Over the past few months, there has been a deluge of articles and comments, calling for Nigeria the country to be carved up into its constituent “lingual nations”. In the more diplomatic calls, the requests have been couched as a “linguistic regional government”, whilst in the more abrasive suggestions, some have called for an outright break-up of the country. In both instances, most of the writers have cited the existence of the country itself as the basis of the problems that the country faces; which is the fundamental point that I intend to tackle in this essay.
Stating that the existence of a country is the root of its problems, in addition to being is somewhat simplistic, is akin to stating that a man’s existence is the reason for his illness. Whilst this might be true physiologically, killing the man is not the panacea for the illness. In the past couple of months, the most vocal proponent of this Balkanisation call is my friend on Facebook, Mr. Adeyinka Shoyemi and I will try to address some of the issues raised in his articles.
Homogeneity – a spatial delusion
The argument is often hinged on the development of “homogeneous” societies, which appeals to our primordial senses, but which is a fundamentally flawed argument. Given than no two individuals of the estimated 15 billion people who have walked the planet are perfectly identical, homogeneity starts to break down on a logarithmic scale as the population increases; so I can safely say you will never see another you. Societies have evolved and developed on the strength of the fit that we bring to bear despite our difference, not because there are no differences.
Allusions are made to the homogeneity of language in countries in Europe and proponents of balkanisation attribute their development to uniformity of languages in the respective European countries that are touted in this argument. This is an argument that is devoid of tangible substance in history. I will use the history of Britain, starting from medieval times to buttress my rebuttal. The scale and brilliance of development that was witnessed in England after the Norman invasion and conquest of 1066 exceeded anything that the country had witnessed when it was ruled by Anglo-Saxon kings. Bear in mind that the Normans were (are) French, whilst the Anglo-Saxon kings were, well, English. Despite the homogeneity of language, the land was constantly at war – Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king, had just finished fighting a war against an invader from the north, when he rushed down south to battle Guillaume le Bâtard (later King William 1, The Conqueror). The northern folks in what is today known as York were literally a law unto themselves. Yet, when a foreigner invaded the land and subdued it, the extent of prosperity and relative order that followed was something that the kings who spoke the local language could not have managed.
What William of Normandy brought to bear to the country, which had huge potentials lying fallow, was a degree of organisation that no previous Anglo-Saxon king had managed before. When you drive by the Tower of London, or other Norman monuments that litter the country, let them remind you of the dedicated (often ruthless, though fair) leadership of a king who did not speak the local language. The Domesday Book, which provides the best record of what life was like in medieval times, was commissioned by this same bastard from another country. From influencing the architecture to putting an effective system of governance in place; from changing the language to how wars were fought, this influx of Norman invaders altered the landscape of the country forever. In the aftermath of the Norman invasion, national pride was hurt, but the bedrock of development was laid and some of these benefits continue to accrue today – even if only in tourist revenues.
I have elaborated extensively on this, to show that good leadership and not uniformity of language or culture is one of the key pre-requisites for development. William and his sons who ruled after him were not English men; it was not until two generations later that a king who was born in England would sit on the English throne, but by then who really cared? The country was easily the richest in Europe – this can be verified from the Domesday Book.
In contemporary times, the fact that the native language spoken in Cornwall is not English has not impeded the development of Cornwall. Just to correct the erroneous notion that England (I say England, not Britain) is monolingual, Cornwall is in England. So arguing that development is possible only in the face of “uniform customs and practices” (apologies to my friends in trade finance), is baseless. Barcelona is not less developed than Madrid. Long before the advent of a regional parliament in Scotland, Glasgow had its own underground rail system. That is what good leadership puts in place, not some ethnocentric jingoism.
In India, the largest lingual group are the Hindi. This group constitutes approximately 30% of the country’s population, besides this group there are over 20 languages spoken by over a million people. There are states where there are 4 or more distinct language groups with over 1 million speakers. Yet this extent of diversity has not impaired the country’s development, because there is an identity beyond being Bengali or Gujarati – there is an Indian identity that is not based on language. This identity was not created overnight, but the creation of this identity was not avoided either.
Amongst the Yorubas – who are advocating that a break-up of the country is the panacea to all its woes, the idea of a homogeneous Utopia that waits for the inhabitant in the aftermath of a split-up, is even made more ridiculous by the fratricidal wars that pockmark the history of the Yoruba people. In an earlier essay, I referred to the Ijaiye war, the Kiriji war and the Owu invasion as instances of such wars amongst a “homogeneous” people; wars that cannot by any stretch of imagination be attributed to the existence of a Nigerian nation. If the protagonists of a balkanised Nigeria insist these are but medieval acts of barbarity, I have good news for you. Have you taken time out to observe the “unity” within Afenifere; or The Oodua People’s Congress; or the Alliance for Democracy / Action Congress; or the endless bickering between the Alaafin and the Ooni in the old Oyo State? Perhaps a trip to Epe would help clarify issues, for within that small town are two claimants for the throne(s) – one claiming kingship over Epe-Isale and the other over Epe-Ijebu. By the way, Epe is not an administrative contraption of the British colonial masters.
Corruption – a non-discriminatory infection
In the third instalment of his autobiography, “We must set forth at dawn”, Professor ‘Wole Soyinka made a tribute to the politicians who “fought” for Nigeria’s independence. According to him, when they (the politicians) came to the UK in the 1950s ostensibly to attend conferences where the nation’s future was being decided upon, many of them abandoned their duties, choosing instead to solicit the assistance of Nigerian undergraduates in the United Kingdom to act as pimps and procure Caucasian women to have sex with. These are the characters who inherited the mantle of leadership on October 1, 1960 – in a “linguistic regional government”. I am not a biologist, but I will boldly say a rat can only raise ratty offspring, so does anyone wonder why these less-than-honourable homo-sapiens have only handed power in one form or another to even less honourable protégés?
In 1956, it was okay to use government funds to pay for the services of a prostitute in the alleys off Leicester Square, in 1996 it became acceptable to buy a house for the same prostitute in West Hampstead. I would accede, there is a high degree of homogeneity in the corrupt species that rule Nigeria and they have managed to hone their science of corruption to an art that would rival anything produced by the Renaissance Masters. In this clan of corruption, no lingual barriers exist, neither do religious ones; for the only religion is corruption itself and the Lingua Franca is corruption as well.
It then saddens me greatly, when people fail to see the foundations of corruption that were there before independence, which have grown into a Pantheon, where all the gods of corruption are being worshipped and more are being apotheosised daily. It baffles me when people see the goggled burglar of Kano, the late Mallam Sani Abacha as a Hausa man, not as the epitome of corrupt leadership. I am puzzled when people fail to see through the corrupt practices that ran through UPN, instead they see Chief Awolowo as a god who was not duly revered. It is not the Hausa in Sani Abacha that was wrong, it was his use of state funds for personal indulgences that is unacceptable. As divisive a figure as Chief Awolowo might have been, the bigger problem was in using Ogun state funds to run the party at a national level. These corrupt practices do not know tribal marks or tonal marks; and these are the practices that are ruining most of black Africa.
Patriotism – a confluence of land and language
The last aspect of the split-up argument that I am tackling here is that patriotism is driven by language. May I get colourful and say “this argument is utter balderdash”. My British friend of Indian origin speaks Hindi with native fluency, but was born in Bradford. His father was born in Bradford and his grandfather died in Bradford. He is British. When you hear him, you have not doubts where his allegiance lies. He will die before the Union Jack is disgraced, yet he speaks the language of his forebears. I have a Greek friend whose story is very similar to this. A proper North London boy – nah, make that Norf London – yet he speak flawless Greek. But make no mistake, he is British.
The American identity is not based on language. It was forged of a siege mentality – settlers (us) versus colonialists (them). A history of New York tells the story of the country’s language identity, from New Amsterdam, a city of the Van der Bilts to New York; from Dutch to English, with various claims for the nation’s soul by the Spanish and the French thrown into the equation. Yet it is not a city of the Hispanics or the Jews or the English; it is an American city. One that is built on the human drive to survive and excel in the face of the vagaries of life – a common denominator in all humans, irrespective of the lingual barriers.
What point am I making here? That language does not preclude one from having a national identity that transcends language barriers. Oh, it does help, but life may not always hand us the easiest of starts. We however owe ourselves the duty of going further than the starting block in life. So I can be Hausa and Nigerian. I can be Yoruba and Nigerian. I can be Igbo and Nigeria. I can be Nigerian. No one has said it is easy, but we have been Nigerians for 96 years. It is not going to be an easy task to each a south paw to box with his right hand when he is 96 years old.
If Nigeria breaks up, it will not be because that is the cure to all the problems that bedevil the country, it will break up because of the problems that plague the country.
I will end this piece by saying, “the path of least resistance, though sought by many, often leads nowhere.”