There is a worrisome, undue accent on ethnic and sub-ethnic affiliations deserving scrutiny in Nigeria. Until the day when an Igbo ceases to be a visitor or stranger in Lagos and the growing number of northerners in Igboland become more than outsiders, secessionist agitations and their associated conflicts will remain components of the Nigerian ensemble. I repeat, no Nigerian should be an outsider anywhere within the territorial bounds of the country.
Below the politics of ethnic affiliation exists other micro-identities that equally complicate discourses of belonging in Nigeria. Take the case of the ongoing crisis in the Catholic Diocese of Ahiara, where a collective of priests and the laity have rejected the appointment of a bishop from neighboring Anambra state. This is an Igbo bishop being rejected because he is not from Ahiara. Imagine the response if the Pope appointed a Yoruba man to this vacant position. As I write, not even the Pope’s decree that the priests apologize to the Vatican and accept their bishop has done much to quell the crisis. So while economic restructuring need to be taken seriously as Omolade Adunbi argued on this site recently, Nigeria’s identarian politics, in all its layers of complexity, deserves recalibration. Until then, Biafra and similar agitations will remain constant presences in our national discourse.
For clues to actualizing this recalibration, we can turn to Nigerian popular culture, where there are instances of Nigerians transcending ethnicity. We see this transcendence in the glorious days of Nigeria’s soccer teams especially in the 1990s. The soccer players that donned Nigeria’s jersey at the World Cup in 1994 and the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 were Nigerians first. With the successes of these teams, it didn’t matter where the players came from or whether the team was comprised of players from the same geographical region. The same indifference to locality of origin applied to the fans especially in multiethnic cities like Lagos. When they hugged as they celebrated the victory of the soccer teams, it didn’t matter where they came from. Nigeria became the common denominator, the thing that binds.
In contemporary Nigeria, with a successful music industry, musicians such as Davido and Flavour draw their fan base from across the country. Flavour’s “Ada Ada,” for instance, can headline a Yoruba wedding just as much as an Igbo one. Flavour’s melodious tune and his powerful (often Igbo) lyrics appeal to people of all stripes. You can make a similar claim for the works of Yoruba artists such as Davido and Wizkid, who are as popular in Owerri as they are in Ondo. My point is we can extend such celebration of excellence to other spheres of our national life so that it matters less where the candidate for an elective position, political appointment or a job comes from.
Rather than function as instruments of ethnic violence for politicians and ethnic chauvinists, young Nigerians as primary producers and consumers of popular culture can be at the forefront of this national re-orientation. As 21st century citizens of a global world, youth in Nigeria can channel their energy, education and digital literacies to bring about this change. This pan-Nigerian sensibility was on display during the brief Occupy Nigeria protests concerning the removal of subsidy and increase in the price of petroleum products by the Goodluck Jonathan administration in January 2012. Young Nigerians were at the forefront of this struggle and utilized social media platforms to coordinate the various protests. In protesting against the government’s New Year gift, aggrieved citizens shut down roads and businesses, paralyzing economic activities. Occupy Nigeria has both critics and admirers, but the social movement is striking for demonstrating the possibility of a Nigerian collective against tyranny and exploitation. It was clear that the hardship introduced by the new fuel price would affect Nigerians across ethnic and religious lines, and thus the mobilization transcended those parochial cleavages as evident in the protests across the country and abroad too.
As I write, a new social movement, Our Mumu Don Do (roughly translates as “our stupidity is enough” – championed by the controversial musician, Charles Oputa (Charley Boy) – is staging protests in Abuja over the long absence of President Muhammadu Buhari from office. In articulating its demand that President Buhari return to Nigeria or resign his position, the group is putting the wellbeing of Nigeria at the forefront. I am particularly struck by the resort to pidgin, arguably the quintessential Nigerian language, in the group’s naming as well as the multi-ethnic composition of its leadership and sympathizers.
Social movements such as Occupy Nigeria and Our Mumu Don Do provide an antidote to the sectarian agitations across Nigeria even as they remain the condition of possibility for the Nigeria of our dreams. In the Nigeria we should all work to bring about, ethnicity will be consequential for its cultural heritage and values, but it will have to give way as the determiner of our social and political relationships. In its place, our Nigerianness and humanness will be sufficient grounds for constituting new modes of belonging, premised on ethical consideration of the other.