Last week in the middle of the governorship battle the question of how we handle our ethnic relations became quite topical and post-election I am thankful we have not moved on. In fact the events of the past few days in Durban and increasingly in suburbs of Johannesburg have brought the issues into greater focus. I have read all kinds of comments, however the swathe of analysis and finger-pointing rarely move towards defining the pathway to improvement or progress.
I want to indulge myself a little before going into suggesting ways ahead. For me it is painful to read younger people, especially post-independence Nigerians drowning in the depths of ethnic nationalism. One great teacher of human meaning-making, Professor Bob Kegan used to tell us that people have an infinite capacity to self justify. In fact it is convenient to see what others have done wrong and extremely difficult to see our own failings. My most prominent ancestor is Balogun Ibikunle, arguably the architect of Ibadan empire (yes there was one). I grew up with my great grandfather Baba Layeye, his grandson, regaling me with stories of his heroic conquests. By the time he died I knew a great part of the iconic Oriki of Balogun from memory. Living abroad and romanticising my culture, Ibikunle had become everything Ibadan to me. Well that has changed somewhat. A few years back, I was the MC at the launch of Dr. Kayode Fayemi’s Governorship campaign in the UK, and speaker after speaker poured vitriol over the ‘Ibadan invaders’ alluding to the Kiriji war and the preceding occupation of Ekiti land. My instincts were extremely defensive.
My drive home that day was a long one for my wife because I analysed and theorised all the way. It took me a while to see any sense in the lens that viewed Ibadan as oppressors. Well when the sense came, I realised even the Oriki will be offensive to many other groups because they include the decimation of many groups hailing Ibikunle’s exploits on the warfront and celebrating the killing of the ancestors of many who are my friends and family. My point is that our sense of heritage is also our way of defining the ‘other’. Inevitably, ethnic nationalism is part of a scarcity mentality and sometimes an entitlement complex. When the young settle so deeply into it, the foundation of abiding bigotry can be so deeply and firmly set in place. Now I am more proud of the republicanism of the 3rd settlement that became modern Ibadan, its long tradition of diversity and cosmopolitanism of Ibadan than the warrior culture. Incidentally, Ibikunle was the framer and executer of the annexation of Iesha and Ekiti lands, eventually turning them to vassal states. There is no doubt he provided many cargo for slavers, consciously and unconsciously, with great damage to many communities. I do not deny him but I can see him from many perspectives and I hope that post-independence Nigerians will not be trapped in addiction to just one aspect or narrative of their heritage.
Watching the killings and looting in South Africa, it is clear that in spite of having one of the most comprehensive frameworks for Anti-discrimination has not been enough to treat the ‘other’ humanely. There is very little to show that these framework of laws and citizen codes has truly opened up the sense of multi-cultural society the framers expect. In fact, South Africans rarely formally make ethnicity a issue, whereas informally there is deep abiding tribalism and stereotyping in every day life. We need to make sense of all these going forward and inform ourselves a little on the discipline of diversity management for Nigeria.
The South African approach sets out a culture where Diversity is framed by preventing offensive situations and exclusion. I label that an Anti-discrimination approach. This is where we will most likely end up if we focus diversity management in Nigeria exclusively around the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. South Africa has entrenched in its constitution one of the most comprehensive anti discrimination standards in the world. The protection that this provides is quite robust so long as you qualify as citizen. So the assumption on the ‘other’ is often you assimilate and qualify or do not qualify and become ‘dehumanised’. It uses a minimum legal standard which can be enforced, but is however not the pursuit of excellence. Actually more challenging is that the conversation in this framework is about victimhood and offences or better about exclusion, not inclusion.
We in Nigeria have damages from the civil war, which have left psychic wounds that we are yet to handle with empathy and understanding. For those directly affected, there are many resentment that have to be addressed. There is an abiding challenge of creating a space to explore and be educated about how that continues to frame the national character without feeling obliged to agree. How do we show empathy and at the same time debate a future robustly. What role should the historical have in framing our way forward? Anti-Discrimination will only at best give us a treatment for the symptoms but not a cure for the root causes.
Another response is built around the notion of positive and affirmative actions, a recognition of both historic exclusion and dealing with existing patterns of systemic discrimination. This is applied in the US and under some conditions in the United Kingdom, with wholesale adoption in South Africa. It is this framework that led to the Black Empowerment policy that created a few billionaires in the South African economy. A touch of this is applied in education in Nigeria, including in the JAMB system where students from educationally under-performing states have spots reserved, having scored less in the examinations. It is meant to level the socio economic playing field. The problem is that it creates resentment from those who believe that they had made progress entirely on their own merit and resent what they perceive as unfair privilege given to others. It also is perceived as fostering the idea that society owes the beneficiaries because they have suffered a pattern of exclusion. In both the anti-discrimination and affirmative action framework, policy is often developed by the elite with very good intention but without the ownership of and the understanding of the majority. Nearly in all countries, not just South Africa, these policies survive till there is a populist backlash. In essence the ‘other’ is only tolerated when there is no scarcity. Once economic downturn occurs or socio economic competition increases they are the scapegoat whether in the UK or Germany, US or South Africa.
In Nigeria the ingredients are in place for a different approach. As the country improves and its economy grows bigger, it is far more likely that our diversity challenge will not just be about indigenous exclusion but even more complex. At the very least, we must consider 50% of our population who face daily sexual bullying, harassment from their teens in school, to their presence in the workplace.
We must stop the game of parts and the constraints of our discussion around victimhood towards a truly holistic approach to our humanity. Defining the standards of the kind of ways we are all the ‘other’ not just in relation to who we are and where we live, but also how we live and what we believe. Both civil society and Government then need to set out space, time and resources from the grassroots upwards that we can start to define why, what and how we live together. If framing the cost of not having this conversation, we should not ignore the level of intra-community conflict and the waste in ives and infrastructure. For our incoming government this is a security issue that moves us away from the Fire brigade approach of the past. This Framework will help us carry our people along in defining and owning whatever solution we develop. What emerges should not only end up in the constitution, legislative or policy documents but also become charter of values that is integrated into curriculum of schools and in our informal groups.
The next stage will be to develop platforms for maintaining and mediating the progress, possibly using the Human Rights commission or a range of Ombudsmen so that everyday people can trust and use the system in creating what will be a slow and emergent framework; the process itself will deliver learning and improvements unique to our people’s temperament and cultures. I believe as we go along it will give us a language unique to our concerns and evolve solutions that are fit for our purpose. Far more important it will be a nation-building process that we have so far neglected to involve our wider population in developing and severe impact on our social capital as a country.
Let us make no mistake, we cannot wait till the next offending act or outrageous statement. No matter how cosmopolitan we think our cities are, our ethnic affiliations run deeper and sense of injustices can easily run amok. In spite of our best women empowerment programme, our Patriarchal assumption are so systemic our network of traditional institutions thrive on them and our customary laws codify them. In fact despite and because of our constitutional declaration of human rights and citizenship many of our people are denied their humanity daily. So this should not be postponed, there are no convenient times nor are their efficient committees. If we need to start to define the country of our dreams then we must do so now by defining the space, language, standards for our differences.
Adewale Ajadi, a lawyer, creative consultant and leadership expert, is author of Omoluwabi 2.0: A code of Transformation in 21st Century Nigeria.