What you are about to read below, is the unedited version of what I sent to Jamie Hitchen on 30 August, 2016. One thing I enjoy about writing for foreign publications is the brutality they bring to bear in their editing. They cut away a lot of the fat. You see, we Nigerians, tend to waffle when we talk. I’m no exception. Jamie’s brutally edited version of this piece can be found here…
Anyone who has ever tried to do move house in Lagos knows that it is back breaking work. There are all sorts of con artists masquerading as agents, and that is just the start. In looking for a place, one has to fill agency forms, and I noticed that in most of the forms, BEFORE nationality, there is a section for tribe, then state of origin.
I have always tried not to fill the tribe section, and I always fill “Edo” as my state of origin. I was born, and grew up in Edo State, but the last time I was trying to move house, one of the agents took exception to my not filling that section of the form. He insisted that I fill both, and said that my name did not sound like an Edo name, but an Igbo name. He was quite clear that the landlord did not want Igbo tenants. I have heard about that a lot, but it shocked me nevertheless. For me, it is a problem, after all, I am Igbo…
I am not going to go into why there is apparently so much (take your pick from apathy, disdain, hatred and mistrust) for Igbo people. Personally I think that any man who would judge another solely based on where that person’s ancestors first came down from trees is a genuine idiot.
However, the whole conversation with the agent got me thinking about the issue of nationality versus versus state of origin versus ethnicity.
This question of nation versus tribe is one of the thorny issues that we face in Nigeria. Far too many people have failed to take the leap from identifying themselves as members of their ethnic groups to seeing themselves as Nigerians. The common argument you hear is that Nigeria is an artificial creation and if it disintegrates tomorrow, the tribes would still be there. I think that view is a historical anachronism.
It is an over-flogged point that change is the only constant thing in life, and that is what people still holding on to the tribal identity, have either forgotten, or are not aware of.
I want to tell you two stories…
Eight hundred and ten years ago, the people of a small village called Igodomigodo sent a message to the great city of Ife. There was a power vacuum and they needed a king to rule them. The Ooni of Ife sent back a strange message. He sent some lice, and asked that if Igodomigodo could send back the same louse in three years, he would send them a king. One of the high chiefs, Oliha, put the lice in the hair of one of his slaves with instructions to the effect that the slave could not have a hair cut for three years. That way, he was able to send back the (fattened) lice to Ife. The Ooni as a result sent his son, Oranmiyan to rule them.
Oranmiyan never got to rule. He left in annoyance and renamed the village Ile Ibinu (Town of Anger) which was corrupted to Benin. However, his son, Owomika grew up to become Eweka, the first Oba of Benin. At the time, the people of the village still saw themselves as people of Igodomigodo. Two and a half centuries later, one of Eweka’s descendants, Ewuare, began a conquest of the outlying areas.
By the time his great great grandson, Esigie was sitting on the throne in 1504, the entire region west of Benin City up to today’s Port Novo, east of Benin City up to today’s Ogwashi Uku, North of Benin City up to today’s Okpella, and south to today’s Warri were paying tribute to the Oba in Benin. The natives of that region were part of the kingdom of the Edo.
We must note that the subjects of this kingdom, especially those who were indigenous to Benin City itself and its immediate outlying towns and villages considered themselves to be Edo people, thus an insult to one was an insult to another.
This behaviour is nationalistic, and it meant that in the late nineteenth century when the British began their conquest of the region, a British landing at Ughoton was viewed as an attack on the kingdom, and Oba Ovonramwen sent troops to quell that nuisance…
My second, shorter story, is about a collection of villages most of which were situated to the east of what was to become known as the River Niger. My own ancestors came from that area.
You see, unlike the Edo to their west, these people did not set out for empire. They were content with living in settled city states as it were. The only people amongst them who showed any imperial tendencies were the people of Arochukwu who probably began their bid for dominance as a result of the slave trade. The Aros subjugated the people in their immediate vicinity, and on occasion used to launch slave raids as far north as Nsukka. But, unlike the Edo, they never attempted to bring the entire region under their control. The result was that when the British came in the late nineteenth century, they faced a major war in Edo. But in Igbo land, they coped not with too many pitched battles. The man in Abakaliki more than likely celebrated when Arochukwu fell to the invaders. The man in Obosi did not give a toss when Onitsha fell, neither did the man in Nri feel bad when Obosi’s turn came around. The Igbo identity began to evolve during the colonial era, and since the colonists had picked Enugu, an artificial city, as their regional capital, it became the de facto Igbo capital.
Thus it was that in 1914, the British by fiat and without consulting the people in that space, created the country called Nigeria.
Like almost all countries on the planet, Nigeria was created without consulting the people. Unlike most other countries though, it would appear that Nigerians are yet to learn to live with each other. We have also not accepted that the evolution of national identity takes time, a lot of intermarriage, a lot of resettlement, and a lot of infighting.
One of the reasons we have yet to accept that, is because of the unitary structure the country runs at the moment. You see, Nigeria is a unitary state pretending to be a federation, and as a result of that, there is so much, unnecessary, infighting, over scarce resources, and over just how things should run.
Many may not know it, but Nigeria is currently facing a major constitutional crisis, because different peoples, because of their worldview, and in some cases, their origins, look at the Constitution and come up with different interpretations.
Permit me to tell a third story…
In 1999, Nigeria organised FIFA’s under-20 World Cup. The organisation was done entirely at the level of the Local Organising Committee, which was an organ of the federal government, and
Nigeria ’99 is on record as being probably the worst ever FIFA competition (it led to loads of changes in the way FIFA ‘helps’ host countries).
Ten years later, we were, for some reason, awarded the right to host the under-17 World Cup. When it became evident that the LOC was not interested in working, state governments in some centres stepped in, and that competition ended up being more successful in some areas than it was in others. In Lagos, Kano, Ijebu Ode and Calabar, the organisation of the competition was quite well done (except for a few minor details as it seems to be with all things Nigerian). In Enugu, Kaduna and Abuja, things were not quite what they should have been…
This disparity in organisational success shows us that for parts of Nigeria (and eventually the whole) to make real progress, there has to be competition among the constituent parts of the country. A return if you may, to the arrangement that obtained in our post-independence democracy where the regions were in direct competition with one another, and each was allowed to develop at its own pace.
You see, Nigeria is in a catch 22 situation. We have this obscenely large federal government that essentially belongs to no one, and as a result so many people could not give a toss as to how things are being run.
On the other hand, you have state governments who are small enough to allow each individual feel a part of what is happening, but the hands of these state governments are tied because they are almost inextricably bound to the federal government. The federal government dictates what is happening, and at which pace a state should develop, which is a self defeating situation because in our real life situation, life in Kebbi is idyllic, while life in Lagos is fast paced and frenetic. Kaduna wants to jump ahead while Ebonyi is content to take things nwayo nwayo.
Kwara and Akwa Ibom want to generate their own power, but federal orders coming from Osun essentially mean that whatever power they generate cannot serve their people. And therein lies the paradox.
For Nigeria to make progress, we have to come up with a solution that is workable for the people, and coming up with such a solution requires making tough decisions.
The whole concept of State of Origin must be expunged from the Nigerian Constitution. Chxta must be able to move from Abia state to Zamfara state and feel at home in any part of Nigeria that he chooses to call home. Chxta must also be able to aspire to the highest office in whatever state he calls home so that he can help make a real difference in the lives of the people of that state.
Each state in Nigeria has its own uniqueness, and the laws that apply in one state may be viewed as strange in another. A very good example of this is the application of the Sha’ria law in certain parts of northern Nigeria. In all honesty, there is no reason why a majority Moslem state cannot have Sha’ria existing side by side with Nigerian federal law, provided of course that Sha’ria is the junior partner in such a relationship. If Chxta wants to move from Anambra to Yobe, Chxta must be willing to live according to the traditions of the majority population in Yobe, and the people of Yobe must in turn be willing to accept Chxta as one of their own and give him a right to a decent living and to aspire to the best the state can offer. That way, the state and the individual both profit.
P.S: My thoughts on this matter are evolving, although I must admit that I still believe that doing away with the state of origin thing is the way forward, that, and as the piece implied, devolving more power to Nigeria’s federating units. However, the tribalism I have faced in my own life tells me that it’s either I’m fighting a losing battle, or that it will take a lot more work for us to change the mindset that currently dominates.
I have no illusions that were I to go to Edo State to run for office tomorrow, despite my knowledge of the terrain and my understanding of the people, I will lose to someone called Osaretin who was born and brought up in Kathmandu, and who only just visited Edo for the first time for the election in question, simply because of my ancestry versus his.
This our fealty to the concept of jus sanguinis is hurting us. As the United States has proven, jus soli has more of an effect in helping a nation grow. Heck, the Romans, two millennia ago, understood that. If we can’t understand that, and (slowly) begin to act accordingly, then maybe the way forward is for us to divide this country, let everyone go to the areas whence their ancestors climbed down from the trees…