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Sunday, 28 July 2013

The reality of competitive ethnicity in Nigeria

 by Tonnie Iredia

One obvious subject that has continued to elude the Nigerian nation is integration. Neither the political structure nor the law of the land is sufficiently positioned to redress the situation. The state of origin of every Nigerian has remained the most important ticket for getting anything.  At the youth level, many Nigerians are favoured or deprived by the quota system of admission into schools- a system which accepts a scenario where two pupils of the same school write the same examination for admission into the same college and it is the pupil with the lower score who gets admitted because of his state of origin! At the adult level, the situation is no less inexplicable. The other day, I read the story of an engineer in one organization complaining that his assistant was lifted to become his head of section. In the past, that could only happen where the position concerned was political. To have an example of it now at a technocrat and purely professional position of senior engineer shows that there is cause for worry.
In the larger environment, ethnic groups in Nigeria cohabit under a cover of mutual distrust and suspicion with each scheming to undo the other. The majority groups naturally have the upper hand and they tell the rest of us that Nigerians are Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba. In fact, once one of them gets a position, the next consideration is what goes to the other two.  Among the minorities, the bigger groups hold tight to whatever is available in their areas. For this reason, ethnic groups like Igede, Etulo, Abakwa and the Idoma, may as well forget ever occupying the office of governor of Benue State. It appears reserved for the Tiv because they are the majority. My Idoma in-law always wished that his ethnic group was located in my own Edo State where according to him, the majority sometimes concedes power to the minorities. At this point, I had to straighten the records by summarizing for him a lecture I delivered in Benin the previous week titled, “Benin: Time to sow the seeds of resurgence”.
I recalled that although the Benins are the majority in Edo State, neither the incumbent state governor nor the minister representing the state in the federal cabinet is one of theirs. On its face value, one may be misled into seeing the Benins as liberal-minded and accommodating. The truth however, is that at this point in history; the Benins are just a sleeping majority. The last time one of them got into the federal cabinet, he was made a junior minister when some other states had two full ministers. Till date, no one knows or asked who negotiated that for the Benins. The story is the same even outside politics. For example, although the catholic faith came to Benin over one hundred years ago, no Benin man has been able to become the Catholic Archbishop of Benin. To say such matters are ordained and directed by God is to be unfair to the Almighty because everything is ordained by Him and because He is all fairness, He would not disapprove of members of only one tribe moving up towards the apex of their occupation. Why can’t a Benin man be the Bishop in other peoples’ homelands? In the area of education, a Benin man has at last become the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Benin after 40 years of its existence. The puerile argument for long that heading a university was not an ethnic thing is a language of deceit as only one group can head my own revered University of Ibadan.
What then is the problem of the Benins? I can see disunity, lack of courage and selfishness among others. Yes, the Benin political class has lately been engaged in atomistic politics, a term which aptly describes a class that is at war with itself and thus unable to negotiate a right. Once some wealthy individuals among the minority groups can spread some resources around, the Benins collapse and begin to doggedly project their benefactors. If one listens carefully, one would hear things like that there are non-Benins with Benin interest as if other people can love somebody more than himself. Under the circumstance, it would not be difficult for a minority to win an election in Edo state. When compared to what our forbearers did, the fall of the famous Benin Empire of old shows clearly. If the late Chief Omo-Osagie was self-serving, he would not have declined to be Premier of the new Midwest region in 1963, so that Benin City could be the capital of the region. The warrior Obas of Benin built an expansive wall as long as 20,000km around the empire. The defensive edifice is the world’s longest self-protective complex which according to the Guinness Book of Records, is the greatest earth work ever constructed by man. Today, the Benins have only one town-Benin City-all their other areas remain villages.
No one else except the Benins can take responsibility for their poor state of affairs. They must thus rise now and take their destiny in their own hands because it will be unacceptable to posterity that the Benins were marginalized as a minority tribe in Nigeria and at the same time, allowed themselves to also be marginalized in a state where they are in a majority. To worry that some people would describe this argument as parochial is to overlook the imperatives of competitive ethnicity in a multi-ethnic society like ours. Some people may not like it but the truth is that ethnicity is one of the ‘settled’ issues of our federalism. If not, we would not have had an arrangement where our President had to go to his ‘place’ to register and to vote during the last general elections. But for the same over-all importance of ethnicity, zoning would not have assumed its important status in our political structure. Abia state would not have disengaged from its public service more than 1,800 workers of Anambra State origin. The indigene-settler imbroglio in Jos, Plateau State, would not have been as fatal as it has become.
These and many more examples of inter-ethnic problems in Nigeria confirm that ethnicity is still the decider of all matters in the country as it was in those days when the late sage, Obafemi Awolowo, who has been aptly described as the best President Nigeria never had, could not win either the general election of 1959 or the presidential elections of 1979 and 1983.The United States which like Nigeria, is heterogeneous, does not have our type of problem because ethnicity is not worshipped there. An American citizen born and bred in a place does not go in search of his ancestry to identify with a group so as to participate in any event. Until we take the issue of integration seriously, our ethnic groups would justifiably be engaged in cut-throat competitions. Those who avoid it through self-centered rationalizations would naturally decline because every other ethnic category has its own agenda.

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