FEATURE ARTICLE

Monday, May 31, 2021
SILO@depaul.edu
Chicago, USA
CONTESTING IDENTITY AND ETHNO-RELIGIOUS POLITICS IN NIGERIA:
WHERE DO NIGERIANS COME FROM?

"The first step toward becoming a… community is to recognize our own tower of Babel-our ethnocentrism. Each cultural grouping has a tendency to make itself superior, believing that its tower is better and taller and can reach the heavens. In a multicultural community, we need to identify our tower of Babel and decide to consciously stop building it. We need to come down from our tower, we examine each brick and wall, learning how we got that high. When we finally land-with a fuller consciousness and acceptance of who we are-we are ready to encounter others, who have also come down from their towers." Eric Low

ope Francis recently asked people who are desiring for a better world beyond this pandemic to dare to "shake things up." This is a poor translation of the Spanish phrase that Pope Francis used, hacer un lío which literally means "to make a mess." The same 'shaking things up' is required in Nigeria for those, who like me, are hopeful that a better kind of Nigeria can emerge beyond these shadows. If you think that Nigeria is in a mess today, do not lose hope. Managing Nigeria's diverse ethnic and religious groups is quite messy and has been quite messy partly because of bad politics and bad ethics. However, we can make a good mess out of this present situation by mixing things up better. However, for many frustrated country men and women, reimagining a better Nigeria that can emerge from the shadows of this present messiness might seem like a wishful thinking or even a form of madness. However, this is the very thing that Thomas Sankara, that great African son, said we need in Africa when he set out to reimagine Burkina Faso.

On the 4th anniversary of the revolution that he launched in that country, he said: "You cannot carry out fundamental changes without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from non-conformity; the ability to turn your back on old formulas; the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future." What Sankara was saying is that we need courage and boldness to confront problems in Africa. We must dare to reinvent Nigeria. The first step to doing this will be to reject what failed in the past like secession, war, violence, Islamic supremacy, corruption, and what Jean-François Bayart in his book, L'État en Afrique: La Politique du Ventre calls 'la politique du ventre' (the politics of the stomach).

In order to fashion a people out of the present diverse units that make up our countries, we all must be prepared to make a mess of our ethnic and religious identities. Ugandan political philosopher, Emmanuel Katongole, proposes that what we need in Africa today is a 'confused identity' in order to overcome the narrow and fossilized notions of unique ethnic or religious identity which continues to tear the continent apart. This does not mean that I should become confused about my Igbo or Christian origin and identity, but rather that my identity cannot be separated from other identities in Nigeria, Africa, and the world that make up who I am. I cannot, therefore, conceive of myself outside of the vast cultural subjects and networks of belonging, behaving, and believing, that influence and define me beyond my Igbo or Christian roots. I become 'confused' about my identity in the sense of arriving at that place of comfort, where I am no longer imprisoned in my own false sense of a unique or purist Igbo or Christian identity. Rather, I begin to appreciate and see myself in and through others. This way, who I am becomes only a legible marker cast within the diverse religious mural, and variegated cultural canvass of my non-Igbo or non-Christian brothers and sisters, who with me make up the beautiful tapestry of the diverse, and complementary map of Nigerian identities. It is thus possible to imagine and embrace such a capacious social space and map of a Nigerian universe, where everyone matters and every culture and religion counts.

In this second part of my discourse on fashioning a people, and building the nation in Nigeria, I will like to show just how foolish it is to think that there is a unique Igbo, Yoruba, Efik or a Fulani cultural or geographical space in Nigeria, where each unit can find shelter and be freed from the depressing and scorching harsh weather of unacceptable social condition. While I am convinced that the future of Nigeria in its present form today will lead us to what Edward Said calls 'a punishing destiny', I do not think, however, that those calling for secession as the solution to our present situation in Nigeria, are offering their people any serious option. It might look good on paper, but as they say the devil is in the details. On the contrary, this call to break up being heard in Nigeria today are lamentations from all parts of the country that people are suffering and that there is so much injustice in the land, and so much violence, and waywardness among our ruling elites particularly the insensitive and failed ethno-religious Islamic supremacist agenda of our current President.

Who are your People?

One of the most depressing responses I got from one of my friends from the North with whom I shared my plan to leave the Western world and relocate to Nigeria was: "Why do you hate yourself that you wish to come back to this mess?" I told him that I feel that without boots on the ground with my people I cannot be an authentic and credible witness. "I must be with my people", I said to him. But he taunted, "Who are your people-Boko Haram, Fulani kidnappers, these crazy Buhari people eh…?" My friend's strong discouragement that I should not even contemplate coming back to Nigeria because the single wish of many Nigerians is how to escape from the country, made me to take seriously to heart the task of figuring out the place of the priest, scholar, or any change agent for that matter in the movement of history: how can I or any other committed Nigerian contribute in designing a new architecture for Nigeria? How can each of us become an artisan, an actor (not a reactor) to the construction of a new Nigeria.

My friend's question, "Who are your people?", is what I am trying to answer in this second part of my discourse. I will only provide some questions for consideration which I will up again in part three. This essay also responds to the challenge my friend, Bishop Kukah posed to me earlier in the year in response to a commissioned essay I wrote for the Christian Solidarity International, Geneva. Kukah wrote these words to me, "Stan, as I said this is an excellent job with fine and deep, academic prose. But as a Priest, you must point out a path of hope with clear proposals of how to close this. I am unsure of how soon Nigeria will collapse, but I am doubtful that it will be soon. The Buhari administration's waywardness should not define who we are, where we have come from and where we are going?"

Who am I?

So, who are we really as Nigerians? Where do we come from? Who am I really? The answer to this last question will surprise you:

When I am in the company of my white friends here in North America, Asia, and Europe, they refer to me as an African or a black man. When I mingle with fellow Africans in international fora, they call me a Nigerian. When I participate in any event with Nigerians, they call me an Igbo man. When I mingle with my fellow Igbo people, they call me a Wawa, Enugu man. Then when I am in Enugu, I am called an Oji River or Awgu man, and among the Oji or Awgu people, I am called an Achi man, even in Achi my home town, people reduced my identity to my village, Adu Achi, and in Adu, they call me an Ojiri person etc. This fragmentation of who I am in an infinite indivisible manner can apply to other areas of my life. In religious setting, for instance, my Muslim or Hindu friends will call me a Christian and those within my own Christian faith will call me a Catholic priest, (or an unsaved person as one Evangelical once referred to me when preaching to me on the need for me to be born again). Colleagues in the Catholic tradition might even call me a conservative Catholic or a liberal priest depending on the side I took on any issue. I can apply this to my professional life as a teacher at a university or someone who works in the humanitarian sector. Human identity is so fluid, mixed, and confusing. The joy is that we all can take on different identities and God made it that way so that we can see ourselves not through the lens of a single identity, but through the multiple identities that locate us within time and space and place us in multiple relationships with others. Each of these identity markers gives you something, and denies you some other thing. It places you within a group; and excludes you from another group. It can place you in a palace; but it also can force you ineluctably, if you are not discerning enough, into a prison.

It is important to note that what I am saying here is not unique to me, it is our human story; our Nigerian story. Most Nigerians on a normal day see something of themselves in other Nigeria in our food, language, dress, songs, books, and fashion among others. This being the case, it is important that we pause as Nigerians to really ask ourselves who we are and how we frame these identities? Indeed, scholars are reminding us of this hybridity that is becoming our lot as humans in an inter-connected world because we live in what Amatyr Sen calls a world of 'choiceless identity.' Sen argues that many of the conflicts and barbarities that have visited our world are often sustained by the illusion of unique and choiceless identity. According to him, history shows us that 'the art of constructing hatred' often arises when people invoke the magical power of some predominant markers of identity that drowns other affiliations and weaken people's natural capacity to empathize with the others particularly the vulnerable and minorities in our societies.

Ghanaian-American philosopher, Anthony Appiah bemoans the narrow construction of identity in the world today as 'lies that bind.' This is because for the most part, the talk about a distinctive identity are often appeals or claims that are deployed in power contestation. In many instances, identities are malleable social constructs that people can refine, revise, reform so as to create something that can bind us rather than something that divides, and convulse us. He proposes that progressive and inclusive societies must embrace a cosmopolitan spirit which embraces toleration of the 'other.'

Appiah invites us to question some of the commonly accepted claims and myths that at the core of each identity that there is some similarity that binds people who share that identity together. Particularly, we see these kinds of claims in Nigeria where people who are calling for Biafra, for instance, or for a Christian republic or an Islamic North governed by Sharia and a religious cleansing of Christians, fail to admit that our respective ethnic and religious identities have greater internal diversity, divisions, stereotypes and exclusionary practices than we often admit. Thus, the idea of a homogenous ethnic or religious identity in Nigeria into which we can fly for patronage and succor from the destructive politics of Nigeria is only but a myth. Therefore, while we may not dispense with identities all together, Appiah proposes that "we need to understand them better if we can hope to reconfigure them, and free ourselves from mistakes about them that are often a couple of years. Much of what is dangerous about them has to do with the ways identities divide us and set us against one another."

Identity politics in Nigeria, in my thinking, is part of the elite contestations and manipulation of the masses of our people. Most ordinary Nigerians live together in peace with one another. Everyday Nigerians simply want to get on with their lives. Nigerians are praying every day to enjoy the basic necessities of life, and exercise the religious freedom to worship their God the way each person knows best, and pursue their daily tasks, and enjoy security of lives and property. Identity politics in Nigeria only serves to gas-light the burning frustrations of the masses of our people; to promote the narrow interests and politics of the stomach of a few people in the country, while the masses of our people are sacrificed daily as pawns in this unending political chessboard about religion, ethnicity, and other unhelpful social hierarchies and stratification.

Some people might say that what I am saying here is only an academic or armchair speculation. However, my conviction is that if we Nigerian intellectuals, thought leaders, and leaders at different levels do not take up seriously the task of questioning some of the cheap and destructive narratives out there in the country by coming up with new ideas on how to reinvent the future, by reimaging what this country can look like, people in the next 50 years will wonder what kind of mad people lived in Nigeria in the years of the pandemic. Claude Ake was the first serious Nigerian intellectual to begin to lay down some building blocks for a social theory for reimagining and reinventing Africa particularly in his A Theory of Political Integration (1967) and Democracy and Development in Africa (1996) Sadly, death took him so early at 57 through a plane crash-an all-too-common cause of preventable deaths in our country as was seen two weeks ago in the tragic loss of the crème de la crème of our Nigerian Armed Forces.

At the highest political level, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania committed his whole life to building Tanzania into a people. It is no surprise that Tanzania has remained one of the most peaceful and well-integrated country in Africa. It has its challenges for sure, but people are not killing each other nor are Muslims and Christians in Tanzania fighting or burning down their houses of worship. Tanzania which is has a Christian majority, has a Muslim woman as her President. Why will terrorist cells operate in Kenya and not in Tanzania? Why will war and genocide and dictatorship hunt all the countries surrounding Tanzania-Uganda, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, even Somalia-while Tanzania is unaffected?

What I am saying here by referring to Tanzania is that what we can learn from that country is that diversity of race, ethnicity, religion and geography are not in themselves the causes of war or failed states; it is all about how they are managed-the politics of building a people. We can also give example in West Africa of Senegal and the fact that the first president of Senegal was a Christian whereas Muslims make up to 95% of the population. What are Muslims of Senegal doing that Muslims in Northern Nigeria, for example, need to learn? These are some questions that Nigerians should think about.

The point I am making here is to agree with Benedict Anderson that nations are "imagined communities" meaning that nations are built, they are not found or given to people just in the same way that people do not discover team; teams are built. As imagined communities, people in every nation can be formed through transcending our identity politics and differences through what Anderson calls, 'horizontal comradeship' in finding common grounds. Most people in our country for example from Sokoto to Port Harcourt may not have met each other, how can they see themselves as belonging to one country? This is what Anderson claims can happen when people boldly set about the task of reinventing a nation and reimagining the future. It is possible then, I argue to build up a sense of communion among ourselves despite our differences; we can and do need to imagine belonging to the same collectivity, and accompany this collection mission or journey through memories of our common history, traits, beliefs, and attitudes which can help us to become a people pursuing the greater good of everyone.

We will build Nigeria and decide together how to structure that relationship through dialogue and the principles of justice. However, to begin this task, we Nigerians must first stop fighting each other, casting stones on one another. We must stop this noise all over the place and rumors of war or impending doom and gloom. We all, particularly leaders, must set about the task of reimagining us as a people. In the next part of my essay, I will suggest how we can fashion ourselves into a people or rather into peoples within a people. It is an attempt at a social theory for a reimagined Nigeria.

*I dedicate this essay to the memory of Fr Alphonsus Bello Yashim, the 33-year-old Catholic priest, abducted and killed by as yet unknown gun men. May your blood and that of so many Nigerians who are being killed in this messiness, cry out to heaven for the renewal of these lands and the end to this violence. May we fight for justice for you and those who have needlessly been taken away from us in a country that failed you.

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