The Limits of Ethnicity
Ethnicity – the act of a person identifying in the course of his political association in a society with his or her linguistic and cultural group in preference to others – is something that man has carried over into society by virtue of his membership of the animal kingdom. In the inorganic world, similarity often repels; in the organic, it attracts. Not in the organic world; animals largely prefer to associate with those that are genetically closer to it in genetic composition, or in human terms, those that are closer to it in ancestry. For example, recently, I have noticed this amazing trend among cattle. In a herd comprising of bunaji (white Fulani) Sokoto gudale and frisian x bunaji crosses, though looking together, the cattle tend to group themselves according to their types during grazing, even though they were bought initially from four different locations in the country. The same grouping is maintained as they walk to the river to drink or when resting at night. This rule is however broken in reproduction where both the bull and the cow break the ethnic barrier to enable continuity of species.
Few steps from the above biological illustration, people exhibit the same preference to those they share a common ancestry through marriage and other cultural exhibitions, a feature that sociologists call it kinship. A mile farther away from biology than kinship, in the domain of politics, is where ethnicity resides. An ethnic group, in my understanding, is a political categorisation in the larger society of a set of people who, according to Britannica, “are bound together by common ties of race, language, nationality and culture.” Ethnicity is the political extrapolation, or say expression, of the biological and sociological fraternities we earlier described. It is a relationship where the units of association are the ethnic groups, not their other features and qualities. In an ethnic enclave, people erect a wall, admitting, to the inside, people with whom they share common language, descent, history and culture, and when they venture outside, they only hunt for others who will serve their interest; to the outside, they exclude people with whom they differ, often looking at them as competitors, and therefore relate with them in an atmosphere of suspicion and hostility. To the ethnic jingoist therefore, only two categories of people exist: we and others.
What we have done in the three paragraphs above is to locate the natural origin of ethnicity and recognize it as a political manifestation of something deeply rooted in genetics. There is, therefore, little wonder why it has become a recurrent decimal in human history; more empires and nations have been built on ethnicity than on ideology; most conflicts were invented by ethnicity and race than by universal principles binding mankind; and, finally and most pathetic, even for the intellectual, most interpretations are rooted in ethnicity than in reason.
Locating the origins of ethnicity to nature warrants us the grounds to reach four important conclusions in our political engineering: One, it is primordial among agents of motivation, and could thus have, as it has always exhibited, a strong appeal among people. That is why social scientists regard it as one of the most efficient instruments of political mobilization. I am inclined to believe that ethnicity is more primordial than religion because ethnicity has pulled down empires that were built on religion – as we have seen in the history of Islamic civilization. An alloy of the two – ethnicity and religion – should be avoided at all cost, otherwise they will transform from their limited individual potentials of dynamites and acquire the catastrophic capacity of nuclear arsenal.
Two, it is tenacious; it is here to stay, for while some of us who have an ideological bent, thanks to education, can afford to subdue it and weigh people only on the egalitarian scale of merit, most us will succumb to its force, particularly in a country that is ethnically complex and grossly illiterate and underdeveloped like ours. Even where ethnicity has been subdued, vigilance is required to keep it at bay, for its small fire can easily transform into an inferno at the slightest opportunity.
Three, the cream of society must endeavour to rise above it if any nation is to prosper. Nature often looks simple, but its method and phenomenon could be brutal, savage and rudimentary. It is through engineering – the deliberate manipulation of nature – that man overcomes the limitations caused it, multiplies his productivity and makes life easier and safer for himself. Social engineering should thus accord us a lift from the basic to the lofty position of tolerance that will breed mutual cooperation, peace and progress. Water will naturally find its level, if uninhibited, at the lowest point possible. To convert it for the benefit of people in civilizations we deny it its natural liberty by restraining it in dams and pumping it to positions of different altitudes in towns and cities.
Four, in managing the menace of ethnicity in the Nigerian society, the thrust of our policy should not be its accentuating it by allowing it alone to shape the future of the federation. We must look towards restructuring that may not be unmindful of it but whose emphasis is based more on economic and other social factors than the primordial sentiment of ethnicity. Containment thus must thus define our relationship with it.
It might be interesting, before delving into its application in Nigeria, to briefly mention the basis for the lethal expression of ethnicity in recent societies. Such extreme forms of ethnicity are largely based on the hate for others. It may arise from the legitimate fear of domination in nation formation of its downfall, or it may simply be due to frustration arising from the inability of a group to dominate others. Jibrin Ibrahim has sufficiently illustrated this in his contribution to Federalism in Africa (2003) in his attempt to bring home some lessons for us from Yugoslavia.
Going through the history of the Nigerian state, we find the fear theory as only partially competent in explaining the role of ethnicity in our political evolution. Nigeria was not falling in 1940s and 1950s but ethnicity was prevalent even then. Here, the class theory of Marxism becomes tempting, especially when all reasonable measures taken failed to put its fire of ethnicity under control. In Nigeria ethnicity has become an instrument of dominating other groups or, put another way, a quick means employed by individuals or groups in order to gain control over resources to the disadvantage of others. It is therefore a false consciousness in Nigeria, as the Marxists assert.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo, for example, found it the cheapest and most efficient tool to dislodge the NCNC from the defunct Western Region. This move, sad to say, has caused a permanent damage to the psyche of most politicians and intellectuals in the region to the point that unless an association, opinion or policy carries the official stamp of ethnicity it can never gain their approval. One is often frightened to see the lives of renowned people like Wole Soyinka condemned to the servitude of this divisive factor. On its propagation they earn their bread, through its spectacle only can they see light of any public policy in Nigeria, and, worse of all for the country, they are hell bent on forcing the rest of us to seek the legitimacy of our destiny through their parochial paradigm.
It was only natural that initially when discussions on independence started, with the uneven distribution of both human and material resources across the country, many people were afraid of substituting the exploitation of the white man with that of a fellow Nigerian. The fear of “the other” was thus real among groups that felt vulnerable. The North in particular that was less educated (no thanks to the deliberate colonial policy to deny it one) and had very scanty representation in the Federal Civil Service was quick to employ shields to protect itself from the domination of other members of other region. Such policies included northernization policy which accelerated its control over its regional bureaucracy. The utterances of Chief Nnamdi Azikwe regarding the divine selection of Igbo to lead Black Africa did not in anyway assured the rest of the country of a fair treatment after independence. The Yoruba were the first to take note of this statement and took every step to ensure their regional hegemony.
The nation itself has tried to contain the threat of ethnicity through adopting various policies at different times. First was the adoption of a federal structure in the Richards constitution of 1946 and subsequent ones, with considerable autonomy to the regions, until when the path towards a unitary state was taken by the military in 1966. Then to allay the fears of minorities against domination by major ethnic groups law enforcement agencies were unified under a central command of the federal government and fundamental human rights were entrenched in the independence constitution on recommendation of the Willink report. Later, states were created, according to their architect – Gowon – “to ensure the protection of the minority elements in the regions dominated by the majority ethnic groups”. From then minorities have had control of between 40 and 48% of the federating units. In addition, deliberate integrative policies were employed, including Unity Schools, National Youth Service Corp, Federal Character and JAMB.
Unfortunately, all these measures failed to contain the dissatisfaction of ethnic jingoist. With every state creation, fresh majorities and minorities are created, impeding development and resulting in further agitation. An illustration is given by Okwudiba Nnoli: “Following prolonged agitation by the various peoples of the Middle Belt region for a state of their own to be carved out of the Northern region, the Benue-Plateau state was created in 1967. However, by 1976, agitations of various minorities within the state led to a split of the state into two: Benue and Plateau States. In the new Benue State which comprised the Tiv, Idoma and Igala as major ethnic groups, the Igala began to complain of marginalisation in resource allocation and demanded separation from the state. Their demand was satisfied in 1991 with the creation of Kogi State in which they are one of the dominant forces.”
To what extent then can we as a nation toe with the mirage of ethnicity as an instrument for stabilizing Nigeria? Very far, some people appear to answer. Back in 1947, Awolowo wrote in Path to a Nigerian Freedom, while canvassing for the creation of states said: “In a true Federation, each ethnic group, no matter how small, is entitled to the same treatment as any other ethnic group, no matter how large.”
It is amazing how the seed of ethnic chauvinism sown by such statements has grown into a tree of illogical and unreasonable proportion in the psyche of some people. It was a pity to read the following sentence in the concluding remarks of the contribution of a senior lecturer in sociology from University of Jos – Erim O. Erima to Foundations of Nigerian Federalism: Pre-colonial Antecedents: “There is a likelihood that more states would be created in the future until every ethnic or linguistic group is given a state of its own to enhance its identity, individuality and nationality according to Clifford (sic). Perhaps, then, would we have a perfect federal union.” How low could the level of water be for some!
I am justifiably worried about the profound influence of ethnicity in the political development of this country. For its reason we have bent over backwards many times to accommodate the selfish agitations of people who Nnoli called “petty bourgeoisie and comprador bourgeoisie” of ethnic groups. We eventually divided people after they have gone far in the process of integration. What is the essence of separating Zamfara and Kebbi from Sokoto state or Gombe from Bauchi, or Katsina from Kaduna, or even separating an ethnically homogenous group like the Yoruba, other than selfish ends of their elite?
I am justifiably worried about the senseless extent to which some people are going to mobilize hate memories and cultivate dissent among peaceful co-existing people as a means of achieving their political ends whether inside or outside their regions. How many thousands of lives do we need to lose before knowing that none of us can expel another from Nigeria?
I am worried also because some people, including renowned scholars, have failed to find any structural instrument for shaping our polity or a ground for our coexistence other than ethnicity. The tyranny of their stand is that they are forcing all of us to swallow that pill, knowing very well that what they are advocating for – a federation of 375 ethnic nationalities – is impossible to attain or yield any stability necessary for progress. This is total madness. The pain does not lie in their stand as much as it does when others, who have never inherited the dogma of ethnicity as a principal tool for political engineering, subscribe to their idea.
I am for a national conference in whatever reasonable form it will take place as I have stated succinctly in two articles published earlier in my former column in Thisday (The Fallacy of Carrying a Camel and Its Load and Professor Sagay, Buy the Bride a Single Bed). The aim of those articles is not to articulate a position for the conference but to send a message to those who think that they alone have monopoly over dissatisfaction with the current status quo. In kaya ya gaji, gammo ma ya gaji. Here, I differ with them only in the solution. While they pitch their suggestions of structuring based mainly on ethnicity, I base mine solely on the principle of decentralisation. A reprint of my arguments in those articles may be necessary for detailed clarification given the earliest opportunity.