Okey Ikechukwu: Those who call 1914 a mistake are mixing things up badly

by Okey Ikechukwu


No one cried foul over Awo’s politics in the South West before he engineered Zik’s ouster using ethnic solidarity. Before then he was aware of himself as a Yoruba man. He was clearly ethnocentric in his dressing and mannerisms.

On his page, last Sunday, Simon Kolawole said: “In the beginning, there was a mistake – the “Mistake of 1914”; when the unruly competition for African territory among the European colonial powers led to their queuing up at the Berlin Conference in 1884-85 to share Africa. Britain which got the chunk of space now called Nigeria “created the Nigerian protectorates for their pleasure”, according to Kolawole. He acknowledged that commerce, migration, farming, trading, and the kolanut linked the inhabitants of this ‘chunk of Africa’ in pre-colonial times. He did not go as far as those who say, even now, that the people in the territory known as Nigeria had (have) nothing in common.

Kolawole avers that the very history and growth of several Southern ethnic groups shows how they migrated from Upper Sudan and even settled in the North before their Southward journey. The cultural and demographic similarities across several geographical divides in the country confirm this beyond question. This is also the basis for the view of some political scientists who argue that the amalgamation of 2014 “was a natural consequence of these historical links”

As Kolawole pointed out. In the end, the matter of a foundational error in nation-building, “best likened to proclaiming a couple man and wife without courtship and without honeymoon”, is said to be the ‘mistake’ of 1914.

But does Simon think that this is true, or that we should give up on Nigeria? Not quite! He submits that “the biggest challenge to our nationhood today is how to move away from the ethnocentric mind-set of the pre-Independence era”. He goes further to plead with anyone who believes in “unity in diversity” not to give up on Nigeria; because competent and patriotic leadership will make our march to greatness unstoppable.

Two questions can be raised here, but not for Kolawole. The first is whether it was the ethnocentric mind-set of the pre-independence era that wrecked the Nigerian state. The second is whether there is a template, with specific deliverables, for “competent and patriotic leadership”.

On the first question, let it be said that ethnocentrism in itself is actually a good thing. It defines a people in their distinctness and adds colour and variety to everyday life. Who does not admire the Arab when he is fully decked out in his traditional outfit as Arab, or the Yoruba who is fully in his element in native attire? That you love being Fulani or Igbo, while not perturbed by the differences you see around you has never been a problem in Nigeria.

Instead there are three related concepts which are usually mixed up whenever there is a debate (more often quarrel actually) about the effect of ethnicity on our nationhood. The first of these concepts is ‘ethnic awareness’. The second is ethnocentrism, while the third is ‘ethnic chauvinism’. Ethnic awareness is simply your knowledge of the fact that you are form a particular ethnic group.

Ethnocentrism refers to a conspicuous love of all things pertaining to ones ethnic roots, as well as attachment to same without disturbing others about their own preferences. Ethnic chauvinism, on the other hand, revolves around the use of position, force or influence to drive only the economic and other interests of a particular ethnic group. Unless these three notions are clearly enunciated for clarity, we may lose the benefit of the value of ethnic values even for the purposes of argument and analysis.

Ethnic awareness simply refers to the fact that someone knows he is from a particular ethnic group. The name he bears says so. Even those who refuse to acknowledge this are forced to do so in a roundabout sort of way by the types of food they grew up with, because of the place of their birth and the type of parents they had. For the most part, ethnic awareness is a necessary component of personal identity in the everyday sense of introducing oneself and getting by in public life. Surely the fact that you know yourself to be Ijaw, Idoma, Hausa or Yoruba is not responsible for whatever problems Nigeria is having today. It is what you do about this fact, and with it, that could be a problem to those who are not from your group. It is also what you do and how you treat others that will define their reaction to you, as well as how they would treat anyone who is seen to be related to you in any way.

The difference between ethnic awareness and ethnocentrism is that the ethnocentric person goes beyond mere ethnic awareness to show a marked preference for the values, dress code, food choices, etc., of his ethnic group of birth. But he leaves oterhs unmolested because of their different preferences. He may even openely admire this difference and may cultivate the people just because of it. It can be said, for instance, that Sir Ahmadu Bello, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa and Chief Michael Okpara, among other leaders of the first republic, were roundly ethnocentric in their dressing. But Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was not. If anything, the late Azikiwe’s ethnic loyalties were external to his ethic roots. Thus Zik was ethnocentric, but without showing any marked preference for what is Igbo as such.

In the domain of literature, we can look at the works of Soyinka and Achebe and say that Achebe was more ethnocentric than Soyinka. This is because practically all of Achebe’s imagery and sayings are so mercilessly Igbo that you could practically smell the very air of the traditional Igbo village and values in his works. While Soyinka is likewise unremittingly Yoruba in his works, his imagery cuts across several cultural nuances – as when someone is said to “chirrup like a cockatoo” in one of his works. I do not recall seeing a cockatoo at Ibadan roundabout, or in the Ooni’s palace!

The essential point being made here is that ethnocentrism, as showing a marked preferences for one’s ethnic roots is exhibited everywhere where people live peacefully. It adds colour and variety to life and offeres us things to admire about other ethnic cultures and values. I have not heard of a war breaking out because people turned up at a public event dressed differently. I have also not heard of anyone taking offence because a ‘mallam’ is dressed in his traditional outfit we all know him for and which he wears without apologies.

The problem of Nigeria today is neither ethnic awareness nor ethnocentrism. It is ‘ethnic chauvinism’ that has held the country to ransom for many decades now. It is characterized by not just a preference for one’s ethnic roots, but by a commitment to putting others of a different ethnic extraction to a disadvantage in order to favour those of your ethnic extraction. No one cried foul over Awo’s politics in the South West before he engineered Zik’s ouster using ethnic solidarity. Before then he was aware of himself as a Yoruba man. He was clearly ethnocentric in his dressing and mannerisms. Yet no one complained; for the simple reason that it would have been absurd for anyone to contest the man’s right to be himself.

It is the conversion of ethnic awareness and ethnocentrism to an instrument of oppression, inequity, dishonesty and tendentious hegemony building that bred what we are trying to resolve in the Nigerian state today. This is ethnic chauvinism. The very concept of chauvinism is derived from the personal name of Napoleon Bonaparte’s able lieutenants. Everything that favoured his master was right. So were the master’s views and preferences; and any murdered that must be committed in aid of this was in order. Thus to be chauvinistic is to give unfair (sometimes undeserved) advantages and primacy to another. That is why we can speak of male chauvinism as the delusional assumption that one is necessarily superior to a woman by the mere fact of having been born a man.

The farmer in the village has no problem with members of other ethnic groups in Nigeria. He interacts very well with them in commerce and across all spheres of life. The trader and the teacher are not aware that they are struggling over anything with their colleagues across the ethnic divides. It often takes the reminder from an ethnic kin who has lost something in the elite struggle at a higher level for these people who are quietly living their lives to be mobilized to hate those who are said to be taking what allegedly belongs to them. It is not as if anyone goes home to declare anything after he has won the fight and got whatever it was that made him mobilize his people in the first place.

Whether ethnocentrism is insular (focused on its own roots), exogamous (disposed to welcome and even try to integrate other values), of xenophobia xeno-centric (outwardly oriented, as Zik was in his dressing throughout the First Republic) it took ethnic chauvinism and the ensuing economic conflicts to get the Federal Republic of Nigeria to the current sorry pass. The nation needs to move on, but moving all calls for what Simon described as competent and patriotic leadership. Now, that is not as difficult as it seems.

The competent and patriotic leader need not be a whiz kid at all. Competent leadership is about a service delivery culture that is rooted in a clear-eyed understanding of the political economy of power relations and of contemporary international politics. This is the 21st century and the standards of excellence are in the public domain for all to see. Those who speak of a 1914 mistake are mixing things up. They mean “the mistakes we made (and repeatedly reinforced) after independence and which we seem determined not to correct”.

This post is published with permission from Abusidiqu.com
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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