The politicisation of ethnicity and religion: Challenges to national integration: The way out?


Being Draft Lead Paper presented by Bishop Matthew Hassan KUKAH, at the Conference on National Unity, Integration and Devolution of Power organised by the Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers, Abuja on July 13-14th, 2017

Let me first of all thank my friend and brother, Professor Ibrahim Gambari for the kind invitation extended to me not only to attend this conference, but also to serve as the Lead speaker at this session. I have paid attention to the list of my interlocutors on this panel. I am grateful to the organisers for making this almost a friendship club since all of the listed speakers are in every respect my ideological soul mates. I am merely a lead conductor in a choir that is singing from the same page.

I assume that the audience somehow expects me to accept that first, ethnicity and religion have been politicized and secondly, my duty is to point at the way out. You will be disappointed and I do not apologise for that. Here is why.

Today, Nigeria is doing what it knows how to do best: pumping up the volume, adopting and deploying scare mongering tactics, driving at break-neck speed to the scene of a conjured up inferno with the aim of rescuing the occupants in the house. But, since this is Nigeria, the fire brigade van will arrive at the scene only to discover that as usual, they have no water. The fire will rage until it consumes everything. The fire brigade will return home and await the fire next time.

Come to think of it, what is new in this outbreak of national sensation that has gripped the entire nation? Everywhere you turn, the code word is restructuring. The word has become the gate pass that every driver needs. It is the word you need to learn how to pronounce if you seek to make an impression in any conversation. We are now divided between those who support restructuring and those who do not. And does this sound strange? Let us recap.

Only yesterday, the catchphrase was corruption. The fight against corruption was on the lips of every Nigerian. If a stranger saw the excitement on the lips of Nigerians with this new game in town, you would think that Nigerians had discovered the cure for HIV Aids. But alas, now that has fallen into disrepute and it has gone into the dustbin. Today, the fight against corruption is now a tag-team wrestling match between the Villa and the National Assembly.

Being a monosyllabic people, we have tried to resolve the nation’s problems by adopting single words. While the British were here, we thought independence from Colonial rule was all that we required to return to paradise. Then we got independence but that did not work out. The military stepped in, promising us that they would redeem us and take us to paradise. Series of military coups and oceans of blood later, we came to a cul-de-sac and saw a sign: Paradise lost!

We thought if only we could get the military out, all would be just fine. The military successfully and strategically repositioned itself and stepped aside. After nearly 20 years, we have discovered that the military has never really gone anywhere. Today, they are an army of occupation more or less because out of the 36 States, they are engaged in active operations in 28 out of our 36 States, leaving both the ruling APC government and the PDP to trail behind with 8 states between themselves. All this without a ballot!

Out of frustration, both the Nigerian military governments and their political colleagues have fumbled hopelessly like the six blind men of Hindustan in search of the magic wand to resolve Nigeria’s unending social, economic and political problems. Radical Marxist scholarship wooed us with the notions of seeking answers to the so-called ‘national question.’ Over 40 years and scores of conferences later, we have come nowhere near finding the magic wand to resolve our problems.

We have experimented with different concepts, with the political classes and civil society often touting them as the solutions to our unending problems: Power-shift, Sovereign National Conference, Rotation, and now Change. Nigerians have often taken these concepts as their silver bullets and then proceed to look for a redeemer or a messiah. The APC canvassed for elections on the mantra of Change with General Buhari being presented as the messiah. Now, once again, we have come full circle and the old words of William Yeat’s timeless piece of magical poetry leap before us. Today, we can say with Yeats in the Second Coming:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere; The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity.

Against this backdrop, you have asked me to speak on the exciting topic of the Politicisation of ethnicity and religion and the challenges of national cohesion. To proceed with this, I will like to first raise a few questions about the assumptions in the title you have given me.

Just by way of provocation, when we speak of the politicisation of ethnicity and religion what do we mean? I assume we simply mean what our late eminent patriot and historian, Dr. Bala Usman and his Marxist colleagues at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, defined as the persistence and subtle recruitment and deployment of religious or ethnic metaphors, sentiments and themes to advance political ends by the political elites. One of the remnants of the Marxist tribe, my friend, Professor Jibrin Jibo is here and will speak shortly. This was summarised in the notion of the much-trumpeted concept of the manipulation of religion.

Subsequently, ethnicity was thrown into the politicization mix when various communities especially among the minority ethnic groups across the country began to respond to the skewed and arbitrary fragmentation and balkanization of the Nigerian state through the creation of local government councils and chiefdoms. With the subsequent expansion of the frontiers of feudalism, we saw the increase in the feudal space. A rash of new fiefdoms and kingdoms littered the landscape, precipitating new identity formations with their tendency to induce conflict usually over new feudal boundaries. Almost every ethnic group began to speak of itself as a nation.

Frustrations with a malfunctioning state soon led citizens to see the centre as an alien entity. Public office became a domain for the open theft of state resources because no sooner did a favourite son or daughter get a political appointment than, he or she was summoned home, adorned with leaves, feathers, beads and turbans and declared a warrior for his or her people. Public officers began to open up the public services to their kinsmen and women as a show of religious or ethnic nationalism. On the religious side, the same public servants were often knighted by their local church authorities in appreciation of the development brought to the religious community. In all this, community loyalty rose in inverse proportion to national loyalty.

I would argue that later, we came to see what I wish to refer to as the ethnicisation and the religionalisation of politics as a way of expressing the enticement of politicians and public officers to the ethnic or religious space. So, in this case, whereas we have politicians manipulating ethnicity and religion to secure votes and advance their hold on power, the traditional rulers and their religious counterparts manipulate the same identities, but this time in reverse, by enticing politicians into the ethnic and religious sanctuaries. This is what I call, the ethnicisation and religionalisation of politics!

I imagine that the organisers would like me to convince you that if only we can arrest the politicization of ethnicity and religion, we can then achieve national integration. I want to argue that national integration is perhaps now very much a redundant concept for two reasons. First, new identities have emerged and individual citizens have a multiplicity of national identities today, no thanks to the anomaly of what I call Demo-feudalism in Nigeria. Almost every serious politician seeks to enter the political space armed with a feudal title as a calling card. The notion of national integration may have run its course because professionalism is forging new identities with regional and professional interests breaking these boundaries. Secondly, there is the challenge of globalisation with its notion of the end of history and the knowledge economy.

I am by no means dismissing the notion of national integration totally, but we must see it as an effect, a consequence not a cause. So, when government harangues its citizens, arguing that the nation cannot develop in an environment of violence (the absence of integration), the opposite in my view is the case, namely, that it is the irresponsible and corrupt leadership that prepares the ground for the violence. Thus, citizens are often victims and not the cause of violence and lack of integration. It is the sense of abandonment and total neglect by the state that have enabled citizens to find safety and security by adopting narrow ethnic or religious enclaves as alternative nations.

Today, one of the greatest challenges that we face is the feeling of alienation that has descended on our people. This alienation is the manifestation of state failure in our society today. State collapse is the story of Africa and its effects are what explain the climate of violence and war that now characterise our lives on the continent. Some of the symptoms of a failed state are as follows:

  • Vulnerability to likely loss or challenge to claims of national territory
  • Likelihood of loss of monopoly of legitimate use of violence
  • Erosion of legitimate authority and capacity to command loyalty of citizens
  • Loss of capacity to make and enforce collective will of the state
  • Inability to provide social and welfare services to citizens
  • Inability to guarantee safety of citizens
  • Institutionalization of corruption as a dominant platform of governance
  • Domination and control of environments by criminal gangs and mafias
  • Inability of regulatory agencies of government to levy and collect taxes
  • Rise in population of displaced and homeless persons even in peace time
  • Sharp economic decline, making nations vulnerable to recession.
  • Circles of violence and instability
  • Increasing lack of respect for the state and its law enforcement agencies, etc

State failure creates a season of anomie, disorientation, helplessness and despair among citizens. Citizens feel increasingly unsure of the rules and they create their own rules of survival. Crime rates, suicides, family breakdown, mental sickness, suicide tend to rise. The state becomes a remote and distant echo in the minds of ordinary people; it is seen as unreachable, incomprehensible and fraudulent. The state becomes an enemy to be subverted and pulled down by subterfuge or any other means. Their collective feeling of deep injury, rape and manipulation by agents of the state often only unites these discontented citizens. They have no collective plan and do not need one. All they know is that the current order must fall. They have no building designs for a new one, but whatever it is, they believe the new order even in the chaos cannot be worse than their experience. They wear the scars of their victimhood as a hood of their identity as the excluded. Their powerlessness breeds resentment and hate for the state, its agencies, individuals, other groups, or institutions.

Enter the demagogue, the fanatic and the extremist, the fundamentalist and zealot who strut on the stage as a redeemer and saviour. He is thrown into the scene by circumstances or often by just blind ambition. He or she soon gathers followers from the rabble in the streets who stand for nothing and will naturally fall for everything. They inhale the breath of the self-lionizing, self-canonizing fraudster who masks his pretensions by demagogic rant and rave against the system or its perceived enemy. He or she feeds the naiveté of the followers by objectivizing the basis of their hatred. Hitler. Idi Amin, Alice Lakwena, Jim Jones, Milosevic, Maitatsine, Shekau all come to mind. Now, are we in Nigeria heading the same way? These are the questions before us.

Summary and Conclusion

We, Nigerians, have a herd mentality and it manifests itself daily. If you start running on the street, it is most likely that others will also start running along with you too. It is not likely that someone will ask you where you are running to or what you are running from. If you stop to ask why we were running, it is likely they will say it is because we saw you running and believe you know where you are going.

So, how did we come to this state of combustibility that seems to now threaten the foundation of our society? Are these threats of the fragmentation real or are they the lunatic raving of a eunuch? Can they be doused and if so, by what agency? Is this vitriol reversible and if so, how? I have no answers but I will attempt to answer the questions perhaps by asking other questions.  In other words, is the genie out of the bottle?

First, perhaps we should be grateful that despite all this heat, we are still standing and I believe we are not under any serious threat now or even in the future. But this depends on many factors some of which include the need for the political elite to learn to take its people seriously. Even if this agitation ends today, we would hopefully be glad that the ruling classes must come down from their high horses and stop the dogmatic claim that the unity of Nigeria is sacrosanct. The Nigerian state has, through it governing elite proved to be quite irresponsible and turned governance into a jamboree characterised by acts of brigandage and banditry. Blind loyalty cannot be taken for granted because we the followers are better educated and equipped than those who lead us now.

Secondly, we must note that what the agitators today have exploited and will continue to exploit is the vacuum created by the total neglect of citizenship welfare. The casino and devil-may-care mentality of the members of the political elite, governors, ministers, and members of the national and state assemblies suggests that they are yet to come to terms with the fine ingredients of democracy as service. The agitations are a yellow car to their irresponsibility and indiscipline.

Thirdly, the state of the Nigerian public service is a matter of great concern. The civil service has lost its allure. Years of serving as conveyor belts of corruption of the political elite have finally taken their toll on discipline and dignity of labour. Without a viable civil service, government plans will never serve the people.

Fourth, I will propose some hypothetical IFS. For example, had President Buhari given Bola Tinubu a seat at the table, would things have been different? Had Buhari not spent too much time appointing his kinsmen at the beginning, would things have been different? Had President Buhari not handed the headship of all the security chiefs to Muslims, or had he not filled up all the key agencies in the Ministry of Education with all Muslims, would the Christian community have felt so alienated? Had Buhari followed through and built on the good will of the electorate and run a more inclusive government, would the Igbos have felt so marginalized? Had he simply ignored Nnamdi Kanu would the rest of Nigerians have bothered about Radio Biafra? What if the Ag. President rolled out an aggressive programme of national face-to-face sessions with the youths and other vocal segments of the country?

Finally, in 2011, TIME Magazine made The Protester the Person of the Year. This was against the backdrop of the Arab Spring and other developments around the world. Civil society agitation and advocacy must be welcome because protest is simply politics by other means. Politicians must learn to accommodate dissent and stop behaving as if they are expected to speak ex cathedra because they are in power.

The greatest challenge to national integration is not from ethnicity or religion, but from our individual and collective lack of integrative nodes. My Lord and Savior Jesus Christ taught us that the essence of Christianity is to be as concerned about the other, as much as the self. And the Koran entreats Muslims that “You are the best people ever raised for the good of mankind because you have been raised to serve others; you enjoin what is good and forbid evil and believe in Allah.”

But has an Igbo man ever paused to wonder how life in Nigeria may be difficult for the average Hausa/Fulani man? Or have the Yorubas any sympathy for, say, the Efiks or the Junkuns who have nowhere near the numbers to allege marginalization? Or do we believe that all but ourselves have it good in this country?

A phrase by Massimo Taparelli (1798 –  1866), reverberates in my mind. He was an Italian statesman, who pioneered the idea of the unification of the city- states that now constitute Italy. Italy used to be a collection of hostile and even warring enclaves until the completion of Unification in 1871. After accomplishing his feat, Taparelli said: “Now that we’ve made Italy, let us make Italians”. This is called statecraft and it is the heart and soul of politics. The banditry going on in Nigeria is a sin against the nobility of politics as a vocation.

Our founding fathers, Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, Azikiwe, Aminu Kano, were stalwarts in the making of Nigeria. They played their parts and exited the stage. No matter how loudly our names ring today, or how much ground our shadows cover, no matter the mansions, the private estates and jets, yachts, one day, all will fall silent. How will we be remembered? (And here, let me pause and wave good-bye to one of the best drops of the last wine, the late Danmasanin Kano, Alhaji Maitama Sule, my father, my uncle, my friend and my brother, all rolled into one as he liked to tell me. God rest him).

My question today, directed to all of citizens of Nigeria, myself, yourself, our politicians and their corporate friends in high places; the frustrated, despondent and low ones; to the widows and orphans in the north east, southern Kaduna and elsewhere, bankers and to the herdsmen; to the men, women and children of this greatly star crossed but also greatly blessed country; again, to the Nnamdi Kanus and Alhaji Shettimas, and to the other high priests of all the insistent nations in Nigeria (the Yoruba Oduduwa nation, the Igbo Biafra, the Arewa nation, the Ijaw nation, the Kalabari nation, my question to all and sundry is a simple one: “Who will help us make Nigerians?”

Finally, you asked for the way out? First, I believe that the Supreme Court ruling yesterday will reflate the political environment and offer more space and voice for contestation and ventilation. We hope the political classes can canvass for their votes in the most honourable way without pandering to the temptation for popular ideologies.

For now, to answer the question on the way out, I say no, we should first understand the environment before we seek the way out especially as we may be on a cliff. The way out may be the way of the coward. Let us understand our challenges and roll up our sleeves so we can fix this house. There is enough blame to go round. We have all enough deep wounds, bruises and scars to show for our pains, but we cannot relent. We are at a watershed now and perhaps this may be the best moment for us as a people. Perhaps before us lies the Red sea. We are not looking at a Moses to strike the sea so we can all cross without pain while our enemies drown. No, we want to swim together, holding and supporting the weak, the vulnerable, the lame, the blind, no matter who they are, as long as they are Nigerians, we must all swim together, supporting one another. It won’t be easy, but then, what is?

This is the challenge before us now. Let us learn from the past but put it behind where it belongs. Let us look ahead now. Remember, today, you are a Nigerian because there is Nigeria, but without Nigeria, you are nothing. You can choose to join in the building of our dear nation or become a little insignificant ripple in the ocean. So, I call on you all, let the healing start, individually and nationally. We are all wounded and we can see our injuries, but let vengeance and hate end, and let forgiveness start. Please, step forward and join me. Let us strike the drums of joy and hope because we are Nigerians. We have never turned back from battle and we won’t now.

We did not turn back in the Congo. We did not turn back in Liberia. We did not turn back in Sierra Leone. We have never turned back anywhere in the world. We have never refused to answer the call of Africa and the world. We cannot recover our territory from the horrible, murdering crowd called Boko Haram only to surrender it to anyone, no matter the perceived nobility of their cause. We are Nigeria and we own this space. No shaking, no surrender of any single inch of our land.

It was Aimé Césaire who said, “In the rendezvous of victory, there is room for everyone.” We have not reaped the benefits of this great nation, but form now own, we will build a big tent to hold our greatness, our dreams and our visions together. We can only do that together. Nigeria, rise up. Nigeria, it is time to run not walk. Africa is waiting. The world is waiting. There is an urgency of Now. We have an appointment with destiny and we must keep it and in time. Please join in our long walk to collective freedom.

Thank you fellow citizens and God bless you all. God bless our dear and beloved country.

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