Pythons, crocodiles and the Nigerian zoo
As a person I am a cautious optimist on “project Nigeria”, it is one that I put my whole heart on, despite the counsel of a statesman who once told me “Nigeria was not worth dying for…you must live for it.”
Despite very recent efforts, we remain a nation that simply does not know where it is headed to, or does not want to face what I term, realistic, reasonable and responsible approach to its diversities.
The ethnic conundrum of our existence continues to hunt and haunt us being one of the major obstacles to the existence of the Nigerian state. Beginning with the transition from colonial to neo-colonial dependence, military and back to the current brand democracy. The conflict spiral generated by ethnicity can be seen at all the critical phases in Nigeria, its democracy, the party system, the electoral process and the sharing of the national cake via offices and resources. Almost all our conflicts, controversies and interests all narrow down to who is from where? Even the way we are reported: Mr. Buhari from Muslim North, or Mr. Jonathan from predominately Christian South.
The truth is that as much as some form of true federalism or on the extreme confederacy, resource control and largely self determination is desirable, however, the complexity of ethnicity in Nigeria can only be properly understood in the context of power struggle among various factions of the ruling class, especially within the context of the lower class ignorance through manipulation. The empirical fact being that ethnicity cannot be deconstructed because we have a faulty form of state and a morally bankrupt class in power.
Ethnicity has been also constantly shifting because of a fluid and dynamic nature of changing interests, for example, a hitherto unknown South-South (which contextually in English is wrong) or a salient Northeast, then a newspaper Middle Belt, a political one, and also a geographical Middle Belt remain real. It has simply varied as demands change or as the social injustice is perceived, from the rigid North/South and Christian/Muslim divide, and today Nigeria/Biafra.
It is difficult to prefix a particular political tendency to the collectivism of an ethnic group because as the Nigerian example suggests, different political tendencies can be expressed within a particular ethnic group, like the differences between the Ohaneze ndi Igbo and MASSOB, IPOB and that of the Afenifere fon awon Yoruba and the OPC.
It has been recently easy for everyone to have an understanding of the term ethnicity within a narrow conceptualisation. This is rather a faulty assumption. For one, there is a tendency to conflate ethnicity with other social phenomena that share similar features especially those that fall within primordial and communal identities like tribalism, favouritism, the Biafran struggle, Resource control, MEND, Boko Haram, MASSOB, OPC et al.
There could also be the tendency to see ethnicity as the natural outcome of existence of ethnic groups, which again is wrong. The fact that like any other portmanteau word, it can serve as a euphemistic substitute for other appellations led to abuse, precisely as it has no independent existence of its own. It continues to be driven by class interests or the quest for power. In our Nigeria today as always it has taken greater meaning in the competitive situations where available resources are scarce in relation to the interests that grow around them.
The major issue in the ethnic struggle is the phenomenon of politicised ethnicity. More often than not, ethnicity is invoked by interests, which are not necessarily described in ethnic terms.
As Claude Ake once put it, conflicts arising from the construction of ethnicity to conceal exploitation by building solidarity across class lines, conflicts arise from appeals to ethnic support in the face of varnishing legitimacy, and from the manipulation of ethnicity for obvious political gains and not ethnic problems, but problems of particular dynamics which are pinned on ethnicity. This is the Nigerian situation.
The contradictory tendencies of ethnicity are obvious today and the need to provide important safeguard against centralisation and authoritarian tendencies has once more arisen. The problem we have is that the mobilisation of ethnicity as a way out has more often than not been for some few people’s material benefit and this has given rise to the questions of citizenship rights, statism, indigeneship/settler palaver. To an extent this has become a veritable tool that is internalised and used as a crisis generating mechanism and obstacle to democracy.
Deep ethnic fears generated by in-built structures that promote unequal access to power and resources is being exploited, and is part of the government’s dilemma at all levels. As a nation and a people we continue to think like birds born in a cage that think flying is an illness. So let me tell a story and leave men of good conscience to fight for the soul of this nation that is at war with herself.
Three sons left home, went out into the business world and all prospered. Getting back together, they discussed the gifts they were able to give their elderly mother. The first said, “I built a big house for our mother.” The second said, “I sent her the latest Mercedes with a driver.”
The third smiled and said, “I’ve got you both beat. You know how much Mother enjoys reading poetry? And you know she can’t see very well. So I sent her a remarkable parrot that recites all her favourite poetry. It took a world-famous literacy teacher 12 years to teach him and cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars to see to his maintenance yearly. He’s one of a kind. Mother just has to name the poem, and the parrot recites it.”
Soon thereafter, Mother sent out her letters of thanks:
“Milton,” she wrote to the first son, “The house you built is so huge. I live in only one room, but I have to clean the whole house.” “Gerald,” she wrote to the second, “I am too old to travel. I stay most of the time at home, so I rarely use the Mercedes. And the driver is so rude!” “Dearest Donald,” she wrote to her third son, “You have the good sense to know what your mother likes. The chicken was absolutely delicious!
I always have stated I wished Nigeria currently was not about Buhari, Nnamdi, APC, PDP and change, sadly it is not, rather it is about the different narratives which often than not betray our sense of emotion. We act in the now, we continue to pour venoms on each other, and fact is we really do not know what we want. We don’t know the story, but we know our side of the story and our desires. We have plenty narratives, and we are all angry. Everyone is right, and yet wrong!
My friend in the DSS happens to be a Christian, he is Fulani, and owns a very big farm, yet viewed with suspicion, both by his Fulani family and the larger public. My Ibo neighbour is a perpetual target, and his crime; being Ibo.
I am more terrified by our lack of knowledge than by the incidents that we know of. We have unknown unknowns, we are just telling stories. You and I, need to think Nigeria without losing our identity, as it is with the wild, every animal species needs to find, evolve and work with a system that suits it and promises survival for it in the habitat Nigerians need to become noble in understanding themselves: are we ready.’ Only time will tell.