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Cultural independence, seriously

In the 1950s, the late pan-Africanist and Ghanaian president, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, had a brilliant, even revolutionary, idea for Africa which he phrased in simple…

In the 1950s, the late pan-Africanist and Ghanaian president, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, had a brilliant, even revolutionary, idea for Africa which he phrased in simple but powerful biblical terms: “Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all things shall be added unto you”.

As an ideology for its age, Nkrumah was right. Africa needed first to become independent of European colonialism before it could do anything else for itself. And to his credit, Nkrumah’s preachings did help to stir up political consciousness and the struggle for independence throughout the continent. As an ideology for all ages, however, Nkrumah was wrong, and it would not be much long before the limitations of his political determinism became all too evident, in Nkrumah’s Ghana as in nearly everywhere else in Africa.

In the eight short years between 1957, when Ghana became an independent country, and 1965, more than two-thirds of all sub-Saharan African countries had become politically independent of external powers. Thirty years later by 1987, however, almost all of these countries had also become heavily indebted to and even more heavily dependent on aid from more or less the same external powers they sought to ditch politically. This is not to mention the tens of civil and uncivil wars everywhere. Political sovereignty, it seems, is no guarantee for economic sovereignty. And as we found out to our perils, economic sovereignty didn’t just matter as much as political independence, if not more so, the two do not always go together. Sixty years after Nkrumah, not much has been added to Africa’s political independence.

But political determinism in Africa was not the only fever of the age in the 1950s and the 1960s. Far afield in Europe, Asia and Latin America, another kind of determinism, this time economic, reigned supreme. From eastern Europe and the then Soviet Union to China and Cuba, Marxist economic determinism sought to reprise Nkrumah’s maxim in a different light: the economic base of society is all that matters, the foundation on which the political and cultural, and everything else—the superstructure—rests. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that that too was not entirely right. Culture is not subordinate to economics or politics in a society: it is just as foundational as either or both.

Indeed, economic and political worldviews are themselves cultural in an important sense, in that they are often deeply rooted in a society’s history and culture, and hence the varied manifestations of capitalist or democratic development in many different countries of the world. It is no accident that American capitalism is so different from its European variety; and if it is, then it is an accident of history and culture. Democracy in Britain, likewise, is simply a product of British history and culture, and could not have been otherwise.

The import of all this, for formerly colonised and subjugated peoples in Africa like us here in Nigeria, is that neither political nor economic independence is enough to attain full independence; both must be complemented with independence in the cultural realm. I personally believe that Nigeria—and Africa—cannot be functionally independent politically and economically without also being culturally confident of itself. Unfortunately, more than 60 years after independence, we cannot find that cultural confidence in ourselves as we tend to rate anything foreign higher than its local equivalence, often for no reason than they are foreign rather than Nigerian or African.

It is impossible to list the many different manifestations of this cultural dependence on the foreign, but a few examples will suffice. Foreign ideas about the world and about ourselves dominate our intellectual space like nothing else does. Our cultural output such as films and music are so foreign inclined; you wonder what makes them Nigerian. Even our music industry, which happily has taken the world by storm in recent years, is more foreign in imagery than Nigerian. Why do our music producers feel compelled to produce almost all of the songs by our stars away from home? What is wrong with Nigerian soil or dancers?

Nigerians simply worship anything foreign. We troop to many foreign countries, many of them no better than Nigeria in any significant sense, to obtain higher education for their children, and not always out of the quest for knowledge and learning but just to show off to their neighbours that my child too is in a foreign university. Our elite spend almost a lot of their money on foreign luxury, rather than establish companies here for making the same things, which could then force the government to put in a better operating environment that will inevitably benefit all. And yet, we lament that the economy is not working. How can it happen when we don’t produce enough at home and we do not consume what is produced locally?

And even right here in the country, we afford foreign nationals the sort of courtesies and advantages we do not give to fellow Nigerians. From jobs and contracts to pay levels and access to utilities, or even traffic spaces, it is amazing how Nigerians will bend backwards for foreign nationals. What is the wisdom in almost always giving construction jobs of no more than five kilometres to foreign companies? And yet, the same Nigerians will not budge one inch for other Nigerians. Foreign companies, particularly those of the Chinese, routinely mistreat Nigerians and deny them all sorts of basic rights. Yet, we simply laugh it off or blame the Nigerians involved. Of course, Nigerians are not treated the same way anywhere, and Nigerians generally know this. Yet, we can’t seem to think that treating people equally and impartially, regardless of their race or ethnicity, is the best way to go.

To be clear, this is not a call for some rabid nationalism or xenophobia against anyone, but a warning that if we don’t take ourselves seriously, no one would. I personally would like to see our universities, cities and companies filled with people from other countries working or living in them. In a sense, that is a byproduct of the development we seek. However, it must be actively grounded in a sense of equality and impartiality. Nigerians are no better than other peoples in any cultural or material sense, but the reverse must also be held up to be true.

Part of the problem is that we really do not see culture broadly as shared experience or as who we are as a people but mainly in a material sense: language, dress, food, dance steps, etc. But culture is far more important than these things. It is about self-awareness and self-confidence in one’s own history and way of life. It is about the realisation that our own ways of life are not the only one, yes, and not necessarily the best, yes, but not the worst either. It is the positive confidence one must have in one’s own skin, in one’s own hair, and in one’s own history. It is about the confidence to reject ideas that would not work for us, however appealing they are or from wherever it comes. It is the confidence to be ourselves without feeling inferior to anyone, here or everywhere else.

To achieve this kind of cultural independence, we must start by interrogating our colonial heritage much more closely. The words ‘tribe’ and ‘colonial master’ are more in common usage in Nigeria than in Europe. If a BBC journalist uses the phrase ‘colonial master’ in reference to any countries of the Commonwealth, their career probably cannot survive the storm of criticism that will follow. Nigerians say this freely in our media every day because no one seems aware of its implications. Nigerians happily ask each other: What ‘tribe’ are you?

It is simply not enough to change from one “English” national anthem to another. Why can’t we translate either to all our over 350 languages or at least into three or more? That would be a good start.

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