By Farooq A. Kperogi
One of the biggest germinal tragedies of Nigeria, as Chinua Achebe pointed out in his The Trouble with Nigeria, is that we never had the fortune to have a corps of far-sighted national leaders. We have not had our Mahatma Gandhi or Kwame Nkrumah—(a) transcendent national leader (s) that would symbolically embody our nationalist aspirations.
Even the seminal thoughts of our so-called nationalists, Achebe pointed out, were hallmarked by what he called a pious materialistic woolliness and self-centered pedestrianism.
The so-called nationalists derived the social basis of their legitimacy by sharpening the striking edges of ethnicity and religious bigotry. And that, sadly, is the tradition that continues to define our politics to this day. Unfortunately, we worship the memories of these “nationalists” and risk the wrath of millions of people if we dare as much as question their life and politics.
Many Northerners think of Ahmadu Bello as an infallible saint, an unerring guardian of our values. Many Yorubas think of Obafemi Awolowo as God's representative on earth who was beyond reproach. And many Igbos think of Nnamdi Azikwe as a God-send, although to a lesser degree than Northerners and Yorubas idolize their regional heroes.
But it was the originative divisive politics of these three politicians—and their minions— that has robbed us of a chance to cultivate a sense of nationhood. Their heirs continue with this tradition. And they're passing this virus to people of our generation.
The other day, I watched a podcast interview Wole Soyinka granted to Louis Henry Gates, an African American professor at Harvard University who also edits a Washington Post-owned online magazine of African American culture called Roots.com. An American friend of mine called my attention to it.
When asked why Nigeria is still stuck in prolonged backwardness in spite of its vast human and material resources, all Soyinka could say was that it was all because of the North. He then went on to regurgitate this tired, all-too-familiar narrative about how the British inflated the population figure of the North and manipulated elections to favor Northerners at independence, and how the North has been a drag on the nation ever since then. And so on.
I was sick to my stomach by the utter, gratuitous insularity of his response. I thought such an open display of undiluted bile against fellow Nigerians in a foreign country was unnecessary. The interviewer appeared to be taken aback, too.
But this is the attitude of many Nigerians I have come across here. Anytime Nigerians in the diaspora get together —whether in online discussion groups or physically—most of our discussions sooner or later degenerate into the hurling of ethnic and regional slurs.
In spite of living in the West, especially in America, where primordial barriers are progressively dissolving, as evidenced in the election of Obama as president of a nation that is over 70 percent white, most of us still can’t rise above the urge of seeing the world through our narrow primordial prisms.
So, one of our main troubles in Nigeria is our perpetual inability to forge a collective sense of Nigerianness. We still owe loyalties to our primeval ethnic identities at the expense of an overarching national identity.
Of course, it was British colonialists who purposively structured our inter-ethnic relations in that way. They developed discursive strategies to encourage us to inhabit reconstructed indigenous cultures and discourses aimed at furthering cultural and ethnic difference.
They thereby forced idealized ideological content onto ethnic groups to sustain and even reconstruct “identities,” identities that were to be subservient to colonial rule but antagonistic to and unhealthily competitive with other Nigerian ethnicities.
It seems to me that over the years, three kinds of ethnic projects have emerged in Nigeria. There is what I call ecumenical ethnicity. This kind of ethnic project is, to a large extent, all-embracing, provided people internalize certain core cultural assumptions and practices of the original ethnic group.
Then there is what I call expansionist ethnicity, which is also all-embracing but in a limited, horizontal way because it only seeks to incorporate what it perceives as its cultural, linguistic and ethnic cousins.
Finally, you have what I call exclusionary ethnicity, which fastidiously draws distinction lines between it and others, and makes conditions for entry into its fold almost impossible.
The Hausa ethnic identity is ecumenical because anybody can be Hausa provided he speaks the Hausa language with native proficiency, dresses like the Hausa, believes in and practices Islam, etc. An influential 1975 academic essay by Frank Salamone entitled “Becoming Hausa: ethnic identity change and its implications for the study of ethnic pluralism and stratification” captures this phenomenon very well.
The Yoruba ethnic identity is expansionist in that it seeks to attract and embrace all who share even the remotest cultural, linguistic and ethnic similarities with it. There have been attempts, for instance, to bring Igalas of Kogi and Itshekiris of Delta to the Yoruba fold.
The Igbo ethnic identity is, also, to a large extent, expansionist, although in a less successful fashion than Yoruba. Attempts to encourage the Ikwerre of Rivers State and the Igboid groups in Delta State to buy into the idea of an overarching Igbo identity have not been very successful, perhaps because of the politically perilous situation of the Igbos in contemporary Nigeria consequent upon the lingering effects of the Civil War.
Most other ethnicities in Nigeria—at least relative to the “big three”— are exclusionary. You are either in or you are out.
Well, if we must make any progress in Nigeria, it is not simply enough that we develop technologically; our leaders must also actively encourage and internalize a culture that promotes a national consciousness. And one of the best ways to do that is to give people a sense that their ethnicity, religion, etc do not constitute barriers to their aspirations.
Like Malcolm X once pointed out, if you condemn a person on account of his race, ethnicity or such other invariable attributes about which they have no control, you have condemned that person even before he was born. He called it the worst crime that can ever be committed. And I couldn’t agree more.
This does not, in any way, suggest that we should give up our ethnicities. The truth is that people generally tend to initiate and sustain relational intercourse with their kind. And this is basically a consequence of a primal ease with the known, the familiar. You may call it a kind of involuntary, but sometimes benign, xenophobia.
But as primordial boundaries dissolve with the relentless onslaught of globalization (not globalization in the sense of the merciless march of international finance capital) and other advances in human relations, these primal bondings are becoming irrelevant. That's why there are a million and one leaps of relational encounters across primordial boundaries, and people are realizing that the fears that drive them apart are groundless.
Primordial societies are usually closed societies, and openness tends to be associated with progress.
Of course, I know that it is reductionist, even simplistic, to expect that some day, all human beings will cease to relate on the basis of primordial factors, but I'm positive that the more people relate, the more they will appreciate the superficiality and fluidity of the factors that separate them.