We must change the way we live!
Continued from TUESDAY, March 24, 2015
IIT is true that over the centuries, so much havoc was wreaked upon that old foundation in Benin city by dynastic disputes and the arrival of interminable slave-hunters’ wars which overtook and laid the people low even before colonialism barged into our spaces and laid the people lower. Let’s be straight about it: by the time European colonialism arrived, what was left of that entrepreneurial, developmental zeal had not only waned but was turned into a virtual curse. The colonizers’ determination to bring the people to their knees under absolute subjection consummated the decline.
The industries that made up what was called Great Benin, and the military feats that traversed territories as far as Dahomey and the Ga of today’s Ghana, collapsed in ways that should be object lesson to modern nation builders. It is difficult to recoup; as may be proved by the decline of Benin Arts, so much celebrated, but swallowed up in generalized studies of African arts and sometimes treated as belonging to other better-studied nationalities.
It suggests how those who do not make an industry of their history, enter a groove of self-forgetting that not only dis-empowers them but reduces whatever may have been their comparative advantages to sheer dross. It gets worse in a situation where multi-ethnicity creates competing histories that parochial historians are unable to summon enough objectivity to dis-entangle.
We may well admit, in this regard, that there was a chance of recouping but that the zeal was punctured and trivialized due to the very nature of our ethnic configurations. The classic exemplar of a recouping zeal in modern Nigerian history, from which we have all managed to learn the wrong things, was the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, the Yoruba Union, with its antipodal politics in the colonial era.
Muffled in oppositional terms which stretched into the post-colonial era, responses to it by other ethnic groups ruined the knowledge or lessons that we ought all to take from it. The Egbe happened to be an organization that followed the pattern of all the ethnic organizations of its times. It was preceded by the Urhobo Progressive Union, Ibibio Union, the Igbo Federal Union, and the Mutanen Arewa. It sought the unity and development of the Yoruba speaking peoples in a similar but more programmatic recourse to unionization.
Quite unique. What was most important about its format, from the standpoint of responding to Western colonial ploys, was that it had among other schemes a pre-figuring of the future in which knowledge in the English language would be absorbed and domesticated in the indigenous language and knowledge in the indigenous language will be registered in the English language.
By thus equalizing conditions between the colonizer and the colonized, the superiority complex of the one was supposed to be literally dissolved and the master race syndrome beaten down to dust. The movement was controversial. By the nature of the colonial blight , at a time when every ethnic group was touchy about neighbours barging into their spaces, it was the easiest thing in the world to have cultural siblings resenting attempts to spell a fast-forwarding to civilization on a new key. Yes that was what it amounted to. A civilization on a new key was what the ethnic unions really amounted to as they made people seek associational empathy beyond villages and clans. They were actually on civilizing missions whether in Edo, Yoruba, Efik, Hausa, or Igboland.
They were turning small clannish mentalities into nationalities in a way that one can only now appreciate by considering how the long period of the slave wars had created distrust among our diverse peoples and had damaged trust between clans, tribes, ethnic groups and fractions. The slave wars had created a testiness that was worsened when colonialism induced competition between groups, literally putting some tribes under other tribes that had never conquered them. This was done for purposes of ease of governance but usually on the basis of thoroughly invalid distinctions between supposedly inferior and superior tribes according to whether they were literate or non-literate, warlike or docile, or lived in large or small conurbations, or had Kings or mere chiefs. The mismanagement of ethnicity that resulted from applying gross unitarist measures to the diverse peoples, worsened matters. It removed self-governance, making it difficult for ethnic fractions to relate, without rancour, in a conversational manner.
The uniqueness of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa was that it declared for a future of ethnic self-governance. It looked to the production of indigenous language literatures, folklore, history of towns and villages. It yielded novels, drama and poetry. At an advanced stage it pressed to service the idea of translating neologisms in the sciences into the indigenous languages and the literary classics of the larger world into the indigenous languages. Durojaiye’s translation of Julius Caesar into Yoruba as Juliosi Sisa could well have been followed by translations of Charles Dickens and Faulkner and Tolstoy in the way that the translation of the Bible into many indigenous languages already saved the new day for many indigenous tongues.
Right into the period of the Africanization of colonial Governments, when the first African leader of Government Business emerged in our climes, it transited well into the school system. The free primary schools that many of us attended were taught in the indigenous languages beyond infant classes. It was a feat. Of course, the English language was major domo. I remember it with gratitude to this day how it fitted into a new world in which public enlightenment schemes, with mobile free cinema vans singing our indigenous folksongs, proved the legend of Chief Anthony Enahoro, Minister of Information and public enlightenment, among movers of a new nationalism. The schemes were propelled by a free education and free health movement which simply said we, as Africans, were going to catch up with the whiteman. With speed. Many white colonial officers and scholars sniggered. But to this day those schemes remain the smartest things ever attempted by a government of the people in our part of the world.
My personal biography, and the biography of my generation, was framed by happenings around this new nationalism. Here, I must recall a smart teacher of mine in primary school Mr Ado Imoisili who, wherever he learnt it from, insisted on teaching the history of my hometown, as part of a larger narrative of Esan history, with songs that I could regail you with if I had the time. Indeed, the Esan segment of this nationalistic phenomenon had been given a very decided sustenance by Dr. Christopher Okojie whose book, The Ishan Native Laws and Customs is the classic around which all comers have had to bow. Admittedly, it has gaps, misinterpretations, and insufficient probing of some issues but there is no running from its place as the highpoint of a tradition that all of us should be ashamed to have neglected.
Actually, it is good to make it a matter for shame because we do need to know why it could not be stretched beyond where he stopped. This is the point at which we must recall that, enterprising, fastidious and unflappable as he was, Okojie was still an individual. He was a medical doctor. He had to build a hospital and to earn a living. As he went round Esan on his mission to provide medicare, he was driven away by some communities on the ground that he was bringing them a house of illness. Some communities, realizing their error after rejecting his bid, would spend decades thereafter fruitlessly wanting to build their own hospital. But what happened to him was similar to what happened to most modernizers and modernization schemes. They failed because of ignorant and shabby politics. Once politics took over, not just in Esan but across the Western Region, and across Nigeria, development was degraded and clear thinking was ceded to deep-seated cynicism.
Let’s never forget how it happened. Across the country, its prime proponents were hacked down for building another house of illness called tribalism. All the modernization projects that they had formulated were reduced to a matter of an ascendant ethnicity seeking to outshine and out-manoeuvre other ethnic groups. In the trade of competition for advantages under the colonial sun, this was like a sin against the holy ghost. Instead of doing for our own people what the Yoruba were trying to do for themselves, ethnic jingoists from sundry catchment areas turned from the future that was being threshed for all to move into.
They fielded political quarrels that lacked quality, and laid a basis for inter-communal resentments that we are still all managing to accommodate and teach to our children. Few people bothered to ask: how does not wanting to be dominated by the Yoruba stop us from writing our own history and developing our own languages and culture and improving our general welfare. You bet, it was good for the colonizers who loved conflict among the colonized. So their publicists in academia offered education that sold incongruous theories all around about the divisiveness of ethnicity. Many psuedo-modernizers began to think that teaching indigenous languages and culture was bowing to tribalism. The more conservative ‘natives’, as a form of resistance, took to defending cultural traits that were truly barbaric and outmoded as “our” culture. Many parents hailed the banning of vernacular in schools, as some parents still do, instead of considering how to match indigenous knowledge to the received English suasion. Or canon, if you like.
The rougher edge of the politics came in the form of the kind of lies that leaders told their people, as they still do today. In the Benin Delta region, it used to be said in big circles, that is, among serious-minded people, that Obafemi Awolowo, premier of the Western Region, being Yoruba, would turn all our people into Ogboni cult members. Yet it was Nnamdi Azikiwe, leader of the opposition NCNC in the Western Region, and, later, his stalwarts in the old Midwest Movement , all non-Yoruba, rather than Awolowo, who were members of Ogboni. Although, Awolowo eventually became the acknowledged leader of the Yoruba, he had side-stepped the cult membership along the way. This is to say that we have lived in a society in which the scarcity of serious and daring historians have placed all of us in occult zones where fiction masquerades as history.
It explains why a movement which should simply have been replicated in every hamlet and village across Nigeria was knocked sideways. Thereafter, ethnic unionization became mere struggles for bread and butter, for poundedyam, tuwo and akpu, scrambling for jobs and contracts in favour of kinsmen and women whose prime purposes centred on destroying merit and sense of equity and fair play which they mouthed to high heavens. The pity is that leaders of the Yoruba took their own history to the knackers and reduced it to eighteenth century civil wars, the forest against the savannah, into which other nationalities played their own nation-wrecking ethnic football.
Anyway so shabby was political mischief over the need for knowledge and genuine development that today it is still difficult to make people see that the business of going back to the roots, to the indigenous culture, is not all about the fetish, and the divisiveness, that they have been made to imagine it must always be.
The reality is that, in the first place, the differences usually imagined between the clans, tribes and nationalities, were never even skin deep. In the second place, too many superficial deviations from a common heritage tended to be overplayed for political ends that times have proved to be no more than the wheedling of political entrepreneurs muzzling history; and history being seized by ruffians for personalized control of other people’s destiny. The sad part is that those who champion most of the ethnic laagers hardly ever bother about the culture of the people; nor care about the history, literature or the quality of the lives that the people live beyond superficial talks about moving our people forward; or bouncing against neighbours with whom they have some beef about who gets what.
Otherwise, as it happens, they truly watch so many of our languages dying and the cultures that produced them being bastardized in a manner that stands between us and not just an understanding of the past but the capacity to put dreams to work in pursuit of chosen futures. This is to say, across Nigerian ethnic unions, we get little from the champions beyond divisive political rhetoric. The neglected cultural forms have continued to yawn and decay.
I have a personal testimony to present here; as, recently, because I had to perform the filial duty of burying my mother, I was obliged to come face to face with how grisly our self-neglect has been. I had to engage in traditional dances that I hadnt seen in decades. Many that I had wished for had decayed and had become mere memory. The elders who could perform the dances were either too old or too distanced by religion and acquired tastes to do justice to them. It affronted me with a challenge I could not turn away from. I had worked with a dance drama troupe, the Pan African Dance ensemble, ADZIDO, in London. The minders of the troupe went around Africa filming traditional dances which were taken back to Britain and taught to artistes who did interesting things across Europe.
On my return to Nigeria, putting the Hornbill House troupe on the road with Felix Okolo, I had taken the Adzido pattern to heart and under the pompous title of executive producer of the Hornbill House troupe, I actually engaged two Ikhinaboje dance companies from Ogbomo in Iruekpen and another from Ukhun to engage in a competition from which we gained the education that enabled us to achieve one particularly scintillating set in our choreography for our dance drama, titled Nigeria the Beautiful. But I did not see how dire things had become until I began to think, beyond poaching, of what could be done to bring other dances into a repertory. I found it was not so much a matter of taking but sustaining the many dances, and the songs that told stories and figured myths about the indigenous culture.
It became a matter of reclaiming them from oblivion and obscurity for modern usage. It did not hit home, or hard enough, however until I met many of the artists/preservers of the traditions and discovered that age had overtaken their art. Besides, the economic sustenance and social ambiance for their survival had been so eroded, and was being trashed at a speed that successive governments at local state and Federal levels could not imagine or find containment for.
I must add that individual performers in Art Councils across the country were always making attempts to remedy the situation. But theirs are efforts doomed to failure in a manner that worsens the situation. Because the right context is just not there. I must testify that it took me a visit to a session of the European Cultural Parliament in Scotland in 2013 to discover that my country was not a member of the world organization of art councils. Only three African countries, South Africa, Botswana and Tanzania, were members. The art councils of most African countries, I was told, had no means of independent decision-making outside the whims of chief executives of state. It explained why the hue and cry over an Endowment for the Arts never stopped running into obstacles.
Nor could it deliver on the professional savvy that was the core of the old Art Councils before the military barged in to take command of culture in the seventies. It happens that, today, the Art Councils have been so denatured that to bring sustenance and vibrancy to them calls for a virtual revolution: revamping local theatres, libraries, and tertiary institutions through researches and work-a-day performances that once enabled interactions across cultures. The burgeoning theatre and film and video industries in city-space have capacity to sustain rather than merely exploit, for momentary gain, the indigenous cultures.
But even they have a tendency to join the Christian sects, ever so quick to steal clothes from musical cultures they damn as fetishistic, to turn reclamation into sheer banality. These days, the zeal that once powered the rooting for indigenous cultures have no formal infrastructure. Lucky for some Nigerian cultural geographies. Their zeal has given up the front seat to the Diaspora in terms of deepening the studies that can raise our self-knowledge above what I keep calling self-forgetting. Thanks to their exploits, especially in the United States, anyone who thinks there is no need to be concerned about the indigenous culture or who imagines that tribalism and fetish are the twin outcomes of focusing attention on our indigenous cultures must be seen as a believer in a very distracted philosophy which says that when a country knows itself well, it ceases to develop.
This is a rank fallacy; as whatever helps us to know ourselves better leaves a basis for a more sanguine relationship with others. Rather than create a parochial brick wall against conversations with neighbours, it actually opens up space for light where there ought to be darkness.
I may well note at this point that part of what continues to support the mis-cognition of the indigenous is the presumption that the ethnic factor is being over-played when local cultural forms are allowed to enjoy formal presentation, promotion or preservation. This is not untrue in the present circumstances. Except that the obverse is actually also true: that when a cultural geography is defended in a multi-ethnic mix, the modalities of interaction, as long as they are not imposed, create a homely circumstance. The common access to welfare helps individual cultures and ethnic groups to accede to a sense of common morality.
Those who think there is virtue in mixing up people of different ethnic groups in the same state or in the same local government to create a melting pot simply must realize that it is not by annulling the individuality of the ethnic features but grounding them in a common ethic of performance, and common welfare, that they can thresh commonality.
Let’s bear it in mind that, thanks to Pandit Nehru’s sagacity, the Indians went for a proper science of boundary delimitation in their country two years after independence. It saved their democracy. Ask the Pakistanis why they who huffed away with a common, shared, religious ethic have stumbled like Nigeria from one psuedo-democraccy to another.
Obafemi Awolowo was never tired of proposing the Indian tack for Nigeria, insisting that countries like Britain imagining that they could run a plural society as a unitary state, as some Nigerians are still surreptitiously pushing for, are bound to be face to face with a crisis of the nationalities, as the recent referendum in Britain has shown.
It says something for why those looking for quotas and zoning formulas and rotational civil commands as in the six zonal cabbage in old Yugoslavia never really succeed.
What is most salutary in the Nigerian case is that those who always asked that local governments and states should be created according to an ethnic principle have also always wished for all Nigerians to enjoy the same social welfare measures as in free education free health and full employment and old age pension in a democratic environment.
Demanding that a common welfare system be developed to accommodate all Nigerians ensures a crisis-cross of interests and affectivity between divergent points of the Nigerian compass – without loss of citizenship rights. The principle behind the resolutions of the National conference of 2014 – one hundred years after Frederick Lugard’s amalgamation of the North and South – and after the Constitution Committees in the National Assembly had proposed that items in Chapter Two on fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy should be transferred to chapter four and made justiciable – is federalist one that requires entrenchment.
• To be Continued
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