Opinion: In search of the ‘detribalized’ Nigerian

by Jideofor Adibe


Nigerians love buzzwords – slogans that are repeated frequently enough, (and imbued with assumed values), that they begin to sound like established facts or self-evident truths. One of the favourite mantras in Nigeria today is the notion of the ‘detribalized’ Nigerian. Depending on the context and the speaker, this could often mean anything – that the person being referred to is more Nigerian than most Nigerians or that the person is consciously and routinely unaffected by ‘tribal’ considerations in whatever decisions the person takes. It could also mean that the ‘detribalized’ person’s Nigerian identity is assumed to be the top of a supposed hierarchy of identities that the person possesses.

In this piece, I will like to interrogate the notion of ‘detribalized’ Nigerian and then reflect on whether one’s Nigerian identity is incompatible with one’s ‘tribal’ (or primordial) identity. We will take it step by step:

One, the first step is to pose the question of what ‘detribalized’ really means – as opposed to the meaning imbued to the word in Nigeria. Technically the word ‘de-tribalized’ is used to describe an ethnic or cultural group that has lost its characteristic customs and cultures either by adopting a different custom or through ‘cultural cleansing’. Let us give example with a Yoruba Christian, say Dele, who emigrated to Sokoto say 100 years ago. Over time, Dele severed all forms of contact with his Yoruba ancestry, changes his religion to Islam and changes his mode of dressing and any reminder of his Yoruba ancestry, including his language. Dele and his descendants became fully assimilated into the Hausa/Fulani culture of Sokoto. Here one can say that Dele (who is probably now called Shehu) has become detribalized. He has become de-linked from his Yoruba ancestry and culture.

When we talk of being ‘detribalized’ in the Nigerian context, there is an assumption that there is a specific Nigerian culture to which those who have either voluntarily abandoned any form of relationship with the cultures and customs of their forefathers are socialized into. Since such a culture does not exist and I do not know of any Nigerian who has voluntarily abandoned all the cultures of his/her forebears, I believe a more appropriate term will be to talk of cosmopolitan (rather than ‘detribalized’) Nigerians. I will define ‘cosmopolitan Nigerians’ as those who through interactions and shared networks with other Nigerians of different cultural and ethnic identities have come to feel at home with people who have different cultural markers from them.

Two, related to the above is to also interrogate the notion of ‘tribe’ (hence ‘detribalized’). Technically the word ‘tribe’ was originally used to refer to stateless societies such as the Germanic tribes or the 12 tribes of Israel. The word was however corrupted by colonial anthropologists who used it to derogatively refer to Africans as backwards and primitive – as part of the colonial ideology of inferior-rating the natives. For this, African political scientists generally reject the concept of ‘tribe’ as racist and prefer to use the word, ethnic group. They also prefer to talk about ‘ethnicity’ rather than ‘tribalism’. They believe that  ‘ethnic group’ is a more scientific term than ‘tribe’ because contrary to  the impression conveyed by ‘tribe’, an ethnic group is not just about language, but of a group of people whose members are identified by a number of shared traits such as common heritage, common culture, a shared language (or dialect) and common ancestry.

Three, every individual embodies a mosaic of identities, not just the primordial identities inherent in one’s ethnic group. For instance, you can be an Igbo, a Christian, a member of a sports club where non-Igbos and non-Christians, dominate. You may also have as your business partner, friend or big customer Yorubas, some of whom are Muslims, Christians or adherents of traditional religion. You may equally be a supporter of Chelsea football club. All these are relationships that also create new identities for you. For instance, as a supporter of Chelsea, if a row breaks out between supporters of Chelsea and Arsenal you may find yourselves fighting members of your ethnic and religious affiliation who are supporters of Arsenal.  This is what people mean when they say that identities can be cross-cutting. Following from this, it could be argued that the more cross-cutting networks one belongs to, the more cosmopolitan one is, and hence the more one is able to see issues from broader perspectives.

Four, identities have space and time dimensions. For instance, if Nigerians meet in a foreign land, say the United Kingdom or the USA, their Nigerian (or even African) identity may be at the fore as they interact or compete with other non-Nigerians for critical resources. However, the same set of Nigerians that were active in pan African and pan Nigerian movements abroad may return home and immediately submerge their African and Nigerian identities to their ethnic identities.  Again as the returnees whose ethnic identities are now privileged in the cities decide to visit their ethnic homelands in the North, Southeast, South-south or  Southwest, their identities as Hausa/Fulani, Kanuri, Ijebuman (rather than Yoruba) or Anambra (rather than Igbo) will now be at the fore. The same will be true when the person gets to his village. In other words, the identities we bear, and which one we choose to privilege at any point in time, has space dimensions. It also has time dimensions because which of our identities we privilege will also depend on the period of history in which we live.  For instance, those who lived, say in the 1920s-1960s Nigeria when there was limited interaction among Nigerians expressed their identities differently from those who live in the current era of more social comingling and intercultural exchanges, including marriages.

Five, given the above, the question is, what determines which part of the mosaic of identities we bear that is privileged at any point in time in our interaction with other Nigerians?  My opinion is that identities that are perceived to be under threat are often the ones most vociferously defended. For instance, a Christian or Muslim that believes that his or her religion is being threatened or ridiculed will become a most vociferous defender of that religion – even if that person rarely goes to church or mosque. Here the person’s other identities will become submerged. If you believe that your ethnic group has been wronged, your ethnic identity will be stoked and privileged. This is the basis of identity politics.

Six, let us now return to our original question:  is one’s Nigerian identity incompatible with one’s ethnic identity? The notion that an expression of pride in one’s culture means that the person is less Nigerian or not  ‘detribalized’ is problematic – as we can infer from the premises we laid above. As we saw, because identity has space dimension, going to adorn traditional attire to celebrate new yam festival in your village in the East or be part of an Arugungu  fishing festival in Kebbi state does not make you less Nigerian. An issue may, however, arise when one wears one’s culture as a badge or in an insensitive manner in his interaction with other Nigerians or conducts one’s self in a manner suggesting that other ethnic and cultural groups are either inferior or ‘can go to hell’ –  if they wish to.

That your Nigerian identity is not incompatible with your pride in your ethnic homeland can be seen from the lives of Obasanjo and Babangida – two Nigerians that are almost always described as ‘detribalized’.  Obasanjo and IBB live for the most part in their home states – Ogun State and Niger State respectively. Obasanjo’s Ota Farm, Bell University and Presidential library are all located in his home state – yet no one can accuse him of being an ethnic champion (or ‘tribalist’), because like IBB, Obasanjo is known to have cross-cutting networks across the country. They can show up to attend the wedding of a friend’s daughter in any part of the country. When leaders invest in such ‘little things that matter’, it ends up giving them huge leverages and benefits of the doubt. Such cross-cutting networks and the gesture politics that come with them  – is often why one leader could be called ‘provincial’ and ‘sectional’ while another, doing precisely what the supposed sectional leader has done, will be given the benefit of the doubt.  In essence, you do not need to become ‘detribalized’ in order to become a Nigerian with the right patriotic fervour.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

The author tweets @JideoforAdibe

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