Between Ethnicism and Liberation

Dr Chris Anyokwu

By Chris Anyokwu

In Ben Okri’s magic(al) realist novel, The Famished Road we encounter the protagonist, Abiku, a spirit-child who, like his fictional precursor, Murano in Wole Soyinka’s tragic play, The Road, freely traverses  both the world of “bones” and “silence”, the living-world and the transcendental world of the ancestors.  The Abiku’s temporal habitus, conceived as a “road”, is said to be, once upon a time, a river and because it was once a river, it (i.e., the road) is always hungry (i.e., famished). Thus, the road-habitant, Abiku, comes across as a most capricious, venal and heartless freak of nature causing untold pain and misery for his hapless parents, who, it should be clear by now, lives in subhuman conditions.  Abiku, literally meaning “born-to-die”, is true to his name: indeed, his name is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Both Soyinka and JP Clark agree in their eponymous poems “Abiku” that this evil child is bad news to any family it chooses to be born in.  That family can as well kiss their happiness or prosperity good-bye.  Theirs will be an endless bout of misfortunes and woes.  The reason for this is not far-fetched.  A new-born baby is regarded universally as a bundle of joy, particularly to its immediate family and society at large.  But when that baby, contrary to nature, boasts: “When you pour libation on me, each finger points me the way I came…”,  we should beware because Abiku is prepared to return to the grave as an infant amid the joy of its birth!  And this birth-death cycle can go on ad infinitum.  The Abiku phenomenon, figuratively, emblematises tragic repetitiveness, the undying curse of false starts, or, if you prefer, the Sisyphean struggle to create meaning in a meaningless world of absurdities.  There is a consensus regarding the root-cause of Nigeria’s permanent retardation as a country.  It is believed to be, simply put, ethnicism, the uncritical and cynical defence of or reliance on one’s racial/tribal affiliation in the face of more compelling variables to do otherwise.  It is analogous to jumping into a conflagration when you could easily stroll into a well-stocked fortress, a paradisiac mansion, instead.

Ben Okri, The Farmished Okri3

Peter Enahoro in  his hugely popular pamphlet entitled, How to Be A Nigerian, explores the habit of the politicisation of ethnicity and the ethnicisation of  politics common among Nigerians in general, especially the power elite.  Ethnicism was alive when the rain first started beating us as a people – when our founding fathers negotiated our political independence from Britain.  It is the cause of the regnant North-South Divide which has ripped the Nigerian soul asunder.  It was the lightning-rod which ignited most sectarian riots this country has witnessed – Jos, Kano, Kaduna, Bauchi, Sokoto … the list goes on.  How about the Civil War of 1967 – 70?  The coups and the palace coups?  Why is civilian rule such a spectacular disaster so far in Nigeria if not because of ethnicism elevated as it is to the level of state policy?  In Nigeria, it is never about putting round pegs in round holes.  NEVER!  It is never about looking for our BEST ELEVEN to represent us in anything.  NEVER!  We are not ripe or ready for such utopianism.  The practice is: it is either our people or no one else will have it!  We don’t give a f – k about monkey and gorilla claiming oneness; all we know is, monkey is monkey, gorilla gorilla!

Dim Emeka Ojukwu

Obafemi Awolowo

This was the reason Chief Obafemi Awolowo, like Moses espied the Promised Land from afar but could not enter it.  He was one of the nearly-men of history.  Such was his monumental miss that Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Biafra warlord once described him as “the best president Nigeria never had”.  Whilst a school of thought holds that Awo’s failure to clinch the presidency was his comeuppance for his role during the Nigeria – Biafra war, namely for advising Gowon to use hunger as a legitimate weapon of war against the secessionists, another school of thought, mostly people from his ethnic Yoruba, insists that the Hausa-Fulani power-piranhas had robbed Awo of his due on account of his ethnicity.  By the same token, the governance of Nigeria is never and has never been about competence, capability or capacity but is all about ethno-religious triumphalism.  This colonisation of power for power sake brings to mind Black British reggae singer, Maxi Priest’s track:  “If I Gave My Heart to You”.

If I gave my heart to you what would

You do with it?

Would you tear it apart or would you

Look after it?

If I gave my heart to you what would

You do with it?

Would you tear it apart or would you

Treasure it?

We can extrapolate one or two things from the song-excerpt above.  Firstly, if I gave you my heart, would you treasure it or would you tear it apart?  And, secondly, can I trust you with my heart, my life?  The whole of my existence?  From experience, all the rulers we had entrusted with our heart (read: Nigeria) had torn our heart apart rather than treasure it.  The inchoate and incipient fault lines of primordial inclinations, ethnic solidarity and religious bigotry that were barely noticeable in the beginning in 1914 have all metastasized and widened into moats or gorges of unbridgeable divisions.  The fracturing and fragmentation of the soul of Nigeria makes it absolutely urgent and necessary for the managers of the post-colonial contraption to reimagine our governance model.  Consequently, our default, almost reflex recourse to clannishness must be jettisoned.   The moribundity of our superannuated ways of doing government business calls for and compels innovative and creative self-reinvention at the highest level of our national life.  To that extent, therefore, Nigeria stands in urgent need of revamping and revising not just its models of governance but, on a larger scale, other cognate aspects of its social being.  These may include admission requirements into Unity Schools, universities and polytechnics, the armed forces, police, paramilitary agencies, the civil service and the professions.  Is it not curious that states designated “educationally-disadvantaged” since Independence are still wearing that retrograde and atavistic tag round their necks?  Why haven’t the chains and manacles which bind them in thrall been broken asunder as yet?  Why can’t they alchemise their millstones into milestones?  Or are their “disadvantages” firmly lodged in their collective racial DNA?  Can’t we do anything about these seemingly genetic, trans-historical and fatalistic “disadvantages”?

NNPC (now NNPC Limited) headquarters, Abuja

Is it not equally curious that products of these so-called “educationally-disadvantaged states” still continue to milk the Nigeria cow? The plum jobs and positions in government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) are reserved for these academically-challenged folk.  From the NNPC, NPA through NIMASA, NDA to the DSS, police, Civil Defence corps, Chairmen/Pro-chancellors of federal universities’ councils, among others, these over-pampered men and women in intellectual diapers lord it over their betters.  Unsurprisingly, therefore, this perceived skewed reward system, this brazen disregard for merit and equity and the accompanying glorification and subsidisation of mediocrity is the prime and primary cause of the country-wide disillusionment and despair and disaffection today.  At the highest level of government, there is no visible attempt to remedy or address these anomalies rather; this unsavoury state of affairs has been elevated to the level of statecraft.  This has implications for motivation for productivity in public service.  Also, motivating youth and children to face their books (rather than Facebook) becomes a herculean task.  The children will promptly respond that their less-educated, less-skilled counterparts from a certain region of the federation have the banquet-table prepared for them from cradle to grave.  Hence, the current state of affairs has exacerbated the smouldering embers of mutual ethnic suspicion and tribal resentment.   It has also rendered the public workplace much more toxic and profoundly dangerous.  Sadly, part of the current administration’s failure to creatively harness and manage our diversity is the baleful pathologies which plague the land today: Boko Haram and its splinter groups as well as opportunistic enemy nationals (bandits, kidnappers, Unknown Gunmen, etc.) are holding the nation at the jugular and are intent on asphyxiating it to death.  Now, throw into this combustible cocktail such vexed issues as the millions of our out-of-school children, the teeming armies of the almajirai, stranded okada operators now out of work in Lagos and elsewhere, the astronomical prices of goods and services, the ASUU strike action and youth unemployment.  Welcome to the Lebanonisation and Afghanistanisation of Nigeria!  The ripest fruit is the saddest.  The world’s happiest people are also the world’s poorest, their beloved country, Nigeria, the poverty capital of the world! You can’t sink lower than that.

File: Gunmen

As we speak, the scourge of Brain Drain or the “Japa Movement” is seriously gathering momentous as our brightest and best are relocating overseas.  The mantra on the street is, “Anywhere else but Nigeria”.  Successive regimes in power have leveraged the routinized blackmail of leadership incompetence and impunity to short-change the people.  There is hardly anything to choose between Nigeria under military jackboots and Nigeria under civilian autocrats.   Both have demonstrated extreme political delinquency, fiscal rascality and unconscionable antipathy to our socio-cultural sensitivities.  They have often left in their wake sorrow, tears, and blood.  There exists now across our darkening skies a permanent pall of ennui, of paralysis of will and more than a whiff of Biblical misery and apocalyptic cluelessness.  We are back in Plato’s Cave.

Is it not equally curious that products of these so-called “educationally-disadvantaged states” still continue to milk the Nigeria cow? The plum jobs and positions in government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) are reserved for these academically-challenged folk.  From the NNPC, NPA through NIMASA, NDA to the DSS, police, Civil Defence corps, Chairmen/Pro-chancellors of federal universities’ councils, among others, these over-pampered men and women in intellectual diapers lord it over their betters. 

It is against this Hobbesian dystopian existential cyclorama that Nigeria has been presented with yet another opportunity to break, finally, the unending cycle of its born-to-die destiny (i.e., Abiku).  The opportunity, brimful of historic promise and potential, has come in the form and shape of the forthcoming 2023 presidential election. [On-the-march-again, on-the-march-again, looking-for-Mr-president – is-our-man, o!].  Sounds familiar?  The pertinent question to ask the Abiku nation of Nigeria is: Who is the man?  Who does the cap fit? What should be the constitutive criteria for determining who should be Nigeria’s next president?  Educational qualifications, entrepreneurial nous or administrative experience? Posts and positions held in previous career?  Integrity and character?  Family background, health status, age or material acquisition?  What exactly should the criteria be?  Or, must we continue to celebrate the current mania ranging from the Born-to-rule self-entitlement through Emilokancracy to Obicracy?

Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince

As things stand now, the country is divided along ethno-religious lines.  Thus, the three leading frontrunners for the presidency are banking on their kith and kin to give them the edge.  The presidential wannabes are probably scouring books on power and war strategy, books such as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power and Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince as well as studying the great speeches of world leaders with a view to harvesting the cumulative wisdom of the past.  Whilst this recourse to the study of the iconic voices of tradition is not a bad thing per se, the desire should rather be how to effectively administer the polity, if given the opportunity and not how to further disenfranchise and impoverish the already pauperised masses.  Lunacy is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different outcomes.  We must do things differently this time.  The times call for radical change.  According to former U.S president, Dwight D. Eisenhower in a speech delivered on March 6, 1956: “If a political party does not have its foundation in the determination to advance a cause that is right and that is moral then it is not a political party; it is merely a conspiracy to seize power”.  In the same connection, Frantz Fanon remarks: “Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong.  When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted.  It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable called cognitive dissonance.  And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalise, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief”.  Still on the problem of the ethnicisation of the political process, someone posited recently on a Whatsapp platform on which yours sincerely belongs, that: “Some Nigerians prefer to be slaves so long as their tribesman is the slave-master”.  This statement summarises the gist of this article.  No more, no less!  A meme trending on social media at present captures the same sentiment: “The poor are divided by religion and tribe during election and united in poverty after election”.  They fail to reckon with Thomas Sowell’s apposite remark that “politics is the art of making your selfish desires seem like the national interest”.  Recently TheNews published a cover story captioned: “Nigeria: Any Hope Left?” and respected columnist, Sonala Olumhense wrote an opinion piece he entitled: “The End of Nigeria” (April 10, 2022).  What all this suggests is that Nigeria is about running out of its legendary luck of self-retrieval from the brink.  Now, ethnicism will not do.  Tribal brinkmanship or clannishness will fail us, tragically.  The hour calls for a paradigm shift in our voting patterns.  2023 is a matter of life and death, especially for the polity itself as it is already suffering from the rigor mortis of a failed state.  The country is in the ICU now; on life-support… It’s time for us to vote competence, capacity, courage and character; for youthful vigour, knowledge-based, issues-oriented governance model; for a technocratic leader ready to move us away from crude consumerism to productivity and enterprise.  Aso Rock is not a personal fiefdom; a retirement benefit, or a plutocrat’s sanatorium or an Old People’s Home.  It is our seat of power and one to be occupied by the most energetic, healthy, mentally-stable, compassionate, visionary and detribalised Nigerian.  What’s fair is fair!  So, let’s ditch and dump the old and useless mantra of “Where are you from?”, for the burning urgencies of total liberation and freedom.  Destiny beckons, time is ticking…


Chris Anyokwu writes from University of Lagos