Building a nation

Stabroek News
May 5, 2001

Our national motto is "One people, one nation, one destiny". It might be more accurate to formulate it as follows: several peoples hoping to become one nation with a common destiny.

This is a land of many peoples, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The problem we face is for all of us and the political leaders to have the insight to understand this and to make it a matter for pride and strength rather than division and weakness. That is not easy, but that is the challenge of nation building.

In Path to Nigerian Freedom (l947) Obafemi Awolowo had written: "Nigeria is not a nation. It is a mere geographical expression......" The word `Nigerian' is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria from those who do not". That could have been said of many nations that became independent after periods of colonial rule and consisted of various tribes and ethnic groups, many of which had not had a great deal of intermixing. Indeed the whole question of the nation state and its `imagined communities' is one of considerable complexity.

In a fascinating little book published by The Hansard Society in l953 called Problems of Parlia-mentary Government in Colonies the following passage occurs: "In the history of Britain and of other democratic nations, three stages can usually be distinguished. First there emerged, from the almost unrecorded and fluid movement of clans and tribes, a group of settled societies sufficiently alike in culture to feel a sense of mutual kinship and of differentiation from other groups. This coagulation was generally a slow process sometimes helped by outside pressures or foreign conquerors. It allowed of a gradual growth, sometimes over many centuries, of common interests and habits of association. The next stage was the development of a central government of increasing effectiveness, built round a monarchy. The personal leadership of kings, exalted by the needs of a still half-formed and vulnerable people, at once expressed and fostered the sense of unity, promoted a common culture and religion, hammered dissidents into submission, and sometimes incorporated frontier regions. This period of royal discipline lasted in Britain for some five centuries, during which time the king increasingly shared his power with an oligarchy and they, in turn, with the new middle-classes bred by the Industrial Revolution. Not until the period between the two world wars was parliamentary democracy at last attained in Britain in that full form which the colonial people are now adopting. And in Britain universal suffrage followed universal education and the achievement of what was then almost the highest and most equally diffused standard of living in the world".

The authors go on to note that these processes which in Britain had taken several hundred years were being telescoped in some colonies into two generations. And of course even in the `mature democracies' where the rule of law prevailed there continued to be problems.

In other words, a democratic parliamentary government is not easily achieved. It requires a high degree of vision and statesmanship from our leaders and a full awareness of the problems of ethnicity and division that have to be overcome in nation building. They must recognise that many deliberate compromises are involved, wrongs cannot be righted at once, patience, forgiveness and courage are needed.

In his book Considerations on Representative Government, John Stuart Mill had written:

" There are also cases in which, though not averse to a form of government - possibly even desiring it - a people may be unwilling or unable to fulfil its conditions. They may be incapable of fulfilling such of them as are necessary to keep the government even in nominal existence. Thus a people may prefer a free government, but if, from indolence, or carelessness, or cowardice, or want of public spirit, they are unequal to the exertions necessary for preserving it; if they will not fight for it when it is directly attacked; if they can be deluded by the artifices used to cheat them out of it; if by momentary discouragement, or temporary panic, or a fit of enthusiasm for an individual, they can be induced to lay their liberties at the feet even of a great man, or trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions; in all these cases they are more or less unfit for liberty; and though it may be for their good to have had it even for a short time, they are unlikely long to enjoy it. Again, a people may be unwilling or unable to fulfil the duties which a particular form of government requires of them".

The problems of good government are eternal. It is a combination of skill, dedication and wisdom. These are not by any means beyond us but they demand a mature understanding of the nature of our task.