By Tabia Princewill
If my ancestors came from the Fouta-Djallon region(now modern day Guinea), over 200 years ago to conquer a territory that is now Northern Nigeria, does that make me any less Nigerian than someone whose ancestor left the ancient Dahomey empire in today’s Bénin Republic to marry a woman from Abeokuta? Is an African-American whose ancestors came from West Africa on slave ships any less American than an Irish man who fled the 19th century Irish potato famine then settled in New York?

Are the few American families who can trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower (the ship that brought the first pilgrims from England to the new world), more American than more recent immigrants such as the “Italian-Americans” or the “Jewish-Americans” who settled in between the two world wars?

Xenophobia is an unfortunate, universal constant which we in Nigeria have turned into the founding element of our socio-political culture, with the likes of Femi Fani-Kayode’s prejudiced, ethnically laced writings inciting Nigerians to turn against one another, therefore distracting the citizenry from allegations of corruption and financial misappropriation. In our national contest for scarce resources, ethnicity serves as an unjust tool to allocate funds based on tribal loyalty and support.

Tribal loyalty  and support

In reality, politicians end up appropriating state income for themselves and the bigoted horde whose resentment they have whipped up ends up just as poor as before the ethnic sentimentalism, envies and controversies were unleashed. So, our country is left with destitute Nigerians with little else on their minds beyond the desire to blame someone at best, vengeance at worst.

The state, in most democratic, civilized societies advocates solidarity across groups rather than pointing out citizens’ ethno-religious differences and using them for political gain. Few leaders in our country have ever professed pan-Nigerian nationalism beyond loyalty to their group, especially during the time of our regional premiers, where one could probably find the origins of today’s conflicts, which were later exacerbated by the military divide and rule tactics. Do we prefer quick personal gains and votes or lasting development and legacies? Politicians as different as Trump and Ahmadu Bello have grappled with the question. After all, the Sardauna who recognised the need for the North’s socio-economic modernisation still championed religious faith as part of politics because “piety” guarantees more votes among the poor, uneducated masses than discourse on what real equality would require. It is doubtful the sarauta, the Northern elite or nobility, would like to share   benefits, status or power with the talakawas, the poor masses and the same could be said of any elites all over the country.

So, to keep them in check Islam has continuously been used as a political platform, a rallying cry for Northern politicians whose dwindling support due to their inability to impact the lives of their constituents, required drastic measures (such as the implementation of sharia to satisfy some radical elements of society), the same way evangelism is today a pulpit for a new jihad which is the defence of corrupt politicians because they sponsor mega-churches, jet-setting pastors and advertise a materialistic “prosperity gospel” which makes every Christian a believer in the proceeds of corruption and turns “pastor-preneurs” or “entrepreneurial pastors” into the new Southern elite.

Boko Haram started off providing social services in a region where the state was virtually absent: they ran farms, distributed crops, and even paid for marriages as traditional rites had become too expensive for the poor to bear.

This later became a recruitment tactic to attract young men after certain politicians attempted to end their association with the group, upon arming them. We should be asking, from Maitatsine in the ’80s, to Boko Haram and the herdsmen today, who exactly arms all these men?

Anti-oppression  protest

But let us continue our analysis of our society’s internal workings by also remembering what the Maitatsine riots in the 1980s were fundamentally about.Like Boko Haram, this group seems to have started out as an anti-oppression protest or solidarity network involving the poor who understandably wondered why rich Northern indigenes preached Islamic contentment to them yet chose to pursue riches for themselves while blocking anyone else’s access to opportunity. Socially motivated uprisings become violent and increasingly prone to religious extremismin a process that isn’t particular to Nigeria: faced with desperation and abject poverty, a return to religious fervour and primordial ethnic identities seem to be all that can save or help to define oneself in an arbitrary, unjust world.

To this socio-political background, let us now add migration. It would be interesting for the Igbo organisations advocating for all “Fulani herdsmen” to leave the South East to remember Igbo people constitute over 80% of the migrant, merchant population in the North and elsewhere. North to South migration involves a smaller percentage of people, outside of seasonal migrations of which the herdsmen’s. freedom of movement, trade and association is a fact of modern life, which is guaranteed by the Constitution. What we must do, rather than advocate for a return to static and archaic principles, is work towards a Nigeria where ethnicity and religion are neither politicised nor a necessary source of conflict.

Inter-group  interaction

What happens in Nigeria is that when migrants become wealthier than host communities, tensions flare because resources are scarce, the same way some historians argue segregation was an institutional tool to secure the votes of poor White Americans whom elites promisedthat freed slaves wouldn’t economically displace them.

Similarly, ethno-religious conflict and competition has been a continuing feature of inter-group interaction in the North and Middle-Belt. Largely an expression of economic strife and discontent it is further galvanised by the “settler” vs. “indigene” ideology introduced by politicians to gain power, reward their supporters and exclude others. There is no group in this country, “Fulani”, “herdsman”, “Northerner”, “Southerner”, “indigene”, “settler” or otherwise where an individual is intrinsically good or bad by sole virtue of belonging to said group.

Yet we continue to ignore the wrangling which infiltrates and poisons our so-called differences. Violence and insecurity in any society is unjustifiable but we must begin to see crisis as an opportunity to get to the bottom of the social constructs that enable such criminality in the first place.

FG ministers

Allegations surfaced online which claim some ministers are agitating for accommodation grants under the guise that in the past administration, ministers were given N20 million each for that purpose.

It was said that when the President heard of this, he walked out of the meeting. Interestingly, it was also claimed that only Ministers who are former governors didn’t solicit for funds. One could say “thank God for small mercies” but it would be bittersweet. Change is a constant battle even from within, it seems.

Probe of past governments

‘Budget padding” has been a constant feature of our democracy, which only came to light with the President’s refusal to sign a budget that included projects he didn’t approve. There seemed to have been a dirty deal between the executive and the legislature before this new dispensation, whereby funds for phantom projects would be allocated, delivered and shared.

No wonder then that year-in, year-out, development seems to elude the poor in our society. Uncompleted rural electrification, sanitation and health care now makes very obvious sense. It’s not about Biafra, it’s not about marginalisation,it’s about corruption, which found new ways to exist since the return to civilian rule. A grave wrong has been done to Nigerians. Will we stop fighting each other in time to get justice?

Government contractors who served as fronts should also face the courts, not just politicians; and if we believe in a Nigeria free of ethno-religious violence, we must tackle the corruption that rids us of opportunities and puts, instead, a gun and any religious book in our hands, telling us that it is our way to survive. Change may be slow, precisely because those who benefit from the system won’t have it, but the signs are there.

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