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The Case Against Nigeria’s Break-up (IV)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Largely because of the nature of the politics of the First Republic, we have become fixated on regional ...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Largely because of the nature of the politics of the First Republic, we have become fixated on regional and ethnic stereotypes. At every discursive arena that Nigerians congregate they can’t help regurgitating all the negative stereotypes we have assigned to ourselves. Even among Nigerians in the diaspora, most of our discussions about Nigerian 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. Check such Nigerian online discussion boards as Naijapolitics, Talknigeria, etc. for evidence.

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 our cultural and ethnic differences.

They thereby forced an 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.

Categories of ethnicity

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 State and Itshekiris of Delta State into 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 (many of whom trace their ancestral roots to Igala land in Kogi 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. If you’re not Berom, Ognoni, etc. you can’t be one.

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 and quest for personal growth.

As 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, or that primordial alliances and mobilization are bad in and of themselves. The truth is that people generally tend to initiate and sustain relational encounters more easily with their kind than they do with “others.” 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 most of the fears that drive them apart have no basis in reality.

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 someday 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.


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