FAROOQ A. KPEROGI, PH.D.
In light of the strains imposed on our quest for national unity by the renewed agitation for Biafra and its reverberations across the country, some readers of this column requested that I republish a series I wrote in 2008 and 2012. Here is an edited and updated version of the series:
Why is our diversity such a lumbering burden on us? Why do most Nigerians have such powerful loyalties to their incidental, primordial identities and a corresponding disdain, even hatred, for other identities?
Many Nigerians think our country is unworkable because it was “forced” into being by British colonialists. This view has no basis in the history and sociology of nation-building.
There is no nation in history whose formation was the consequence of a democratic consensus. Historically, most nations were formed by conquests, expansionist wars, and forceful cooptation, not by consensus. I don’t know what fuels this false, annoyingly ahistorical sentiment among Nigerians.
Many Nigerians also cherish the illusion that they inhabit the most diverse country on planet Earth. But India, a post-colonial country like ours, has a lot more diversity than Nigeria has. It has over 800 languages, several mutually irreconcilable religions, a huge landmass that is several times the size of Nigeria, and a human population that is more than that of the entire African continent combined.
Yet it’s one country, and it was formed in fairly the same way as Nigeria was formed. Most of the groups that make up present-day India were independent ethnic groupings. None of the groups was consulted before they were integrated into the modern Indian nation. But you don’t hear Indians interminably whining about the unnaturalness of their nation, or about the need to “renegotiate” the basis of their existence.
Nigeria is only about 200 million in population, the 13th largest country in Africa in landmass, with some 500 languages (most of which belong to the same language family), two major religions (which share tremendous doctrinal affinities, unlike, for instance, India that has such mutually exclusive religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and other Eastern mystical orders). Why is it difficult to conceive that a nation can be formed out of this?
In any case, there is no evidence that mono-ethnic nations thrive better than ethnically diverse nations. One supreme illustration that explodes the myth of the “naturalness” and invulnerability of mono-cultural nations is Somalia. There can be no more homogeneous nation on Earth than Somalia. It’s a monolingual, mono-religious, and mono-ethnic society. Everybody in Somalia speaks the Somali language. Everybody there is not just a Muslim, but a Sunni Muslim. It is often said that Somalia is not just a nation; it is, in fact, a big family. They all have a common ancestor and preserve their ethnic purity through endogamous marriages.
How more homogenous can a nation get? Yet it’s an excellent specimen of a failed state. It has been gripped by sanguinary convulsions for years on end.
An example nearer home is the former Oyo Empire, which had effectively disintegrated even before the start of colonialism, although it was an ethnically homogenous entity. It was caught in the web of a vicious internal schism that precipitated a debilitating war of attrition, which stopped only with the advent of colonialism.
So homogeneity and consensus are no safeguards against implosion. They are not necessary and sufficient conditions to immunize any nation against internal contradictions and disintegration. Only justice, mutual tolerance, good governance can.
Having said that, the claim that the formation of the Nigerian nation is “forced” needs some interrogation because the history and sociology of pre-colonial relations in Nigeria don’t bear testimony to this claim.
A lot of research has been done by historians, notably the late Yusufu Bala Usman and Elizabeth Isichei, which chronicles the robust relational intercourse between the disparate ethnic groups that populate what is today Nigeria. A notable example was the burgeoning social and cultural melting between the Yoruba people and various ethnic groups in North before colonialism.
As the travel records of Arab explorers show, the “ambassadors” (or, if you like, interpreters) of the Alaafin of Oyo during the Trans-Saharan trade with Arabs were people from the extreme North. And records show that Hausas had been living in Yoruba land in large numbers before colonialism. The same is true of Yorubas in the North.
If you go to Kano, for instance, you will see entire neighborhoods that are peopled by men and women whose ancestral roots are located in Yoruba land. Gwammaja is one such neighborhood. Ayagi is another.
This is not to talk of the vibrant pre-colonial inter-ethnic relations between such northern minorities as Igalas, Tivs, Idomas, etc. and Igbos. To this day, Igalas and Idomas have councilors in some Igbo states, and there are “indigenous” Igbos in Benue State.
A lot of people are often shocked to find out that Joseph Wayas, Nigeria’s Second Republic Senate President from Cross River State, is “Tiv.” He comes from a part of Cross River State called Obanliku (the location of the famous Obudu Cattle Ranch) where people speak Tiv but call it by a different name. And the man was made Senate President on the basis of his being a Southerner.
Interestingly, during the still-born Third Republic, Iyiorcha Ayu, another Tiv man, became Senate President because he was supposed to be from the North!
Take the case of Edo State, too. The people of southern Edo had shared, and still vastly share, deep cultural and historical ties with the Yoruba people long before colonialism, and those in northern Edo had deep ties with northern Nigeria dating back to hundreds of years. Some people in Akoko Edo, for instance, speak the same language as the Ebira of Kogi State, although they call their language Etuno. Yet Edo is supposed to be in the South and Kogi in the North.
Again, the people of Auchi have cultural values that decidedly owe their debts to Nupe and Hausa people. I remember that Auchi people used to be called “Bendel Hausas” when, in fact, their language is almost mutually intelligible with Bini and Ishan in southern Edo State
In northern Cross River, the Yala people are linguistically, ethnically, and culturally indistinct from the Idoma and Igede people in Benue State. The Ebu people in Oshimili North LGA of Delta State are actually Igala people. So are the Ilushi people in Edo State. And most so-called Delta Igbos are actually descended from Igala people in what is now Kogi State.
The point of these examples is to demonstrate the inadmissibility of the claim that Nigeria is a “forced” nation. We were too culturally and ethnically intertwined even before colonialism for that claim to have any basis in truth. Even without colonialism, it is conceivable that Nigeria in its present form would have emerged. If we related as closely as historical records show we did, the British merely accelerated what was likely to have happened anyway.
Of course, the result of these robust pre-colonial relational intercourses could very well have resulted in the formation of a different kind of nation from what Nigeria is today, but there is no reason to suppose that it would be the product of the kind of elaborate, unrealistic consensus that irredentists claim is indispensable to national formation.
There are actually four main languages in Akoko- Edo, according to a native of the area who responded to my column. He identified them as Uneme, Okpameri, Etuno and Okulusho (which he said is a dialect of Okpameri). The headquarters of Akoko-Edo Local Government is Igarra, and the language spoken there is Etuno, a dialect of Ebira.
To be continued
. Kperogi is a United States-based university professor and media scholar