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Kusa, Ndigbo in Lagos and politics of ethnicity

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Professor Pat Utomi. PHOTO: Youtube

I know Femi Kusa. He is a friend and a classmate. I knew of him from his Daily Times days. Then we met at the University of Nigeria shortly after the end of Nigerian Civil war. I have read his reflections on Ndigbo and the politics of Lagos. And have followed with considerable curiosity the Gale storm his article set off and some of the responses to his rebuke of Ndigbo. My reaction has been influenced by a number of experiences from my own life’s journey. Two related to the times I shared with Femi at Nsukka, the other came from a few years later in Graduate School, in the United States. I shall start from the latter.

When I was at Indiana University, a certain professor of comparative politics and former Vice President of the University J Gus Liebenow remarked that it was a shame that some very bright African students were completing Ph.ds in economics, education and even political science and other disciplines with little understanding of the American system of government. He thought this particularly unfortunate because such people ought to be the kinds to turn to for light on how the American system worked, on return to their home countries. Who better to elucidate on the American way, in his home country than a US education Ph.d.

Liebenow, a Liberia expert, pushed for fellowship that could take some of the top Phd prospects from Africa, as interns, to the corridors of American government. He got his way. I turned out to be the first to be selected for this programme and went off to the US Capital, Washington DC as an intern in the Indiana Washington Office for rotation through the offices of members of the Indiana Delegation to the US Congress.

While the opportunity allowed me the bragging rights of engaging the American way in observing and asking questions directly of a Senator who would later become Vice President of the United States (Dan Quayle) and a

Congressman who would dominate foreign policy oversight from the House of Representative for many years, (Lee Hamilton), I suspect the opportunity advanced Liebenow’s goal because I have done many hours of talking, in the 38 years since that exposure, on how the American system works.

Some people at UNN were apparently not as smart as J Gus Liebenow. If they were, one of the Yorubas that ventured to Nsukka just after the Civil War, should probably not be one to raise issues of questionable charity towards a people he had ample opportunity to better understand.

In those days at UNN some of my closest friends were Yorubas: My classmate from Loyola College Ibadan, Gbenga Sadipe, Folu Ayeni, first class graduate and clas valedictorian in 1974, who would, with his wife Bose, found Tantalizers, years later; Ade Ogidan who would work at The Guardian for many years with Femi Kusa, and Ademola Ayegoro, among others. Most times we gathered in Baba’s room, a room next door to that of Clement Ebri, later Governor of Cross River State. It was part of a season in which things ethnic seemed peculiar to me. I was sometimes “one of those Yoruba boys”, other times a Midwest boy and at others an identity-challenged rascal. But I had fun, happy with myself and with everyone around.

My Yoruba tribe at UNN did not get in the way of association with my old school mates from Christ the Kings College Onitsha, so I had another cluster. What’s in the language you claim as mother tongue? Well, Femi Kusa and I, got a chance to leave UNN reflecting on this because at our farewell party Prof. Donatus Nwoga, the Dean of Faculty, gave a speech I still lift from till this day; and we got gifts of books. I am not sure if Femi got the same book I got but mine was a novel by the Kenyan writer Mugo Gatheru; A Child of Two Worlds.

When I read Femi’s piece, which has been called Xenophobic, and compared to the kind of remarks that set off genocide in Rwanda, what I saw was a spirit trapped in the desire to be modern but struggled with capture of the medieval. Femi is a smart and capable person and quite deliberate in what he does but we all can be trapped by things within and just outside of us. Human emotion is a subject that fascinates me.

This is why the work of people like Joshua Greene at Harvard, who draws from neuroscience and psychology to explain emotions and how people respond to the need for both cooperation and competition in the advance of human endeavor, intrigues me.

I was quickly inclined to send my friend Femi Kusa, Greene’s book Moral Tribes. Responding to Femi with fury will do little to change how he thinks of a people just as the passionate response in abuse tends to turn off. The vitriol in response, therefore seemed quite unhelpful from my point of view.

Adducing rational measurable benefits of cooperation and identifying faults in reasoning may better help a person struggling as we all tend to be, to locate themselves in the modernity/medieval mindset continuum, may help a little more.

The bigger problem for me is that many who vilify Femi actually live the shortcomings they point out on Femi. They are pockets of what they accuse him of but they do not publicly declare such. But if they show that Ondo State and Oyo States, with few Igbos, seemed to have voted like Okota, in Lagos, they may make Femi think. Did Femi think about that in coming to onclusions so divisive and threatening of cooperation? Why did such a
people who take over the territory of others vote a Northerner the Mayor of Enugu in the 1950s? There are many examples that could point a different way. But stereotypes reduced the pressure to think. They make life easy but potentially dangerous because they can perpetuate unreason.

In our earlier years in the department, at UNN, the Head of Department Ezenta Eze, taught a class on gestalt. The idiosyncratic furging of the shape of reality should not be dismissed. Some personal experience can shape a view others can consider jaundiced or biased. Condemning such outright may therefore be unfair. Maturity demands continuing sensitivity to the fact that people see reality differently, which neither makes them good, or bad people.

Identify politics is a significant point today in Nigeria. K. K. Komolafe of Thisday, in writing about my politics, thought, I should have run for office from Lagos rather than Delta. I know Lagos and are better known here, he submitted.

Femi Falana and a few others have suggested the same. Nothing wrong in principle, but maturity suggests to me that it is the early days yet for such.

My response to such prodding is a nice smile. Surely if we want to build a nation, then the nationality question has to be addressed. We can choose not to build a nation and federate or separate but we need to pace and try things before we decide.

Still, it does not mean anybody has the entitlement to denying me a right that is fundamental. Maturity must come from all sides. But what makes a difference is the conduct of leaders. As we saw with Yugoslavia, well captured by Robert Kaplan in Balkan Ghosts, once Josef Tito died the story was different.

The Filipino Professor, of Chinese ethnic stock, at Yale University, Amy Chua, years ago, wrote the book World on Fire, about ho globalization was stoking ethnic hatred against market-dominant minorities. In her list of such groups were Jews, Chinese minorities in places like the Philippines (her own ethnic stock) and Igbos of Nigeria. It is easy and cheap to attack such groups.

To be continued tomorrow
•Utomi, Political economist and professor of entrepreneurship, founder, Centre for values in leadership


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