Remi Oyeyemi's Open Mind

Those who are pretending with duplicitous righteous indignation that they are "patriots" and not tribalists are honest people to the extent that their bank accounts are growing fatter....
Monday, November 25, 2002

Remi Oyeyemi


"Religion is the opium of the people."
-- Karl Marx

"Learning from an act of omission or commission today is the most inexpensive lesson possible. The cost of learning goes up as time goes on, if the same mistakes continue to be repeated."
-- Adapted from Jim Fay's
"Four Steps to Responsibility."

he riots which occurred in Kaduna and which almost engulfed the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja last week are nothing but a tragedy. It is a tragedy because innocent people have to lose their lives to drive home important points germane to peaceful co-existence in a multicultural society. It is a tragedy because some people never learn and thereby continue to make the same mistakes with costlier consequences. It is a tragedy because this kind of insensitivity and flagrant disrespect for the freedom of others are the real dangers to the survival of Nigeria as an entity (if you still believe in a country called Nigeria).

Yes, Nigeria is a multicultural society. It is a conglomerate of nations with different peoples and cultures. It is a basket of different religions and world-views. It is a country which expectations of its peoples, other than remaining as one (the proof of which is not even self-evident) are different. But the last time I checked, Nigeria is still a democracy (even if extracted from the pocket of General Abdulsalaam). I still believe that freedom of speech remains part of the constitutional guarantee for all its citizens. So, how can an innocuous statement by Lady Isioma Daniel be the reason and excuse for arson, looting, maiming and killing?

Yes, we should respect the religious beliefs of others. But at the same time believers have a duty to respect the freedom of other Nigerians to express themselves. If anyone is aggrieved or offended over what the other person has said, there are courts of law. For those who are willing to be candid and honest, the riots are symptomatic of serious threats to the freedom that Nigerians yearn for. It is a sign of a more serious tragedy yet to happen.

Nigeria as a nation is an aberration. We really do not belong together. But, it appears that what is fashionable today is Pan-Nigerianism, even if it has no philosophical or primordial basis for attachment. This would not help. In addition, for those who engage in discourse, there may be the need to cease being "intellectual diplomats" because at this stage, it is obvious that there is the need to really demonstrate the courage to be honest. The imperative to extricate the debate from the realm of "diplomacy," a euphemism for "deceit" and probably, "half-truth" and elevate it to that of "real politik," has never been more palpable and blatant.

Religion is a matter of heart and not of head. It is not to be trifled with. Faith does not speak to logic, which does not mean that it could be illogical in its contextual sense. It is driven by passion and very highly addictive. This is why Karl Marx refers to it as the "opium" of the people. Some religions gave birth to some cultures while some cultures gave birth to religion. This explains why cultural infractions by outsiders often lead to passionate protests and could at times be violent. But what happened in Kaduna has nothing to do with religion but everything with politics by those whose political days are about to be over.

This atrocity by the religio-political establishment of the Northern Nigeria is one of the major reasons why Nigeria is having problems evolving as a nation. To make matters worse, myopic political leaders in the South seem to think that unless they work with these bigots, their dreams of political kingdom would never be realised. They shout and yell on the pages of newspapers that we should eschew tribalism and ethnicity - our essence of being - and embrace an amorphous identity as patriotic Nigerians.

We are trying to create abstract Nigerians, which evidently could not have any sense in reality. We deliberately decide to forget that "Ile ni a ti nko eso r'ode," (Charity begins at home). Due to our insincerity, we are trying to stigmatise what we should make sacrosanct - our respective tribes and ethnic groups. We are trying to swim without getting to the river. We are so much interested in building a magnificent edifice without giving a thought to its foundation.

Deluding ourselves about a grandiose country, we are so much in a hurry to attain this supposed "Giant of Africa" Eldorado kind of a nation without willing to address the fundamentals that such a country could rest upon and from which it could grow and blossom. We are so much in a hurry to identify ourselves as Nigerians in jettisoning of our "source of being," the cultural context that gives meaning to the variety of individual existence that we all ceaselessly seek to manifest.

Each ethnic group in Nigeria derives relevance and identity, hence meaning and purpose for existence from their cultural milieu. That culture and tradition shape their world-view. It not only underscores the values that individuals or groups from such ethnic group would continue to cherish or detest as they traverse the length and breadth of universe, it also gives them uniqueness, hence their pride and self-esteem.

Man cannot operate in cultural abstract. Nature also abhors vacuum. It is impossible to give birth to a "Nigerian child" in the real sense that a birth could be given to a Yoruba child, Ogoni child, Mumuye child, Efik child, Igbo child, Tiv child, Kataf child, Kanuri child, Ebira child or Nupe child among many others. The reason is that there is no authentically unique Nigerian cultural identity that could give purpose and meaning to the existential quest of such child to make him or her identifiable as a "Nigerian." There is no particular set of beliefs derived from any unique tradition/culture that is universally acceptable to all as to incubate a sense of primordial belonging to "Nigeria."

This is why when a Yorubaman marries in Philadelphia, Bonn or Ibadan, he marries according to a Yoruba set of beliefs and not "Nigerian" set of beliefs. It is the same reason an Igboman would marry in Houston, Paris or Aba, and would do so according to Igbo set of beliefs and not according to "Nigerian" set of beliefs. It is also the same reason why a Hausaman who marries in Detroit, London or Birnin-Kebbi would marry according to his own culture and not "Nigerian" culture. The above is the same reason while an average Caucasian American would always be proud to identify himself as Irish-American, British-American, German-American, Italian-American among many others.

In the New York based African Abroad of June 30, this year there was an advertisement titled "Wake up, Remo Citizens." In the said advert it was written inter alia:

"Among the Nigerians, we have different organizations that are creating great cultural awareness within the American people. These organizations are promoting their cultural heritage to their off-springs, the young Nigerian-Americans. Though, these young offsprings might have not Touched African soil since birth, but they are proud to have known which part of the world (Nigeria) they originate from. ……… event witnessed that made me proud of these 'never been in Nigeria' children staging their cultural dances and songs in their ETHNIC LANGUAGE as if they were born in Nigeria…." (capitals mine)

Two things stare us in the face from this quote. One, the word "Nigeria" only served as nothing more than a "geographical expression" and nothing more, while the word "Nigerian" refers to people from that geographical delineation. Two, the writer of the advertisement was not given any choice, if he had to be honest as required, to identify their means of communicating in any other way. He had to inform his readers that they did so via their "ethnic" languages thereby implying, the absence of a "Nigerian language."

The question now arises, why are these various ethnic groups teaching these children and bringing them up in their cultural ways thousands of miles away from home? There is no other reason other than the fact that they would not have been better than stray animals wondering aimlessly and ceaselessly around the globe without their ethnic identities. Their various cultures give them their respective identities. It gives them a concept of the world - how to live it, what to expect, what to give and the guidelines to follow morally, socially, economically, religiously and politically.

For "Nigeria" to evolve therefore, and cease to be a country in abeyance, there is need for candid assessment of our situation. There is need to recognise the fact that neither of the any ethnic groups, big or small share a uniform dream about Nigeria. Our world-views are different. Our expectations from our leaders are different. Our notions of government are different. Our moral standards, which though do not make one ethnic group more morally upright than the others, are different. Our perceptions and understanding of religion is different. Our usage of it as dictated by our different cultures is different. Our ideas of how to live and regulate our lives are different. Our goals and missions as individual ethnic groups are different.

While others want their children to go to school, others want theirs to go to the farms and Mosques. While others could relate with men of another faith without any friction, others are odiously intolerant. While others are willing to move along with the twenty-first century and be a part of the world intent on thinking "what is not" and asking "why not," others want to bask in the bliss of the blind Stone Age. There is nothing wrong with all the choices, only that each ethnic group should be allowed to make their different choices. This is because we are different peoples with different cultures and different dreams, hopes and aspirations.

Therefore, if we have to go forward with the "Project Nigeriana," there is need to recognize and respect these differences. If these differences could not be respected and the different ethnic groups be allowed to dream their dreams, then "to your tents O Israel."

There is need to admit that individual ethnic groups are terrified and suspicious of each other because of the nebulous structure and unequal arrangement. There is the need to reject different laws for the same nation. There cannot be a law for the North and another for the South. There is the need to be cognisant of the dangers of invading the space of others. There is need to respect the differences in religious beliefs. There is need to recognise that the rapacious kleptomania of the social and political elite is informed by the apprehension about whether there would be a tomorrow for Nigeria. There is need to accept that the ascendance of contemporary desperado politics is symptomatic of the political class' lack of faith in the viability of Nigeria.

Those who are pretending with duplicitous righteous indignation that they are "patriots" and not tribalists are honest people to the extent that their bank accounts are growing fatter on the general misery and hopelessness of those who really seek political and economic self-determination. Or at best, they could belong to the battery of daydreamers whose illusory hope of political kingdom lies in propping up a wobbly house of cards.

There is no doubt that there are many socio- economic and political profiteers marauding as Pan-Nigerianists all over the nooks and crannies of the unfortunate contraption euphemised as Nigeria, today. There is no doubt that this is a good time to be a self - righteous non - tribalist and pretentious "Nigerian nationalist." Yet, some of these latter day patriots and nationalists are indeed certified "arijenimodarus," (beneficiaries of perennial social confusion and paralysis). They are the ones who would like us to believe that Nigeria as it is today is good enough to go. They would want us to believe that it is unhelpful to identify with your source of identity - ethnic group or tribe, and become an amorphous creature with a nebulous, or at best, amoebic, non-definitive and probably, a vacuous existential philosophy as a "Nigerian."

No matter our pretext, "Nigeria" would never go anywhere and would continue to remain a country in abeyance, a subject of dreary hallucination, until we are willing to be honest, candid and "check out the real situation," as Bob Nesta Marley would say. Unless and until we recognise these differences and fears and really sit down to tackle them, "Nigeria" as we dream it, would remain elusive, delusory and illusory. It is only when we sit down, discuss and agree to disagree that we may be able to fashion out a working arrangement that would inspire trust and confidence in all component ethnic groups. And if this for whatever reason is impossible, then "to your tents O Israel."

Failure to do this, the kind of disrespect that led to the riots in Kaduna and other parts of the country would, if care is not taken, one day blow up the country and turn it to Rwanda which no one wants. However, it is not enough not to want something. Everything must be done to prevent such from happening. In doing so, it would be wise to recognize that man lives on hope. It would also be wise to recognize that there is limit to human endurance and tolerance. History has taught us that most often, ordinary situations have exploded to create momentous extraordinary historical events. A mundane innocuous incident could set off the chain of events that could lead to the demise of Nigeria (though, not that one really cares given the present context of hopelessness), especially when we least expect it.

With that elixir (hope) being daily assailed by the disrespect of other ethnic groups via a variety of means, the future is very bleak. There is repeated infliction of carnage on law-abiding citizens. There are repeated insults on the sensibilities of others and disrespect of their inalienable rights. There is blatant threats with its flagrant and concomitant arrogance to invade others political space. There is unending politically repressive and socially oppressive use of Armed Forces as in Odi and other parts of the country. There is deliberate conspiratorial economic annihilation of others as in Delta and dismemberment of Oodua Group of Companies. Almost all the ethnic groups are aggrieved. Yet, we refuse to sit down and talk, preferring to sweep everything under the carpet with illusory hope that everything would just wash away. Though it seems so, this is not the right time to be self-serving patriot of a Nigeria to whom nobody seriously owes any allegiance.

The only reason the situation in the Middle East has become what it is today is because hope has been removed from the equation for the Palestinians. When hope is removed or is being gradually removed from the equation as we have in Nigeria, what else is there to live for? Moreover, he who has nothing to live for does not really care what happens to the world he is leaving behind. "Alapoti kan, ko ko ki ilu tu," (he whose total belongings is not more than a luggage does not care if the city is deserted) because he really does not have any stake.