By Abdul Mahmud
Last week, the debate over ethnic nationalism, identity and power politics took the centre stage of our public discourse that folks who grew up in Nigeria of the 1970’s and 1980’s and experienced the public debates of our yesteryear public intellectuals, the type Edward Said described in his “Representations of the Intellectual” as those who neither “make his or her audience feel good” nor look to political “gods for unwavering guidance” enthusiastically considered it as a return to the glorious past. Though the debate centered on ethnic nationalism and identity, it also highlighted the irreconcilable views, at least, of those who took positions, particularly, on ethnic nationalism and power.
One view queried those who disarticulated what appears to me as the National Question while posing it as minutiae questions of ethnicity and identity. Two other views queried the way the National Question was framed and identity pressed into a straitjacket that de-legitimated smaller particularistic identities, and in a manner that eroded the contestation of the historical evolution of the national space, within and without the constitutional framework. The fourth view challenged ethnicized discourses and exposed the dangers of the single strand ethnic narrative, the dangers of constructing the “correct version” of history, the dangers of unhelpful problematization of ethnicity and identity, the dangers of establishing a new victim agency and the dangers of negotiating the national space at the level of the ethnic, religious or the cultural.
One point central to the fourth view is that addressing oppression and domination requires examining the possibility of developing and sustaining the civic federation. The questions remain: how can the civic federation be developed and sustained within the contested national space? How does civic federation address the National Question? Can the civic federation dissolve small particularistic identities?
The articulators of this view need to provide answers to the foregoing questions.
The foregoing is at once my summary of the debate between Jibrin Ibrahim (Resolving the Igbo Question), Chidi Odinkalu (The Igbo Question – A Response to Jibrin Ibrahim), Okechukwu Ibeanu (Resolving the Igbo Non-Question: Pitfalls of Jibo’s Single Strand Ethnic Narrative), Chido Onumah (We are all Biafrans!), Adeolu Ademoyo (Biafran Secessionist Call, Not an Igbo, Question) and Victoria Ohaeri (On Jibrin Ibrahim’s Resolution of the Igbo Question) and the objections to what Jibrin Ibrahim argues in “Resolving the Igbo Question” as the failure of the Igbo elite: “the biggest failure of the Igbo elite is the incapacity to play the political game. To be major players in politics requires team and coalition building. If the Igbo elite really wanted to get the presidency, they should have developed a more inclusive narrative about the Nigerian state they needed to convince and reassure the others, not frighten them about a revenge mission”.
At the risk of generalizing their arguments, let me itemize what I consider as the commonalities, though not in the sense that the arguments were advanced.
First, that the country is divided by ethnicity, by ethnicized politics, divided still by ethnicized discourses, and by the ethnicized narratives of its own past, fault lines which reinforce division. My sense is that it is the hollowing out of what occupies the national space-ideals, vision, ethos, identity, etc – and the desire to destroy what has been hollowed out, recover and frame it within a new national space, a new modernity – that highlights these commonalities. Second, ethnicity is implicated in the way our politics is ordered. Here, our ethnicized political discourse, our ethnicized politics, our ethnicized democracy, our ethnicized participation and representation connect with power in a devious way. This is what I mean: it is the ethnicized political that accentuates unhealthy competition and rivalry, dissolves political and social unities while foreclosing the possibility of mediation.
Third, there is something fundamentally wrong with our nation-state. The nation-state doesn’t embody the will, vision, dream and identity of citizens who prefer to identify with the ethnic or the tribe.
The inability of the nation-state to take root in the hearts of citizens should have formed the starting point for the public debate. In what appears as a poor claim of “my Mercedes is bigger than yours”, Ibrahim, Odinkalu, Ohaeri, and Ibeanu to a lesser extent, failed to recognize the commonalities of their views beyond “the single strand ethnic narrative”.
The views I have summarized here do not essentially address the resurgence of ethnic nationalism and of secessionist calls, neither do they interrogate the demands of secessionist groups like the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, nor provide clarity to the centrifugal forces pulling our country in different directions. Understanding the dimensions of ethnic nationalism, the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra type, invariably helps us appreciate the portents it poses. Ethnic nationalism – the type that resists marginalization, that contests the illusion of a colonial legacy and the historical evolution of the national space – is what the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra is promoting in my humble opinion.
The ethnic character of the political affects the character of the nation-state, since in the ethnicized political it is the outcome of the political game that determines what the people want, can have, and cannot have. When ethnic nations latch on the wrong side of the political they lose what they want and can have. Put this way, electoral success determines what an ethnic nation want and can have in an ethnicized democracy, compromised by politics of ethnicity and identity and lacking the power of mediation. This is how it works: an ethnic nation that does not take part in the fetching of fire woods, stoking of the fireplace, cooking, cannot sit at the dinner table when “food is ready”. Here, the majority ethnic group, the winner of the political game, totalizes power by imposing its own modernity – even if it is only the modernity of political domination and marginalization. This modernity only serves as shorthand for the resurgence of ethnic nationalism, even at the sub-national level, shorthand for the blood in the streets and shorthand for understanding the dissident young who, to borrow from Isaiah Berlin, “take rational forms, at other times violently irrational ones…to defy the ruling powers, to insult them into awareness”!
There is also a dangerous dimension of this modernity at the sub-national level. Take Kogi State for instance. The fight between Faleke and Bello provides insights into this dimension. When politically manipulated smaller particularistic groups enter the contest for power they create a new victim agency that aligns with their own notion of victimhood. Here, the political is ethnicized and manipulated in a manner that makes mediation impossible. To play the political game, a small particularistic group establishes clientele relationship with a big ethnic group to keep the other small, competing particularistic group out of power. This clientelization of interests further deepens the condition that creates the “political other” and fosters hostilities that heighten uncivil nationalism. How else can one explain the internecine struggle between Faleke (Okun) and Bello (Ebira)?
I return to the question, why is ethnic nationalism on the rise? First, the ethnicity of our politics, or the way the political is ethnically framed, compels the enthronement of identity politics and political participation that promotes narrow parochial interests, dissolves organic political unity, coalition and alliance and recognizes antagonism and division. When politicians enter the political fray with narrow parochial agenda, they transform the tension that resides in democracy into antagonism. Faced with this challenge, democracy is caught between the Scylla of tension and the Charybdis of antagonism.
It no longer acts in the name of the people. It does not cohere with what we know as “the government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Here, democracy is de-democratized. But, it is participation that makes democracy possible. A de-democratized democracy that does not admit of the “political other” when a dominant group rides the horse of power forces other smaller particularistic groups that lose out in the political to seek opportunities outside the existing political and constitutional framework.
Second, where the modern state has not taken root, or has collapsed, as John Gray brilliantly argues in “False Dawn-The Delusions of Global Capitalism”, the essential pre-condition of peace and economic progress is always lacking. The Nigerian state, far from being modern, lacks the capacity to preserve itself against Hobbesian anarchy.
Who would blame citizens who seek flight from such a country? I won’t. It is in this light I call for the release of Nnamdi Kanu, the detained leader of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB).
The idea of a homeland, wrenched out of the “ruins” of our country, may appeal to the dissident young, but what the dissident young cannot be denied are the freedoms to dream, envision what is possible and what is not possible, push out their contrarian views. The brutalizing poverty, brutalizing insecurity and the brutalizing economic conditions citizens face are enough for them to dream the Utopian, free from poverty, free from injustice, free from man’s inhumanity to man.
A country divided against itself cannot stand. It falls. Ours is a country divided by ethnicity, by bigotry, by hunger, by poverty, by domination, and by violence. Our country hasn’t fallen. Not yet. Our country isn’t too big to fall. The cracks are widening, exposing the ugly images of ourselves at work. They are not hairline cracks. They are fault lines, the fissures of our neuroses, fractures that threaten our existence.
Dear reader, hold this mirror up to our country and take a look at the ugly images that appear through the cracks. Do they shock you?
Let the debate continue.
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