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Intellectualizing Nigeria's Ethnic Nationalism

11 Feb 2013

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By Magnus Onyibe

Not a few Nigerians would have noticed the deluge of books cataloguing the author's perspectives of Nigeria’s recent political history and the key actors since the return to party democracy in 1999 literarily flying into the book shelves.


Remarkably at the heart of the books and authors’ frenzy is the struggle for the hearts and minds of Nigerians which is a welcome change because about this time last year, the refrain was ‘Occupy Nigeria’, which now seems to be morphing into ‘Indoctrinate Nigeria’ via books.


Expectedly, as the socio-political struggle-aka OCCUPY NIGERIA migrates from the streets to the intellectual realm, the tone, contexts and perspectives of the books and their authors are eliciting the curiosity of politically conscious Nigerians who by now must be struggling to cope with the slow but steady speed of our country's political evolution.


Bearing in mind the statement of the English philosopher, Mark Twain, who once noted that "A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes", it is believed in some quarters that the rash of books by these latter day authors are attempts to write and re-write contemporary Nigerian political history for the specific purpose of positioning the ethnic stock of the authors, themselves or their political parties above others for the year 2015 when our nation’s political space, especially at the presidential level, is expected to be open for re-contestation.


So unravelling the altruistic value or the sinister motives behind this new wave of campaign with books which is more or less intellectualising ethnic nationalism by the politician turned authors is the raison det for this article.


Amongst this genre of books is ‘There was  A Country’ by the celebrated author of another famous book ‘Things Fall Apart’, Professor Chinua Achebe, whose account of Nigerian civil war is perceived  by other ethnic groups to be dripping of ethnic nationalism .


Particularly irksome to the Yorubas is Achebe's view in the book that the revered Yoruba leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was the architect of the Federal Government's strategy of starving Biafrians via a systematic blockade of the region's access to sea and airports thereby compelling a surrender, 30 months into the war as the secessionists could no longer bear the pains of seeing their young ones die of 'kwashiorkor '.


Characteristically, Nigerian politics is generally divided along ethnic fault lines, so the South Westerners naturally responded to the book with loud rebuttals and venomous attacks that called to question the author's moral and historical authority, just as the Northerners who were at the helms of political affairs when the Biafiran state was declared, also received the book with antagonism while the South Easterners, whom the book was making a case for, welcomed it with deafening ovation.


The scenario above implies that every book has a captive audience and it brings to mind a joke someone once shared with me about books and it goes thus: A book seller conducting a market survey asked a woman 'which book has helped you most in life?' The woman replied with glee 'my husband's cheque book'


Seriously, the other books that are focused on contemporary political history but of a different hue are ‘Power, Politics And Death - A Front Row Account Of Nigeria Under President Yar'Adua’ by Segun Adeniyi, late President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua's spokesman and THISDAY Newspapers Editorial Board Chairman/columnist which is essentially a political diary from the corridors of power  plus ‘Reforming The Unreformable - Lessons From Nigeria’ by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former World Bank president and current Finance Minister/Coordinating Minister for the Economy, derived from her experience as minister of finance during ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo’s days in office.


As controversial as Achebe's book and as enlightening as Adeniyi's and Okonjo lweala's maybe , they've turned out to be a mere side kick compared to the more incandescent books from more active participants in Nigeria's contemporary politics from 1999 till date such as Peter Odili, former Rivers State governor's ‘Conscience And History-My Story’. The former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar's media office ‘The War, The Victories’ and ‘’The Accidental Public Servant’ by Nasir el-Rufai, former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), as well as Obasanjo’s ‘The President Explains - A Compendium of Policy and Statements’.


We will return to the variety of perspectives and insights offered by the four new very revealing and controversial books shortly, but first of all, let us not make any mistake about the fact that the current development is not the first time that political office holders in Nigeria would resort to book writing.


The military documented their experience in political leadership in excess of three decades in books such as ‘My Command’ by General Olusegun Obasanjo, ‘Why We Struck’ by Adewale Ademoyega and ‘Blood On The Niger’ by Emmanuel Okocha, which is a civilian account of the massacre of Asaba people in the then Midwest state by federal troops as a consequence of their alleged support for the retreating Biafran army.


So far, Odili has revealed in his book, how he believes he was schemed out of presidential and later vice-presidential positions in 2007 by a team led by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC)'s former chairman, Nuhu Ribadu  and Atiku's media men on their part exposed the genesis of Atiku's tiff with his principal, Obasanjo when he was implored by some governors of People Democratic Party (PDP) in 2003 to run against him, but he eventually declined and the affront of even considering the offer turned out to be Atiku's political nemesis as Obasanjo reportedly vowed to ensure his veepee never realised his ambition of taking over from him. Similarly, el-Rufai argues in his treatise that his former boss, Obasanjo was fully interested and involved in a third term bid which was shot down by a defiant Senate led by Ken Nnamani, a proposition which Obasanjo has always denied.


As an elder statesman, it is expected that Obasanjo's latest book would affirm or dispel rumours about his alleged vice grip on Nigeria's political umbilical cord and articulate his love for a country and people who gave him opportunities twice to steer the ship of state both as a military dictator and about 20 years later as a democratically elected president. After all, it is said that "lightening does not strike the same place twice", but Obasanjo seem to be an exception to that rule.


Until these highly explosive book by Odili, Atiku's media office, el-Rufai and Obasanjo are fully unfurled, we may not fully comprehend the import of the narratives on Nigeria's political space, but relying on the snippets  which l have been privileged to read, l can testify that there are nuggets of uncommon wisdom in the books which would ,if read together, be a researcher's delight as each book appears to form a critical missing component of a grand picture of the political jigsaw called Nigeria.


At the risk of sounding patronising, it is hoped that sooner than later, our first intellectual president by virtue of the fact that he holds a Doctor of Philosophy, (Ph.D) degree, President Goodluck Jonathan would join the growing ranks of political autobiographers which now bestride the political horizon of Nigeria.


Given the poor reading culture of Nigerians, is the book campaign as efficacious as the traditional political indoctrination platforms such as rallies and town hall meetings? There is a school of thought that suggests that it may be flawed because using books as a tool does not correspond with the Nigerian reality as it is mainly the elite who read books implying that the masses who are critical to elections are left out of the loop. However, the other side of the argument is that politics is driven by the elite who are the agenda setters so the idea of a book campaign is to capture the elite class through books and expect them to cascade the ideology down the line to the grassroots.


Whatever the case maybe, the expectation that more politically motivated autobiographies would find their way to our book shelves before 2015 is a legitimate thought.


Clearly, Nigeria's politics has evolved from the days of violence hallmarked by the 'wetie ' syndrome of the defunct western region, to non-violent street protests that featured during the civil society struggle for the then vice-president Goodluck Jonathan to be elevated to the position of acting president when President Yar'Adua was incapacitated by illness. Thankfully, a looming constitutional lacuna was resolved by the National Assembly via an ingenuous enactment of the famous Doctrine of Necessity. How can we also forget the January 2012 (our own equivalent of Arab spring) when Nigerian Labour Union (NLC) led peaceful street protests across Nigeria sparked by the sudden fuel pump price hike which compelled authorities in Abuja to restore a huge percentage of the cost which it had shaved off.


Amongst all the chronicled political developments in nearly 14 years of the practice of party democracy in Nigeria, the aspect that resonates with me, is the affirmation of the dictum ‘The Pen  Is Mightier than The  Sword’ reflected in the present resort to political intellectualism via book publishing by political gladiators jostling for 2015 as opposed to political vandalism/thuggery with the attendant sorrow, tears and blood (to borrow a phrase from the late Afro Beat king, Fela Ransome Kuti) which was the regular trademark of politics of yore in Nigeria.


Perhaps, before the next general elections in 2015, the concept of public debate by those seeking political offices, as is the case in more democratically developed climes, would also take hold here so that candidates with superior ideas and programmes would sell them to the electorate, endear themselves and take control of the ship of state rather than political cronies who currently take undue advantage of the opaque political party system to rig their way at the party primaries and public polls or bribe their way through the courts into governance.


*Onyibe is a development strategist and futurologist

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