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Tribe and tongue in Nigeria: From detribalisation to retribalisation


Mathew Hassan Kukah

On February 24, this year, I delivered the convocation lecture for the University of Abuja, titled, Though Tribe and Tongue May Differ: Managing Diversity in Nigeria. Drawing from Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, I came to the very sad conclusion that coming to the critical point where two roads diverged, our leaders have always avoided the road less travelled. The result is that rather than make a difference, many of the leaders have continued to make the same mistakes.

The cumulative effect litters the landscape and goes by different names: corruption, underdevelopment, stagnation, decay, etc. In the Lecture, I argued that: We have lacked the courage to take some of the tough decisions that would have changed our country today. We found the discipline and demands of equality enshrined in our democracy difficult to uphold and therefore we opted to cohabit with feudalism. The result is that we have constructed a rickety double decker identity vehicle whereby we inhabit one section as citizens and another as subjects. Government has been unable to secure the loyalty of its citizens who prefer to preserve their reverence and loyalties to their local communities. The consequences of our lack of clear choices now stare us in the face. We are unable to submit to a single loyalty code. The elites steal from government and return home to feather the local nest presided over by the local hegemon before whom they prostrate as favourite sons and daughters adorned with feathers of recognition and appreciation.

No Nigerian leader has found the way to deal constructively with both feudalism and religion and break from these strangulating hegemons which have delayed our national integration. Both these hegemons of feudalism and religion have become totems which people claim to identify with when it is convenient for them to do so. Unless and until a Nigerian leader confronts these twin institutions and defines and clarifies their roles in society, common citizenship in Nigeria will remain an illusion.  This is a summary of the dilemma that we are in.


My intention in this presentation is to continue the exploration of themes that have been at the centre of my research and reflections for the last thirty or more years as a public intellectual. The questions are varied and complex, they are vertical, horizontal, intersecting and counter penetrating. They seem interconnected, yet dispersed, they both attract and repel. Look at a few of them: Are we a country, a nation or a people and what is the significance of and the difference between each of these nouns? Is national cohesion an illusion? How do we fix Nigeria? How can this country work for us? Why do we love to hate our country with equal passion? What needs to be done and who needs to do what? What and where are the tools? Who will design or manufacture them? How do we end inequalities? How do we find a balance between religion and politics? Can both ever serve the common good? Can they do so together? The questions are legion.

The theme for today’s Conference according to the convener, Professor Epiphany Azinge, is, Nigeria: In Search of a Detribalized Race. It seems that Professor Azinge seeks to address some of the issues that are also captured in the questions I have posed above. However, I imagine he thinks that if we could produce a detribalised race, then we would have found answers to all our complex problems and would safely be on our way to El Dorado where we would all live happily ever after! I am not here to dispute this assumption, but to add my voice and to raise some even more serious questions.

Those who have read my articles or have heard me speak will be familiar with the fact that I prefer to ask more questions than provide answers. I believe that a chance to address an audience at any time is a rare privilege and no one should take it lightly. It would be dangerous to assume that one is on the podium because he or she is the most informed about the issues. So, I see these events as opportunities to further our collective search for meaning.

So, going forward, my questions are: What does a detribalised race look like? What are the causes of detribalisation and how do people get detribalised? What are the ingredients of detribalisation? In fact, can there be such a thing as a totally ‘detribalised’ race or person? Who writes the prescription and who administers the dosage? What are the obstacles to detribalisation? Again the questions are many and finding answers to them will now occupy our attention.

I am neither an Anthropologist nor a Sociologist and might not have the precise definition of the concept of tribe. However, as a social category, I see Tribe as a unit of organization that holds together a community that shares a sense of common ancestry, history, mythology, language and culture. These go on to produce feelings and bonds of affinity. Tribalism on the other hand, is the operational instrumentalisation, and unfortunately even manipulation, of that identity as a platform for organisation and negotiation, or the application of that identity to secure advantage for the group. Tribalism appropriates that identity, draws boundaries and excludes other members from the privileges. When employed, it can become the rallying cry, an ideology for war for the protection of the tribe or the appropriation of resources to maintain the supremacy of the group.

Detribalisation, therefore, does not mean the negation of tribal identity per se, but it means the negation of tribalism, the abandonment of tribal loyalties and their substitution with what may be perceived as higher goals of modernity. This last note stems from the premise that tribalism is often associated with traditionalism which is often perceived to be something static, established and unchangeable, and therefore in conflict with modernity. The discussion on the relationship, oft times seen to be conflictual, of African traditional cultures and modernity is one I will not go into here but it is one on which there is a lot of research already done and on which much more is needed.

However, for the purpose of today’s conversation and our understanding of ‘detribalisation’ as the negation of tribalism, the question is, what are the aggregate units of bad things that would need to be abandoned for an aggregate of good things that can enable a people to embrace the alternative as an appealing concept? We cannot answer the question in isolation because the title of my paper suggests a second leg, namely, what I refer to as Retribalisation which in effect would be the alternative offered as the identity factor of the people (tribe).

I have introduced the notion of Retribalisation so as to create a balance in the concepts. By my lose definition, it is an abandonment of the tent of detribalization and a return to a new tribalisation. What it means therefore is the feeling that the promises that were offered to make us abandon tribalism have not paid off and now the individuals or groups realise that they were sold a counterfeit; thus we see the quest for a return to the womb of tribalism. The interplay of these forces is what we are confronted with today. I am not in a position to provide answers, but my concern is to offer a few items on the menu and hope that all of us can begin a process of debating these challenges, looking at the merit or demerits of each of the issues.

The first question to ask is, what are the factors that would lead to detribalisation? What are the incentives? In other words, why would people trade one identity for the other? To attempt to answer these questions, we need to look elsewhere, and here, game theories can help illustrate what we mean.

Let us first take the economic and philosophical concepts of what is called, incentive compatibility or utility maximisation. The issue here is to enable us examine what set of rules guide human behaviour. Given that the human person is a utility maximizer, that is, we all prefer to play by the set of rules that confer maximal benefit to us, how do we ensure that all participants achieve benefits in any given situation where people seek advantage over one another? Let us take some examples: Imagine that an airline tells passengers that non-smokers and teetotalers will get the best seats and discounts, how will smokers and drinkers react? Or, a bank advertises that men who do not abuse their wives will be more liable to access loans, what will happen? Or, if the Road Safety Corps decides that at the end of the year, any motorist who has not had any driving accident will receive 50 liters of fuel for free, what impact will this have on drivers? We can all respond to these issues differently, but the truth is that each and every one of us will most likely be persuaded by self-interest to act well. So, in the end, the Airlines and Banks will make good business and will have helped people live healthier lives and have less violent marriages,  while the Road Safety Corps will all smile as their jobs become easier and they see that human lives are being saved. In all, both parties are happy. In the situations, no one has lost out; both sides feel a sense of benefit.

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 detribalize: 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 detribalize 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 ’detribalized’? Can we ever say such a thing? If not, what are the limits of being ‘tribalised’ and what are the implications of being detribalized and retribalised? What circumstances lead people to retrace their steps or consider sacrifices made toward detribalization 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:

To be continued tomorrow.

Bishop Kukah delivered this paper at a conference organised by Professor Epiphany Azinge Foundation in Yar’Adua Centre, Abuja.

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