By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
The magnitude of ignorance that Nigerians have of each other is truly astounding. For me, the most exasperating ignorance that pervades Nigeria is what I call Nigeria’s tripodal ethnic reductionism, which is the infuriatingly ill-informed notion that every Nigerian is—or should be— either Hausa, or Yoruba, or Igbo. The unanticipated rise of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan—who is neither Hausa, nor Yoruba, nor Igbo— as Nigeria’s president has ruptured this simplistic narrative.
But I have seen a growing tendency in Nigeria to call him “a Niger Delta,” “a Niger Delta man,” or simply “a Niger Deltan.” That is a farrago of nonsense. There is no Nigerian ethnic group called “Niger Delta.” That’s the name of a geographic region, and it is peopled by a multiplicity of ethnicities. To describe someone’s ethnicity by a facile geographic label is to partake in a thoughtless erasure of that person’s elemental identity.
People who don’t suffer the lack of cognitive complexity that makes it difficult to imagine a Nigeria outside the three major ethnic groups know and say that Goodluck Jonathan comes from the Ijaw ethnic group, reputed to be the most populous ethnic and language group in Nigeria’s deep south. But is President Jonathan really Ijaw?
Well, he is not. He comes from an ethnic and language group called Ogbia (also sometimes referred to as Ogbinya), that numbers a little over 266,000, according to the 2006 census. The Ogbia people are found mainly in Ogbia Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. The headquarters of their local government is also called Ogbia, which was built from the scratch by the Ogbia Brotherhood in 1972 as “a centre to unify all Ogbia people.”
The Ogbia language, apparently, isn’t a dialect of Ijaw, as many people have been misled to suppose. It is, in fact, mutually unintelligible with Ijaw, according to Professor Mobolaji E. Aluko, Vice Chancellor of the Federal University Otuoke, whose mother is Ijaw. (Otuoke is President Jonathan’s hometown).
While Ijaw belongs to the Atlantic-Congo branch of the Niger-Congo language family, Ogbia belongs to the Central Delta subphyla, but historians say the ancestors of the Ogbia people most likely migrated from present-day Edo State. Plus, Ogbia has its own dialects, which are all mutually intelligible, according to Ethnologue. They are Agholo (or Kolo), Oloibiri, and Anyama. As anybody who’s familiar with Nigeria’s oil exploration history would know, Oloibiri is the location of Nigeria’s first ever commercially viable oil well in 1956. Isaac Adaka Boro, the originator of Niger Delta militancy, was also from Oloibiri. It seems like, in this part of Nigeria, place and language names are one and the same.
Anyway, all evidence points to the fact that Ogbia, President Jonathan’s native language, isn’t Ijaw, nor is it even Ijoid, that is, it is not like, derived from, or related to Ijaw—like Kalabari, Dame Patience Jonathan’s language, is. It also turns out that some Ogbia people resent being classified as Ijaw. I recently happened on an online rant by a person named Agoro Eni-yimini that captures this sentiment. In a short post titled “EPIE AND OGBIA ARE NOT IJAW AND CANNOT BE IJAW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!,” he wrote: “The diversity of languages spoken in Bayelsa State is an indication that it is a state composing of [sic] many nationalities. It is a falsehood of the greatest order for anyone to claim that Ijaw is an umbrella body of so many languages.” He said Ogbia and Epie people (apparently, Epie is another Edoid language in Bayelsa) are “miles apart in culture and language” with the Ijaw and concluded that “any Epie or Ogbia man that [calls] himself an Ijaw is a fool and his ancestor will be sad.”
Well, if President Jonathan is Ogbia, why is he often called an Ijaw? I don’t know for sure, and no one seems to have grappled with this question. But I suspect that we can blame it on the lingering legacies of colonialism. It’s a well-known fact that because British colonialists couldn’t deal with all the labyrinthine messiness of our ethnic complexity, they arbitrarily grouped divergent people and encouraged them to cherish a fictive collective identity. This was done purely for colonial administrative convenience. That’s how the Yoruba identity was born. That’s how notions of Igboness as a collective identity emerged. That’s how Hausa became the lingua franca of the north. And that’s how Nigeria’s tripodal ethnic reductionism came about.
Of course, we all know that unlike northern and western minorities who accepted Hausa and Yoruba as their lingua franca (with the exception of Benue and Edo people who resisted Hausa and Yoruba respectively), ethnic minorities in Nigeria’s deep south resisted learning or identifying as Igbo. So the colonialists chose to construct a hitherto non-existent collective Ijaw identity and encourage smaller, even if unrelated, ethnic groups to belong to it. That’s how Ogbia, an Edoid people, became Ijaw.
But as we saw from the online rant I quoted above, Ogbia people are now asserting their identity. They are calling attention to their ethnic and linguistic singularities. For instance, in an August 8, 2009 lecture titled “Need for a Renaissance of the Contemporary Ogbia Society” at the Annual General Meeting of the Ogbaka Club of Ogbia, a Dr. Edmond A. Allison-Oguru who teaches agricultural economics and rural sociology at the Niger Delta University, recalled the struggles of early Ogbia nationalists whom he said worked hard to compel colonial administrators to excise Ogbia-speaking people from the then Southern Ijaw Native Authority to the Ogbia Native Authority in 1951, a mere 9 years before independence. He also lamented the loss of pride in and ownership of Ogbia language and culture in contemporary times.
Now, here is the rub: in spite of all the struggles for Ogbia self-definition and reassertion, in all of his official documents, including his CV, President Jonathan, Ogbia’s most prominent citizen, self-identifies as “Ijaw.” Why? Well, although someone said “any Epie or Ogbia man that [calls] himself an Ijaw is a fool and his ancestor will be sad,” I don’t think it’s fair to call the president “a fool” on account of his (inaccurate) self-identification.
I think he is merely a victim of the politics of identity in Nigeria. Nigerians have inherited and internalized the unsophisticated rendering of their ethnic complexity that their British colonial overlords bequeathed to them. Most official documents dating back to the colonial period have wrongly classified Ogbia as a “dialect” or “clan” or “subgroup” of Ijaw. And the president probably speaks fluent Ijaw, so he figured that it’s easier for him to say he is Ijaw than to say he is Ogbia and then have to spend time explaining to people who the Ogbia are.
But why is knowledge of President Jonathan’s ethnic group important? I’ll answer that question next week.