Feudal dimensions of the National Question (Prebendal princes on the prowl)
While one was growing up, one of the more remarkable nicknames of illicit gin, also known as Ogogoro, Sapele Water or kainkain, was push-me-I push you. Known for inducing manic aggression or Dutch courage, it could also bring about acts of extraordinary valour or human recklessness and stupidity, depending on how one is viewing it.
Nigeria is a push-me –I push-you country; a permanent tug of war and turf of hostilities; a faint proposition for the weak-hearted. Here, it is obvious that the meek will not inherit the earth—or the oil-blocks for that matter. Everything is thrown into the contention. There are no half-measures. The golden mean is that there is no golden mean.
It would be a remarkable irony if the colonialists who put the country together did not have an idea of the devil’s brew they were concocting. While figuring out what to do with the largest conglomeration of Black people anywhere in the world, they encountered enough “little local difficulties” to put them in the know of the uneasy cocktail simmering ahead.
There were the early Niger Delta merchants they encountered who could easily outfox them in their own game of violent cunning and sly duplicity. Some of them they banished, others they outgunned. There was Jaja of Opobo, the fabulously rich and fiery one, they exiled to the West Indies after subduing him. There was Kosoko who fled to Epe, having been dislodged from his domain by fierce frigate bombardment.
There was the ill-fated Oba Ovoramwen Nogbaisi of Benin Empire who was sent to Calabar after his army was routed and decimated. Just before then they had taken apart the Ijebu army and put the reigning monarch, Oba Fidipote, to flight. In 1903, Sultan Attahiru was dethroned and summarily executed. Years later, Ogedengbe, the great Yoruba generalissimo, was frogmarched to Ibadan and detained on the orders of Captain Bower.
Given this heritage of turbulent ancestors, modern Nigeria is a wizard’s apothecary indeed, a colonial Babel with several fingers permanently poised on the nuclear buttons and with the threats of mutually assured destruction cancelling out each other. There is no other country in Africa with such a high concentration of robustly individuated nationalities who still cling to old principles and primordial prejudices even after being put through the furnace of colonial re-engineering.
Yet the beauty of this roiling cauldron of violently contending nationalities is a poetic equilibrium in which the myth of exceptionalism of one ethnic nationality is summarily cancelled out by the exceptional myths of other nationalities, As the Yoruba will put it, it is when you have not been to other people’s fathers’ farm that you tend to think that you father’s farm is the biggest in the land.
Thus the myth of an educationally inferior and politically backward north is challenged by the reality of the north’s continuing political dominance over the rest of the country. On the other hand, the myth of the north’s superior cohesion and outstanding political acumen is worsted by the reality of its economic backwardness and inability to match the enviable social strides and developmental progress taken in the South, particularly the cluster around Lagos.
In the absence of creative political engineering which expertly canalises the divergent strengths into a formidable union of complementing diversities, or a homogenizing Leviathan like the military which smashes everything together in the name of some higher nationalism, it is impossible for a country like Nigeria to cohere into organic nationhood. In this dark void of aborted nationhood, the worst experiment in human suffering anywhere in the world is currently subsisting.
Like a perpetually accident-prone child, the nation will continue to run into heavy weather until we get it right or until the contradictions sharpen to the point that something gives. Last week, as it ever so happens on a regular and routine basis, these contradictions played out again as the nation barely avoided a political meltdown only for it to be overwhelmed by an ethical sandstorm.
The IPOB train suffered a massive derailment as the north rallied, and after almost two years of tragi-comic exertions, the Saraki trial finally reached its terrifying denouement. The war on corruption ran into a major hitch. A dialectically trained mind can see the point of convergence between the two seemingly disparate incidents. In both, prebendal princes on the prowl.
The first point to note in all this is that a sizeable proportion of our current political class are steeped in an anti-democratic feudal mind-set mind which simply has no conception of modern nationhood and the obligations of the modern state and its principal state-actors to inhabitants of the nation-space so delineated.
They simply do not care a hoot about the feelings of the citizens of this country. In fact as far as they are concerned, the idea of Nigerian citizenship is a violent oxymoron which collides with the abject reality of feudal subject-hood. Self-liberation is not served a la carte. Experience from other countries has shown that people do not simply become citizens of a nation by virtue of state proclamation. They do so by asserting and affirming their right to freedom and independence.
It is on record that a serving senator of Nigeria once claimed that since she paid through her nose for the votes that took her to the upper legislative chambers, she has no obligation to discharge to any phantom electorate. With this kind of mind-set on both sides of the political divide, it is obvious that the feudal conundrum complicates the National Question in the way and manner dangerously conjoined Siamese twins complicate life for each other.
But while feudalism is dominant in one part of the country, it is only residual and historically attenuated in other parts and in fact virtually non-existent in a few. Consequently, in the zero-sum game of feudal politics in which citizenship is a myth and obligation to civilized procedure a pious fiction, it is those who have much to lose that must beware of those who have little to lose. This is what played out last week in the confrontation between the “ youths” of the north and the IPOB/ MASSOB separatists.
In an awesome display of its mastery of the game of push-me-I –push –you and political brinksmanship, the north delivered a sucker punch to Biafran agitators by serving them a quit notice which also doubled as intent to summary eviction.
To all intents and purposes, the quit-notice was supposed to help the secessionist agitators realise their dream of a separate homeland by fast-forwarding the process for them. But in reality it was a deadly ploy; an implacable collision of fundamentalist platform positions. You cannot eat your cake and have it. The reality suddenly dawned even the most obtuse of the agitators that the republican and relentlessly dynamic spirit of the Igbo people depends on unhindered and unfettered space rather than the claustrophobic milieu of a land-locked dystopia.
Like a nasty and turbulent toddler that has been put in its place, the raucous noise about secession and Biafran exceptionalism evaporated into a loud whimper and quietly sulking remorse. This is what happens when you fight a war of attrition without an enduring strategy but with hate-filled and emotive blackmail of others. You have no one to blame when your opponents rally and respond in kind.
Yet the northern offensive raises critical issues about the state of the country and its current structural configuration. Forget about the statement coming from the Arewa Youth Wing. A seventy year old man cannot be regarded as a youth. The master-puppeteer is lurking somewhere in the background. This is the north at the top of its game and the summit of cloak and dagger politics and it has proved to be very devastating indeed.
The crude irony of it all, however, is that the north may be using its economic underdevelopment and feudal backwardness to blackmail the rest of the country in general and the east in particular. It is a classic case of chutzpah, of a person who killed his parents pleading for mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan.
Rather than mouthing secessionist baloney, this is the real structural battleground for the redemption of Nigeria. Everywhere and everyone is hurting. The structural lop-sidedness of the nation allows the north to continue to exercise a political veto power over the rest of the country in a condition of blackmail and political extortion. But it is an equilibrium of terror with other sections of the country retaliating with a combination of economic, social and intellectual terror.
The sharp individuation of nationalities and their discrete cultures makes the case for a structural unbundling of Nigeria very compelling. It allows the north in particular to work out the economic and political contradictions of regnant feudalism in a modern nation state on its own terms and within the parameters of its cultural sensitivities rather than inflicting the burden on the rest of the country, particularly those who have figured out how to outflank the forces of local feudalism through confrontation or evasion.
But this structural unbundling of the country is possible only if progressives or a combination of progressive forces are in control at the centre. Unfortunately at the moment, genuine progressive forces appear to be on the retreat. With the acquittal of its Taoiseach last week, the Saraki Senate appeared to have smelt blood and is advancing on all fronts, consolidating its position and mopping up political stragglers in the process.
Politically and ethically, the presidency has its back to the wall. It is a measure of the confusion that has engulfed the ruling APC that while its Kwara segment was openly jubilant at Saraki’s victory, its presidency was said to be up in arms against the judgement. It is very instructive that shortly after its legal triumph, the Saraki Senate called on the presidency to forward the report of the 2014 Jonathan conference in a strategic breach of the political and ideological flank of the ruling party.
The longest legislative coup in the history of the country is now winging its way to a shattering climax. If the Saraki Senate goes ahead to endorse the recommendations of the confab against a more compelling case for a fresh exercise which avoids the sordid intrigues and anti-democratic shenanigans of the Jonathan confab, it would have succeeded in thoroughly besmirching the image and integrity of the Buhari administration. Just as it happened with PDP, the coroner may return the verdict of death by internal sabotage on the APC.
Events unfolding in Nigeria bode ill for democracy and self-determination for its component nationalities. You cannot even begin to talk about accountability and transparency in the context of the resurgence of the old feudal order, neither can you be pleading for devolution of power to a mode of political production that thrives on stiff centralization. It is a contradiction in terms. Corruption and nepotism are the engine oil that lubricates the feudal machine.
When Senator Olubukola Saraki usurped the senate presidency against the will and wish of his party, this column noted then that a complex political and legislative coup might be unfolding which may completely alter the equations and calculations of the Fourth Republic. The APC and the nation are about to reap the fruits of the failure of statecraft and its inability to rein in its own.
But as it is always the case with Nigeria, there is also a lot of hope in hopelessness. The situation is not as bleak as it appears. The northern blackmail, the infantile response of IPOB/MASSOB which shows them to be completely out of intellectual and political depth, and the deft handling of the potentially explosive situation by the federal authorities, has restored the balance of influence to the traditional political elite of the Igbo people.
The Igbo elite should now leverage their renewed authority into seeking with other like-minded groups across the country a new initiative for a fundamental overhaul of the state architecture through a repeal of the 1999 military constitution and the immediate convocation of a popularly legitimated National Conference. In the alternative, the government should set up a National Restitution Commission which will take a look at all preceding conferences and come up with salient recommendations.
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