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Thinking of home from abroad (III)

By Farooq A. Kperogi This country is now ours, and it is we who can make or mar it. We no longer exist at the pleasure of the British—at lea...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

This country is now ours, and it is we who can make or mar it. We no longer exist at the pleasure of the British—at least not in the same way it was some 50 years ago.

In any case, if we insist on consent as a precondition for nationhood, most of our “ethnic nationalities” should not even exist in the first place. For instance, there wouldn’t be an ethnic group called the Yoruba.

Obafemi Awolowo, MKO Abiola, Abraham Adesanya, Ernest Shonekan, Gani Fawehinmi, Wole Soyinka, Femi Falana, etc would not be Yorubas. Why? Because they all come from parts of Western Nigeria that was not “Yoruba” until British colonialists incorporated (read “forced”) them into that identity.

The word "Yoruba" has no meaning in the Yoruba language. It was originally the Hausa word to refer to people in present-day Oyo, Osun, parts of Lagos and parts of Kwara. It didn't include Ondo, Ogun, and Ekiti—and certainly didn’t include the Okun people of Kogi who are now erroneously called “Yorubas in Kogi.”

Etannibi Alemika, a well-regarded professor of sociology at the University of Jos, who hails from the Okun part of Kogi, once pointed out, to the amazement of his audience, that the Okun people were non-Yoruba people whom Yoruba people are “aggressively trying to assimilate.” He said most Okun people who live in rural areas, in fact, neither understand nor speak the Yoruba language.

I had a first-hand experiential encounter with this reality when I attended a wedding in a small town in Ekiti State in the early 2000s. My Yoruba friends from Lagos were shocked to discover that in rural Ekiti State most people neither spoke nor understood Yoruba.

When we asked a couple of elderly people for directions to the venue of the wedding, they couldn’t answer us because they didn’t understand Yoruba. They responded in Ekiti language, which is incomprehensible to “mainstream” Yoruba people.

In rural Ondo and Ogun, and even parts of rural Lagos, you will find lots of places where Yoruba is as incomprehensible to people as it is in, for instance, Sokoto State. Maybe I am exaggerating a little bit here, but the truth is that the people of Ondo, Ekiti, Ogun and western Kogi were never a part of the Oyo Empire, to whose people the name “Yoruba” was initially associated with.

That’s why both Awolowo and Adesanya (people who went on to become “leaders of the Yoruba race”) are on record as having said that they were first Ijebus before they were Yoruba, and then later Nigerian.

Interestingly, the people who were called “Yoruba” by the Hausas did not even identify themselves by that name until the twilight of the 19th century. They identified themselves, instead, by such names as "Oyo," "Ijesa," "Obolo," "Igbomina," "Ibadan," etc. This is what historians discovered when they examined the records of the slaves brought from western Nigeria to America in the 16th century. There was not a single slave who identified himself as “Yoruba.”

Well, it was our British colonial conquerors that foisted a “Yoruba” identity on all the people who inhabit the western portion of Nigeria—without the consent of the people. In other words, large swaths of people were "forced" into a Yoruba identity, in the same way that the Nigerian identity was “forced” on all of us.

I’m not by this ignoring the undeniable linguistic and cultural similarities, however initially distant, between the people that are called Yoruba today, but it took colonialism, horrible as it is, for this to be discovered and mobilized for political purposes.

What I have said of the Yoruba people is also true of many other ethnic groups in Nigeria. For instance, the word “Hausa” is not even a Hausa word; it is the ancient Songhai word for “southerner.” (The Songhai people, whom we today call the Zarma or Zaberma of Niger Republic, are Hausaland’s immediate northern neighbors).

Bala Usman also demonstrated convincingly that the pre-colonial caliphate in the North was not nearly as cohesive as most accounts of the period crack it up to be. It was a loose collection of people that only developed a politically consequential collective sense of singularity in the face of the threats of colonialism.

The case of the Igbo is the most dramatic. It is the quintessential colonial creation, but I won’t go into that today. So, one of the ironies of the emerging ethnic nationalism in Nigeria today is that it was inspired by British colonialism, which advocates of a “sovereign national conference” blame for the “forced” union that is Nigeria.

The point of these examples, though, is not to suggest that ethnic groups didn’t exist before colonialism—or that organized ethnic self-identification and self-expression didn’t precede colonialism. To make that argument would be crassly ahistorical and even self-hating.

However, my point is that contemporary expressions of exhibitionist ethnic nationalism all across Nigeria—expressions that sometimes elevate and exaggerate collective fictions (such as the notion of the “Yoruba race”) and that sometimes deny the reality of cultural and linguistic sameness (such as the distinction without a difference between the Efik and the Ibibio whose languages are more mutually intelligible than Egba and “Yoruba” are)—are the consequence of our colonial encounter with Britain.

In order words, exclusionary, maximalist and expansionist notions of our ethnicity are a byproduct of the same process and structure that produced Nigeria. In a sense, therefore, our current ethnic identities are also a holdover from colonialism. Should we now reject these identities because they were "forced" on us by colonialism?

Do we, perhaps, need to first renegotiate the basis of our colonially-inspired ethnicities before we renegotiate the basis of our nationhood? Where do we start and where do we end? And how do we want to do that, anyway? By bringing together a motley gaggle of perfidious, self-interested, and insular rascals with maximalist positions to shout at each in a so-called conference of ethnic nationalities?

For me, that’s a disingenuous and intellectually lazy way to confront the delicate art of nation-building and statecraft.

I agree that Nigerians should discuss ways to move the nation forward, but it is, to my mind, reactionary to begin talking, in the 21st century, about how we became a nation. What use is that knowledge to us? It's all too commonplace to deserve being dignified with a conference.

It's not our “forced” union that's responsible for the ethnic tensions in Nigeria. Of course, it's too much to expect different ethnic groups to exist in one country and not have tensions. Tension is a basic feature of all relationships.

There is no country on earth that does not have its share of racial or ethnic tensions. But the fact that Ife and Modakeke, who are all Yoruba, murdered each other for years is evidence that our “forced union” is not the problem here. The fact that Sunnis and Shiites, who are all Hausa, mindlessly killed each other in Sokoto only recently should be proof that homogeneity in and of itself cannot guarantee a tension-free relationship.

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood as suggesting that there is something sacrosanct or inviolable about the Nigerian state. Nigeria is not some pre-ordained, divinely inspired union that must not be tampered with.

But the reasons often proffered by irredentists for contesting the basis of the union are not convincing. I personally think we have more reasons to sustain the union than we have to discontinue it.

To be concluded next week

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