Friday, March 12, 2021 11:45 am
By Chris Anyokwu
The birth of a child, an otherwise beautiful occasion for good cheer and conviviality, is an act of fate. It is the doing of the gods, what Sophocles calls “the greater-than-man”. The child, a blessing from above, has no say in the matter. In most cases, its parents, if it is born within wedlock, usually spawn it in the holy dalliance of love sanctioned by society. Thus, all things considered, everything is as it should be. Perfect. The child’s birth certificate carries duly its nationality, i.e., country of birth. The child’s parents’ nationality(ies) is/are their child’s, by law. In some cases, for instance, if the parents are resident, say, in the US or in the UK, their child would be considered also a citizen of that country of residence. Therefore, it will be, say British-Nigerian or Nigerian-American. Such hyphenated identities or bi-or multiracialism abound in our world today. And, it’s a beautiful thing, if you ask me. It is, to be sure, a significant aspect of what Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man has termed the “Global Village”. This is a situation whereby all God’s children do not need travelling shoes because the earth has miraculously shrunk, causing the virtual death of distance in which east and west, north and the global south can shake hands across sundering walls and polarising seas. We are referring to one globalised world, speaking a single language of peace and amity; of international cooperation and understanding. But this is grist for fancy’s mill; the projected dream of the United Nations – global peace and understanding, blablablabla… But grotesque reality forces us to return, willy-nilly, to terra firma, the here-and-now, the so-called Vale of Tears.
Even from prehistoric times, including biblical times, nationality has constituted something of an albatross. The several reported wars between Israel and the so-called heathen nations were instigated by difference in nationality: And God said to Israel, you shall utterly destroy the Amalekites, man and beast and every child that pisseth against the wall… Israel equally prosecuted a prolonged campaign against “enemy nations” such as the Hittites, the Moabites, the Jebusites and so forth. The Pentateuch are filled with stories of similar wars of conquest fought by Israel, the Lord’s chosen and others. The question to ask, therefore, is: If all these nations were the same as Israel and enjoyed God’s grace and munificence, would they go to war with one another? Not likely. In classical literature, stories of international wars and conflicts abound as well – The Peloponnesian War, The Trojan War, etc. The Roman Empire derived its imperial power and influence from their well-oiled war machine cranked and revved up against weaker opponents. The same thing goes for all other empires known to man. These wars of imperial expansion were driven by the spirit of irredentism spearheaded by culture heroes, avatars of civilisation and historical legends. They did battle with the “other”, sometimes, conquering and sparing their lives and making them subject races or slaves, or, in extreme cases, in a rather radically drastic scotched-earth policy of annihilation, “utterly destroy” the enemy. What’s the crime committed by the “other’ or the enemy? Nationality. A different civilization. Praying to an unknown god. A strange language. A different pigment of the skin. Difference, in brief, is the root-cause of conflict. Of war.
At the 1884/85 Berlin Conference, the European powers carved up and parcelled out swathes of land among themselves. Yes, the Conradian Heart of Darkness was cannibalized, and some chunks became Francophone, some Anglophone and others, Lusophone. The African Babel of nationalist and, hence, separatist agitation was born. The rest, they say, is history. But let’s backpedal a bit. Before 1885, the Europeans had made merchandise of black lives; they had forcibly transported millions of able-bodied Africans as slaves across the Atlantic to the Americas and the Caribbean Islands and Europe, just as their Arab counterparts did, before them, coming in from the inhospitably pitiless Sahara desert. You want to know the genesis of the black predicament? Ask the sea and the desert. Are you still askance, wondering why we are so blest? Coming a bit closer to our modern age, the World Wars witnessed mass murder of Jews who were summarily annihilated in gas chambers and concentration camps. Remember Auschwitz? And other Nazi concentration camps? What was the crime of the vanquished Jews? Nationality!
As Wole Soyinka reminds us in A Dance of the Forests: “The only constant in human history is war”. And what is the fuel of war? Loot. Bounty. The booty of land and its stupendous riches and resources. Still on war, on a smaller scale, we are reminded of flashpoints and deadly theatres of war like Kashmir fought over between India and Pakistan; Iran versus Iraq, the Rwanda War fought between the Hutu and the Tutsi and, of course, Nigeria versus Biafra. Speaking of which, it does appear the Nigeria – Biafra Civil War of 1967 – 70, has taught us no enduring salvific lessons. Nerves are still raw. Tempers still fly at the drop of a hat. The incendiary ethno-religious rhetoric still rings out now and then. But they say, those who do not learn from the past, end up repeating it. And to repeat the past, to repeat history is not a tea party. It is far from pretty. It’s Hell!
It is nobody’s fault that the European Powers corralled and cobbled us together – Nigeria: “a collection of fragments held in a fragile clasp”, according to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of A Yellow Sun). It’s idle crying over spilt milk. What’s important is to try to make sense of the mess; to impose order on the chaos through force of will, the political will to live as one as our National Anthem enthuses: “One nation bound in freedom, peace and unity.” But the question, again, is: How are we going about trying to actualise our nation’s Mission or Vision Statement (“ONE NATION BOUND IN FREEDOM”?) What does that mean? Is anyone free in Nigeria today? A story for the gods. Be that as it may, it should be stressed that freedom is not synonymous with irresponsibility. The political class, the ruling elite, have so far demonstrated egregious irresponsibility, particularly in the onerous task of governance. In the recent National Conversation organised by Radio Now entitled “Tactics and Strategies for Pulling Nigeria From the Brink”, panelists like Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State, Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State and Senator Abaribe agreed that the absence of elite consensus is fundamentally responsible for Nigeria’s seemingly intractable crises. They equally agreed that the country’s political class is not represented by our best and brightest. They gave us flawless soundbites made, sadly, hollow and staid by the lack of political will to walk the talk. It was de-javu, really. All bark, no bite!
Our elections are nothing but a winner-takes-all-sweepstakes; a fight-to-the-finish bloodfest in which nothing, I mean NOTHING is too dear or sacred to be sacrificed on the altar of ambition. Thus, life and limb, our commonwealth, and the country itself are but chicken feed when it comes to the agonistic contestation of power. Power for power’s sake, usually! George Orwell in 1984 says as much: “The ultimate aim of power is power”. QED. Under this Hobbesian scenario, the mass of educated, semi-educated and illiterate Nigerians are steamrollered into becoming a rag-tag army, the baying mob deployed as cannon fodder to feed the flames of power-dementia. After all, all’s fair in love and in war. When you seize power by the scruff of the neck, in a cloak-and-dagger manner – as is our wont in this postcolonial hellhole – who do you rule and reign over? A necropolis of living-dead? A tongueless citizenry? Where’s growth? Where’s development in all of this? Isn’t governance all about the equitable distribution of scarce resources for social growth and development? Isn’t it about the management of men and materials for optimal collective sustainability for the attainment of happiness? Where, then, is governance in our country? Where is it? Can anyone find it at the grassroots level in our local government areas? Is it in your state? We are searching for it. I mean, governance. Please, let us know if it is in your neck of woods, your locality. Do you have good roads, functional healthcare delivery system, good public school system, potable water, constant electricity supply? How about a well-motivated workforce in the formal sector? Are our youth gainfully employed? When you look at the faces of Nigerians, both old and young, what do you see? Hope and happiness? Or despondency and despair?
In this regard, you are reminded of “London”, a popular Romantic poem by William Blake: the poet says that on every face, he sees “marks of weakness, marks of woe”. Is it any different in today’s Nigeria? the Igbo folksong, translated by Achebe in Things Fall Apart says: “for whom is it well/for whom is it well? There’s no one for whom it is well”. We know it’s not exactly well for anyone anywhere from Europe to America, from Asia to Latin America, and from Australia to Africa. But then, every country is making conscious and serious effort to fix their own mess. Like Eric Donaldson’s song “The Land of My Birth” counsels, everybody is taking up their “cutlass, your shovel and your hoe”. And with rolled-up sleeves, they are all ready to work; to rebuild their country. We should not be different. Yet, taking Nigeria seriously, as Odia Ofeimun has told us, will be defeated if we throw our borders open to murderous foreigners and confer nationality on these foreigners even though they look like us and speak our language. Also, asking bona fide Nigerian citizens to defend themselves against bandits and criminals is an invitation to self-help, a perfect recipe for a full-scale war! But far more worrisome is the now habitual cavalier insularity and the devil-may-care insouciance of Mr. President who, appears to be fiddling like the Emperor Nero while Rome burns. They say, a goat does not suffer the pains of parturition when an elder is around. Please say something, Mr. President! Say “STOP!” And there will be great calm in our anxious land. Again, we should reiterate the point that the emergence of ethnic militias is a clear and logical culmination of many years of ethnic nationalism and politics of exclusion; of “us” versus “them”. And this, at last, is the albatross we’ve been carrying around our neck as a nation for six decades and now, the chickens have come home to roost. Please recall that in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a bird of ill-omen accompanies the mariner and the crew as their ship navigates the rough and stormy waters. They later shoot and kill the albatross, thereupon unstoppering the evil phial of dread repercussions. Actions beget consequences, particularly mindless and unconscionable acts of hubris. In fact, old sins cast long shadows and, as earlier noted, it is idle and defeatist blaming our departed colonial conquistadors for our present plight. Tribe and tongue is tearing us apart. The storied “collection of fragments” is coming unstuck, collapsing like a pack of cards. Our ethnicism, our ethnic nationalism is now our albatross. Like the children of Benjamin in the Book of Judges, our respective tribes are our cross … Can we rise above the din and bedlam of tribe and tongue? Can we still sustain “one nation bound in freedom”? Would our elite pitch for political consensus, forge a common morality and rescue us from disintegration and disaster? Oh, would our rulers become LEADERS, finally, and help steer this listing and sinking ship to halcyon shores? Time is running out…
Chris Anyokwu, PhD, Associate Professor of English, University of Lagos.