By Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde
Nigeria: Between Marriage and Divorce
Yesterday, the Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddafi, suggested the partition of Nigeria into two states, Christian South with capital in Lagos and Muslim North with capital in Abuja. I listened to reactions of Nigerians from both sides of the faith-divide. Nobody supported the him. The call was dismissed by commentators as arising from his ignorance of the religious configuration of the country. That was not the first time Qaddafi was making such suggestions. And every time he suggests so, he is rebuffed by both Muslims and Christians.
Nigerians may differ with Qaddafi on the basis, but not on the idea of, partitioning the country. So many people have mooted the idea that the country be broken into smaller independent units mainly along regional or ethnic lines. A ware, or "let's go apart", was a popular slogan in Hausa dominated areas of the North after the 1965 coup.The Biafrans practically seceded and were reunited into the country only after a bloody civil war that lasted three years. The a ware doctrine was to resurface among some Hausa/Fulani intelligentsia almost forty years later in reaction to their perceived marginalisation by Obasanjo in 1999. Dr. Suleiman Kumo of blessed memory delivered a paper at Arewa House, Kaduna, in 2000, suggesting the partitioning of the country into six geo-political zones. Kumo was not alone. I have met many northerners who nurse the same idea.
Among the elite of another large ethnic group - the Yoruba - come additional voices of separation. Their 'restructuring' campaign through a sovereign national conference as convened in some neighbouring Francophone countries became amplified by the June 12 saga. The nation got some respite from the cacophony of that agitation only after it bribed their ethnic group with a Yoruba President for eight straight years.
Now, more than ever before, many intellectuals from the Niger Delta region, whose predecessors have been advocates of one Nigeria in the sixties in order to avoid Igbo discrimination in Biafra, have found their voice, thanks to our over-dependence on oil, freedom of expression, a global atmosphere that is less tolerant of domination and more amenable to human rights, and, more than anything else, the evident deterioration of their environment due to oil activities which was not so evident, say, forty years ago. We may need another bribe, perhaps, to settle their agitation too, something that is virtually at hand, if the country would so decide. It seems that what cannot be won through common sense and debate can be won through accommodation at Aso Rock. It will not be surprising if an elected President in the near future, in 2011 or 2015, will be a product of this calculation.
I have realised that corporate Nigeria has been like a marriage. Every time there is a problem with or against a section of our population, the aggrieved party become agitated and put the separation or divorce card on the table. A ware, Biafra, June 12 and militant Niger Delta all represent the same expression of resent when a wrong was committed. Divorce has happened in several such marriages, I must concede. In fact many nations are children of secessions from bigger nations, in many cases through bitter experience of war and rancour. There are some still in the process of breaking away. Even in the United States, the union is less than perfect. To complicate matters, the marriage of Nigeria is confounded by the multitude of its partners. It is one of the most polygamous ever recorded in nature. Father Nigeria has over 350 wives.
However, even a casual look at the situation will show that these agitations are based more on primordial sentiments and selfish interests of the very elite that create and sustain our prevailing problems. The major tribes have been selfish in their agitation. The native Igbo,Yoruba and Northwest Hausa can count on their tribal continuity in many states of the federation. It was possible given the reigning philosophies of past centuries to base nationhood on tribe but that concept is increasingly becoming repugnant from the middle of the 20th century with the bitter consequences of racist interpretation of the human phenomenon. If you say you want to break away from someone it is because you cannot tolerate him, to put it mildly, or you hate him. How can intellectuals presumed to be refined by education, among them renowned professors, fail to extricate themselves from the clutches of primordial tribal sentiments? How can they fail to see the human in man, judging him by his character first before the secondary attribute of tribe?
The advocates of separation realise that tribe is too rudimentary a word in the context of contemporary humanitarian relations. So they use the term "ethnic nationality", an ambiguous phrase that could mean not only a tribe but also race, religion, and so on, depending on the nature of your target of classification. Ethnicity, moreover, is very elastic. Since Waber, it is seen largely as a political construct used to wrestle power or resources from a target group. Its band, unlike that of tribe or race, can be narrowed or broadened depending on the domain of power or resource that it is recruited to capture. For example, the word Hausa/Fulani is a child of Biafran ingenuity and it is today considered one ethnic group by those opposed to their political position whether in the southern or northern part of the country. Hausa, widely speaking, is used by southerners to mean anybody who is native of the defunct North, regardless of whether he is Berom or Fulani, Hausa or Kanuri, Christian or Muslim. On the other hand, the Hausa regard any native of the defunct East as Inyamiri (Nyem miri), regardless of whether he is Edo, Ijaw or Igbo, just as he considers anyone living in the defunct Western region as Yoruba. These classifications, erroneous and fluid as they may seem, could be very lethal in times of crisis. A pastor from a minority tribe in the North was once killed during a reprisal attack in the East, regardless of his Christian identity; he was labelled 'Hausa'. The same would happen to an Ijaw in the North. I have brought the above examples to illustrate that ethnicity is too ambiguous a word to use. Instead, what the advocates of partition or restructuring actually mean is tribe.
Beside the conceptual repugnance of segregating people based on tribe, the selfishness of the major tribes is easily seen in their disregard for the fate of the 347 smaller tribes. The difference between Babur and Gwoza in a nation of small tribes in the Northeast could just be as big as the difference between Hausa and Igbo in today's Nigeria, if not wider. Why would advocates of restructuring lump them together or think that their difficulties will not affect us in a world that is increasingly becoming smaller? In many "ethnic nations", members of these tribes will live as minorities, second class citizens. Take the defunct Biafra that included many parts of the Niger Delta for example. Would the South-South zone of today willingly belong to a new Biafra? If the Deltan tribes agree, what will be their status other than second class citizens? So what would make their condition better than their present one in a larger Nigeria. Or would the new Biafra be a landlocked country exclusively for Igbo, leaving the Deltans to form their separate nation? All these are impossibilities, honestly speaking.
I consider it myopic when people ascribe our setbacks as a nation to our the tribal or religious differences. Which of the tribes has monopoly over the corruption that is essentially the reason behind our poor leadership? Is the Hausa any better than an Igbo, Itsekiri or Yoruba when working as a civil servant in INEC or the Presidency? Is a corrupt official restrained by his ethnic identity or even religion as he conspires with Nigerians from other tribes to loot the treasury or when he rigs elections for his party? How do we think then that restructuring Nigeria along ethnic lines will change anything? Would the Igbo civil servant in Biafra suddenly attain a high moral altitude and stop corrupt practices simply because he is in Biafra? Will the governor of Sokoto State in a restructured Nigeria automatically become God-conscious and conduct free and fair local government elections in a newly founded sultanate?
Some would point to the neutralising factor of our ethnic multiplicity. This too is a misconception. I am ready to concede that ethnic pluralism does pose difficulties in governance because of the manner politicians exploit it to their advantage. These difficulties, however, are simply the same challenges which leaders of other nations are battling with. India has over 1400 tribes that are non-intelligible to one another. It covers an area several times bigger than Nigeria. Its population is over a billion. It, too, is confronted with the ills of poverty, corruption, illiteracy, etc. When there is ethnic crisis, which happens more often than in Nigeria, the number of deaths are in several hundreds, sometimes thousands. Yet, its intellectuals do not immediately jump to the conclusion that the 1400 'ethnic nationalities' cannot co-exist. Instead, they apply themselves to discovering how they will overcome the problems of poverty, corruption and underdevelopment. Through that effort they are able to run free and fair elections and significantly improve their fortunes in science and technology. In Africa, whenever we are confronted with a problem, we load it on our neighbour, instead, accusing him in the most unjustifiable manner. We can even hack him to death before he knows anything, regardless of whether he is a child learning in a school or rearing his cattle in the fields, an innocent commoner selling yams on the street or a learned person parting knowledge to our children. What is most baffling is how our tribesmen or members of our faith would immediately come to our aid, concealing our actions and accusing the victim of our barbarism. This is a station of shame, not pride.
In two previous articles, I added my voice to the restructuring advocacy because I thought if all others are indeed unhappy with the marriage, so let it be divorced. Seven years later, my stand now is categorical: we the elite can give this country something better than throwing the divorce card on the table any time there is a conflict in our marriage. We can give it our willingness to make it successful. Once that idea is settled in our minds, all the requisites for a sustainable marriage will follow.
A willing mind will be ready to understand that difficulties will always abound but it is our collective responsibility to overcome them. A willing mind will abandon the garbage of ethnicity and adorn itself with the understanding that ethnic homogeneity does not automatically translate into to social harmony. Somalis are one people, same race, same language, same religion, same sect. Yet, they represent the best specimen of anarchy on the globe today, worse than afghanistan. On the other hand, the most prosperous country in the world, the United States of America, is heterogenous to the core.
A willing mind will automatically improve its mental health by imbibing tolerance, that habit that enables us see people first as humans before considering their identity of race, tribe or faith. It enables us to accord them respect for their ideas and persons even when such ideas contradict ours. It allows our faculty to reason first before it condemns, putting the substance before the person. Tolerance will also enables us to accord people their due rights, natural and constitutional, as humans: the right to life, property and dignity, except what could be duly taken from them by law, no matter how difficult are the times.
Intolerance is a sign of mental illness and I am disappointed to say that it is pervasive among us. It is propagated daily in places of worship, in newspapers and now on the internet. When I wrote Yar'adua, The Final Days, for example, all was good with the article in the eyes of some readers except the advice I innocently gave, based on my knowledge about the dredging of Niger Delta as at the time I wrote the piece, that Goodluck should try and avoid controversial decisions especially in these early days of his presidency. When you read the comments posted by such readers on Sahara Reporters you will find abusive words and generalisations like "Bastard", "Northerners are arrogant", etc, simply because of that advice. And in reaction to my last article, Dogo Nahauwa, the comments were so uncouth that I simply declared them laughable. One of them wrote that if he has the chance he will kill me simply because I gave what I consider to be a balanced view of what is happening on the Plateau. Any competent social psychologist will this attitude as a sign of mental sickness, not civilisation. We may adjudge these habits as insignificant but the harm they are causing to our progress is considerable. With every hate speech that we post, we are reducing the chances of understanding and propagating rancour in the minds of fellow Nigerians. It is difficult to find a country whose citizens engage in abusive generalisations as Nigerians. Northerners are this, southerners are that; Igbo is this, Hausa is that, all coming from educated people who are supposed to be vanguards of our unity and progress.
Finally, willingness strengthens our sight such that we see the advantages of togetherness and foresee the disadvantages, if not the pains, of separation. The market is a potent example to cite. Nigeria is a nation of 150 million people. Produce anything and it will instantly vanish into its households without any tariff, visa, and so on. The palm oil we consume in my village is brought from Calabar and it is excellent. And so are other products products produced in the South, agricultural and industrial. From various parts of the North are transported other agricultural products like root crops, grains, vegetables and livestock. This is an economic integration that could have come only at high cost and many inconveniences. The freedom of movement and the right to live anywhere in the country allows the millions of Igbo traders and contractors to escape the overpopulated southeast and establish businesses and homes in the less prosperous North and in the southwest, especially Lagos. Other ethnic groups benefit in the same, though less conspicuous, way. By now, Biafra would have been chocking with overpopulation; and it is doubtful if its economic prospects would have been better than it is in larger Nigeria. I can be disputed only on basis of theory.
Politically, our ethnic plurality enriches the constitution of our governments in such a way that everybody feels carried along. The horse-trading that goes along with any election and the constitutional provision of 2/3 of the votes in 2/3 of the state of the federation allows for the peg of unity to be hammered into the soil almost every community. If it were not for the corruption that perverted the mind of our political class, we would have achieved enviable heights in democracy. Socially, a multiethnic society allows the advantage of variety of interactions, with people from various groups displaying various cultures, manners and dispositions. A divided Nigeria will be boring with monotony of same language, faith, culture, outlook and geography.
I would like to see our elite waking up to our responsibilities by taking all the necessary measures for the growth of a healthy nation. Let us graduate into being Nigerians, as Sanusi Lamido Sanusi once put it recently, abandoning the regional sentiments and acrimonies that preoccupied the minds of our predecessors. We can decide to turn the energy we are presently wasting in breeding hate into fostering mutual understanding, technological progress and economic prosperity in a society that will be characterised by good governance and democratic values. Instead of being slaves to a yesterday that failed us, we can be partners of a today that will usher in a better tomorrow for our children.
That future may start now if you, the reader, opens your heart to all Nigerians irrespective of their ethnic or religious identity; then a smile on your face wherever you meet them; then a warm greeting; then an effort to understand their point of view at the same time you persuasively put yours across, if you must differ; then cooperating with them in various ways to bring about the change in leadership that will pursue good governance for our collective benefit. I find it hypocritical to load everything on bad leadership when we are not willing to pay our civic dues as individuals. These are the measures, small and big, that will make our marriage work. It is the path followed by those nations that willingly made it.
In conclusion, my appeal may be dismissed by the ethnocentric as naive and praised as patriotic by the nationalist. No matter the manner in which it is received, I am walking away from the keyboard convinced, like Lord Lugard a century ago, that we are better off together than apart and that our differences, no matter how numerous, are not so insoluble to warrant a divorce as propounded by Qaddafi and other advocates of partition.
17 March 2010
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