The Igbo Question: A Response to Jibrin Ibrahim, By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
Identity politics in Nigeria is very much alive, well and thriving. It’s an elite preoccupation. Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim is one of Nigeria’s most astute and reputable political scientists. He is a very able thought leader, civic activist and intellectual and an unlikely convert to the visceral world of Nigeria’s rent politics of identities and “tribes”. That is why his recent article on the “Igbo Question” merits attention and deserves a response.
In the article, Dr. Ibrahim organizes his argument around the assertion that “the Igbo elite has a strong empirical basis to read Nigerian political history as one of failure and frustration for them.” In support of this, he asserts that “after the civil war, there was a co-ordinated policy of pauperizing the Igbo middle class” and “this was followed by routing the Igbos from the commanding heights of the economy”.
According to Dr. Ibrahim, the “Igbo elite…. refused to change their narrative about the Nigerian state and today the initiative is out of their hands.” He does not necessarily say what this constant narrative is or when it began. However, the article laments that “the biggest failure of the Igbo elite is the incapacity to play the political game” and, switching from analysis to clairvoyance, concludes that “teaming up with Goodluck Jonathan produced petty rewards for a few but it rolled back the schedule for an Igbo Presidency.”
Some people will read the article as somewhat favorable even if patronizingly so, to the “Igbo”. The declared goal of Dr. Ibrahim’s column is “Deepening Democracy”. Far from deepening democracy, however, the article stunts it. From a long-standing advocate of inclusive civics, this article corrodes coexistence and disappoints on many fronts.
There are many flaws with both the methodology and argumentation in the article. Let me begin with the methodology. Clearly, ethnicism remains an effective organizational tool of Nigerian politics and many would argue that it is the province of political scientists to observe and analyse it. How this is done, however, matters. The historic methodological flaw of ethnicism is to racialise the politics of opinions and association and then homogenize them based on genes or tribal identity. That is manifestly unsustainable. Whoever the Igbo are, they are not a horde of undifferentiated morons. They’re capable of and have always had political difference. In a democracy, tribes don’t vote; citizens do. To imprison political analysis in the mindset of homogenized tribalisations, therefore, is to deny the possibility of an evolved civic capability in Nigeria generally and in the Igbo in particular.
A related point is the convenient adaptability of deployments to which tribe and ethnicity are put in such analysis, with the effect of denying the considerable progress that Nigerians have made towards mutual co-existence. Take the case of former Kano State Governor, Sabo Bakin Zuwo. Governor Bakin Zuwo was Nupe. That would place his origins somewhere in present Niger State. But he was elected first as a Senator and then as Governor by the people of Kano. Yet, to most in southern Nigeria, he was “Hausa” or just “Northerner”.
Similarly, Kogi and Kwara States are part of the historic northern Nigeria. So, persons from these states would be “Northerners” but, if they are of Yoruba stock, then many would rather prefer to exclude them from “the north” by referring to them as “Yorubas” because the Yoruba are supposedly not of the north even if millions of them are in it. However, when it comes to “flexing” (to use a contemporary Nigerian slang) with demographic politics, the Yoruba of Kogi and Kwara are conveniently counted as “We North…” By the way, Kaduna Nzeogwu was from the Mid-West (and until 1963 of the Western Region) but it was convenient in the narrative of the 1966 coup to re-create him exclusively as “Igbo”.
Dr. Ibrahim’s article didn’t just indulge in staple homogenizations and mutabilities of Nigerian ethnic politics; it also conflated race and geo-politics in its analysis. Its focus was probably on the South-East of Nigeria but his framing was Igbo. Just as the North and Hausa or South-West and Yoruba are not the same thing, Igbo and the South-East aren’t the same. One is a geo-political invention; the other is an immutable racial identity. One can be reinvented; the other can’t. As with all things incapable of being changed, generalisations about tribe and race risk and invite credible accusations of bigotry.
In reality, though, the underlying generalisation that is evident from the article arguably reflects its author’s personal views about “the Igbo”. If that is so, then this is quite troubling because it could suggest his cupboards of tribalisation in Nigeria are in gross arrears of his professed ideals. Even worse, it would illustrate the tendency of Nigeria’s elite to feed our mutual illiteracies about one another rather than alleviate them. Their goal, of course, is to sustain the prejudices that feed the zero-sum politics of rent, put-downs and exclusions.
This leads to the more substantive problem with the article: its banalisation of politics and its commitment to the Bantustanization of Nigeria. Dr. Ibrahim’s article speaks about the “political game” and, somewhat hubristically, determines losers (and therefore winners). But, surely the question must be what winning means in Nigeria’s politics. In an earlier article, Dr. Ibrahim had recently written about Barewa College, the legendary High School in Katsina State that appears to hold a patent on producing Presidents and powerful people in Nigerian politics. But what have these people accomplished for Barewa, for their people or for Nigeria? All the Presidents he pointed to are from “the North”. But what have the peoples of this region had to show for their political musical chairs? Despite this lock on power, all the three zones and 19 States of northern Nigeria put together have less Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) than the six states of South-South Nigeria; the seven States of North West Nigeria (a zone that is a net importer of human resources from other parts and with nearly 30% of Nigeria’s population) together have just a little over half of the IGR of the five States of South East Nigeria which is a net exporter of human resources to the rest of Nigeria. How can that be progress and what does that mean for politics and our notions of winning and losing?
Speaking about political game and how it has been banalised, the Niger Delta produced President Jonathan for five years and three months and yet the East-West Road which leads to his village remains for the most part a crater. The road to President Obasanjo’s house in Otta (the Abeokuta-Lagos Express Way) was, similarly, one of the worst in Nigeria under his Presidency.
In this Nigerian political game, the people seem to be the football that the elites use for their kick-abouts. I can honestly understand a claim that any people have lost out in the political game if Dr. Ibrahim or anyone could point to any verifiable legacies left by the supposed tribes of winners except the supposed Brownie Points that come from producing elites with an equal opportunity commitment to the pauperization of all of the country. The most far reaching of such legacies have come from people who didn’t exercise federal power: Ahmadu Bello, Obafemi Awolowo, and Michael Okpara.
Nigeria deserves to be freed from the tragic consciousness in which enlightened people think that politics is about capturing power with no real benefits to the human beings who make power worth exercising. If we cannot elevate the tone of our politics or its analysis, we can at least decide not to continue to trivialise it.