Nigeria arrived at the 2018 World Cup bearing an enormous burden of responsibility. The Super Eagles, filling one of the five African slots in the 32-team contest, was carrying not only the hopes of the Nigerian people, but was weighed even more by sharing, with Senegal, the expectations of sub-Saharan Africa, home to over 1-billion people.
Aside from this, the team shouldered the hopes of Nigerians and many other Africans prominently scattered across the globe. On any view, the players Nigeria sent to Moscow this year were valiant in carrying out their duties, the scope of which went far beyond their recognised ball skills.
In truth, the burden is not one which fazed our 23-man squad. In response to their initial loss to Croatia, the team delivered a resounding 2-0 victory against Iceland. Against Argentina — ranked fifth in the world — a concession of a very late goal robbed them of progress beyond the group stage. Overall, it was a proud, competitive, combative experience by one of our strongest Super Eagles teams in several years.
In the process, the team managed to add an accolade probably better appreciated in Parisien houses of couture than on the football field. The Super Eagles' kit was, according to all commercial parameters and pundits' opinions, indisputably the most aesthetically attractive wear at the World Cup. Demand outstripped supply across the globe, with over 3-million shirts pre-ordered online and the kit selling out entirely on the Nike website within hours of the launch.
The resonating memory for Nigerians at home, across Africa and across the globe watching their team — in both victory and defeat — is that for a short time in June 2018, we were all proudly Nigerian. Differences in religion, education and tribe, at least for 90 minutes at a time, disappeared. With a helicopter view of the nation in those happy times, it is difficult to believe that Nigeria can manifest such despairing depths of disunity as has afflicted the nation in its numerous religious as well as political crises.
The greatest potential source of division facing Nigeria today is undoubtedly religion. The population is almost neatly divided into two, between Christianity and Islam. Combined, Nigeria has both the largest Christian population and one of the largest Muslim populations on the continent. It is a demographic cleavage which is emphasised by its geography.
Whilst walking through the streets of, say, Lagos, one will see, in the same immediate environment, minarets of mosques and spires of churches along the same skyline. But Lagos is an inaccurate representation of the rest of the country in this respect. The reality is that the religious divide is reflected in geography, with the north of Nigeria dominated by Islam, and Christians constituting the majority of the population in the south.
The unqualified national pride I saw during this World Cup tournament assures me, unreservedly, that unity is possible, that it is not superficial, and that it is preferred by all on either side of the religious divide.
Foreign commentators will eagerly point to pockets of periodic violence, particularly in the north and centre of the country, which has broken out regularly since the 1960s. Motivated by the sensationalist narrative of Africa as a continent of perpetual barbarism, these commentators elevate the volume of this discourse typically in the year preceding an election; a national civic event of staggeringly important proportions.
In our own way, Nigeria has sought solutions, and lately — even successfully — we have navigated this religious and geographical divide by informal understandings that have led to installing alternate northern Muslim presidents and southern Christian ones. These outcomes have not been without bloodshed. In particular, 2011 saw an outpouring of violence in northern Nigeria following a very tense election period in which many lives were lost.
These losses cut across and were mourned by Nigerians of all faiths. This unfortunate tendency now appears to pervade the electoral cycles in Nigeria, exacerbated in many respects by the polarised positions that religious differences have infused in the politics of the country. There are those who have spoken of Nigeria becoming the next Sudan, and believe the country is very much at risk of a formal split. Many factors speak to the impossibility of this occurrence.
The unqualified national pride I saw during this World Cup tournament assures me, unreservedly, that unity is possible, that it is not superficial, and that it is preferred by all on either side of the religious divide. In that vein, I hold firmly the belief that the solution to unity is not to focus on those features that divide us but, instead, to embrace the commonality that is so essential to ensure our continuing collective existence.
There is no question that the love of sport transcends the religious divide in our country. Enterprise, education, literature, cuisine and music provide desirable, attractive and endearing endeavours that provide a similar binding influence. We are not short of shared passions in Nigeria around which we can unite in the way we do around football.
Of course, while the love of any culture, practice or sport may transcend our shared and individual faiths, they will never supersede or replace them. But just as our cultural practices thrive when participation is enjoyed by those of various faiths, so should our civic traditions. World Cups and elections both come around every four years. If we can stand united for the former, we can do so for the latter. Unlike the World Cup, of course, at least we can guarantee the victor in next year's election will be Nigerian.
My hope is that the same pride we feel when the Super Eagles come out dressed as one, singing one anthem, and playing as one, is something which can be recognised and drawn upon by all and for the benefit of all for decades to come, in a united Nigeria. Sometimes, in the face of adversity, disunity and even conflict, we must look beyond the sources of division for a model of unity.