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Nigeria’s Obsession with the “National”

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Nigeria is plagued with what I call an “obsession with the national,” but it’s a skewed, selective obsess...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Nigeria is plagued with what I call an “obsession with the national,” but it’s a skewed, selective obsession. Why is everything from the North often associated with provincialism and everything from the South with “nationalism” (read: cosmopolitanism)? Why is the Daily Trust a “northern” newspaper but the Nigerian Tribune a “national” newspaper? Why is Ahmadu Bello University (Nigeria’s largest and most cosmopolitan university) a “northern” university but Obafemi Awololow University, for example, is not a southwestern (or, better still, a Yoruba) university? Why is Unity Bank a “northern” bank but no other bank in Nigeria contends with a baggage of provincialism?
Before we answer these questions, we should equally ask what is wrong with being “regional” in the first place. Why do all newspapers in Nigeria strain excessively hard to be identified as “national dailies” when, in fact, they are at best regional publications with some countrywide circulation? Why is being “national” so chic in a country with deep primordial fissures and dissension?

To get a sense of where I am heading with my questions, let’s do a contrast of contexts across the world. In the United States, a country that shares many similarities with Nigeria, there are only three national newspapers—USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. All the other big-name newspapers in the country are basically regional newspapers. For example, the Washington Post, which is so influential that it brought down a national government in the 1960s, circulates only around Washington DC and surrounding states. People who live down South have to subscribe to read its print edition. It’s the same with the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, and so on.

What of banking? Well, banks here, too, are very regional. For instance, Bank of America, America’s biggest bank, in spite of its inclusive name, is actually a southern bank. You won’t find its branches in most northern states. Citigroup, another huge U.S. bank, is a northern bank that has no branches in many southern states. 

Yet these institutions are not only respectable and profit-making; they are not ridiculed for being “regional.” Why is that so? 

Well, many people have said the hang-up we have about regionalism in Nigeria is a consequence of our history of inter-ethnic strife and the desire to consciously repudiate its aftermath. Maybe so. But our history is not more peculiar than that of the United States. The country also fought a bitter Civil War for, in fact, a longer period than we did. And in spite of pretensions to the contrary, there is still a deep north/south rivalry in the country, although it is not as crude as ours. Yet institutions are not pooh-poohed here because they cater to a regional base.

I think part of the reason for our obsession with the “national” in spite of our nakedly transparent provincial proclivities in our everyday lives is our history of prolonged military governance—and the unitary command structure it has imposed on our psyche. 

But, let’s face it: in this obsession with the “national,” the South has derived the most cultural and discursive benefit precisely because of its monopoly of the power of naming and definition of reality brought about its historic advantage in education and media ownership. That is why southern regional concerns tend to be automatically associated with “national” interests and northern regional concerns are marginalized as “regional” and therefore loathsome and deserving of scorn. 

But it seems to me that being a “northern” anything, properly conceived, is closer to being “national” than any other competing regional label. Come to think of it: two of Nigeria’s three major ethnic groups (the Hausa and the Yoruba) are indigenous to the North. Plus, the North is not only two times bigger than all of the South combined; it is also home to more than 60 percent of the Nigeria’s over 450 ethnic groups. What is more, all three of Africa’s major language families—the Niger Congo, Afro-Asiatic and Nilo-Saharan language families—are found in the North, while only the Niger Congo language family exists in the entire South. Now, no institution that truly caters to this group can be regarded as being provincial. It actually almost takes as much efforts to be truly “northern” as it takes to be “national.”

That is why northern unity is as elusive as Nigerian unity. Genuine northern provincialism requires sensitivity to religious and ethnic plurality in more ways than western or eastern provincialism does. A Hausa-Fulani Muslim supremacist is as much a betrayer of the idea of the North as a Middle Beltan Christian fundamentalist is.

Other regions of Nigeria don’t have to contend with such delicate primordial balancing acts. Take southwest Nigeria as an example.  Because religion is not central to identity formation and articulation there, all that a successful regional agenda in that part of the country requires is a capacity to show sensitivity to the region’s sub-group dynamics, which is greatly helped by the Oduduwa myth of origin. This is true, to a large extent, of eastern Nigeria: it is basically a Christian Igbo territory. The Deep South’s ethnic pluralism is offset by its near religious sameness. 

Nothing in what I have said so far is intended to be understood as endorsing the notion that northern Nigeria is superior to any other region. After all, northern Nigeria isn’t the product of the conscious decision of the disparate people that live in it. It is as much a colonial creation as all other regions in Nigeria.

But my point is that the disdain we express for anything not “national,” which usually means “northern,” is just plain unthinking, especially for a country that has no national character to speak of.

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