By Tabia Princewill
FIFTY NINE years after Independence, majority of Nigerians still express themselves using the language of colonial rule. To be clear, I am not referring to the English language but to the many phrases with which Nigerians describe one another.
In the course of my research on the origins of ethnic profiling, I came across a number of articles written by colonial administrators. Space will not permit me here to chronicle the number of today’s expressions and stereotypes about individual ethnic groups which bear an eerie resemblance to the insulting and divisive statements made by our former colonial masters at the turn of the twentieth century.
The language we use to talk about each other has not evolved much since then. In fact, the tools of modernity have given a wider reach to the seeds of hatred and division which were subtly planted and made into official policy during our not so distant past and our governance structures, the ethos behind the authoritarian use of power, have not changed much either.
The traditional mechanisms for handling relationships between multiple ethnicities in a pluri-ethnic society were eroded during that era, only to be replaced with the modern myth that most of today’s ethnic groups did not know each other or had little contact outside of violent conflict before Lord Lugard brought us together. This is false. It is a shame that research about our pre-colonial past is not popular and its findings more widely accepted in foreign universities than in our local institutions. The result is the easy politicisation of ethnicity and the re-writing of our history to suit political calculations.
The likes of Femi Fani-Kayode and Reno Omokri keep misleading young people about our history and painting a picture of what never existed; that is, an ethnically homogenous pre-colonial society. It is reminiscent of some US Republicans’ obsession with the myth of a “racially pure” United States where whiteness was both the standard and the norm. The many states and societies of what would become Nigeria were pluralistic, mixed societies.
Interestingly, the word “Yoruba”, for example, was not commonly used before the 19th century. It is derived from the term “Yarriba” which is what Hausa speaking populations used to refer to people from the Oyo Empire. It was British influence which created the notion of tribe and solidified the notion of “Yoruba people” as a distinct cultural entity. In pre-colonial times ethnicity was more fluid.
Our ancestors were more modern than we are in a lot of ways. A person could move from one town to another and start to claim said town as his or her “state of origin”. The settler versus indigene opposition is a result of colonial politics and power play, it has been with us since then.
Too many people still see Nigerian unity as a “mistake” to be corrected by secession, based on the myth of the incompatibility between our different groups whose cultures many of us do not know or understand. We are as ignorant in our discourse about each other as the British were, and the tribal nature of our national discussion masks the emptiness of many of our leaders.
Too many have nothing to offer their followers except for hatred of others. It is a very old but useful trick with infamous proponents throughout history, which we do not really study, not ours or anyone else’s, and we cast nothing more than a cursory glance on the lessons of the past. This is why it is so easy for a high-profile death to become an excuse for hate speech and bigotry.
Funke Olakunrin, the daughter of an Afenifere leader, Reuben Fasoranti, was killed by bandits. Before any police investigation could occur, Yinka Odumakin released a statement claiming she was killed by “Fulani herdsmen”, the new boogeymen of Nigerian politics.
He did so without any proof besides hearsay, which would be unacceptable in any court, and later went on to accuse the police of covering up the truth. The elite might just have woken up to insecurity, but the rest of Nigeria knows the truth: before the herdsmen became popular culture and media celebrities to be blamed for every wrong, Nigeria’s deadly, unmotorable roads have played host to criminal gangs and armed bandits.
In the late ’90s, a family I knew was shot dead on the Benin-Ore expressway, before it became fashionable to give crime an ethnic face or to claim that criminal behaviour is particular to any ethnic group.
The history of kidnapping and violent crime in Nigeria is a very long one and known to all those who want to be honest enough not to tie it to religion or ethnicity.
Religion or ethnicity
After all, when the South-East was overrun by kidnappers, why didn’t the media refer to the culprits as “Igbo kidnappers”? Have we forgotten Evans?
Was it his Christianity or ethnic origin that made us refuse to stereotype the people from the same region as him? And more importantly, why do we keep calling certain killers “herdsmen” if the majority of these criminals are never seen with cows?
There is an attempt, as always, to divide Nigerians on ethnic lines. Yes, there is an important security challenge, and the PDP, or any Nigerian, is well within their rights to point it out. But the blatant attempt to cause enmity between Nigerians must be identified for what it is.
What is most surprising is Atiku Abubakar’s reaction to his party’s painting a group to which he belongs as the single culprit of all our security challenges.
How can he stand by and watch the demonisation of an entire segment of our population, his people, in fact, seeing as he also owns cattle and employs herders? Political expediency has always been the name of the game in Nigeria but with time, the politics of Lord Lugard has gotten crasser.
WHILE visiting Reuben Fasoranti’s family (the Afenifere leader who lost his daughter during a highway attack) Asiwaju said: “I am a nationalist and the security concerns and challenges right now must be faced squarely throughout Nigeria. The incident that affected Mrs Olakunrin, is saddening and unacceptable but nobody can return her alive, she has answered the call of her creator.
“We must not use this incident to divide ourselves but we must use it as a cure to the security problem by providing additional police and patrol. We also need additional security reinforcement along Ore Road and various flashpoints across the country. I have discussed this with various authorities. The governor is aware and being proactive about this.
“The security challenges are numerous across this country. More police are being recruited and it takes time to train and deploy them in various areas, nobody prepares more than necessary for this.”
He is right. Mrs Olakunrin’s death, as horrendous as it is, should not become a political tool to destabilise Nigeria. Those leaders talking about a “war” between the Fulani and the South-West are pursuing an agenda which they must be held accountable for.
Conspiracy theorists wonder if Mrs Olakunrin’s death should be treated as a high-profile assassination (because of the important political colouration or considerations tied to the anti-Fulani narrative being bandied about) or if she is simply a victim of the corruption and poverty which threatens to kill us all at any moment.
Do we only notice insecurity, poverty and our infrastructural deficit once these issues claim the lives of those connected to wealth or power? The ordinary man on the street knows the truth: corruption kills and has done so for a very long time.
THE Speaker of the House of Representatives has asked the British government to assist Nigeria in the repatriation of stolen funds.
The ninth Assembly must make anti-corruption and international cooperation to retrieve the proceeds of corruption one of its major objectives. The executive needs local laws to reflect this priority and global cooperation to be effective.