Nigeria was through forced division. This difference notwithstanding, both countries have in common, diversity in terms of region, language, religion and ethnicity.
According to Ambassador Thornley, Canada is strong because of its differences, not in spite of them and is strengthened in many ways because of her shared experiences and diversity. Nigeria can look to its diversity, differences and shared experiences as sources of strength. Unfortunately, thanks to poor leadership, the country has managed to exacerbate its fault lines so much so that today it sits on the brink, racked by political instability, and ethnic and religious strife propelled by a greedy and bankrupt elite for whom enlightened self-interest means absolutely nothing.
“Inclusion is a choice,” noted Ambassador Thornley. “This choice is guided by the many benefits that diversity can bring: higher rates of economic growth, better social cohesion and tremendous cultural and civic benefits. It has taken years of hard work for Canada to get to where it is today. Inclusion does not happen by accident, it happens because of choices. Decades ago, Canada chose to embrace a policy of multiculturalism and official bilingualism. The Government of Canada chose to welcome more refugees. Prime Minister Trudeau chose to have gender parity in Cabinet (because it’s 2015).”
These are the ideals Nigeria should aspire to if we are to build a modern nation. We must make conscious efforts to build an inclusive nation; a society of equal opportunities and civic benefits; the alternatives are not pleasant. We must redefine citizenship rights in Nigeria. We must build a nation, like Canada, where every Nigerian can call every part of the country home. That conversation must begin now. Nigeria does not have the luxury of time!
In 2015, Canadians elected Justin Trudeau, a dynamic and progressive young politician as prime minister. Ambassador Thornley spoke eloquently about the role young people in both Nigeria and Canada can play in shaping their countries: “As we celebrate one hundred and fifty years of Canada, we remind ourselves that it is today’s young people that will shape both the Canada and the Nigeria of the next fifty years. Canada understands the importance of engaging youth not only on issues that affect them directly, but on all issues of national and global importance. In fact, our Prime Minister, quite deliberately, chose to personally take on the role of Minister of youth to emphasize the priority his government attaches to it. Young people represent a generation of true global citizens. This has been helped by a world that is networked and connected like never before, namely through the use of new technologies and social media. The importance of youth is particularly pronounced in Nigeria, which has such a sizable population of young people. I have been impressed in the early months of my tour in Nigeria with the ideas, energy, and vitality of young Nigerians. The desire to build a better world is evident and inspiring.”
Nigerian youth have ideas and energy. They are creative. But they must do more; they must be involved in reclaiming and re-inventing the country; they must realize that the power to bring about real change in Nigeria lies in their hands. Many of those who shaped Nigeria at independence were in their 20s and 30s and few in their 40s. They were the same people who plunged Nigeria into an avoidable and internecine civil war, mismanaged the post-war reconciliation, robbed the country of its resource, impoverished majority of Nigerians and brought us to the sorry state we are in today as a nation.
Nigerians can’t continue to run the country with the same people and ideas that have failed in the last 56 years. Nigerian youth must rise to the challenge of their generation. Nobody will provide employment or quality education for you unless you create a system of equal opportunities and civic benefits. It is your country, your world and your time! I am, therefore, encouraged by the efforts of some young Nigerians like the economist and writer, Tope Fasua, who is rallying other young Nigerians for real progressive change under the banner of the Abundant Nigeria Renewal Party (ANRP) as the country heads into another general election cycle in 2019. There is Bashir Abdullahi II, the building engineer and social activist who sought me out a few weeks ago to share creative ideas for the social and political reconstruction of Nigeria as an inclusive and egalitarian society.
These are the kinds of new attitudes and approaches that Nigeria needs for her to survive. We must break from the past. We can’t continue to run Nigeria in the same old ways and expect different results. Dear Nigerian youth, let no one tell you that you are not old enough to lead or that you don’t have experience. Make your mistakes if you have to, but lead you must. Your glorious battle cry must be: dare to struggle; dare to win!
Nigeria must rethink its federalism. Like Canada, Nigeria must seek reconciliation with various groups within the country. Everybody matters! We must also elevate the debate around gender equality and empowerment of women. It is only the youth that can achieve this by collectively destroying the ingrained mistrust and prejudices of the past. Successive rulers—with jaundiced and parochial thinking—have failed the country. There is no reason for the current generation of Nigerians to toe the same line. There is no explanation why Nigerians born after the end of the civil war in January 1970 should see themselves as anything other than Nigerians first. That must be the attitude going forward; it is the only way we can get out of the current morass.
Last week, I was on Aljazeera’s Inside Story to talk about corruption and famine in three African countries (Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan) and Yemen where, collectively, 20 million people are at risk of starvation. In Somalia, “a national disaster has been declared because of drought and about half of the country’s population faces severe food shortages.” In South Sudan, “famine has been declared in parts of the country and up to a million people there will soon run out of food.” And in the giant of Africa, the UN says “400,000 Nigerian children face malnutrition. Close to 80,000 of them might not survive the next few months.”
It was tragic as it was painful for me to find Nigeria in the same league as these other countries that have a long history of natural disasters and civil wars. Nigeria’s problems are purely self- inflicted. There is no reason any child in Nigeria should go to bed hungry much less being malnourished; no reason for millions of Nigerians to be refugees in their country. It is this retrogressive paradigm of governance that has defined Nigeria since independence that our youth must interrogate.
The challenge before Nigerian youth, therefore, and the lesson they can learn from a country like Canada is how to build an inclusive nation, home to millions of people from diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, living together in harmony and bound by social justice, equity, the rule of law and a common national ethos.
It is the bounden duty of this generation of Nigerian youth to rescue Nigeria from the tragic hamster wheel the country has become.
Onumah is the author of We Are All Biafrans