Urhobo Historical Society

Bala Usman, G. G. Darah, and the Concept of Nation in Nigerian Politics

By Femi Awoniyi

Speyer, Germany

This is a rejoinder to a speech entitled: ”Ignorance, Knowledge and Democratic  Politics in Nigeria,” delivered by Dr Bala Usman at an event in memory of the late  Mallam Aminu Kano in Kano on 17 April 2001 {and subsequently published in several venues].

This is not to hold brief for Dr. G.G. Darah, but to defend his use of Urhoboland, and  other similar terminologies, like Igbo nation, Ijaw nation, etc.,  that have gained wide currency in political debates in recent years.

Bala Usman disparages the notion of ”nations” because they were not there before the coming of the colonists, saying: ”Anyone who is familiar with the works of Professor Kenneth Dike, ..., knows that there is nothing like the Igbo nation. These, like the Hausa-Fulani, Ijaw, and the other nationalities of Nigeria, came to be formed in the course of the formation of Nigeria in the 19th and 20th centuries.”

The Fulani scholar faults G. G. Darah for claiming that :”The Federal Government is rampaging our land… That land is Urhoboland. And Urhobo people were there before Nigeria was founded. Nigeria is only 87 years old. We have been here for 6,000 years.”

Bala Usman declares ”As for the Urhobos being there before Nigeria, this is just laughable” because ”the autonomous Urhobo clans were of diverse origins. They were of Benin, Ijo and Igbo origin. As for the name Urhobo, G.G. Darah must know that the name only came into use significantly after the political agitation’s crystallised by the article in the Daily Times, edited by Ernest Ikoli, of 13th June 1934 and the reply of 19th June 1934. Before then, a common identity for the clans that came to be called Urhobo barely existed.”

Because the British created the regions and provinces and even named them, these could therefore not form identities on the basis of which politicians can mobilise support and on whose behalf they can advocate, implies Bala Usman.

This thinking seems to inform the dominant attitude of the Muslim North to the clamours in South Nigeria for a constitutional reform, that should lead to ”true  federalism” and empower nationalities to exercise control over resources found in their native land. Most Northern commentators believe these issues are no legitimate matters of debate, being historically rootless. The political structures of Nigeria are a  given.

Below are two instructive quotes from leading northern opinion makers:

”One of the most fundamental truths about the Nigerian Federation, which is evaded, is that the federating units in Nigeria, which were the regions and now the states,  were actually created and established by Nigerian central governments. In the Nigerian Federation, the centre, be it colonial or post colonial, came first and not the regions and the states. When the British established colonial rule in Nigeria, they  carved out administrative districts, divisions and provinces, based on their interests and their understanding of the history of the communities....... Those state  governors, and other politicians, who now go around parading themselves as if it is their states which created the Nigerian Federation by agreeing to come together to form it should stop deceiving themselves and face the truth about how those states,  and even the regions, provinces and vice consulates, which preceded them came into  being, as a result of the decisions and legal enactments by the central governments  of colonial and independent Nigeria. ” wrote the New NIGERIAN in an editorial on 25 April 2001.

”Because oil wealth, unlike say agricultural wealth, is virtually unworked for, it makes any exclusive claim to it on grounds of merely sitting on it rather dubious at best,”  wrote Mohammed Haruna in the Comet newspaper recently as quoted by Mideno  Bayagbon in the Vanguard newspaper of 18 April 2001.

One thing recognisable in these comments is that the premise of agitation of the oil-producing states which is that the land they inhabit primarily belongs to them is  being challenged.

The American sociologist Walker Connor defines a nation in its pristine sense as ”a group of people who believe they are ancestrally related. It is the largest group that  can be aroused, stimulated to action, by appeals to common ancestors and to a blood-bond.” (A Few Cautionary notes on the History and Future of Ethnonational Conflicts, 2000)

Scholars of ethnicity and nationalism are unanimous that a nation is a ”felt community” which must not necessarily have been ”built”. ”The nation is a territorial  entity to which the members of the nation have an emotional attachment and in  which they invest a moral meaning ” (T.K. Ooomen, Situating Ethnicity Conceptually,  2001). ”Ethnic affiliation and territorial location as sources of national identification  often cannot be separated” (Coakely, 1993).

To claim that we cannot speak of  an Igbo nation, for example, simply because such a term did not exist before the British came is illogical. The Igbo people did not come  into being only after the British colonised Nigeria. Identity did not extend beyond the village or an area in many regions of the world as recently as 200 years ago, but this fact, which must have informed the thinking of Bala Usman, is not limited to pre-colonial Africa.

If this logic of Bala Usman is to be universalised, then, we can not speak of a German nation, a French nation, a Croat nation or a Russian nation. Eugen Weber in his epic work ”Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernisation of Rural France” convincingly proved that no nation in contemporary Europe antedates the late 19th century, not even the French. ”Ethnic identity has,...., been a fact of history. But this does not  mean that present ethnic identities have been around for centuries, that the national  awareness of the Dutch, German, French, English, etc. is centuries old. It is in fact of very recent vintage.” wrote Walker Connor in the same essay.

An that Urhobos are from different clans or originate from other ethnic groups does not invalidate a today’s Urhobo national identity. As an eminent historian, it is shocking that Bala Usman would repeat this scholarly platitude. It is an established fact by historians, that no race is pure and every nation or ethnie is an offspring of several ethnic strains. For example, the English have substantial German roots and  the French are descendants of Germanic Franks among others. Yet the modern states of England, France and Germany were enemies on battlefields many a times in recent history.

The claim of a 6,000-year-old Urhobo nation is a pardonable folly that has proven immune to time and place because it is a sociological wisdom that ”members of a national group harbour intuitive convictions of their group’s ancient pedigree”.

So much for identity.

Dismissing calls for dialogue off-hand, as many Northern politicians and commentators often do, amounts to sheer moral arrogance and dishonesty. They reject the notion that national groups have a special claim to resources, occurring in the geographical space they inhabit ”on grounds of merely sitting” on them. But the introduction of Sharia in many Northern states amounts practically to the creation of an autonomous judicial space within the borders of Nigeria.  Sharia is territorial-based because it compels Nigerians from other parts of the country (where such laws are not in existence) to obey these laws if they are in the territory of a Sharia-practising state even if they do not subscribe to the religious conviction from which they are sourced.

This is a form of assertion of primary territorial sovereignty of people native to these states since the laws are being enforced by persons employed by these states, without the consent of the federal government. This is not allowed in the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany, where even fiscal federalism and state and local police are in practice.

Since no serious political leader has ever questioned the external territorial integrity of the Nigerian state, we must always remember that the internal structures erected by the colonialists are not sacrosanct because they were made to serve specifically their interest. Our well-being or needs were never the primary considerations for the actions of the British colonial administration.

The constant suggestions of the sanctity of colonial structures makes the rest of us uneasy when we remember that the collaboration between the British and Northern Emirs was so successful that it became a model for colonial administration in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. (John Iliffe, Africa. The History of a Continent, 1995)

The argument that there are different kinds of federalism hence we should not always cite the United States or Germany as examples is valid. However, the ideal form of the Federal Republic of Nigeria should not be the one only Northern Nigerians want. Other  Nigerians should have their say, too.

It is necessary for us to understand each other’s perception of the Nigerian reality. At the moment, there is a popular disaffection with the Nigerian state in the South and this fact must be acknowledged by our Northern compatriots.

My grouse with Dr. Bala Usman is the seemingly deliberate simplicity with which he approached the issue. We cannot expect Nigerians to rise above primordial sentiments which more modern societies are still confronted with. The impossible logic of the popular historian‘s argument suggests that the article is a veiled partisan intervention in the controversial issue of resource control, and it does not do any  good to his scholarly integrity.

It must be remembered that the increasing politicisation of religion and ethnicity is a direct consequence of the marginalisation of other Nigerians as a result of the monopoly of a predominant  mass-identity in our polity by the Muslim North since independence.

The challenges facing us in Africa are without parallels because of the peculiar diversity of our societies and polities. Since ethnic and political borders cannot and will not coincide in Africa, we will always have ethnic conflicts. It is the task of our intellectuals to help moderate the ethnic-conflict resolution process to prevent its radicalisation, if democracy is to put down roots on the continent.