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The minority question: Some thoughts on identity, justice and the politics of incorporation in Nigeria (1)

Although the idea of working for inclusion is important, we can only understand how to apply it if we also examine the policies that led…

Although the idea of working for inclusion is important, we can only understand how to apply it if we also examine the policies that led to the exclusion of the majority of our people on the continent of Africa in the first place. The results of these policies of exclusion are evident across the continent and they are manifested in the endless circles of civil wars, poverty, squalor, destruction and death that have come to characterize life on the continent.
It is possible to argue that the end of the cold war marked in many respects, the impossibility of keeping people under a pressure cooker of injustice, no matter what methods those in power use. The human thirst and quest for freedom can never be repressed. This is the reality of human history. The new nations that emerged from the former Soviet Union and the present contestation in Ukraine are all illustrative of the crisis around the politics of identity. When individuals, communities, groups feel left out of the loop of power, when they feel that their rights, their sense of self-worth and dignity have been destroyed or trampled upon, they will naturally rise and seek freedom from the chains of oppression, no matter who their enemy may be. Sometimes the enemies are external (as is the case with an army of occupation, such as the British colonial state) or internal (as with the case of an oppressed group fighting the domination of another group or the oppression of a state).
My purpose in this paper is to briefly look at the Minority question as a socio-political category of injustice in the politics of exclusion. In doing this, I want to look at the struggle for freedom on a larger level as a means of helping us situate the struggle that we are honouring today. By honouring Chief Osadebay, I believe that his people have realized only rather late that he was a prophet well ahead of his time. We cannot of course treat Chief Osadebay in isolation. But as we contemplate the gallantry, the sacrifice, the sense of altruism and heroism, the pursuit for personal and communal achievement that drove them, we must do so against the backdrop of the quandary that we now find ourselves in today.
I had a conversation with a politician only recently and he lamented the difficulties of politics in Nigeria. Our people, he said, obviously complaining of his constituency, do not understand or appreciate the sacrifice that we are making for them. They think that we are plucking money from trees. Everywhere we turn, they are begging for money. You cannot go home and be left alone to spend time with your family or to relax. They pester you with requests for school fees, money to marry a wife, money to bury their parents and almost everything. One day, I think my people will expect me to cook, feed them and wash their clothes. They do not understand and they behave as if we are from another planet. It is sad, he said, ruefully, truly is sad.
I tried to pull our a handkerchief to help him clean his sweat or put my hand over his shoulder and just say, how sorry I was that his people had placed such a burden on him, but it turned out he was not done yet. And you know, My Lord Bishop, those journalists and commentators who accuse us, they behave as if we politicians are not Nigerians. We are citizens of the same country. Our life as politicians is not easy as people think.
My mind went back to Chief Nanga in Chinua Achebe’s timeless characterization of the Nigerian politician which is still as fresh then as now. Chief Nanga complained and blamed his people for failing to realize that this money that he is throwing around like san sand, they do not know how hard it is to get it. I felt quite angry deep inside me because it is strange that the Nigerian politician has been infected with a virus of persecution complex and victimhood. Somehow, it is we the ordinary people who have become his traducers. It is we who are making life and things difficult for him. It is we the people who just do not understand how he is suffering on our behalf. We the people put him on this road to Golgotha and we just do not understand.
I tried to explain to my politician friend that actually, he needed to appreciate that his people have taken the position they have because they know that morally, you cannot steal from a thief. The real question that the Nigerian politician must answer is, what is the oxygen of his legitimacy? Who does he truly, honestly, sincerely, rely on for support and power? Is it God the father of our Lord Jesus Christ or an idol that he commands to help him steal elections at all cost? Or is he relying on those strange specie of humanity that masquerade as prayer warriors, voodoo priests, sorcerers, babalawos, who are daily offering them a concoction of the liver of a one eyed black cat mixed with tongue of a mad dog, diced in the blood of a red lizard which was killed on a road junction in the middle of a Friday night? Or the prayer warrior who has told you that he has ordered God to close the doors of heaven until He has answered you alone.
The Nigerian politician has become a distant echo from the people he claims to represent. So, when we celebrate today, we must ask ourselves, what did the generation of Dennis Osadebay, Ahmadu Bello, Awolowo, Azikiwe or Aminu Kano do differently? How did they move their people to make the sacrifices that have brought us to where we are today without the use of money? How did it happen that they got their people to trek for days without food, to travel on treacherous roads, and offer their resources to free their people? Where are the properties, the bank accounts that they left behind? How is it that with the opportunities available to us now, we are getting increasingly frustrated and feeling totally powerless to mobilise our people for positive development? Everywhere we turn, it seems as if yesterday’s freedom was an illusion because all the frustrations that produced the first independence have resurfaced across our nation. This is why Nigeria is literally at war at various levels. Trying to unpack this dilemma is the subject of this paper.
I will divide this paper into four parts. First, I will briefly define the terms in the title. Secondly, I will look at the development of human rights and argue that the struggle that Chief Osadebay and others like him waged was essentially a struggle for human rights, freedom and human dignity. Thirdly, I will use the civil rights struggle in the United States and South Africa to illustrate the fact that the struggle for freedom is not won by mere declaration of good intentions by governments or by Constitutions but by the dogged struggle, passion and commitment of individuals, groups mobilized and committed to using the law and the judiciary to push the limits of the promises of the Constitution. Finally, I will show the connection between the struggle for the Midwest and these similar struggles and highlight the lessons for today.

1: Definitions and Conceptual Clarifications:
The first danger is to assume that everyone understands the meaning of the word, Minority, Identity or Justice. For us in Nigeria, Minority is the word for those who do not belong to the big three tribes of Igbo, Hausa, and Yoruba. Beyond the popular sentiments around the issues, the concept suffers from ambiguity and it is rather superfluous because it does not tell us much about the vital indicators or characteristics of what constitutes a Minority. Even if we use it as a category for explaining power, we will be hard put to explain how some groups from rather insignificant ethnic groups have come to wield power (remember the Langtang mafia?) that is out of synch with their numerical strength.
Thus, for the purposes of our reflections, I will rather that we use the word minority to define exclusion. If we apply this, then we can pay attention to the social conditions of the majority of citizens who, beyond the superficiality of linguistic affinity still wallow in poverty and misery, despite belonging to the so called big three? For example, women can be said to be a majority of the Nigerian population but when it comes to access to power, they are a minority. The confusion is further exacerbated by the fact that right up till date, we still do not have a correct number of how many ethnic groups in Nigeria! The number has continued to fluctuate throwing up new data from, 250, 374, 394, 470, 550 and 619 as at the last count. And we all know that the issues are deeper. How do we explain these identity fluctuations or mutations are the subject of another discussion?
First, there is the issue of ignorance and the lack of proper attempt by the Nigerian state to embark on an ethnographic journey of discovery of the intricate composition of its people. Thus, for a majority of Nigerians, it is enough that we know that there are Hausas, Fulani, Igbo, Kanuri, Ijaw or Yoruba whom we all think are all cohesive ethno-cultural blocks. Sadly, we do not even know the levels of internal cultural and linguistic dissonance and disaggregation that often hide deep animosities and cultural differences. In times of national battles at the centre over Nigeria’s national cake, Hausas, Yorubas, Igbos or Ijaws all sound like cohesive units especially when they are reciting or singing the lachrymal anthem of marginalization.
The concept of ethnic identity has been the subject of manipulation and intrigues by the political classes. Successive governments have tended to resolve these issues by consistent balkanization of the state into new States and Local Government Councils, not to talk of Chiefdoms, Autonomous Communities, or Emirates. Each new attempt at correcting yesterday’s mistake or ensuring justice has often created new tensions as yesterday’s majorities could mutate into today’s minorities or vice versa, thus, renewing the cyclical rhythm of the cries of marginalization. Rauf Mustapha has argued that: Under colonial rule, however, but particularly under the ethnicized electoral politics associated with decolonization, minority status became associated with the smallness of population size and the related question of limited electoral clout. Nigeria’s ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ ethnic groups developed in this political hothouse from the early 1950s.
Identity is defined as uniqueness, distinctiveness, something that sets you apart. Here, we can say your identity is your DNA and your DNA is your identity. Identity remains a major issue in the drive or the quest for inclusion or exclusion. Identity itself has so many layers and in the realm of politics, individuals and groups often appeal to one identity or the other, depending on its salience.
I consider incorporation as a desirable ideal, a necessary condition for genuine patriotism and the feeling of a sense of belonging but hopefully, with the respect, rights, duties and responsibilities that go with it. Agitations and discontentment arise when the processes of incorporation fail. Almost all Constitutions declare intentions to deliver on the common good of its citizens. But, often, due to the minority status, some groups tend to get left out. The processes of seeking incorporation may involve seeking greater independent political space (as through the creation of a state, region, chiefdom/emirate or local government area). On the other the struggle may involve merely seeking integration by the application of equal access to all citizens. I will now turn my attention to the theme of Human rights, briefly examining its origins and why they matter so much for resolving the Minority question and ensuring Justice and social or economic integration.
To be continued next week
Draft Text of a lecture delivered on the occasion of the 1st Dennis Osadebay Memorial Lecture at Nnebisi Hall, Grand Hotel, Asaba, Delta State, on May 31st, 2014 by Bishop Matthew Hassan KUKAH, Catholic Diocese of Sokoto.

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