The Government Is Not The Nation

Jeff Attaway
Jeff Attaway

I was born in Nigeria, and despite only living there for a little over four years, I (will) always claim that I am Nigerian. I’ve lived in the States longer, and the country I’ve lived in longer than here is Botswana. However Nigerian I am, I know that these three nations in particular, have shaped my identity the most. I do take into account my European influences, which are also intertwined in my experiences in African countries because of the historical political and socio-cultural influences. I think that this kind of “global citizenship” while is such an immense privilege that has allowed me to take up multiculturalism as part of my identity, makes adapting to my surroundings second nature. It has also had the effect of making me feel foreign everywhere I go, even in the nation whose identity I claim.

I perceive governments and nations perhaps in a way that only others who have lived like me can understand. I am not in the business of making claims that one form of government is necessarily better than another, or that nations are better than others. I was born into a dictatorship in Nigeria; the dictator at the time was the infamous Sani Abacha. My dad, who sat on the editorial board of Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper, was known at that time for writing fearlessly against his regime both in the newspaper and in the academic space. It was part of the reason we left Nigeria. And although I often hesitate to tell the story because I was very young and my family doesn’t talk about it much, it was probably one of my first personal realizations of government and nations.

When you grow up like this, there is a caution of government that you might always have. Although I can now undoubtedly claim that all the governments I have lived under are far more transparent than Nigeria’s, I am not one to overemphasize the glory of any government. I have often been accused of being “hard” on the U.S. government and the nation, in socio-political conversations. And of course I am; I was raised in a home in which critical analysis of the institutions that one is essentially ruled by, must be a concern of the educated citizen. To live in ignorance of one’s surroundings is not beneficial to one’s self or to the nation. But if I am just “hard” on the U.S., then for the country whose national identity I claim, I am often at a loss for words because of the incommunicable frustration that I have with Nigeria’s government. And sometimes even with the nation itself, which like the U.S., is a very complex place.

I don’t enjoy listening to news about Nigerian politics, because the inevitable is that 90% of it will be bad news. And although I can credit Western media’s often very one-sided view of African nations to an extent, I know that much of the time, Nigerian politics and political processes leave much to be desired. It is bad and we know it is bad. Of the United States, I am often amazed at the unwillingness of people to choose not to see beyond the government’s superficial wrongdoings. And were I to point them out blatantly and assert my critique, I have been told more than once “to go back home.” Which in my case is a rather funny thing to tell me, and especially so, if we consider that this is a nation that was built on immigration.

Governments are made up of institutions of men and women, some who desire to administer a country the best way they believe is right. But it is also made up of many men and women who thirst for power over the people. Nations are indeed socially constructed and our allegiances to any are not anything natural but are imposed on us through a global discourse that teaches that human beings are different because of their national identities, among other things. Even though we may love our nations, I think that this is something that we must always keep in mind.

And indeed one can feel loyalty to a nation without being dedicated to its government. The events in the U.S. House currently, and the news that came out of Nigeria this past Sunday regarding the 50 students that were shot by a terrorist group, Boko Haram, and the (lack of) follow-up, served to remind me why. When I read the news daily I am reminded why I choose to separate nations from governments, and indeed people from their socially constructed national identities. Because underneath it all, despite what the government and even the nation would have us believe: We are all the same.

A good friend once said of the United States, “Those who love us blindly don’t not know us very well. But those who hate us, don’t know us at all.” Often when I am outside of the United States, I find myself telling people who have never been here, not to judge the nation based on its government. I am inclined to say the same of every nation. I want to believe that we can live in a world, even in these socially constructed nations, even when we are proud of them, that acknowledges that one nation is not intrinsically better or worse than the other. And that there is room for every nation, or people, or person that inhibits this planet.

Today, a nation I live in and love, despite my critiques of it, may shut down a branch of its government and in so doing, fail its citizens. Today, also commemorates Nigeria’s national independence away from British rule, 53 years ago; a nation that I am proud to claim despite its many transgressions. And although I find myself with little to rejoice today, I still choose to acclaim: That the government is not the nation, and for that, I am grateful. TC mark

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