Are we a nation?
By Dr. William Para Riviere, Historian
[The following is taken from the concluding chapter of a just-completed book entitled Conversations on Nation-Building].
Accession to constitutional independence without more does not convert a former colony into a nation. In modern times a nation is built in the aftermath of the political break from the Mother Country. And this is achieved through a process involving the forging of a new reality upon the socio-economic and psycho-cultural ruins left by the preceding colonial order (38).
A nation is not built by the holders of political power simply winning national elections and remaining in office from term to term. Winning and maintaining power is one thing; nation-building is quite another. The first is the means to the achievement of the second. While the attainment of power is necessary for the nation-building effort, it does not guarantee the emergence of a nation. The emergence of a nation rests on the modality of the deployment of power, that is to say, the use to which available power is put.
A nation is much more than a collection of people governing themselves. The act of severance of its political umbilical cord from the corpus of the Colonial Power provides no more than an opportunity for the people of a country to embark on the road from ex-colony to nation. Along that road are a national anthem, a national song, a national flag, national days, a national dish, a national stadium, a national airline, national awards, a national bird and, even, national myths. These represent, so as to speak, no more than the trappings of nationhood, the outward visible things that distinguish one nation from the next. They do not constitute the essence, that is to say, the inner dynamic of nationhood.
The true test of nationhood is whether or not the overwhelming majority of the population of a country comes to embrace a sense of national identity. That is to say, a feeling of belonging not to a particular group, social class or civil category, but to an entity without internal divisions or borders, called the nation. United States President, John F. Kennedy, may have been speaking to the ideal, if not, the imaginary American citizen when he appealed to the United States electorate to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!" A person does not identify with a country merely because he or she is a citizen of that country or was born or resides there. Especially in the ex-colonial developing world where colonialist practices of "divide and rule" splintered the populations and dictated loyalty to the Colonial power, rather than to their colony of residence, time, much time would be required to generate this sense of identification with the national entity.
What this means is that national identity is forged in the crucible of a process of partnership between the State, on one hand, and civil society on the other. It is a many-sided process for which there are no formulas. Each encounter proceeds differently, if not uniquely, in accordance with the objective and subjective conditions existent in its own local context.
It also means that the internalization of a sense of national identity in the minds of a colonialized people does not come about in the time span required to lower one flag and, in its place, hoist another. It is a process requiring the people's dissociation from one set of ideas, beliefs, values and derivative patterns of behavior and their adherence to another. Expressed differently, it entails a psychological transformation of the populace. In other words, a mental revolution.
As a pre-condition to this transformation, the country's political directorate must be perceived by the people to be adding value to their lives. It must inspire the people as a whole, rather than those who pledge support to the ruling political Party, to derive meaning from what they do under the new dispensation. Unless the people in a tangible way see the addition of value and meaning to their individual and group livelihoods, a sense of belonging to the national entity will remain distant and far-fetched. A need to subordinate and sacrifice personal and group interests to the national good will not arise. The necessity for national unity will not be apprehended. And a sense of identification with the cause of the nation will not be felt.
Of course, this may be accomplished through a systematic process of "brainwashing", as in Nazi Germany in the past and in North Korea in the present. In this process, the mind is impregnated with false awareness and made to perceive and accept the unreal. A people's thinking is thereby controlled. But the historical experience of nation-building has taught two critical lessons. Firstly, the phenomenon of "brainwashing" is an aberration, that is to say, a departure from the norm. Secondly, it lacks permanence. In due course, the unreal succumbs to the existential reality.
To be real and long-lasting, the accomplishment of national identity requires the accomplishment of two critical objectives: first and foremost, satisfaction of the basic needs of the population; and, second, the people's full participation in the decision-making processes that affect their lives. Framed in this way, the nation-building effort translates into the overall institutional development of the country in question. State institutions represent the link between Government and the people. Where they cease to exist or are made non-functional, authoritarian rule, whether benevolent or ruthless, beckons.
In our view, the satisfaction of basic needs requires that the political leadership fully understand and come to terms with the economic question. At root, the workings of the global economy must be understood. More particularly, the place which the country occupies in the international division of labour must be comprehended. And, in the same vein must be recognized the possibilities available and the limitations imposed on the capacity of the country in question to put its resources to maximum productive use. Further, basic needs will remain unsatisfied unless the country experiences all round economic development. And to realize that goal, three major challenges must be confronted. One, the eradication of poverty; two, the elimination of unemployment; and, three, the rooting out of economic inequality. Dudley Seers puts it this way: "The questions to ask about a country's development are…What has happened to poverty? What has happened to unemployment? What has been happening to inequality? If all these have declined from high levels, then beyond doubt this has been a period of development" (39). He might have gone further and added that historically it is in such periods of development that the population's commitment to nation-building is most enhanced.
A further historical fact is that national identity stands at its highest level when a country's institutions make possible full participation by the population in the conduct of national affairs. Such participation is not captured merely by the holding of national and local elections on a basis prescribed by law. Formal institutions of democracy are not enough. Nation-building requires respect for human rights not only in economic, social and political terms but, equally, in terms of the rule of law. And such respect must not merely be guaranteed in the language of a Constitution and the provisions of ordinary legislation. It must be reflected in the day-to-day unbridled functioning of appropriate State institutions.
© Copyright, William Riviere, 2016