Tunde Fagbenle: My conversation with a reader on ethnicity

by Tunde Fagbenle

Going through my email archives, I found an interesting exchange I had about a year ago with a respected egbon of mine who reads this column both out of “duty” and interest.He emailed me in response to a piece I wrote titled, “The Sad Cankerworm of Ethnicity” where I narrowed the Nigerian problem down to “ethnicity” or, in that old demeaning term, “tribe” – a word which, in retrospect, may actually be more fitting for a people who choose to remain at the base, myopic, self-negating level of existence only a little higher than that of their jungle primate ‘cousins’.

I find the perspective of this cerebral egbon, who I will recognise here only by his initials AO to protect his public presence, to the discourse very interesting. It is a continuing dialogue.


Let me quickly react to your column of today (01/09/13).

The problem is not ethnicity, which is natural, but the management of ethnicity. No, ethnicity is not a cankerworm but a fact of life.

With different cultures, attitudes, levels of material and educational attainments among and within the ethnic groups, there can be no (relative) political peace until political and economic power and responsibility are decentralised and clearly defined.

Should a state university charge the same fee to every resident who is a Nigerian citizen? Should some other conditions such as indigeneship, length of residence and/or tax records come into play?If not, what prevents some state universities being flooded by non-residents, etc.?

Should there be a mutually negotiated principle of reciprocity between the state governments?

There is the added problem that, in the absence of verifiable figures, anyone or group can claim almost anything, including phony achievements, on any matter in contention.

With a more decentralised system, there will still be mutual jealousies and rivalries, of course, but everyone will know his contribution to and expectations from the Nigerian state.

So, henceforth, let us not condemn our ethnicity, condemn our unwillingness to properly manage it as some other countries are doing. And that is my message.

By the way, let me end by saying that there must exist a serious political crisis before our political leaders can agree to have a “national conference.” To suppose that it can ever come about without being preceded by a crisis is to deceive oneself.

And that is my second message.


Your points are quite valid and well taken. If I read you correctly, we are not going anywhere as a country unless and until a “revolution” (in all probability a violent one) occurs. We have missed two opportunities, to my mind: one, the crisis of Biafra and, two, the crisis of June 12. They both failed, again to my mind, because of the “ethnic” cancer (perhaps not “cankerworm”! Laugh) — a conspiracy of some ethnic groups against another or the turning of an otherwise matter of national interest into a one-ethnic one, and thus being able to checkmate a possible “revolution”.

Thanks sir.


From your response, I can see that you want to get me to say more…

No, no, not a revolution in the sense of a group of military officers calling themselves saviours, toppling the government and seizing power. That is likely to plunge the country into civil war fairly rapidly. I do not even see such a coup succeeding or being broadly accepted.

On the contrary, there may emerge a situation where the authority of the government at the centre becomes tenuous over large parts (or some economically vital sections) of the country and that government then finds a national conference inevitable. Of course, there will be violence or threats of violence from various aggrieved groups.

The crisis will almost certainly be both economic and political, probably starting with the former, resulting from massive devaluations of the naira as government’s dollar revenue continually falls short of expenditure commitments and futile attempts are being made to increase export of locally produced goods.

The security forces will be overstretched and poorly paid in real (as distinct from nominal naira) terms.

This can happen over a period of three to seven years.

Another possible scenario is the resurgence of Niger Delta militancy — quite a number of politicians and chief militants from that area are probably rich enough now to finance insurrections — and Jonathan himself may then (to put it mildly) see the need for a national conference for next year if his chances of returning to power appear to be poor.

In any case, I doubt if he and his supporters will give up power now and surrender control of the oil resources to a Muslim northerner without a real fight, having just taken on BokoHaram.


Hmmm. Oro l’eso, e o puro! (Meaning: you have spoken in truth)

I see the second scenario as more real or more probable in the short run than the first.The trouble with Nigeria is the oil and it will also bring its denouement.

Thanks for engaging me.

(PS: Curiously, a few months to this exchange, President Jonathan convoked the “National conference” without my egbon’s “condition precedent” – i.e. “a crisis.” It was something the president pulled off against all cynicism and opposition. Even more curious, AO was named unto its membership and my egbon did not “deceive himself”, he accepted. But, as he is wont to in all he decides to do, he was one of the few who threw his intellect, time and resources seriously at the conference in more measure than the honorarium paid. Still… TF)


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