FEATURE ARTICLE


Okezie ChukwumerijeMonday, December 23, 2002
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ngodo@msn.com
San Francisco, CA, USA


THE MEANING OF NIGERIA


hat does the idea of Nigeria entail? What does it mean to say that we belong to a country called Nigeria? And what does it mean to call ourselves Nigerians? These questions may seem trivial, after all Nigeria has existed for decades and we should by now know what Nigeria means. But read the newspapers and listen carefully to Nigerians speak and you will begin to wonder whether Nigerians are in agreement about what it means to belong to a country called Nigeria.

I was encouraged to write this essay after reading a comment by the OPC leader Dr. Fasheun. He said that non-Yorubas resident in the West, whom he called "guests" in "Yorubaland," should not dream of contesting elections in "Yorubaland" and dominating politics in the region. I do not wish to single out Fasheun; the sentiments he expressed are commonplace. It's just that reading his statement brought to mind a debate in Nigriaworld on the issue of Igbos contesting elections in Lagos state. I did not take the debate seriously as I thought the issues were so straightforward that they did not deserve comment. Reading Fasheun and other recent commentary on the concept of Nigeria have persuaded me that the issue merits critical attention.

Because the idea of Nigeria is too complex to tackle in this short essay, I propose to address two issues which in my view are the most serious obstacles to the emergence of a true Nigerian consciousness. Both issues are present in the statement attributed to Fasheun. The first issue is the view that non-members of a particular ethnic group who reside in a part of the country that historically belonged to the ethnic group are "guests" to their "host" community. For example, in Fasheun's view non-Yorubas who reside in what he called "Yorubaland" are guests of the Yorubas. The second, allied issue is the view that we still have ethnic "lands" in Nigeria. To Fasheun, it makes sense to speak of "Igboland," "Yorubaland" or "Tivland" in both a geographical and political sense.

In my opinion, both views - the idea that Nigerians can be guests in Nigeria and the idea that ethnic "lands" survived the creation of Nigeria - are demonstrably flawed and inconsistent with the concept of Nigeria as a nation comprising federating states. One cannot conceive of Nigeria as a nation without accepting the dissolution of most of the rights and privileges that accrued to the constituent ethnic groups before they formed Nigeria. It is incoherent to speak of Nigeria as a sovereign nation and at the same time entertain the proposition that Nigerians can be guests within this nation.

Part of the problem that some people have with the idea of Nigeria is that they see the country as merely an entity that dispenses benefits and rights to its citizens and constituent groups. They do not see the country as an entity to which citizens and constituent groups have surrendered some of their rights, and to which they owe considerable duties and obligations. They do not realize that in becoming part of Nigeria the constituent ethnic groups, while not giving up their cultural and social identities, have surrendered to the federation those powers and prerogatives associated with nationhood in a sovereign sense.

The idea of ethnic nations with geographical boundaries and with the political powers to define some people as outsiders is clearly inconsistent with the concept of Nigeria. Fasheun spoke about "guests" in Yorubaland. But what does it mean to call a Nigerian a guest in his own country? To be a guest is to visit a place to which one does not belong, to which one is by definition an outsider. If a Tiv person, for example, decides to go and reside in Ibadan, is she a "guest"? To call her a guest in Ibadan is to suggest that she is somehow a foreigner, perhaps someone who does not have the right and entitlement to reside there, perhaps someone who is merely tolerated and could be kicked out if she overstays her welcome or if she behaves in ways not acceptable to her "hosts". To label her as a "guest" means that she cannot be completely comfortable. She must always be alert to the sensitivities of her hosts, lest she be dis-invited and expelled.

But who are those that can dis-invite her? And what empowers them to disinvite her if they are no longer comfortable with her presence? In Fasheun's lights, the host in this example is the Yoruba community in which the Tiv woman resides. However, it would seem that Fasheun misconstrues the concept of ethnic nationhood that survived the creation of Nigeria. Yorubaland may have been a political nation before the creation of Nigeria. Prior to the creation of Nigeria, non-Yoruba visitors to Yorubaland may have been guests who stayed at the leisure of their "hosts". With the creation of Nigeria, however, things have changed. Nigeria - not Yorubaland, not Igboland, not Tivland - is the political nation. Every Nigeria is constitutionally entitled to travel across the country and to reside wherever he or she wants. No Nigerian is done a favor by residing in a particular geographical area. Prior to the creation of Nigeria, a Tiv person who resides in Yorubaland would have been eternally grateful to Yorubas for the privilege of living among them. After the creation of Nigeria, the gratitude is properly due to Nigerians and Nigeria for this constitutional right.

Put simply, my point is that no Nigerian is a guest in Nigeria. No Nigerian should be made to feel that he or she is being tolerated in any part of Nigeria. No Nigerian living in Nigeria should be made to feel that he or she is not entitled to the full rights of citizenship which are granted and guaranteed by the constitution. In virtue of being Nigerians, we have the right to reside wherever we want and to do whatever we want. We are constrained in our activities only by the law and by the moral duty to be respectful and charitable to our neighbors.

Mine is not an argument for not recognizing the hospitality and charity of those with whom or among whom we live. For example, if an Ibibio person resides in a community that is populated by Hausas and is treated well by the mostly-Hausa population, she ought to be grateful for the hospitality of her neighbors. However, she should be grateful not because she is a guest or because she resides in "Hausaland." She should be grateful because morality and good behavior require that human beings be grateful to those who treat them well.

Let's carry the above example a bit further. By not interfering with the rights of the Ibibio woman to reside and work in her country, the mostly-Hausa community should not think that they are doing her a favor. She is not a guest of the Hausa community and she does not reside there at their leisure. She is there because she is exercising one of the cardinal privileges of Nigerian citizenship. No one, no group does her a favor by not unlawfully interfering with her exercise of her constitutional rights. In fact, to label her an outsider and to seek to tie her residence and enjoyment of her citizenship rights to her pledging allegiance or respect to the Hausa community is to assault a fundamental constitutional rights due to all Nigerians. The respect she owes her neighbors (Hausas and non-Hausas alike) is dictated by ethical and civic considerations, since she owes no legal allegiance to the indigenous inhabitants as such.

Those who see non-members of the indigenous ethnic group as "guests" also suggest that these "guests" should not contest elections or seek to "dominate" their "host" community. Since the concept of a "host" community is incompatible with the constitution and the idea of Nigeria as a nation, the argument does not make legal sense. In my view, it does not make moral sense either. A Nigerian who resides in a community, who pays taxes in the community, who performs all the civil obligations imposed on residents of the community, should not be constrained in the exercise of her constitutional powers merely because she is not a member of the indigenous ethnic group where she resides. Entitlement to exercise civic rights is tied to the performance of civic and constitutional obligations, not to powdery tests of ethnic identity. I am unaware of any moral or philosophical principle which prioritizes the civic rights of indigenous members of an ethnic group above those of their fellow citizens who happen to be non-members of the indigenous ethnic group.

Do we still have "Igboland", "Yorubaland", etc. in Nigeria? In my view, it depends on what meaning we seek to convey through these labels. If by them we mean the ancestral lands of Igbos or Yorubas, then they still exist. We have territories where Igbos, Yorubas, and other groups historically resided and where they remain majority of the residents. We have areas where Igbo, Yoruba, and other ethnic cultures predominate. But what we do not have - and, so long as we belong to one nation called Nigeria, cannot not have - are territories within Nigeria where particular ethnic groups arrogate to themselves the rights to decide what civic rights and privileges are due to non-members of their ethnic group.

Ethnic groups are free to form cultural and political groups to promote their cultural and political interests within and outside their ancestral areas. However, they cannot dictate who can or cannot contest elections in states where they are the majority. Neither can they make non-members of their ethnic group who reside in these states feel as if they are merely guests or outsiders. They may not intimidate non-members of their ethnic group and prevent them from exercising their constitutional rights as Nigerians.

Some Nigerians are uncomfortable with the full implications of Nigeria nationhood. They wish to take the benefits and rights and leave the duties and responsibilities that come with Nigeria nationhood. But they cannot have it both ways. If they want to call themselves Nigerians, they must also acknowledge the sovereignty of Nigeria and the fact that Nigeria has displaced the sovereign, ethnic nations that existed before the creation of Nigeria. The constituent groups in Nigeria are now the states, not ethnic nations. Nigerians are entitled to exercise fully the rights and privileges of citizenship conferred on them by the constitution. In exercising these rights they may be morally sensitive to the sentiments of the majority ethnic group in their place of residence. They do not, however, owe allegiance to any ethnic group. Their allegiance is to Nigeria.