Nigerian Twitter was afire about a month ago when talks arose suggesting Governor-Elect Charles Soludo appoint Swiss-born Igbo culture promoter, @Nwanyi Ocha, as Commissioner for Culture and Tourism in Anambra. What followed was a slew of comments which were bigoted, tribalist, and in fact, racist. But what exactly is the trouble with Nwanyi Ocha’s Commissionership? Well, “she’s white”. Simple. A singular label. Singular labels have always been more than enough for us. Ignoring the facts that she is Nigerian and actually Igbo by marriage, that she has thoroughly learned the language, and that she actively promotes Igbo culture with a following making her a suitable candidate for the position. This should be unsurprising. Nigerians are unapologetically sectarian, and this sectarianism is evident in all spheres of Nigerian life as cronyism, tribalism and nepotism. However, looking beyond concerns of colour and kin to the Constitution reveals just how far-reaching our sectarian bigotry extends.
What does it mean to be Nigerian?
This might seem a rhetorical question, but it is one we must clearly answer to expose the bigoted nature of our politics. Globally, citizenship naturally affords one the right to vote and be voted for, and Nigerian citizenship can primarily be acquired by birth, naturalization, or registration according to the 1999 Constitution. Well, our political classism begins right here; of the three means of acquisition, only Nigerian citizens by birth can be voted in for any political position. As for Nwanyi Ocha’s Commissionership, sections 147 and 192 of the Constitution also apply this same principle to political offices of appointment. Hence, it can be considered both a legal and a literal impossibility. Some might attempt to defend the Constitution’s position with the similar exclusivist argument that backs our protectionist position on rice imports, and also the infamous indigenization act of ’72: “protect our own and our own would, in turn, protect us”. This might have made sense if our political classism stopped at our borders.
Politics is local… Or in our case, brutally local
I consider myself a Lagosian. I am originally from the Southeast but I’ve lived here my whole life. Don’t get me wrong I love my hometown, but I didn’t grow up there. I grew up to the noise and madness of Lagos, to jumping on and off molues, and danfos, and to enjoying baba dudu and lolly on my way back from school in the 90s. I really love Lagos and would want to serve here politically. But as someone who isn’t Yoruba, my chances of ever serving in any political capacity are next to none. As a young entrant into the Nigerian political space, you are greeted by the unwritten rule “start from the grassroots” usually backed up by the proverbial excuse of “charity begins at home”. But simply put, you’re expected to go back to your state, your LGA, and your village even to begin there. Regardless of the ideas you might have to advance your state of residence; to solve real problems – it doesn’t matter. You don’t belong. “Politics is local”, or in our case, brutally local. But my story is far from a localized one. Currently, at least one in every two Nigerians lives in one of these seven cities; Lagos, Port-Harcourt, Abuja, Kano, Onitsha, Kaduna, Benin and Ibadan. And just like me, at least one in three have lived in those cities for at least 25 years which is the minimum age allowed for election into representative positions. Though the 1999 Constitution is silent about local politics and tribal participation or quotas, its spirit seems to back our “unwritten rule”. What does this mean for the over 70 million Nigerians who exist within this political limbo? Worse still is the dilemma faced by women who are married inter-tribally. Do they “belong” to their native states or their husbands’?
“The tribe is the natural enemy of the state; when people lose faith in the state they take refuge in the tribe.” — Dike Chukwumerije
When did being Nigerian stop being enough?
Well, in truth being Nigerian has never really been enough. The concept of Nigerianness has always been under attack from as far back as the tribal roots of the ‘66 coup and the civil war that followed after, to the Federal Character principle in ’79, down to the issuing of certificates of origin in LGAs today. And these attacks haven’t been subtle or merely institutional. In 2015, Oba of Lagos, Rilwanu Akiolu got into hot water when a video surfaced with him threatening Igbo leaders in Lagos to throw them into a lagoon if they didn’t vote for Gov. Ambode in the gubernatorial elections. A 2021 report estimated the Igbos to have investments worth over 300 trillion naira in Lagos. This doesn’t seem to be enough for us to consider them equal citizens. Once again, we are stuck up on singular labels. Simply put, the idea of Nigeria has always played second fiddle to our tribal interests, and once again, we excuse our tribal biases in the name of “protecting our own”. The problem with tribal prioritization is not necessarily that it is primal, but that it is purblind. It blindly attributes virtue only to kin, and vice to everyone else. This is such a simple lie to refute that I do not need a single argument to do so. From independence till date, there has been no southeastern or western state that has had a governor from another tribe of the country. Yet, the road from Ikwuano to Uyo can still be qualified as a miscarriage causative, roads in Osogbo still remain death traps, and the bandits on the highways in the North still don’t greet you,“kedu” when they stop your Hilux mid-travel. The point is this; virtue and vice are general human traits. A knife stab from a family member plunges just as deep as that from a mugger. It is only the deceit of tribalism that tells us otherwise. Yes, it is nice to be nice to kin. But when our cultural bias automatically demerits competence and character in favour of closeness and kinship, it grounds the results of our political activity to remain largely regional, rustic and repeatedly remiss.
“Of” the People
MTN, the Etisalat Group, ShopRite, Jumia; all these multinational companies have solved critical problems previously botched by government efforts. From telecoms to transportation, these “foreigners” have with strictly entrepreneurial motives saved us in many areas our governments have failed. We didn’t care that they weren’t Nigerian. We didn’t care if they “belonged”. We were just glad to be able to speak with our loved ones instantly at a meagre cost even though they were miles away. Glad to no longer have to wait one month for a package from NIPOST we were never sure would arrive. Glad to just get those problems solved. I think we can try a similar approach with our politics. Without a doubt, the local nature of politics cannot be overstated. For one to properly manage the concerns of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, it follows that they must at least tick the first and most crucial box; of. But what exactly does it mean to be “of the people”? Irish Political Scientist Benedict Anderson’s definition of a nation suggests an answer to this question. In his book, “Imagined Communities”, he termed a nation as an imagined community; a group of people who perceive themselves to be experiencing the course of history together. By this simple definition, tribe, language, and even race shouldn’t stand in the way. Sharing history means being a part of a people, growing with them, facing their challenges, and owning these experiences as your own. You don’t need blood to do that. We celebrated President Obama’s victory in 2008 to become America’s first black president. He is natively Kenyan. More recently, we have praised the courage of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his standing up to Putin’s assaults. He is natively Jewish. It’s time we espouse the ideas we celebrate.
Competence over Kinship
In conclusion, let us prioritize competence and character over kinship. All tribe does is force us to focus on a singular immutable characteristic that is arguably irrelevant to the quality of leadership. It makes it a “we-versus-them” conversation drawing imaginary battle lines where there should be none. Our battle should be against corruption, incompetence and questionable character. Our conversations should be focused on getting the right leaders in power. Not on whether Jonathan’s tenure was really a southeastern presidency, and how 2023 should be “our turn”.