Wednesday, 6th December 2023

Tribe and tongue in Nigeria: From detribalisation to retribalisation – Part 3

By Matthew Hassan Kukah
26 November 2017   |   3:35 am
For the purpose of our reflection, there are those who might be tempted to argue that Nigeria is where she is today because she has allowed...

Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah

For the purpose of our reflection, there are those who might be tempted to argue that Nigeria is where she is today because she has allowed ethnicity or tribal differences to get in the way. Those who make this point believe that if only we can get rid of tribalism, that is, become detribalised, all will be well.

But, as I have said elsewhere, the real challenge in addressing this question is to understand and accept that differences in tribe and tongue are not the reason for our monumental failure to build consensus around development, common citizenship and fairness. There are, however, many reasons for this failure, to which we shall now turn.

I have argued that, in the words of Frost, one of our greatest tragedies lies in the consequences of ‘road not taken’. We inherited a regional arrangement that had its pitfalls but if we had the patience we could have finally worked out a system to accommodate us all. Undoubtedly we can still do that. However, a combination of factors took us continuously back to the bottom of the hill where we have remained like frogs in a bucket, unable to either climb out individually or collectively. The greatest tragedy of the nation is that we have not been able to create a common vision of an egalitarian society. In almost every department, the infrastructure that the British created has since fallen into absolute and total decay. A few examples will do:

Take the universities, those prestigious citadels of learning from where the dreams and visions of a new society were to be conceived and delivered.  The first three came into being immediately after independence so as to provide a platform for the development of a succeeding elite whose duty was to transform or lead our nation to modernity. But look at what they have become today: rather than offer the society light, these onetime great Universities have turned into dark theatres of ethnic nationalisms. These so-called federal institutions are today largely shells, incubators of the most tragic, dangerous and narrowest expressions of ethnic, religious or regional bigotry and prejudices. The academic elites in these institutions have become trapped in the cesspool of the same distortions of corruption, inefficiency, and bigotry that have come to characterise the larger society. A Vice Chancellor told me that to be a Vice Chancellor was not so much a question of being a man or woman of letters, but it depends on if you have a strong and powerful traditional ruler behind you. Today, neither by research nor prestige can our Universities offer a model of our society because they are caught in a web of the same politics ravaging the larger society.

Or, take the Military as another example. Ordinarily, everywhere in the world, by virtue of their calling, the military represents the finest values and the vision of a classless society that rises beyond ethnic, regional or religious considerations. It is a moulder of men and women. That was then. Today, everyone knows that the military has lost its allure and gravitas. Like the rest of Nigeria, years of coups and counter coups sponsored largely by powerful civilian elite have seen the military gradually become trapped and ravaged by ethnic, regional, religious and class considerations. Promotion, demotion or postings are now a function of connections and thus, today, the military is merely one of the fingers of a leprous nation.

Shall we mention the Bureaucracy? Nigerians are nostalgic about the Civil service of post-independence Nigeria when they were both civil and servants. We continue to marvel at the Asian Tigers, India or China. Yet, in these countries, the Civil service takes only the brightest and the best. Lee Kwan Yew tells of how he recruited only the best intellectuals into the civil service. Today, the Nigerian civil service is the province of patronage where powerful people who have risen to the top turn it into a land of green pastures to graze only their family and clan members. Our Bureaucracy too has been ravaged by the ill wind of the maladministration that has been inflicted on our nation by years of military oppression and the corrosive effect of a capricious political elite.

Or look at the Religious institutions. Today, the kingdom of God has been taken over by men and women of the underworld. Before our very eyes, its members are daily standing trial for the same crimes that afflict the larger society such as, armed robbery, kidnapping, extortion, failed business deals, murder/assassinations, and many more. Today, rather than being called by God, it is people who design and build their own structures and then literally force God to call them, often both husband and wife, to become prophets and prophetesses. Little wonder, some of these people refer to their institutions not as Churches but as Ministries where they focus on amassing wealth and power and becoming slippery gateways to dubious prosperity, calling people to focus on the so-called pastor rather than on Christ. I imagine that there are also today many people who call themselves Islamic scholars and Imam and preachers who seek for people to focus on them rather than on Allah.

A combination of these distorted narratives has turned Nigeria into a forest of frustration and hopelessness where everyone simply tries to survive as best as they can. The youth have become like the young people caught up in the novel, Lord of the Flies where, after a period of time in the forest, they began to show signs of inhumanity.

A few things must happen if we are to build a new Nigeria. We have to focus on a new generation of Nigerians unencumbered by all the distortions that have weighed us down.  This country will not survive if we continue the wild goose chase of looking for leaders, or messiahs. There are no messiahs anywhere in the world. The right people must come from the sweat of our brow and not be ferried into public life through coups and manipulated elections.

The British Empire was the result of the vision of an elite, so also apartheid, even slavery. There is no single leader anywhere in the world who has succeeded or left a legacy who did not first prepare themselves for public office and who did not have a vision to which they were committed to implement. Perhaps the best-prepared politicians in the history of our country remain the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo and to some extent Mallam Aminu Kano. In many ways, it is to our eternal regret that none of them had the chance to implement their egalitarian philosophies at a national level. By way of conclusion, let us look closely at some lessons we can derive from the past for a better Nigeria.

First, there must be a deliberate admission that the persistence of claims to so-called tribal identity is tied to the pre-modern and semi feudal state that Nigeria is in. Government has not developed a clear vision of society where other categories of identity can both embrace and surpass ethnic or tribal identity. Here, we can borrow examples from elsewhere such as from Europe, the United States of America, and even from developing countries such as Singapore where greater emphasis has been placed on transparent processes of leadership recruitment. For the United States of America, the notion of the military industrial complex today, which is a combination of the collaborative interplay between the private sector, intellectual elite and government whose interests converge and are driven by a capitalist class in a liberal, free market economy. So, whether in war or in peacetime, the fruits of intellectual research provide the skeleton on which the system ensures that American interests are protected.

Secondly, Leadership should not happen by accident, as is too often the case with us here. No one simply drops from the sky to become a President, Governor of Congressman. Our leadership recruitment processes are bereft of goals and processes and are instead wrapped in the myth of secret and conspiratorial manipulations. To make progress, Nigeria must erect signposts for excellence and transparency. It is not an accident that there is a linkage between getting to the White House and not only a record in public service but association with prestigious University institutions, known as Ivy League Universities. Nor is getting to Number 10 Downing Street outside the Oxford-Cambridge network. It is affiliation with these prestigious institutions that have replaced racial or gender categories, the equivalent of tribalism, regionalism and religion in our case.

Thirdly, it is infrastructure that changes the way a society sees itself. For example, the struggle against corruption will remain a mirage as long as this fight focuses only on threats, punishment and moral exhortation. It is technology that ends impunity, not the threat of punishment, which the corrupt can always circumvent by frustrating the bureaucracy and the justice system. By not providing adequate and modern services and infrastructure throughout the country, the government has left our people at the mercy of villains, thieves and criminals who, ironically are their heroes, heroines and modern day Robin Hoods!

Fourthly, the crisis of lack of transparency in admissions to University, job placements, allocation of resources: open and despicable nepotism has created a sense of anomie. Since the government has allowed men and women of influence to determine who is admitted or employed, whether in the universities, security agencies, or the civil service, it lacks the ability to claim the loyalty of her citizens. People will remain loyal not to the nation but only to those who helped them climb the ladder.

Fifthly, there is the issue of inter-marriages. Marriage is at the heart of human civilisation. More than any other institution, it is the glue that has held people together and ensured the perpetuation of humanity. After years of war, it was marriages that sealed the bond of warring empires, emperors and society. Every civilization had to contend with the prejudices of one tribe over another. These prejudices were captured in proverbs, songs and other cultural expressions. Often, these prejudices persisted until intermarriages broke the deadlock and myths. New generations then emerged from these unions unencumbered by the prejudices of their parents. For us in Nigeria, the National Youth Service Corps has done extremely well as a strategy for intermarriages. I watched a programme on NTA last night about socialization processes and the harmony that had grown out of the years of intermarriages between the Hausa settlers and the Yoruba in Abeokuta. It was really inspiring listening to these Hausa people speaking fluent Yoruba! All those who spoke on the programme said that conflict was alien to them.

In Northern Nigeria the issue of interreligious and intercultural marriage presents a serious problem and unless attitudes change to this issue, and to the mentality it represents, there is little doubt that the long drawn violence and suspicion between Christians and Muslims will persist. Muslims in northern Nigeria believe that their sons can marry Christian women, but consider it haram for Christian men to marry their daughters! These are the kinds of prejudices that produce the superiority complex and its resultant extremist attitudes such as that manifested by Boko Haram.  Sadly, the region will never get away from war and violence until young men and women begin to build families together. The idea that Christian men cannot marry Muslim women unless they convert is a distorted cultural myth. It is based on the fear bred by ignorance, not on faithful adherence to Islam.

Sixthly, we require a high level of judicial activism to sustain the vision of a united and peaceful multi-ethnic and multi-religious Nigeria, which is contemplated in our Constitution. Our society will never be entirely free of people who hold deep prejudices and hate and hide these under religious, ethnic or regional bigotry to demean the other who is not like them.

However, if we have a transparent and active judicial system we can ensure that these people are called to justice for any criminal actions arising from their prejudices and hate. The world has seen prejudice and its violent expression crumble in South Africa and the United States. We saw the end of slavery, racism and apartheid. We either have change willingly or we will drown in the cesspool of ignorance, as we have seen from Boko Haram.

The landmark Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education in 1952 in the United States of America is an illustration of how the Judiciary, here the Supreme Court, can bend the arc of justice and help to create a harmonious society. By that ruling, the Supreme Court declared the setting up of separate and inferior schools for blacks to be unconstitutional. In the process, education became available and accessible to all American children. In 1963, President John F Kennedy proposed the most comprehensive draft of the Civil Rights Act, arguing that the United States will not be fully free until all its citizens are free! As we know, he did not live long enough to see it through. However, his successor, Lyndon Johnson signed it into Law in 1964. To show his enthusiasm and the historic nature of this epoch changing assignment, President Johnson used 75 different pens to sign the Act into Law. The country looks to the Supreme Court to develop a sense of urgency about human rights, citizenship rights and Constitutionalism.

Nigeria must understand that there is nothing in our society that is new. Most societies in the world went through various stages of development and growth, but each nation had to produce men and women of great imagination, men and women of courage and sacrifice, men and women prepared to commit all their energies to developing a vision society. We have not been so lucky here.
Nigerians must not be deceived. The Fulani or Ikulu cause is not served by how many of its sons or daughters become Presidents, Governors, Ministers or even Bishops in Nigeria. As long as millions of Fulanis and Hausa are still roaming the treacherous landscape and the streets of Nigeria, whether as Almajiri or herdsmen, mired in poverty, none of us is free. As long as the Ijaw or Ogoni person is still drinking or fishing in poisoned waters from the lagoons, none of us is free. It does not matter how many Yorubas, Tiv or any of our ethnic groups become President, Governor or Minister. As long as poverty and deprivation still stalk our land, none of us is free.

We are all inhabitants of the treacherous swamps and lagoons of death in Nigeria. Poverty remains a tragic scar that reminds the world of the injury done to us by our leaders. However, we must drain these swamps before we all drown in them. I know the job has been made more difficult by the fact that ours are no ordinary swamps. They are, as the British writer Michael Peel titled his book, Swamps full of dollars. Draining the swamps is our national dilemma, but it is also our promise. Let us start now. Thank you for your attention.

Bishop Matthew Hassan KUKAH delivered this paper at the Conference, organised by Professor Epiphany Azinge Foundation in Yar’Adua Centre, Abuja.