The secession call by the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) continues to generate responses and interpretations from Nigerians. However, some of these responses and interpretations do not conceptualize the problem properly. Hence, they tend to exclude the critical issues and questions at a deeper, sober and more critical level.
For example, while some interpreters see an “ethnic problem” e.g. an “Igbo question” others in order to appear “above ethnic politics” see “an ethnic problem” but which is an “identity politics” which elites play. In this regard, such interpreters do not see a national question, or at least they do not consciously conceptualize the challenge as a national question. Logically, their understanding of the problem as merely an “ethnic problem” and “identity politics” which elites play lead such interpreters not to see a national question that historically challenges everyone.
But these interpreters-both progressive and conservative are not helping the matter with their abstraction, bland and syrupy interpretations, which often mask the issues. To be syrupy in analysis is not to be “progressive”. It is to struggle to appear to be one. Nigeria is suffused historically and in contemporary times with too many Nigerians-including scholars who hold “progressive” and “nationalistic” views publicly during the day but who run back to their ethnic cocoons privately at night!
And because some of these interpreters are close to Nigerian policy makers and politicians who are the public faces of Nigerian policies, it may show why Nigeria may not be able to seriously engage and solve any aspect of the national question. Our problem –Nigerian problem- on this issue may therefore include these interpreters, scholars-progressive and conservatives, members of the middle class who advise Nigerian politicians and who make the reality syrupy, happy and ambiguous to these politicians and to the public.
Contrary to the understanding of these scholars and publicists- most if not all multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-lingual countries and societies face the compelling challenges of building a united and inclusive country that functions and works well. And that challenge is the problem of national question, and not just an “ethnic problem” or identity politics, which is the pre-occupation of elites. It is real and historically concrete. Nigeria, which is a multi-national country, has failed this test. This is simple and straightforward. This does not need any name-calling. That one ignores this simple fact does not make one to be above “the ethnic crowd”. One is only playing the ostrich.
Looking beyond Nigeria for example, it is not accidental that American government and institutions consciously promote among Americans the learning and speaking of many languages including a knowledge of many cultures including African languages and cultures! A language factor may appear simple, and go unnoticed, but the role of language in national geo-politics of a country is instructive given the growing diverse demographics of America along race and nationality lines.
In this regard, the country-America-is consciously, deliberately and intelligently trying to solve an aspect of her national question given the increasingly diverse nature of the country. This is why you will hear in some fora here in America that African languages such as Yoruba, Kiswahili etc. are talked about and conceptualized as American heritage languages! Yoruba, Kiswahili etc –American languages? Yes! That is the “22nd century” and open progressive direction America is taking the world to, and the intelligent and creative way America is solving an aspect (cultural aspect) of its national question in an inclusive manner.
Also, it is not by chance that a country as diverse as United States has the type of functioning federal system it has. In-spite of her complex diversity, Americans care for their country passionately even when they may be disappointed (to put it in folk terms the way it is put here depending on the party in government in Washington) at the “direction the country is going” (which makes some Americans to call for secession during changing and challenging moments). And in-spite of being sometimes “disappointed at Washington”, Americans will still rise up proudly, heroically and legitimately to defend their country.
This act is a product of the creative way America has politically and structurally crafted a functioning federal structure to solve her national question. American government and scholars will not claim dismissively that such issues are mere “identity politics” which elites play. America confronts it and sometimes (talking figuratively) bleeding from all sides. In other words, America is diverse and working and in their diversity, Americans love their country and sometimes they separate the country from the government in Washington partly because they have a federal structure that makes Washington less attractive and less prominent in their lives.
Thus, to resolve this recurring national question, Nigeria ought to have a functioning federal structure that makes Abuja less humongous as it wrongly is now, less attractive, and less relevant to the lives of Nigerians geo-politically in the nooks and crannies of the country regardless of who is the president.
But Nigeria is different. For years, Nigeria ran away from openly confronting this challenge hence the challenge keeps recurring. In Nigerian political history, statesman and political philosopher like Obafemi Awolowo who gave serious intellectual time and paid serious theoretical, philosophical and practical attention to the national question in the context of the diversity and multi-national nature of the country and who worked out solutions rich with experiences from other parts of the world (in published books) to this diversity and multi-nationality in order to produce an inclusive, progressive, federal, morally inclined liberal democratic multi-national, multi-cultural country fit for the 21st century was negatively labeled from all sides! But labels and labeling do not solve problems. On the contrary they postpone problems only for the problems to keep coming back.
Nigeria has a challenge of national question precisely because of Nigeria’s concrete multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural nature. The concreteness of this nature is why it produces a national question and the national question is an objective challenge and not a subjective one of perception or feeling.
To solve it, we must have a comprehensive conceptualization of it. Sadly, some scholars and analysts follow the same path of wrong understanding by blandly talking about Nigeria’s “ethnic problem” or “identity politics” elites play. An “ethnic problem” or “identity politics” are aspects of a national question. But a national question is not just an ethnic or identity question. A national question includes ethnic issues and goes beyond them. Hence, the national question is not just a problem of a section of the country, or a mere “identity politics” which is the pre-occupation of elites as it is often wrongly understood momentarily when the problem roars back.
For example, during the government of ex-president Jonathan the coalition of the South South and South East middle class, economic, political and cultural elites which dominated and controlled ex-president Jonathan’s government failed woefully to even see that there was a national question in their use of state power to coordinate the polity and economy to the private pockets of South South and South East elites. There was a Northern response to the obvious exclusionary and divisive politics of the coalition of South South and South East political, economic and cultural elites under ex-president Jonathan’s government. Different groups under different northern names told Nigerians that after ex-presidency Jonathan’s presidency, it is either “the North or nothing”. This means these Northern groups said that it is either the president comes from the North in the 2015 elections, or there will be no Nigeria.
But the pertinent critical questions are: (i) was it a “northern question” or a “Hausa-Fulani question” when northern groups claimed during ex-president Jonathan’s presidency that it was either the north after Jonathan or Nigeria will end? (ii) why do we have sudden quiet from the northern groups since Buhari became president? Has the “northern question” cease now that a northerner –President Mohammed Buhari-is the president of Nigeria? (iii) will we not have a quiet from the Igbos and southeast when an Igbo or south easterner is president just as we have now from the north? (iv) Are these musical chairs of songs and drums of marginalization, calls for secession and dissolution not sound indication that there is a national question we must resolve?
With a little effort, it should not be difficult to see the similarity between the calls for dissolution of Nigeria by Northern groups and persons during ex-president Jonathan’s regime and the call for secession by Biafrans in the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra.
Therefore, the call by the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra for secession is not an Igbo problem; it is not an Igbo question. Similar calls by northern groups during ex-president Jonathan’s government were not a northern problem or northern question, they were not a Hausa-Fulani question. On the contrary, these are aspects of the unresolved national question. Nigeria may deal with it. Nigeria may overlook it. To abstractly dismiss the national question as “identity politics” elites play as some scholars often do and as it is written in the political science literature is fast becoming unhelpful intellectual traditions. It is part of the simple reason Nigeria has not solved this problem.
Whatever way we look at it, these scenarios will follow logically if we fail to look at the national question and resolve it. First, we can openly and disinterestedly engage it and solve it and make Nigeria an inclusive, peaceful, multi-national, multi-cultural, modern liberal democratic federal country and state which is morally inclined and which caters to the needs of (socially speaking) the economically weak and most vulnerable among us. I subscribe to this position. For me it is a moral position. But I also hold the view that this is not “identity politics” elites play and that secession by any national group-north, south, east west- should be allowed if conversation fails as long as no part of the country claims what does not belong to it.
Second scenario is that we claim there is no national question while labeling those who raise it. In discourse, we use wooly concepts that mask the issue. We call it “identity politics” which elites play! If we do this as some have done without confronting the issue, we will be detained by it forever. Yes, this second scenario makes us to be “tolerant” and “nice” to one another publicly during the day when we actually scoff and are cynical of one another privately at night!
In this regard, what a Nigerian female writer once wrote publicly about the fables and stories elders tell their children about other national groups privately, which have become part of the Nigerian narratives is relevant. Such false stories about others which elders tell children at tender ages lock in the sub-conscious, they stick psychologically and historically and are played out in public unconsciously when children grow to become adults.
Hence, claiming that a serious question like the national question is an “identity politics” elites play is not helpful. It is better to deal with it openly and end “identity politics” and false stories elders tell their children in private about other national groups, rather than put things under jaded abstraction as scholars and writers do.
Third scenario if we do not resolve the issue openly is that we will continue to witness a subtle and silent poisoning of historically cultivated and nurtured good and healthy human and ethno-national relationships, the quiet weakening of human ties and then a gradual or sudden melt down and disintegration for we would have weakened ourselves from within with the wells we have all poisoned with false stories elders tell their children privately about other national groups.
This is not one national group’s question. It is a national question. We have a choice. And the choice is ours to make. The bell ticks, it does not wait. It will not wait for Nigeria.
Adeolu Ademoyo, email@example.com, Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.