By Adagbo Onoja
It can now be said that the 2022 presidential election in Kenya has come and gone. A winner has been announced and is already being congratulated. The contest has not ended in an orgy of violence as happened 15 years ago.
At the moment, however, many of us do not know the electoral balance of forces in the legislature vis-à-vis the capacity of Kenyan president-elect to realise himself effectively in office. We also do not know the quantum and quality of evidence Raila Odinga, his opponent, has. Neither can we hope to guess correctly how the judges would look at the evidence in the event that Odinga makes good his threat to contest the results announced yesterday in favour of Ruto. (The assumption is that enlightened self-interest will act as a constraint in favour of reconciliation).
But, even then, there has been a turning point in that a someone from a minority ethnic group, (not of Luo identity as carried earlier) has won presidential powers in Kenya where power struggle has, historically, been a battlespace between the more pervasive Kikuyu ethnic group, (not the majority)and the less populous ones. Someone is referencing Ali Mazrui’s famous statement about how much easier it was (before now) for a Luo to become the president in the American setting than in the Kenyan setting. The big deal in that statement is that even a Mazrui accepted that ethnicity has substantially circumscribed struggle for power in Kenya. It is a big deal to the extent that we can say that anything Mazrui didn’t know about Kenyan politics was not worth knowing. He was not only a ‘shon of the shoil’, he was scholarly about it too.
Professor Nzongola Ntalaja, another East African scholar, is unlikely to disagree with Mazrui. Still, he has made the point about centralising the context within which ethnicity becomes referential, especially in African politics. That has to be taken seriously, considering that the Senegalese didn’t mind having a Catholic as president for so long. Could it be that Senghor sustained himself in power more on repressive state apparatuses than on consent? Or, was he so performing that his religious identity didn’t matter to the Muslim majority? Was that with French pattern of colonialism or just a case of where the elite developed a sense of mission in Africa?
It would be interesting to know which of the variable(s) above explains why Senegal doesn’t have the hyperactive religious identity politics that we see in some other African countries. Kenya and Nigeria can be taken as two very good examples of that, one from the east and the other from the west of Africa.
In Kenya, the divide is predominantly ethnic. In Nigeria, ethnicity, religion and region fuse into a potent power resource in the competition for supremacy. There are no neat boundaries when each of the categories are operationalized. That is, it is very difficult to find any ethnic group or religious or region which is pure. There are hardly neighbourhoods that do not contain Christians, animists, foreigners, Muslims, non-natives and all those terms freely used to define belongingness and otherness.
In politics, however, the categories are deployed to suggest the possibility of such neatness. Those who subscribe to the theory that ethnicity is an invention do, therefore, have a strong point. The strength of their point becomes much clearer when many of the narratives of origin are subjected to simple deconstructive operations. The point, however, is that the invention works. Ethnicity works if it is not deliberately blunted.
Blunting it brings up the question of who will, not who can. Who will blunt it encompasses what can blunt it as well as how. All these entail coming to terms with its workability, especially in much of Africa where it has been the grave yard of modernity. That appears to be what Mazrui was talking about – how it had been so effectively put to use in the Kenyan setting. Making the distinction between its fictiousness in positivist terms and its utility as a power resource could be said to be the Achilles heels of counter-ethnic politics or the heart of the problem in Nigeria, for example. The orthodox Marxists are most guilty of that because many of them have nothing much to say about ethnicity beyond that it is a secondary contradiction, oblivious of the question exemplified by Professor Munck: what sense of secondary contradiction is that on something people are ready to die in defence of?
The cavalier treatment of the intricate nature of ethnicity has led to split even in national liberation movements on the continent. Yet, that has not changed the cavalier attitude. In fact, the situation has worsened to the point where the emancipatory gaze of many self-advertised socialists does not cover unheard cries of protests against ethnically – motivated molestation of others on the ground that such protest are not covered by the class canvass. There are even persons who are happy that their own ethnic or religious group is dominant. They show it in the language they use on Facebook and similar spaces in referring characterising empirically demonstrable humiliation of ethnic others by their own ethnic, religious or regional group.
There are those for whom this is conscious or deliberate while there are many who do this because they think their radical inclination abhors where an even empirically demonstrable exclusionary/discriminatory exercise of power should not be re-articulated into a provocation for atrocities. While the first group is suffering from narcissism or bogus sense of radicalism, the second group is absolutely correct. They are correct to the extent that the propriety of protesting all acts of Otherisation and associated exclusionary implications cannot become a warrant for provoking genocide or similar atrocity. Paying attention to this distinction can save Africa a lot of headache from the harvest of ethnic conflicts. In particular, it would save many bogus socialists the embarrassment of being caught on the side of ethnic oppression and ethnocide that we have seen on the continent in the post Cold War. It doesn’t matter whether one implicated him or herself by act of omission or commission, action or ‘silence’.
Why is there nothing worrisome, particularly to the Left in Nigeria, for example, regarding the resurgence of notions such as ‘Owners of Nigeria’ ‘Slavery’, ‘Born to rule’, each and every of them reinforcing the thesis of internal colonialism articulated in late 1983 and which itself is linked to other similar notions of Northern oligarchy, Hausa-Fulani hegemony, Kaduna mafia and so on. It should be unsettling, coming as they are shortly after the emergence of two of some of the most experienced politicians in Nigeria as the presidential candidate of each of the two most hegemonic (?) political parties. The narratives of difference contradict the expectation that the diverse caucuses and centres of power would have started to dissolve into the followership of these two gentlemen in the same manner that a clear segment of the population has formed around the candidature of Peter Obi of the Labour Party. Somehow, that is just not happening. Instead, ethno-regional narratives are on the rise.
Considering the grievous implications of these narratives in the past, what if a leading radical politician has drawn national attention to the trend they signify? Of course, they signify deterioration if situated in the history of elite handling of differences in Nigeria. Those who negotiated Nigeria’s independence were no less querulous among themselves. Still, within them, we found those who, like Zik, suggested forgetting the differences and those who, like the Sardauna, argued for understanding the differences. None of the two proposals is inherently right or wrong even as current theoretical comprehension and approaches to management of difference in multicultural societies privilege the option of understanding differences as a way out of conflict.
In the Second Republic, the progressive strain in Nigerian politics managed to sustain a debating advantage in posing the problem of difference. The late Abubakar Rimi’s lecture at what is now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife in 1981 where he proclaimed the death of the North-South dichotomy comes to mind immediately.
Today, the death of the university system in Nigeria and the corresponding rise of overbearing ignorance; the unbelievable boldness of charlatanism and the desperation for political offices in the context of primitive accumulation have combined to drive off anything but vulgar representations of difference. The present has been completely delinked from the past. The delinking is worsened by the Buhari regime’s pattern of appointment into public offices, done in a manner that provided statistical evidence for the narratives we are talking about.
There is thus something discomforting in observable ‘silences’ from certain quarters. It may not worry politicians struggling for specific offices but it should worry certain actors who define their point of departure in terms of an emancipatory agenda.
There is a second reason it should be seen as worrisome. On the face of it, it would appear the country is experiencing a southern elite offensive against their northern counterpart. In truth, there is a raging northern elite harvest of grudges against their southern counterpart. They are only ‘silent’ either as a matter of strategy or lack of control of the instruments by which agenda setting is determined.
What this means is that Nigeria is effectively taken hostage by ethno-regional and religious balance of grudges, superseded in impact only by external influence and domination. Yet, each of the camps has got ideologues and enforcers in academia, the intelligence services, business, politics, diplomacy, bureaucracy and, worst of all, the media, groomed in the practices of acting as defenders of the north or south, Islam or Christianity as the case may be. The totality is that ideologues and combatants of categories such as the north, south, east, Islam, Christianity and all of that have been able to give the categories the aura of impregnability they enjoy.
It is not that they do not care about the consequences. It is rather that they do not even have the capacity anymore to link the consequences (as listed below) to the practices they engage in. As such, neither the gallant purveyors on both sides nor their principals have the capacity for the reflexivity that can ease the country out of the crease.
It is against this background that Nigeria poses the challenge of its liberation from the balance of terror between the ‘loud’ and ‘silent’ articulations of difference. The balance of terror should worry everyone. It should worry all critical minds for three reasons.
One, the words we use have a way of producing the reality we invoke in those words. Although, for this to happen, there is an independent variable but that variable does not obey any of our fears, hopes and aspirations. That variable has its own dynamics, meaning that the outcome of these narratives could be victory for those who promote them just as it could lead to their further humiliation. From the point of view of hegemony, there is, therefore, no sustainable victory for any protagonist or antagonist in this iterative warfare since hegemony cannot be secured by force or by law, no matter how long it lasts. In other words, there is nothing good to be expected from these narratives irrespective of whether it leads to victory or defeat for any side of the regional, religious or ethnic divides. Above all, a society in which one side is victorious over any others is neither an acceptable or sustainable society. That is why the search for sustainable models of peaceful coexistence is a priority engagement across the world today.
The second reason is the cost of repairing injured feelings at a time of rising identity consciousness. Whether we accept the concept of identity or not, identity works, sometimes like magic. The too many failed post-conflict peace processes around the world since the end of the Cold War is our single most important evidence for this. Be it in (East) Europe, Asia, Middle East, Latin America, not to mention Africa, this has been the case. Would it not be foolhardiness of the most malignant type to still seek for test of strength in our ethno-regional competition if we have the advantage of knowing this already? Of course, it would be. If it would, then why are Nigerian elite of each of the dominant religions, ethnic and regional fronts resorting to this strategy more than to alternative strategies? It is said that the Nigerian elite are experts in knowing when to pull back from the brinks of ethno-regional conflict. But can they always be masters of that game of pulling back in a digital world when informationalisation has collapsed boundaries?
The third and last reason is this. Is Nigeria all about the dominant inter-group narratives that have foregrounded its most bitter national experiences so far, particularly the Nigerian Civil War? Is the nation cursed as to limit itself to the horizon permitted by those narratives?
With the near demise of the radical Left as a factor in agenda setting in Nigerian politics, the new/reinforced narratives of ‘slavery’, ‘Owners of Nigeria’ and so on represent the greatest tragedy in Africa for whom Nigeria is the most apt candidate for what Samuel Huntington calls a core state. The absence of a core state is one of Huntington’s reasons for calling Africa a candidate civilisation. That is, Africa lacks a USA of the West; the Russian State for the Orthodox Civilisation; India for Hindu Civilisation; China for Confucian Civilisation and so on. Well, Huntington has been challenged on this. But even if Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisation’ is a disagreeable piece of cartographic provocation, Nigeria’s Professor Bolaji Akinyemi has, long before Huntington, argued the case for Nigeria to be something of a core state for Africa. In fact, Akinyemi could be extended to have argued that, without Africa, Nigeria has no essence. And Akinyemi can be said to have been reinforcing a consensus on that issue. How can any country at all overcome the kind of fragmentation among the elite today in Nigeria as to become a core state for a continent that is otherwise described as a scar on the conscience of the world?
As bad as things are in terms of theoretical and organisational challenges facing Leftists, the Left is still the candidate for the task implied in the title of this piece. The challenge of managing the crisis of mission of the post colonial elite across Africa requires the articulatory force of Left politics. That is, one with an organised Secretariat that can provocatively draw national attention to the limits and potentials of ethnicity; attention to who is using ethnicity and who is misusing it. (yes, distinguishing and demonstrating emancipatory ethnicity where it can be found is progressive politics for it is not ethnicity is bad all the way down).
In other words, it is time to reckon with ethnicity as a primary contradiction if it can underpin or circumscribe political reality the way it has done in Kenya and a lot in Nigeria. It doesn’t have to explain all the crises before it is treated as a threat.