by Farooq Kperogi
I want to begin this week’s instalment by responding to a challenge thrown at me by a reader. The reader said India’s relative national cohesion is a consequence of its monolingual character. That, of course, implies that Nigeria’s linguistic plurality is the reason for its tendency toward fissiparity.
That is completely inaccurate, and this inaccuracy sprouts from the misconception that everybody in India speaks the Hindi language. The truth is that out of India’s over 1.2 billion people, only 258 million people speak Hindi as a native language, according to the country’s 2001 national census. That number represents less than 25 percent of India’s population.
Although Hindi is, along with English, India’s national language, it is spoken by less than 50 percent of the country’s population. People in southern India, who speak a multiplicity of mutually unintelligible languages, intensely resent Hindi’s imposition as a national language. So India is a polyglot nation like Nigeria.
I should add that nothing in what I have written so far is intended to make the case that Nigeria does not have profound problems that it must confront truthfully to realise its vast potential. I’m only concerned that efforts at nation building are stuck in prolonged infancy because of inaccurate claims about our differences and the insistence that these so-called differences make the emergence of a virile, united nation impossible.
I have been involved in arguments with my Nigerian compatriots in the diaspora about this issue for several years. A persistent example they cite to underscore the “unnaturalness” of the troubled ethnic alchemy that is Nigeria is the United States of America. They claim that America was founded through the consensus of the Founding Fathers and that this somehow illustrates their point that if Nigeria must endure, it must have some kind of a roundtable discussion to “renegotiate” the basis of co-existence. Fair enough.
However, a cursory look at the history of the United States will show that claims about the consensual nature of the formation of the country are balanced on a very fragile thread of socio-historical evidence.
Although the argument can be made that the consensus of the power structure of the dominant white population built America, the fact also remains that the subaltern populations—African Americans, Native Americans, poor whites, women, etc.—were systematically excluded from this consensus.
The African slaves that were brought here were not allowed to become citizens until relatively recently. And in much of Southern United States, they won the right to vote only in the 1960s.
Native Americans who had lived in this country for ages before the Anglo-Saxons came from Europe to uproot and exterminate most of them only became full citizens years after the country was formed—and against their wishes. (The first Native American in the U.S. Senate was elected only in 1992!).
The state of Louisiana, where I lived for about two years, was BOUGHT from the French without the consent of the people who inhabited it. Alaska was also BOUGHT from Russia without the consent of the people who inhabited it. Hawaii, America’s 50th state, was arbitrarily annexed in spite of resistance from Native Hawaiians. And this is true of most other states in the United States.
Again, like Nigeria, the United States fought a long, hard, and bloody Civil War to “FORCE” the Southern states of the country to remain in the Union. The South wasn’t allowed to produce a president almost 100 years after the Civil War. This makes the United States a “forced” nation—if we are persuaded by the logic of Nigerian irredentists who hold on to the idea of a mythical consensus as the foundation for national formation.
I agree that Nigeria in its present form was created for the convenience of British colonial conquerors. But so were India, Singapore, Malaysia, and several other modern nations. The fact of their colonial creation is not a reason to expect that they will collapse.
In any case, if we insist on consent as a precondition for nationhood, most of our “ethnic nationalities” should not even exist in the first place. For instance, there wouldn’t be an ethnic group called the Yoruba.
Obafemi Awolowo, MKO Abiola, Abraham Adesanya, Ernest Shonekan, Gani Fawehinmi, Wole Soyinka, Femi Falana, etc. would not be Yorubas. Why? Because they all come from parts of Western Nigeria that were not “Yoruba” until British colonialists incorporated (read “forced”) them into that identity.
The word “Yoruba” is the corruption of “Yariba,” the Hausa word to refer to people in present-day Oyo, Osun, parts of Lagos, and parts of Kwara—itself first used by a Songhai scholar, as I will show next week. It didn’t include much of present-day Ondo, Ogun, and Ekiti—and certainly didn’t include the Okun people of Kogi who are now called “Yorubas in Kogi.”
When I attended a wedding at a small town in Ekiti State in the early 2000s, my Yoruba friends from Lagos were shocked to discover that in rural Ekiti State most people neither spoke nor understood Yoruba.
We asked a couple of elderly people for directions to the venue of the wedding, and they couldn’t answer us because they didn’t understand Yoruba. They responded in Ekiti language, which is incomprehensible to “mainstream” Yoruba people. In rural Ondo and Ogun, and even parts of rural Lagos, you will find places where Yoruba is incomprehensible to vast swathes of people.
Interestingly, the people who were called “Yariba” by the Hausas did not even identify themselves by that name until the twilight of the 19th century. They identified themselves, instead, by such names as “Oyo,” “Ijesa,” “Owo,” “Ibolo,” “Igbomina,” “Ibadan,” etc. This is what historians discovered when they examined the records of the slaves brought from what is now western Nigeria to America in the 16th century. There was not a single slave who self-identified as “Yoruba.” Well, it was our British colonial conquerors who foisted a “Yoruba” identity on all the people who inhabit the western portion of Nigeria—without the “consent” of the people. In other words, people were “forced” into a Yoruba identity, in the same way that the Nigerian identity was “forced” on all of us. That’s why both Awolowo and Adesanya (people who went on to become “leaders of the Yoruba race”) are on record as saying that they were first Ijebus before they were Yoruba, and then Nigerians.
I’m not by this ignoring the undeniable linguistic and cultural similarities, however initially distant, between the people that are called Yoruba today, but it took colonialism, and Samuel Ajayi Crowder’s efforts, for this to be discovered and mobilized for political purposes.
Next week I will discuss the constructedness of other ethnicities.
Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija
Farooq Kperogi, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Journalism & Emerging Media at the School of Communication, Kennesaw State University, USA. He blogs at www.farooqkperogi.com and tweets @farooqkperogi.