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We must change the way we live!

By Odia Ofeimun
16 March 2015   |   11:20 pm
It is not necessarily tribalistic. Because a tribalistic act would be one that insists the ethos of the tribe must command moral value above the standards of the larger society. Still, with or without such a command, simply on the very prospect of an ethnic union, many people feel obliged to withdraw all enthusiasm in favour of a supposedly detribalized ethic.
//Photo: Edmonton

//Photo: Edmonton

YOUR Excellencies, our distinguished and honourable legislators, our royal fathers, and mothers, our professors, teachers, students, brothers and sisters!

The coming together by people of the same tongue , ethnic group or culture, has been so often criminalized in our history! Words like tribalism, atavism and parochialism have been visited, with a certain glee, upon organizers of such coming together! Those who mount these words, among our most celebrated nationalists, have tended, more often than not, to be champions of their own ethnic laagers while needing to make a show of being followers of a different hermeneutics. Steeped in their chosen laagers, they take refuge, without self-consciousness, in the proposition that only ethnic neuters, so-called detribalized people, can build proper nation-states. They and their ilk, confuse national unity with unitarist conceptions of society and over-play the necessity for a centralized state in the face of countervailing pulls at the periphery. In essence, while paying lip service to Federalism, the system that, at least in theory, allows for self-governance by constituent units, they require people to prove civic worthiness by distancing themselves from their ethnic origins, or natal self-conceptions. It is all supposed to prove loyalty to the state: as if the will of the whole society is being coveted without allowing its strength to be derived from the power of its constituent parts. So to say, instead of building the nation state by treating the different ethnic groups as genuine building blocks, and allowing national identity to be seen as a negotiated factor between interacting units, they emphasize the need to annul ethnicity in order to create a flat cultural landscape amenable to one-dimensional control. Nation building, in effect, is turned into a means of reducing the units to some form of self-forgetting or self-denial without a cover of developmental ideals that affirms their self-governance or identity.

I do admit, given such suasions, that we enter a force-field, a contested territory, whenever we gather as a clan, ethnic group, or call it a cultural geography, to deliberate and take a stand on any issue. To the extent that other people are excluded who do not share or to whom we do not extend, or credit with, our sense of common identity, we are indeed within a narrow definition of possibilities as citizens of a multi-ethnic state. Arguably, it is parochial in the context of the larger national ethos to so converge in an ethnic space. It is not necessarily tribalistic. Because a tribalistic act would be one that insists the ethos of the tribe must command moral value above the standards of the larger society. Still, with or without such a command, simply on the very prospect of an ethnic union, many people feel obliged to withdraw all enthusiasm in favour of a supposedly detribalized ethic. Many of my friends belong in this camp. They were truly scandalized, and were worried for my soul, on learning that I was going to Ekuma to deliver a keynote address at Ikolo Esan, my natal ethnic union. How can you, a poet, a universalist, and for that matter, a Lagosian, reduce yourself to that level, they asked. I did not wince. I laughed it off as I still do on thinking about it. The matter of significance, as far as I could see, was more about what I was going to say, not where I was going to say it. Not that I am impervious to their main worry: which is that ethnic unionism and ethnic mobilization, as a phenomenon in Nigeria’s political space, has never managed to rise above the parochial and atavistic. Since no one has provided a sufficiently acceptable way of escaping its rigours and accompanying debilities, the received wisdom is that no matter how sanguine and open-minded you might be as a social engineer, once you get involved, you are bound to get lost in hair-raising essentialism that debases the capacity to unite with people of other ethnic groups to pursue common goals. Hence it is touted as a wrecker of national unity, and therefore, generally seen as the death of any country that fails to eschew or dissolve it. Apart from encouraging untoward and uncouth mannerisms in public life, the presumption is that ethnic unions devalue everyday goodwill and fellow-feeling across the board as they trip on a double morality, a pernicious one for others and a benign one for self. It happens that under the spell of ethnic mobilizers, many people cannot bear the voicing of a language different from their own in a bus, office, or public place. They enjoy music only of their natal backgrounds. Nor do they feel at home with holders of public office who are of a different ethnic group or fraction. Many would wish not that a competent person, but a kinsman, should man a strategic post. They rate a Permanent Secretary, a Vice Chancellor, a religious leader, a Governor, according to some ascribed ethnic code. This, in many ways, turns society into warped scenarios without a merit scheme. At all levels, it induces chief executives to plot employments and promotions, projects, roads, water schemes, even railways, outside principles of merit and in favour of the less deserving. Zones of evident diseconomies are ranked higher than disserving areas in order to feather ethnic nests. Call it a case of solidaristic corruption, harbinger of most of the other forms of corruption in our society! It implicates a warped sense, an absence of empathy, an entrenched ambush against the kind of comprehensive planning that ought to be roaded as a means of ameliorating hardships and removing the zero-sum approaches to development that heighten ethnic distrust and animosities. All these and more account for why good people, in pursuit of a different and better kind of society, are required to disengage from the physics of behaviour that ethnic unionism constitutes.

The core ethnic behaviour, in this regard, is that of weighing shoulders against near and distant neighbours in a game of otherizing, mutual tribal bashing, that cannot but wreck social harmony. Which is why the early makers of military coups in our history thought little of it before banning ethnic unions. Without hesitation, Chukwuma Nzeogwu banned them from the polity and Ibrahim Babangida as Chief of Staff of the Nigerian Army banned them from the military. Except that both of them, greenhorns as social engineers, were fighting it the wrong way. Soon enough, the military hotshots, fervent and impassioned as they were about outlawing the ethnic unions in pursuit of national integration, found themselves collapsing into the maw of the unions that they were supposed to overcome. At any rate, in a situation where ethnic quotas for entering the military had been long bargained for, and cabals had been studiously created to press for and defend the bargains, the disadvantaged could not escape being cooked unless unionized along ascribed ethnic lines. Especially with too many people hankering after the few resources available, and no fair code of sharing in existence in the face of ever rising expectations, the urge to unionize not only within but across ethnic groups and regions, was induced as norm. Ethnic unionism, on a large scale, has since become, implacably, a Nigerian.

Sadly, successive Nigerian administrations, voluble at escoriating the phenomenon, have not been able to do better than goading ethnic groups, through acts of commission and omission, to unionize. Villages, towns and whole provinces entered the stream of unionization in the colonial era in order to feel secure, and to gain advancement in the new world that the whiteman was building. Majority ethnic groups unionized as a means of ensuring they remained top dogs, not held down by colonial ploys for minorities to dominate. Minorities unionized to have access to a ‘fair’ share of national resources, and to protect their advantages from being harmed by colonial spite or the moves of envious neighbours. One form of unionization challenged others. At its crudest, it has been a question of destroying advantages that others have, or taking what belongs to others as common property, while insisting on holding what is yours in an exclusive manner.