Urhobo Historical Society

Dr. Bala Usman's Speech And Issues of Identity

By Adetokunbo Oyetunji

Thursday, December 23, 1999

As members of communities, human beings assume different identities, either as a result of the circumstances of their birth, or by association. This identity imbues them with prejudice that colors the way they perceive any situation. This is not limited to Nigerians, though some of our visionless leaders who think that our people are inherently worse than Americans or Europeans would have us believe otherwise. The legendary Fela captured this view of Nigerians by these visionless leaders when he sang of them saying "my people are useless, my people are senseless, my people are indiscipline" (sic). People who have no business leading anyone cover their ineptitude by condemning the people they purport to be leading.

Given that prejudice and sentiments will always play a part in human relations, political and opinion leaders in Nigeria should borrow a leaf from the true leaders in the developed countries that we hold as models of success. They should recognize that there will always be layers of identity, and people with common identities will have common interests. A man born in Ijebuland of Ijebu ancestry would at one level operate as an Ijebu man. This same man would dorn the toga of a Yoruba at a different level and that of a Nigerian at another level. If he should find himself on a college campus in the US or in Sweden, he would assume the identity of, and be seen as an African. This is the way human beings are all over the world and political systems that have achieved successes in the management of the affairs of men do not require them to deny any layer of their identity. They foster discourse between the different identity units and interest groups, thereby overcoming prejudices and discovering common grounds. They recognize the subjectivity of people and appeal to their objectivity.

Dr. Usman went to great lengths to present a thesis on the dynamic nature of ethnic nationalities and the strategic necessity of cooperation of nation states into larger blocs. To my understanding, the essence of Dr. Usman's paper is that the compositions of the ethnic units in Nigeria are not homogeneous; the ethnic identity in Nigeria is not real; and we should all just assume the identity of "Nigerian" and go from there. This is akin to telling Americans that since there was so much mixing between the whites and the blacks, all Americans should just see themselves as "Americans" - the African-American identity and the White-American identity are inimical to the American dream. Another analogy can be drawn to the identity of Jews. I am sure that Dr. Usman is a renowned historian but he delved into the area of sociology for which he was obviously ill equipped, from the paper he presented. He did not rise above the subjectivity of his prejudice.

The history of the few ethnic nationalities that Dr. Usman presented in his paper may be true for those nationalities, but that does not mean that the same is true for the other nationalities that make up Nigeria. In any case, even if the thesis is applicable to all the nationalities in Nigeria, the fact still remains that every Nigerian today knows without any equivocation what his/her ethnic identity is, and it is not "Nigerian". I submit that homogenous or not, the identity that each Nigerian holds true today is his/her ethnic identity. It is these identities and the group interests that go with them that we must manage, for the Nigerian experiment to succeed. Paraphrasing what Admiral Kanu wrote recently, the Igbo man is a Nigerian because he is an Igbo man, not vice versa.

Dr. Usman was right in pointing out the dangers of fragmentation, while the rest of the world is getting together to form strategic alliances and unions. What he failed to mention is that these unions are being forged through exhaustive discussions and negotiations among units that have achieved common identities. We all know how much the English and the French traditionally distrust each other. However, through discussions, they are overcoming their fears and prejudices and they are forging ahead on things that unite them. The more they work together, the more they find things that they have in common. This, I believe is what the advocates of the National Conference are agitating for. Nobody wants to break up the federation, in this day and age of globalization. The option of fragmentation and inter-ethnic strife becomes real only when reason fails, and it would inevitably be a painful path for all parties. The National Conference should lead to the creation of a free union devoid of domination, where the true leaders of our country will lead the people to maximize their potential.

The Nigerian situation can be visualized by imagining a European Union that is forced on European peoples, without any discussions. Knowing the penchant of Europeans for wars, there would have been several wars raging on in Europe by now. We must not let the experience of the Nigerian Civil War be repeated. The Nigeria that the Nigerian people negotiated for, and agreed to is the Nigeria of the first Republic. The Nigeria of today is the product of 29 years of perfidious military rule and it is not our Nigeria. The human experience is dynamic, and maybe we can not return to the structure of the first republic. Nevertheless, the fact still remains that it is the only structure that was freely negotiated and agreed to by the true representatives of the people of Nigeria. It is only reasonable that our quest for a new Nigeria, by the people for the people, should start from the Nigeria of the first republic.

Dr. Bala Usman presented a strong case for the National Conference. He should come out clearly in support of it and join with other eminent Nigerians in creating the environment for peaceful and meaningful discourse.

Men of reason should act now.