How great nations are made

How great nations are made

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For several years now, Steven Press, a historian at the elite Stanford University in the United States has been leading a seminar, How to Start Your Own Country: Sovereignty and State Formation in Modern History. It’s a popular and rather over-subscribed course. Last year I wrote him to find out more about the course contents and the key ideas underlying the seminar. Professor Press was ever so gracious to send me some of his course materials. I learnt a lot from him and from my own extensive reading in the history of Western and non-Western political thought.

From Solon the founder of the Athenian constitution in ancient Greece to Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers of the American Republic; it is evident that nations are deliberate acts of creation. It was said that the British Empire was founded in a feat of absentmindedness. It is also true that a lot of our countries in Africa were clobbered together by European imperialists more in furtherance of their own selfish interests than anything else. Charles de Gaulle of France arrogantly dismissed the Caribbean nations and the far-flung islands of the seas as “the dust of empires” that arose from the sea when the world powers were dancing on the world stage.

Be that as it may, real nations that rise to greatness are deliberate creations by statesmen. The Swiss historian, Jacob Burckhardt, in his epic study of the rise of the state in Renaissance Italy, describes the state as a “work of art”. By that he meant that the state is a creation of masterminds who work at it with the passion, imagination, artistry, creativity and courage of the great artists. They are founded with the same passion and high ability as Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel.

There are great nations and there are mediocre ones. There also run-of-the-mill nations as well as outright failed states. Echoing the inimitable language of the English playwright William Shakespeare, we could say that some nations are born great; some achieve greatness; while yet others have greatness thrust upon them.

It might not be that easy defining what constitutes a great nation. But we know it when we see it. I think there is nothing controversial in saying that the United States, China, India, Britain, Japan, Canada, France, Australia and Germany are indeed great nations. Seven elements, in my opinion, are important ingredients in the making of great nations.

First, you must establish the foundations long-term economic prosperity. All great nations must possess a high level of economic prosperity as measured by GDP, per capita income and technological prowess. The greatest nations are also those that have resolved the basic economic questions such as provision of public goods (infrastructures, power, energy, public health and education) as well as employment, food security and a minimum level of welfare for all its citizens. There must also be a high level of technological capability. It should not be a predominantly extractive economy but an economy rooted in industry, ICT and technological capability. Above all it must be an innovative, knowledge-based society.

Secondly, you must ensure a sound monetary system. Russian communist leader V. I. Lenin once declared that whoever controls your currency is your master. A great nation must have control over its national currency and its central bank must relatively autonomous and highly professional. It must promote a strong, stable and internationally convertible currency which is the necessary foundation for financial stability, national competitiveness and long-term prosperity.

Thirdly, you must guarantee a stable and highly effective governmental apparatus. An effective state is one that has a stable political system with institutions robust enough to manage conflict, ensure effective civil administration, monopolise control of the instruments of legitimate influence and ensure law and order, with bureaucratic machinery that serves the people with fairness and justice. The armed forces, police and security services must be effective in defending the territorial integrity of the country while protecting the constitution and ensuring the security of the citizenry. An effective state is one that delivers public goods and collective welfare in an effective manner. And it must govern based on the precepts of constitutionalism, the rule of law and good governance.

Fourthly, you must nurture a strong historical memory. The greatest nations are marked by a sense of collective memory that undergirds their political and leadership traditions. China, for example, has a long historical memory dating back to millenniums. So is the small nation of Israel. Britain prides herself in being the “the Land of Hope and Glory” — the inventor of Magna Carta that pioneered the social contract between government and the governed throughout the civilised world. The relatively young American Republic also has a deep sense of history; believing that the Universal Declaration of Independence 1776 remains a landmark on the long march of human liberty. By contrast, countries like those of Africa have been told they have no history and that whatever past they might have had is mired in chaos and darkness. They have, by virtue of that very fact, been robbed of all honour and dignity.

Fifth, there must be a broad-based national ideology. Marxism, socialism, nationalism and fascism are all political ideologies. I contrast these with what I term “inherent national ideologies”. The latter are the original myths that nations live by. For example, American civilisation is defined by the essentialism of “the American Dream” and “American Exceptionalism”. The Americans believe that their country was founded on sacred principles: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ” France has always defined her place under the sun as the land of “liberty, equality and fraternity”. France sees herself as the guardian of universal civilisation. The Germans, after two catastrophic wars in the span of a generation, have repositioned themselves as the leaders of the new Europe; a voice of civility and moderation in international politics. Crucially important is also that those national myths are shared by all communities within the country as a whole, regardless of religion and ethnicity.

Sixth, you must evolve a broad-based national consensus among the ruling elites. All great nations are also those where the leadership elites, regardless of ethnic, religious or regional differences, have attained a broad consensus defining their sense of collective national purpose and destiny. There has to be a sense in which, no matter the depth of the divisions, they feel that they are all British, Indians, Canadians and Americans first and foremost. There will always be differences, but the elites would agree on the basic rules of the game. There are also certain a priori no-go areas. These are necessary for the sake of the survival of the system as a whole. For the British, for example, the no-go areas include the person of the monarch, integrity and independence of parliament and national defence and security. Linked to this must be commitment to nation building. The leaders, regardless of party or ideology, must be committed to fostering policies that ensure the integrity and continuity of the country rather than its dismemberment.

Finally, there must be a high sense of national pride. The greatest nations have a deep sense of national pride in their past, their present and future. They do not muck about with national symbols such as the flag, national anthem, their currency, parliament, and the honour and dignity of their head of state. You will never catch a denizen of a great nation singing of his country as a “jaga jaga country” nor would you catch a member of the opposition, however embittered or alienated, describing his fellow-citizens as “inmates of a zoo”. Children are taught from an early age to take pride in the past and present of their country. They are made to feel an obligation to work arduously for its future. Just like no sane young man can forsake his mother, children who grow up in great nations are taught to love their country and to work continually for its good no matter the odds. They learn to stand tall for their country – in fact, most would ultimately be prepared to die to preserve its honour.

These ideas have profound implications for nation building and development in Nigeria. Regardless of our differences, we need a group of people who believe deeply in the Nigeria Project. They need to come together and re-start the grand project of rebuilding our country as a light among the nations. We are bound by destiny to be among the leading nations of the twenty-first century. But it will not happen by chance. Do not ask for whom the bells of the century have tolled – they toll for you and me.


Obadiah Mailafia

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