Which gods must be appeased?

by Okey Ndibe

Modern Nigeria’s crisis, I suggest, is primarily a crisis of values. In Umuofia, Okonkwo may give vent to unruly deportment, but his community is also equipped with the coercive instrument for regulating his conduct or punishing his excesses. Okonkwo’s Umuofia is by no means a perfect or ideal community. Yet, as we’ve stated earlier, the community represents an organic world with a set of ethical principles and moral values – affording a wholesome sense of identity. As the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o has stated, cultural identity in traditional Africa (that is, the era prior to European intrusion) “was intimately bound up with the social fabric, which was based on man’s relationship to the land.”

Colonialism drastically transformed that relationship, tore apart the African’s settled sense of identity and her/his existence within a self-governing matrix that was also dynamic enough to take account of change, as and when necessary. In fact, things start falling apart – to invoke the title of Achebe’s first novel – with the advent of the colonial phase of Africa’s historical development.

On the one hand, colonized Africa was deemed to have entered a radically modern era; on the other, the continent and its variety of peoples experienced a radical alienation. Compelled to abandon time-tested, internally generated modes of relationship and organization, colonized Africans suffered subjection to imposed, European codes of ethics as well as structures of community.

Whereas Okonkwo and the warriors of Umuofia regard the warriors of the neighboring Mbaino as belonging to a foreign “state,” the two communities suddenly find themselves, by colonial decree, collapsed into a British-made common space named Nigeria. Into that space, and by the same force of British fiat, are also thrown many other histories and peoples – Urhobos, Ibibios, Efiks, Hausa, Yoruba, Ijaws, Tivs, and so on and so on. And this act of territorial enlargement, as we have earlier remarked, was devoid of any matching British investment in strategies of fusion. The British – or the French, or the Portuguese – were not, even loosely speaking, concerned with the business of building new modern nation-states in Africa. They were acquiring huge new territories to serve as monopolistic sources of raw materials and to establish African sectors of demand for Europe’s manufactures. Britain and other main players in the game of colonial subjugation bracketed their new territorial possessions as “nations” only because that was a convenient form.

Beyond that convenience, they were on the whole reluctant to supply the glue that might have enabled the disparate ethnicities constituting the new-fangled African “nations” to coalesce into a “national” community. As James S. Coleman has argued, “Britain did not consciously plan to create an independent Nigerian nation when it established Nigeria’s boundaries.” Instead, the features introduced by Britain into Nigeria – including a common language, a communication network, a common transportation grid as well as common currency – “all were simply requisite to the administration of an arbitrary chunk of Africa as an overseas dependency.” As early as 1920, Sir Hugh Clifford, then British governor of Nigeria, described the idea of an independent Nigerian nation as “an absurdity.” He characterized Nigeria as a “collection of self-contained and mutually independent Native States, separated from one another, as many of them are, by great distances, by differences of history and traditions, and by ethnological, racial, tribal, political, social and religious barriers.” It served the purposes of the colonial administration to maintain – and often exacerbate – those differences, whether real or imagined by the British.

Nor could members of the bazaar of ethnicities supply the cementing energy. How could, say, the (fictional) people of Umuofia move the cause of national integration when they had no voice or choice in their incorporation into the colonial space of Nigeria? Apart from British colonial officials, everybody else who inhabited the unwieldy space of Nigeria was – more or less – a prisoner. To argue along that line, however, is not to deny that the “natives” often forged alliances across ethnic divides in order to resist the colonialist yoke and reclaim autonomy. And that struggle for autonomy was defined, not along the erstwhile ethnic lines, but in the name of the same Nigeria that was a British creation and patent. United by a shared sense of humiliation, the people of “Umuofia” were willing to join forces with such others as the Itsekiri, Yoruba and Ogoni to press the case for Nigerian independence. Yet, beyond that strategic consensus around the goal of throwing off the encumbrance of colonial subjugation, the members of the different ethnic – I argue – had little use for one another and even littler use for the conceptually hollow project, Nigeria.

Yes, British colonialism built roads, established networks of communications, and established bureaucratic jobs that encouraged – or forced – people to wander outside their immediate natal addresses, sometimes quite far away from what their notational idea of “home.” Yet, wherever they went within Nigeria, the compass for these half-hearted Nigerians remained pointed towards that home: hometown, home region, ethnic home.

Nigerians’ persistence in viewing their country as an artificial edifice is dramatized in an early scene in Achebe’s No Longer at Ease. Obi Okonkwo, British-educated, the grandson of Okonkwo, and a senior civil servant in Lagos, is being tried for taking a bribe. His village association, the Umuofia Progressive Union, meets to discuss strategies to ensure that he does not go to jail. An elder of the Union offers the following prayer: “We are strangers in this land. if good comes to it may we have our share…But if bad comes let it go to the owners of the land who know what gods should be appeased.”

If an Obi Okonkwo had taken a bribe within the pre-colonial space of Umuofia, his community would have wasted no time in sanctioning him. But the foregoing prayer expresses the “otherness” of Lagos, a cosmopolitan city with a mélange of cultures. In the anonymity of that setting, the people of Umuofia can ignore sound moral principles and embrace an ambiguous ethical posture consistent with the “strangeness” of Lagos. This may be seen as a particular expression of “the pitfalls of national consciousness,” to quote Frantz Fanon. The pathology captured in that prayer continues to plague Nigeria even today – indeed, more acutely.

That disease explains why some Nigerians are ever-ready to rush to the defense of their ethnic “son” or “daughter” who steals stupendous amounts of public funds in the “strange” land called Abuja – but appear far less forgiving the closer to “home” (state capital, local government area) the embezzler comes. For the most part, Nigeria has remained a “strange” address, a space incapable of sustaining strong ethical demands on Nigerians.

Here, then, are my two broad (if modest) proposals for combating corruption in Nigeria. One, we should reconfigure the formula for distributing the country’s revenues. Far more money should go to local and state governments – in that order – and significantly less to the federal government. The idea is that people are less likely to condone corruption when they perceive that the stolen funds were meant to directly, immediately serve them. One benefit of empowering the local and state levels is that the best human talents from any state would t

hen be attracted to lend their service and expertise at the municipal and state level, rather than succumb to the temptation to rush to Abuja to play in the league of primitive accumulators. If Obi Okonkwo worked for the people of Umuofia in Umuofia, nobody in the community would have risen to his defense should he be accused of stealing.

Two, Nigeria’s constitution should also recognize two facts. One is that the country Nigeria is, at best, a hope, an aspiration, a dream – and at worst, a nightmare and a plague. At any rate, Nigeria has not been founded. Two, that there’s nothing sacrosanct about the space called Nigeria. Consistent with those two ideas, the constitution should be reviewed to allow for the principle of secession. At one time or another, Nigeria’s ethnic constituents feel a sense of being unjustly treated, maliciously excluded from full, fulfilling participation in areas of the country’s affairs. These feelings exacerbate the original injury, that is that Nigeria was cobbled together entirely by British dictation, with no volition on the part of the “natives.”

The idea persists, then, of Nigeria as a no-man’s land, a space where anything, however egregious, is permissible. The antidote is to either dismantle the edifice called Nigeria or to attempt to restore that missing element of consent. By setting out the procedure for a section of Nigeria to opt to take leave of the space, the Nigerian constitution would have theoretically made membership in the country a matter of choice rather than compulsion. I suggest that a Nigeria that is perceived as a matter of choice would, in turn, appear more organic and “natural” to its people. And with that feeling, there’s increased likelihood of a palpably stronger sense of national attachment and pride emerging. We can reasonably expect the generation of a sound ethical code – and a greater tendency on the part of citizens to be invested in protecting their shared interests – to become collateral benefits as well.

And what if all this doesn’t work? Well, Nigeria is no sacred idea. If its people cannot transform it into a living idea, they would then have the option of demolishing this particular British edifice.

This is the third and concluding part of a lecture I delivered at Brown University. Please follow me on twitter @ okeyndibe

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