National mottos or slogans reflect the dreams and aspirations of nations, as well as their fears and preoccupations. As Nigeria focuses on the 50th anniversary of the start of the Biafran civil war, it is appropriate that we take a critical look at its motto to see if it is still relevant in today's turbulent times.
Unity and Faith, Nigeria's national slogan emblazoned on its official Coat of Arms at independence in 1960, encapsulated the country's early obsessions and fear about its own territorial fragility.
Other countries have adopted the 'Unity' phrase but usually aligned with strength, in the context of staying together. The Haitian coat of arms, with the motto "Unity Makes Strength", captures this sense. Given the series of peoples' wars engaged in to abolish slavery and achieve independence from the French in 1804, it's not surprising to see why Haitians valorise this combination as part of their national identity.
In the Nigerian case, the combination of Unity with Faith is strange. Faith in what? The future? God? In global surveys, the country, with its Christian and Muslim split, always scores highly as one of the most religious in the world. Perhaps Faith reflects this deep sense of God awe, but why then combine it with unity? Or is it simply a blind faith in unity itself, without question?
One is tempted to say that this is the case. During the Biafran war for instance, the mantra of the Nigerian leader, General Yakubu Gowon, was: "To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done". Beyond blind faith that perhaps the Creator itself had put this country together so nobody should break it asunder, there didn't seem to be any real reason provided as to why this task must be done.
However, this reading would be too simplistic. The country itself, beyond blind faith, has been having a parallel conversation, which as in Biafra, has sometimes been violent, about what "unity" means. Indeed in 1979, the country added the words "Peace and Progress" to the "Unity and Faith" motto.
Like other global entities having the same conversation, such as the UK and the EU, the issues turn around two arguments about unity, peace and progress. The first assumes a basic acceptance of the state itself and the argument is simply about the distribution of competencies and control of resources between different parts of the state --from a...