"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Thinking of home from abroad (I)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Thinking of home from abroad (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Two Saturdays ago, I participated in a conference at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, titled “Democracy and accountability in Nigeria: Diaspora activisms and complicities.”

Organized by Vanderbilt University’s Program in African American and Diaspora Studies and facilitated by Moses Ochonu (assistant professor of history at the University), the conference featured such notable Nigerian scholars as Bolaji Aluko, Darren Kew (an American who is an expert on Nigeria), Kiki Edozie, and Okey Ndibe.

The intrepid publisher of SaharaReporters.com, Omoyele Sowore, also presented a paper. So did the articulate and cerebral former Senate President Ken Nnamani and former House of Representatives member Sola Adeyeye. I too presented a paper on public deliberation in the Nigerian diasporic public sphere.

During the question-and-answer session, Bolaji Aluko asked me a question that I think strikes at the core of the problems that confront us as a nation. He wondered why public discussions among Nigerians in the digital diaspora often invariably degenerate into unproductive and unhealthy internecine ethnic bickering.

Why is our ethnic diversity such a lumbering burden on us? Why do most Nigerians have such powerful loyalties to their ethnic identities and a corresponding disdain, even hatred, for other ethnic groups?

I have grappled with these questions on a daily basis since I have been here. My experience is that many Nigerians think our country is unworkable because it is a nation that was “forced” into being by British colonialists. This view frankly amazes me.

Is there any nation in history whose formation is the consequence of a democratic consensus? I don't know what fuels this false, annoyingly ahistorical sentiment among Nigerians. Historically, most nations were formed by conquests, expansionist wars and forceful cooptation, not by consensus.

I have also discovered that Nigerians cherish the illusion that they inhabit the most diverse country on planet Earth. But India, a post-colonial nation like ours, has a lot more diversity than Nigeria has. It has over 800 languages, several mutually irreconcilable religions, a huge landmass that is several times the size of Nigeria, and a human population that is more than that of the entire African continent combined.

Yet it's one country, and was formed in fairly similar ways as Nigeria. Most of the groups that make up present-day India were independent ethnic groupings. They didn't consult any of them before they were integrated into the modern Indian nation. But you don't hear Indians interminably whining about the unnaturalness of their nation, or about the need to “renegotiate” the basis of their existence.

Nigeria is only about 150 million in population, the 13th largest in Africa in landmass, with some 400 languages (most of which belong to the same language family), two major religions (which share tremendous doctrinal affinities, unlike, for instance, India that has such mutually exclusive religions as Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and other Eastern mystical orders). Why is it difficult to conceive that a nation can be formed out of this?

In any case, there is no evidence that mono-ethnic nations thrive better than ethnically diverse nations. The truth is that consensus and homogeneity are not sufficient to hold any nation together.

One supreme illustration that explodes the myth of the "naturalness" and invulnerability of mono-cultural nations is Somalia. There can be no more homogeneous nation on Earth than Somalia. It's a monolingual, mono-religious and mono-ethnic society. Everybody in Somalia speaks the Somali language. Everybody there is not just a Muslim, but also a Sunni Muslim. And, needless to say, they all have the same racial features.

But this country has been in turmoil for years on end, even though it was not a "forced" nation in the sense in which Nigeria is alleged to be. It is often said that Somalia is not just a nation; it's, in fact, a big family. They all have a common ancestor and preserve their ethnic purity through endogamous marriages.

How more homogenous can a nation get? Yet it's an excellent specimen of a failed state. When the people couldn't figure out the differences to exploit to visit mayhem on each other, they decided to invoke "clans".

A less perfect parallel is Algeria, where everybody, except about five percent of the population, is an Arab. The five percent Berbers are Muslims, in common with the Arabs. Yet the country is imploding.

An example nearer home is the former Oyo Empire, which had effectively disintegrated even before the start of colonialism, although it was an ethnically homogenous entity. It was caught in the web of a vicious internal schism that precipitated a debilitating war of attrition, which stopped only with the advent of colonialism.

So homogeneity and consensus are no safeguards against implosion. These conditions have not immunized any nation against internal contradictions and eventual disintegration. Only justice, mutual tolerance, good governance can.

However, the claim about the "forced" nature of the formation of the Nigerian nation needs some interrogation. The history and sociology of pre-colonial relations in Nigeria don't bear testimony to this claim.

A lot of research has been done by historians, notably the late Bala Usman and Elizabeth Isichei, which chronicles the robust relational intercourse between the disparate ethnic groups that populate what is today Nigeria. A notable example was the burgeoning social and cultural melting between Yorubas and people in the North before colonialism.

As the travel records of Arab traders show, the "ambassadors" (or interpreters, if you like) of the Alaafin of Oyo during the Trans-Saharan trade with Arabs were people from the extreme North. And records show that Hausas had been living in Yoruba land in large numbers before colonialism. Same is true of Yorubas in the North.

If you go to Kano, for instance, you will see entire neighborhoods that are peopled by men and women whose ancestral roots are located in Yoruba land. Gwammaja is one of such neighborhoods. Ayagi is another. Prof. Ibrahim Ayagi, the eminent economist from Kano, has a Yoruba ancestry.

Another notable example is Abdulkareem Yahaya, the former governor of old Sokoto State. He proudly tells anybody who cares to listen that his ancestors hailed from Ogbomoso, but that he considers himself Hausa. And these people's ancestors went to the far north long before colonialism.

I’ve also heard that former governor of Lagos State Lateef Jakande and former governor of Oyo State Lam Adesina have Nupe and Ebira ancestries respectively. Of course, I admit that this is apocryphal, but there is a powerful symbolism in all this. And that symbolism is that we are more alike than unlike.

This is not to talk of the vibrant pre-colonial inter-ethnic relations between such northern minorities as Igalas, Tivs, Idomas, etc and Igbos, including other ethnic groups in the former Eastern region. To this day, Igalas and Idomas have councilors in some Igbo states such as Enugu.

To be continued
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