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Blessed are the Myth Makers, for They Create Nations

Blessed are the Myth Makers, for They Create Nations

The following essay was submitted by Tutu Fellow Uzodinma Iweala as a thought piece for the 2015 Tutu Leadership Programme and garnered a second place.  In it, he asks what it is to be a Nigerian and what are the common threads, the common narratives - myths, if you wish - that all Nigerians need  to create and sustain a common nationality.


Blessed are the Myth Makers, for They Will Inherit Tomorrow

Valentines Day in Lagos is a major event that might even rival Christmas. Each year there seems to be a frenzy of red and white ribbons on shop fronts or at mall entrances. The radio stations try to outdo each other with slow jams and oldies love songs interspersed by listeners who dial in to share their proclamations of love and affection. Last Valentines Day, February 14th, 2015, happened to fall on a Saturday and as an unmarried man of my age, I was fortunate enough to find myself in the company of a beautiful woman on an impromptu excursion to catch a movie at the Lekki mall before dinner. Though we left her house on time, my companion and I found ourselves stuck in horrific line of honking cars idling as the twilight slowly became darkness and the minutes to the start time of our movie ticked away.

Lagos traffic is also quite particular in that it is almost always willful. In other cities holdups occur because of accidents or roadwork. In Lagos (in Nigeria as a whole) traffic results from each individual acting in his or her own best interest without regard for anyone else – much like the gentleman at the center of the traffic snarl that Valentines Day. A man in a Volkswagen touring car had decided to drive against oncoming traffic causing confusion that stopped all movement for kilometers in either direction. He didn’t seem like a bad person, despite the fact that he met my polite request to move his car with a slew of invective, but he clearly demonstrated zero regard for his fellow citizens, or anyone who conflicted with his own personal mission. I looked at my companion who sighed and said what Nigerians always say in these situations “That’s Nigeria for you! Everybody wants to be first. Nobody gets anywhere.”

To live in Nigeria is to live in a country thoroughly given to extreme ideas of individualism. There can be no social cohesion in a place where one person’s desire can subordinate a whole city’s needs. There can be no progress in a country where the national agenda is each and every person’s individual agenda, and instead of a path towards a common goal, we pull in numerous directions, shredding any attempt at a collective existence into meagre pieces that provide little sustenance or comfort. It would be a gross and improper generalization to say that Nigerians do not understand the essence of a social compact. We do, and it shows in the various units that we form at the local village and kinship levels, in allegiance to larger ethnic identities, and through religious affiliations. However, as has been documented by numerous scholars, writers, and thinkers and as has been exploited by our politicians, we lack at the national level a social cohesion that supersedes these smaller groupings and provides us with a framework of belonging that allows for the demonstrations of sacrifice necessary for a functioning and productive nation state. The resulting hyper-individualism causes problems, from the prevention of a Valentines Day rendezvous to some of the more malignant and persistent issues that impact the well-being of the Nigerian citizen – widespread poverty, crumbling infrastructure, lack of respect for the rule of law, and most pernicious, the loss of a state monopoly on violence.

Created by the merger of two colonial protectorates and governed with an eye towards extraction by an external entity, Nigeria has always been a fragmented or even fictional idea for the numerous indigenous ethno-linguistic populations bounded by its borders, and even the colonial superstructure charged with its administration. In Fredrick Laggard’s Amalgamation Proclamation of 1914 speech which announced the formation of a single entity Nigeria by mandate of the British Crown, the idea of a fragmented polity even after consolidation was enshrined in the following statement:

That portion which has hitherto been Northern Nigeria will be known in future as the Northern Provinces, while the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria will be known as the Southern Provinces of Nigeria; each will be under the immediate control of a Lieutenant-General responsible to the Governor-General. The colony in view of its of its separate status and traditions will preserve a separate identity, under an Administrator of its own, dealing directly with the Governor-General.

Laggard indicates that it is essentially beyond the scope of British engagement to explore the fusing of cultural, religious and political traditions that comprised the worldviews of the various peoples brought under this new political and economic construction. Simply put, his eloquently worded statement was the 1914 equivalent of “ain’t got time for that.”

More damaging to the present situation than simple British laziness, was the British justification for the lack of engagement with the idea of Nigerian cultural difference and the lack of consideration for its inclusion in any deliberation about the makeup of the state. In his The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa referencing the newly subjected “Nigerians” Lugard wrote:

In character and temperament, the typical African of this race-type is a happy, thriftless, excitable person, lacking in self-control, discipline, and foresight. Naturally courageous, and naturally courteous and polite, full of personal vanity, with little sense of veracity, fond of music and loving weapons as an oriental loves jewellery. His thoughts are concentrated on the events and feelings of the moment, and he suffers little from the apprehension for the future or grief for the past. His mind is far nearer to the animal world than that of the European or Asiatic, and exhibits something of the animals' placidity and want of desire to rise beyond the state he has reached.”

According to Lugard and his contemporaries, there was no reason to address the idea of difference in the original inhabitant populations because the real issue was simply a variation in flavors of backwardness. The obvious racism of his conclusions warrants little discussion, but it is important to understand how such a characterization of the inhabitants of the geographic construction known as Nigeria has been so influential in our present conceptualization of self and belonging – which is to say that our general struggle from amalgamation onward has been a series of badly-coordinated reactions to the original sin of Nigeria’s construction and the belief behind lumping together so many different systems and traditions of existence that has resulted in the proliferation of a rabid individualism. Without a coherent central narrative that transcends the economic imperative, there is very little to encourage community buy-in from a wide range of parties with varying, often competing, political, religious and cultural views.

This is not to gloss over or discount the moral sentiments that galvanized collective action throughout Nigeria’s struggle for independence, but it is to suggest that construction of an identity purely in opposition to a British aristocrat’s malignant characterization and the subsequent policy directives is not winning strategy for the long-term existence of a nation state. At some point – mostly sooner rather than later – this narrative runs its course and chaos ensues. For Nigeria, this narrative lasted for roughly five years after the dawn of independence and then collapsed spectacularly in the massive violence and loss of life that characterized the 1966-1970 Biafra war. The Nigerian civil war might have provided a much needed reset in the construction of a Nigerian entity. Indeed, for a time it did. However, as evidenced by General Gowon’s “The Dawn of National Reconciliation Address”, there was only a cursory look into what makes a Nigerian, which was again dominated by an economic framework:

We have at various times repeated our desire for reconciliation in full equality… We guarantee the security of life and property of all citizens in every part of Nigeria and equality in political rights. We also guarantee the right of every Nigerian to reside and work wherever he chooses in the Federation, as equal citizens of one united country. It is only right that we should all henceforth respect each other. We should all exercise civic restraint and use our freedom, taking into full account the legitimate right and needs of the other man. There is no question of second-class citizenship in Nigeria.

Gowon’s words are important in that they affirm a generalized notion notion of belonging, in this case referred to by the vague and undefined terms of “equality”, “political rights”, and the right to “reside and work” across a certain geographical confine. His nod to the ideas of respect and civic restraint are also admirable though still completely vague. Gowon’s statement and the subsequent failure to realize Nigeria’s great potential which he refers to later in the speech comes from what can only be called a surface level understanding of notions of belonging and community. What he and his cohort of Nigerian leaders missed at this time was the immense opportunity to engage in the hard but rewarding work of constructing a new nationalized Nigerian identity from the tragic experiences of the civil war. Instead they opted for a slight modification of Lugard’s understanding that the purpose of the state was to guarantee a certain level of stability that facilitated an economic experiment – the right to reside and work – buttressed by political structure without another defined purpose.

By not defining the political space, Gowon and leaders of the time allowed for the perpetuation of two publics, a term the Nigerian political theorist Peter Ekeh defined in his seminal work “Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A Theoretical Statement” published in 1975. More than any other work on Nigeria’s fragmented nature, including Achebe’s The Trouble with Nigeria, this essay dissects the reasons for a dysfunctional polity. It contrasts the unitary moral foundation of the private and public realms in Western national identities with the two public realms of the post-colonial African state. According to Ekeh, in Western societies, “the private realm and the public realm have a common moral foundation. Generalized morality in society informs both the private realm and the public realm. That is, what is considered morally wrong in the private realm is also considered morally wrong in the public realm.”  He contrasts this with the existence of three realms in post-colonial societies – the private realm, the primordial public “in which primordial groupings, ties, and sentiments influence and determine an individual’s public behavior,” and finally the civic public which he considers “historically associated with the colonial administration” and comprises civil infrastructure of governance: i.e. the military, police, and civil service. According to Ekeh, the civil public as a civic public realm is a fundamentally amoral space unpoliced by traditional or constructed and agreed upon norms. Ekeh’s central argument is that the tension between the primordial public and civic public drives the fragmentation that we see in our societies today:

Most educated Africans are citizens of two publics in the same society. On the one hand, they belong to a civic public from which they gain materially but to which they give only grudgingly. On the other hand, they belong to a primordial public from which they derive little or no material benefits, but to which they are expected to give generously and do give materially. To make matters more complicated, their relationship to the primordial public is moral, while that to the civic public is is amoral. The dialectical tensions and confrontations between these two publics constitute the uniqueness of modern African politics.

If one further defines the primordial public as a regional or ethno-linguistic grouping and the civic public as the general administrative space designed to protect the economic space in which all Nigerian’s operate, it is easy to see why chaos can and does readily present itself in the form of lack of attention to rule of law. This and the great demands of the primordial public space are why politicians tend to see the state as a means of supporting their own ethno-linguistic subgroupings within the Nigerian superstructure. Put simply, it is why the recently elected Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari can declare “constituencies that gave me 97% can not in all honesty be treated, on some issues, with constituencies that gave me 5%. I think these are political realities.”  Given that the constituencies that gave Buhari 97% were generally of the northern Hausa-Fulani ethnicity that he shares, one can see in his statement a stronger allegiance to the primordial public space of his origin than to the civic public he was elected to administrate. To be fair, this is also true of many of Buhari’s contemporaries.

To return to the matter at hand – my miserable Valentines Day date -- it also explains the reasoning of the man who decided to drive the wrong way against traffic. He has zero allegiance to the ill-defined and disseminated rules of the civic public space in which we both exist. His actions might have been different were he faced with rules and censure defined by his Yoruba ethnic group but in a space where the civic public is still at odds with the primordial public, there is very little incentive to adhere to any rules on conditions determined by that civil public space. At the core, his actions have much in common with those of the politician who misappropriates public resources for his or her own person or community and further cements the conclusion that there can be no progress in Nigeria until there is union of the civil and primordial public spaces around more than economic incentive. This is the task of the Nigerian – indeed African – leadership class and one to which a younger generation of leaders should be entirely devoted. The uniting of these spaces requires much more than Gowon’s bromides about life, property, equality and a right to work and live, it requires a wholesale investment in the process of constructing a mythology of nationhood and belonging that accounts for the private, primordial public, and civic public spaces.

In Nation and Narration - perhaps one of the most important collection of essays on the idea of national identity edited by the Harvard historian and theorist Homi Bhabha - the French scholar Ernest Renan tackles the idea of nationhood in his essay What is a nation?” After positing that a nation cannot be determined by the bounds of “race, language, material interest, religious affinities, geography and military necessity,” Renan then proclaims that:

A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together in an undivided form… a nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future.

Renan’s emphasis on a rich legacy of memories which give rise to the desire to sacrifice on behalf of others who share in this collection of memories is the mythology of nationhood which can connect the oppositional primordial and civic publics. With over 100 years of existence as an administrative entity and thousands of years of rich historical context, Nigeria certainly possesses the raw materials to manufacture such a mythology of nationhood and nationality that could form the basis for the construction of a united primordial and civil public space.

Furthermore, there are modern precedents – however imperfect – for the construction of multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic, and multi-philosophical national identities. The United States comes to mind as perhaps the most effective consolidator of numerous groupings under one national mythology summarized in the concept of manifest destiny. While there is much debate as to the specific nature and definition of this concept (a discussion of such is beyond the scope of this essay) there is consensus that a prevailing set of sentiments that transcend simple economic consideration gave rise to an idea of Americanism and the America that helped to propagate the inclusive and progressive policies that underpin the “greatness” of the worlds “greatest” nation. It provided a fundamental answer to the question “Who is an American?” – a person who buys into and would sacrifice life and property for the formally and informally codified tenets of Americanism, of manifest destiny.

When I ask myself who is an American, I am able to list a series of qualities that exist beyond culture, ethnicity language, race or religion (thought these elements certainly have been at the center of a centuries long debate about who belongs in the United States). Most of these qualities are enshrined in the country's constitution – and more specifically in the Bill of Rights – and reflect a commitment to the practical application of a secular, humanist, individualism with roots in enlightenment philosophies about the nature of man. An American is an individual with a strong belief in individual liberty as evidenced through a near fanatical commitment to freedom of speech and person, the right to assemble, the right to private property, and with the dedication to defend these commitments with his or her life if need be.

At the outset of the United States' formation, any person (with some exceptional caveats) who believed in these things could become an American. Manifest destiny was in vague terms the idea that it was the duty of the American to propagate these values across a wide swath of territory and possibly the world. This idea did not just appear out of thin air. It was constructed by the likes of brilliant, if morally flawed, philosopher-leaders like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and the like. Later leaders like Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln furthered the narrative through times of expansion or crisis. These individuals considered crafting the narrative of a great nation a both a moral imperative and practical foundation for progress. This narrative was a prerequisite for any vision of governance and progress for the state.

In contrast, when I ask myself 'who is a Nigerian' I am at a loss for words. When I ask fellow Nigerians the same question, they too find themselves unable to firmly articulate a set of characteristics outside of the ethnic and geographical that define a citizen. It is a profound failure of Nigerian leadership, from the colonial period until present, that Nigerians cannot locate the state within their physical person. For certain, each Nigerian will have a profoundly different story and there will be multiple ways of being Nigerian, but there should be determinants of the state that all Nigerians can relate to and that the non-Nigerian can potentially identify and admire or reject. Where are our Franklins, Jeffersons, and Madisons? Who are the myth makers and philosopher leaders who can construct from our modern and pre-modern history the elements of being and values that delimit the idea of a Nigerian and provide a framework for the vision of how our society should operate and progress? Who are the leaders that will encourage the convergence of the private, primordial public and civic public such that the moral framework that governs each space is in agreement or at least a dynamic conversation? Who is the person to provide the errant driver who ruined my Valentines Day excursion with a reason to truly value the existence of others who share the same nationality as him? This is the truly transformative leader of Nigeria’s tomorrow.

It is a terrible thing to know that I am Nigerian, but to not know why beyond accident of birth. It is a feeling that leads to a deep-seated despair, and at its extreme, an eventual abdication of responsibility to this country. As a friend who is considering a government position after four difficult and disillusioning years in the civic public space said “Sometimes, as far as I’m concerned, the goal here is to carve out your own little piece of sanity and protect yourself and family. We owe this place nothing.” These words come from a warrior in his lowest moments, but they speak a default truth that all Nigerians, myself included, have adopted. The individual interest supersedes the national interest because there is a limited framework that provides a path for the convergence of the two. For a brighter future, the leaders of Nigeria’s tomorrow should make charting this path a top priority.

If not then we’ll all find ourselves wanting to be first, but going nowhere.

 Uzodinma Iweala
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