Nigeria’s dearth of cultural relativism or empathy is more evident than ever in the last decade. We have been described as a mere geographical expression or a national space, and the numbers of ethno-religious crises we have recorded thus far attempt to give credence to such assertions.
Culture is the social identity of a collective, and Nigeria’s 60 years of sovereign existence has morphed into a cultural melting pot with arguably the most changing constant in terms of our national symbols, language, norms, values and artefacts. The etymology of culture already describes it as the cultivation of people’s way of social life within the borders of their commonalities or differences, as the case may be.
Even at infancy, Nigeria faced an ethnically charged coup d’etat which formed the bedrock for an equally ethnically charged three-year-long civil war. The differences in culture can be so sensitive that slight contrast can result in altercations, as was seen in the Ife/Modakeke crisis. Differences can also be significant, like what fueled the aforementioned civil war.
In addition to climate change, culture is a factor in the recent reoccurring crisis between herders and farmers. The crisis in Southern Kaduna, Plateau and the century-long differences between Jukun and Tiv are all examples of how culture can be a dividing factor in a nation of over 300 tribes.
The symbiotic relationship between herders and farmers used to be a cultural norm. Farmers depended on cow dung for manure while herders fed on the stalks and leaves of plants post-harvest, but an enmity persists between these mutually benefitting entities.
As strongly as it can divide, culture is also a potent unifying factor if we can consider cultural relativism and cultural empathy. While cultural relativism means our ability to understand a culture as defined by its practitioners without any prejudice or judgment, cultural empathy implies the appreciation of the differences and similarities of one culture compared to another.
Our differences and similarities have diffused into our national symbols, language, norms, values and artifacts, which are all significant elements of culture. Symbols such as the Coat of Arms, National Flag, the National Anthem and even our currency relate the diverse cultures that portray our national pride to the rest of the world.
Language is a significant area where many cultures have melded. Nigeria is even a peculiar case with the wide use of pidgin as means of communication. It contains influxes from almost all the country’s languages, with a significant part being English. It is safe to assert that we all speak the same language because the Pidgin English spoken in Cameroon and other parts of Africa differ from one spoken in Nigeria.
There are other things these various cultures share in common – family values, fantastic food, vibrant music, regal ceremonial paraphernalia, entrancing dances, agriculture. These all connect to one major thing – our identity. That is the unifying factor of culture in Nigeria.
Food also forms a converging cultural point for Nigerians. The Jollof turf war that has become global, which has even translated into a tourist attraction, is wholly a Nigerian pride with no specific link to any tribe in particular.
Nigeria’s ineffable culture is a tourism goldmine. The varsity of our landmass and topography may limit cultural interaction, so a Cultural Heritage Repository is timely as it is essential. A Heritage House will collect samples and data of all the tribes, traditions and cultures in Nigeria, which will serve as a data bank for sociology, anthropology and history scholars, as well as for visitors who are interested in the Nigerian cultural heritage.
In Music, Nigeria recently made a mark on the global scene, with Nigerians winning the Grammy. The fusion of Afrobeat in the music of Burna Boy, Wizkid, Femi Kuti, Tiwa Savage and other Nigerians that won or were nominated continues to sell the Nigerian identity and culture to the rest of the world.
Nigeria’s movie industry is the second-largest globally in terms of volume and has grown to a $590m industry annually. It has formed a channel through which Nigeria proliferates the rest of the world with a unified culture that defies all our internal differences.
The relevance of culture as a tool for unity has birthed agencies such as the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC). As evidenced by the examples above, our cultural unity is an ingredient for peace and a socioeconomic development machine.
The recent Shasha market incident in Oyo State has made Nigeria’s urgent need to constantly recalibrate our cultural relativism and cultural empathy more significant. Fulanis and Yorubas have been living peacefully with each other for many years, but a slight distortion of their understanding of each other led to the loss of lives and properties.
We must consider those communal crises between ethnic or religious groups need to be within the exact geographical location to kill each other. To share the same area must also mean there has to be some form of commonalities that attracted them there. The essence of using culture as a unifying factor is to use those commonalities in compelling them to relate and empathise with each other’s differences.
It will be a gross injustice to any discourse on culture if we do not consider its changing and contemporary nature. Therefore, we must discuss the new tribe and culture of the new/social media. The new/social media culture, which is a converging space for different people with different views from different geographical locations enables people to often agree on similar views while they disagree on opposing views.
Nevertheless, amidst such vast disparities in culture and differences in value systems, occasional disagreements often arise, but new/social media culture still gives room for free expression of one’s opinion. Based on the general definition of culture, the alliance along similar opinion or ideology forms its own tribe and its attendant culture, which should not only be recognised but also respected.
Conclusively, unity is a character of the true Nigerian culture and vice versa. We are in desperate need of unity, and we have an abundance of culture. We can and must leverage on what we have to get what we want. Be it the ancient cultures of the diverse ethnic groups or the very new tribe of the social media, Nigeria will thrive better if cultural awareness, relativism and empathy, take centre stage.
By Asiwaju Adekanmbi Olufemi, a former Commissioner for Culture and Tourism, Ondo State