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Tribe and tongue in Nigeria: From detribalisation to retribalisation – Part 2


Mathew Hassan Kukah

Indeed, these may be poor images, but I think they speak to the issues that we are addressing. We must pose the central question which will naturally be on the lips of all of us who are asked to detribalise: What is in it for me? What do I gain? Who will reap the greater benefit? What will the nation or the one asking me to detribalise offer me in return? When I compare where I am with where I hope to be, I must have good reason to take the leap.

The conclusion here is that first, the tribal tent is my comfort zone because, in it, I am safe and secure. Members of my tribe will fight to protect me and my family, they will offer me food and shelter, among many other things. So, naturally, anyone who wants my loyalty or wants me to abandon my tribal tent must offer me something better than what my tribal tent is already offering me. It is a tradeoff.

Look at our situation in Africa today. Why are our people emigrating and why are young people facing death on the Atlantic Ocean rather than staying in their home tents? Clearly, the home tent has proven to be rather treacherously hostile to their quest for fulfillment.


I do not wish to put words into the mouths of Nigerians who have emigrated abroad and made a new life there. However, I know that many of our people who live abroad, and indeed many who live in cities far from their native village, make very little reference to their ‘tribe’, and if they do refer to it, it is only in a superfluous way. We cannot call them ‘detribalised’ but their reality and existence poses questions on the importance of ‘tribe’ on their identity and way of life. For example, how does one recognize many of our Nigerians who live abroad today? It is not by their dress or even language. One who lives abroad, or indeed even in our large cities here in Nigeria, might tell you one of the following:
·The people here where I have settled have accepted me and welcomed me with open arms.
·I have found a spouse among them and built a family.
· I have settled, my business is thriving, I feel safe and I am prospering
· I have learnt the language and the culture of the people here.
· The opportunities are huge and I do not feel discriminated against.
· I am one of them and feel a sense of belonging.
· I can see the result of my sweat.
· I have named one of my children Kaduna or Ogoja.
· I have made here my home
· I eat their food, have adopted their culture
· I cannot remember when last I went to my birthplace.

But, there are more questions than answers. For example, when can we say a person or a people is ’detribalised’? Can we ever say such a thing? If not, what are the limits of being ‘tribalised’ and what are the implications of being detribalised and retribalised? What circumstances lead people to retrace their steps or consider sacrifices made toward detribalisation a mistake? What makes them withdraw their investment?  There are many answers but we could hazard as many guesses as possible and you are free to add your own. Basically, all of this brings to the fore the way in which identity claims of tribe and tribalism are to a very great extent determined by self-interest.

Perhaps one of the primary factors leading to retribalisation is the perception of poor return on investment, inability to find compatible incentives, a feeling of vulnerability, insecurity or even betrayal. When a detribalised person realises that the environment they thought was detribalised has betrayed them, they begin a process of retracing their steps back home, back to the tribe that they had abandoned. They begin to feel a sense of shame, resentment and betrayal and they embark on a conscious effort of self-discovery. They realise the need to recover the identity they had been lost or traded off. They develop a sense of urgency to return home. They may suddenly become conscious of their traditional food, history, cultural norms and forms which they had abandoned. They begin to recover their identity by dress, learning the language they had forgotten or abandoned. They could engage in a newfound micro nationalism. Let us take a few examples:


· A Nigerian man comes to America, and marries a native (preferably white) woman (visa marriage) believing this will enhance his opportunities for getting a piece of the American dream. He memorises the American Constitution, speaks with the American twang. His American dream turns into a nightmare when he realises his American wife one way or the other has betrayed him. He now abandons his American wife and returns home to marry a woman from home, to show, as Fela would say, that he is an original black man!

· A man has fought for his country as a soldier and believes that the army has become his family. Suddenly, he realises that his friends have been promoted ahead of him because the new Commander is from a different tribe that is hostile to his own. His sense of nationalism and the feeling that the military was family suddenly is badly shaken.

· A man believes that state X has accepted him, he names his son after the town and suddenly, his son is denied a scholarship because he is told he is not an indigene of the state.

· A woman who has surrendered her identity to ensure family stability, marries into a new tribe, learns the language and culture and believes she has been fully integrated. Suddenly, she is to be appointed a Minister or to a job she eminently qualifies for and suddenly, she realizes she is denied a promotion or an appointment because she is not a member of the tribe. She has been cast out as a stranger!

In the final analysis, people who flaunt their so-called detribalized toga do so merely to maximise their opportunities or investment whether it is in the boardroom or on the political field. We can argue therefore that there is something contractual, something tentative about identity tradeoffs. Their salience is only to the extent that the so-called detribalised person profits from this identity trade off. Now, let us see if we can draw some lessons from the notion of tribalism and ‘detribalisation’.

First, the search for a Detribalised race has a ring of an anthropological excursion. The so-called detribalised races are not tucked away somewhere in the amazon or rain forest, or the hills of Koma. In fact, is there such a race?


Let us remember that cultures, which are central to any tribal identity, are not static. They are not beyond time and unchangeable. They change and adapt as we, human beings, change and adapt to our changing social circumstances.

Identity mutations are part and parcel of modernisation and how we cope or negotiate these identities is the story of our survival. In this age of globalisation, it might be tempting to argue that only the Detribalised will succeed. However, detribalisation will remain a contested concept open to negotiation on the trade floor or power, whether in the boardroom, shopping floor, political space or wherever we turn.

• To be continued on Sunday.
• Bishop Kukah delivered this paper at a conference organised by Professor Epiphany Azinge Foundation in Yar’ Adua Centre, Abuja.

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