OJUKWU’S PHILOSOPHY OF DE-TRIBALISM: THE PANACEA TO THE NIGERIAN POLITICAL PROBLEMS
THE BACKGROUND TO THE PHILOSOPHY OF DE-TRIBALISM
1.1 Tribalism And Nigerian Political Development
Ever since the marriage between the Northern and Southern Nigeria became a reality, Nigerians have made several attempts to preserve this marriage; but constantly, it has nearly broken up. No doubt Ojukwu said that;
Since Nigerians took their own destiny into their own hands, every national intercourse has borne the sterile aspect of a coitus interruptus-a primitive method but very effective in preventing the birth of a new nation.
For a strong political, economic, and infrastructural development, the various ‘nations’ that make up Nigeria should be united to achieve these. Several efforts have been made, albeit some are pseudo-efforts, to see that Nigeria is united. However, tribalism has constantly threatened the road to Nigerian unity.
At independence, and subsequent first republic, Nigerians had expected that the political actors then would have used that period as a time for laying a solid foundation for a united Nigeria. This never was; rather the so-called father founders considered it paramount to play tribal politics that stunted the growth of the nation. Nigeria is basically below the waters today because wonderful opportunities that would have fostered national development were dashed at the early days of her life as an independent nation.
A good number of politicians in these early days of this nation did not consider Nigeria a reality, let alone, work for her unity. This was evident in their utterances then. Some of them are Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Yakubu Gowon, to mention a few. Commenting on these differences, Gowon said,
Suffice it to say that putting all consideration to test, political, economic, as well as social, the base for unity is not there.
On his own part, Ahmadu Bello, the Sarduana of Sokoto and a tribalist par excellence said,
Nigeria is so large and the people so varied that no person with any real intellectual integrity would be so foolish as to pretend that he speaks for the county as a whole.
Still skeptical about this word unity, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, the first prime minister said “ since the amalgamation of the southern and northern provinces in 1914, Nigeria has existed as one country on paper”
One cannot forget so easily the ignoble statement of Awolowo that “Nigeria is a mere geographical expression”. These are not the only ones; they have a lot of disciples, however, their positions made them outstanding. In fact, they made these statements when they have the opportunity to retreat into tribe in order to check their more successful rivals from other parts of the country.
Tribalism retards development especially political development, and since other developments hinge on that, all other aspects of development will also be grounded. A lot of instances from the first republic up until the present third republic show how tribalism has left Nigeria in a comatose. First, it is generally believed that Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe won the premiership of the then Western region, but could not occupy the position because he was of the “wrong” tribe, albeit he showed a bad legacy by rushing to the East and manipulating himself into power by edging out Chief Udoma. In 1964, a group of young Nigerian officer cadets mainly Northerners, were declared academically unfit and repatriated by the Canadian military authorities. These cadets were declared commissioned by the Nigerian Federal Government no sooner than they had arrived at the Ikeja Airport. In 1961, the premier of the North and Sarduana of Sokoto paid a visit to the Royal military Academy, Sand Hurst and wanted to meet with the Nigerian cadets. When he eventually appeared to see his fellow Nigerians, he asked an embarrassing tribal question to one of them: where do you come from? From Nigeria, was the answer. But the premier was not satisfied, so he went on, where exactly in Nigerian?. In 1962, the then Federal Minister of State for the Army, Alhaji Tanko Galadima, officially visited the Nigerian Military Training College [NMTC] Kaduna. As he was about to leave, he presented both pocket money and kola nuts to only the Northern officer cadets. As expected, this caused great ripples in the army then. In 1960, shortly after independence, the then prime minister, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, directed the principal of Kings College, Lagos, Mr. P.H Davies, to secure available places annually, for at least fifteen boys from the North, whether or not they passed the required entrance examination.
Collaborating the existence of tribalism in the army, Janet Mba-Afolabi said:
records have shown that the army is one in which an officer’s ethnic origin determines the nature of strategic appointments he holds.
The absence of Federal presence in certain areas of the country has no other reason but tribalism. The whole of South-east has up until this stage, no international airport or seaport irrespective of the fact that there is a big market they will serve. The federal roads in this same zone and other zones are death paths rather than high ways. It is even a “divine decree” that people from certain areas can never be among the service chiefs, inspector of police, defence and agriculture ministers to mention just a few. Many of the policies initiated by various governments had, in all intent and purposes, tribal undertones. A case in point is the indigenization policy.
In the various states of the federation, there is rancour everywhere because a particular part of the state will like to take all. People tend to forget that “we cannot dominate; all we can do is to accommodate”. These instances show the extent we have allowed tribalism to take us. It is against these that Gbulie observed that:
… the most dreadful of our county’s insuperable monsters was tribalism, Nigeria’s number one killer disease, a canker worm as old as the hills, the fundamental factor of the problems of Nigerian unity.
1.2 The Meaning of Tribalism
Etymologically, the term tribalism has its root and origin from the Latin “tribus” (tribe) meaning “one third” which originally referred to one of the three peoples that united to found Rome. The Encyclopedia Americana defines tribe as ‘a group of families who have a feeling of community through occupying a common territory and following similar customs.’ In the same vein, the Chambers 21st Century Dictionary defines tribe ‘as a group of people, families, clans or communities who share social, economic, political ties, and often a common ancestor and who usually have a common culture, dialect and leader.’ More recently, the term tribe has been applied to any people having a common territory and customs who are not part of a state society. One thing that is basic with tribe is that the members of a tribe are usually held together by common dialect, customs, social, economic, political sameness as well as observing major religious ceremonies. Tribe and tribal have been observed as convenient terms for indicating that a people still follows customs rather than state law.
In view of the relatedness of tribe with ethnicity, it is pertinent to define ethnicity as well. According to the Chambers 21st Century Dictionary ‘ethnicity means relating to or having a common race or cultural tradition, seen from the point of view of race, rather than nationality.’ In other words an ethnic group consists of a people who share the same culture, and we know, culture comprises the whole gamut of what the people do. This being the case, tribe and ethnicity are interwoven. This perhaps explains the reason why Ojukwu used both of them interchangeably. In this write up therefore, the two terms will be used to express the same idea.
Tribalism is the extreme and obsessive protection of one’s tribe to the detriment of the whole nation. The chambers 21st century dictionary defines it ‘as the system of tribes as a way of organizing society, the feeling of belonging to a tribe.’ It is a political attitude guided by tribal customs. While tribe sets out to define a people, tribalism is mainly that negative political attitude that tends to favour only persons from one’s tribe. But this usually retards national growth. Tribalism promotes such evils as social injustice, inefficiency, moral decadence, unproductivity, and mediocrity. Tribalism thwarts every effort towards unity and integration in any multi-ethnic/tribal nation.
In an attempt to explain tribalism, Achebe has it that “tribalism is discrimination against a citizen because of his place of birth”. This for me is a practical definition of tribalism, but something appears to be missing in it. One’s place of birth may not be his tribe. A Yoruba may be born in Onitsha. This does not make him an Igbo. Tribalism applies more to one’s tribe of origin. A lot of southerners are born in the North, but they greatly feel the pains of discrimination irrespective of the fact that that is their place of birth. Likewise, a lot of Northerners have various places in the south as their places of birth, yet they are seen as strangers. For Achebe,
tribalism manifests itself in acts such as preventing a citizen from living or working anywhere in his country, or from participating in the social, political, economic life of the community he chooses to live.
In what seems to be the most insightful explanation of tribalism, Ojukwu has it that
tribalism is nothing other than ethnic nationalism i.e. a limited, constricted nationalism, a stunted growth. It means a nationalism that has become fixated in adolescence. Tribalism is a consciousness, which emerged as the broadest viewpoint in a society organized on personalities. Tribalism, as a social philosophy, is based on the construction of a series of imaginary boundaries which establish the “us” and the “them” dichotomy.
These explanations show that tribalism is such a negative force. It divides a nation more than it builds it together. One factor that encourages tribalism, I think, is the fear for the truth about how the various components of Nigeria are; we are afraid to come together. Many Nigerians, no matter the intellectual heights, are afraid of coming together as a united entity. Hence, tribalism has become the proper avenue of dealing with this fear.
1.3 Dangers of Tribalism
Tribalism breeds a lot of dangers impeding the overall development of a country. In Nigeria, for instance, tribalism performs the function of a political tool. According to Ojukwu “tribalism manifests itself more as a function of politics than as an innate xenophobia amongst the various groups in Nigeria”. Achebe adds that
a word will stay around as long as there is work for it to do, in Nigeria, in spite of our protestations, there is plenty of work for tribe, our threatening gestures against it have been premature, half hearted, or plain deceitful.
There is some work for tribe in Nigeria, and as it does its work, there are bound to be many effects on those who use it and those on whom it is used. Hence, below are some of the dangers of tribalism in Nigeria.
1.3.1 Tribalism Leads To Disunity
Since the independence, every regime sets out to achieve the unity of the country. But these regimes fail regrettably in this project. Most Nigerians have intense desire for this unity, but at forty-five years of existence, we have lived more disunited than we had expected. It is the desire for this unity that has taken Nigeria through various experiments namely: the North-South dichotomy of early colonization, federalism or rather pseudo-federalism, the famous three regions structure and later four, the unitary system of government, the imposition of a twelve state structure, nineteen state structure, a twenty-one state structure, a thirty state structure, and at present, a thirty-six state structure, constitutional conferences particularly the 1995 constitutional conferences, and the just concluded national political reform conference. All these efforts have been to ensure unity, but we have always had pseudo-unity. Disunity comes in when people are attached to their tribes. As Ojukwu said,
the biggest obstacle to unity is that which is commonly known and referred to as tribalism.
Commenting on the dangers of disunity, he noted that
disunity is a danger that the people of this country can no longer endure. Disunity has laid to waste all the noble dreams of our founding fathers. Disunity has nullified all our efforts at national reconstruction and disunity has led us into war. Disunity has also destroyed our peace. The consequences of disunity are too terrible to contemplate and too obvious to require any further demonstration. The legalized barbarism of the contemporary Nigerian situation is the fruit of disunity.
The first danger posits by tribalism is disunity. This is not a mere ideological disagreement, but the type that constantly makes us stand “on a soil soaked in fratricidal blood”.
1.3.2 Tribalism Enthroned Mediocrity
Tribalism favours mediocrity. However, this advantage is the type that destroys not only the persons involved, but also the nation. Mediocrity reigns where tribe of origin is placed over and beyond merit and competence. Tribalism encourages mediocrity mainly in the award of contracts and in employment and promotions. Two contractors may be campaigning for a particular contract, and most often the less qualified “contractor” wins the job, while the one with better qualifications goes home a loser. The amateur contractor wins because he is of the “right” tribe while the other is not. As expected, the so-called contractor eventually messes up the job. In all these,
the greatest sufferer is the nation itself which has to contain the legitimate grievance of a wronged citizen, accommodate the incompetence of a favoured citizen, and more important and of greater scope, endure a general decline of morale and subversion of efficiency caused by an erratic system of performance and reward.
The same thing is experienced in employments. These days, certificates worth nothing once you know somebody in a higher position, your area of specialization not withstanding. It is still a living memory that Bola Ige was appointed a minister to man a sensitive power and steel ministry, despite the fact that he never specialized in that. At the early stage of our nationhood, the effects of tribalism with regard to mediocrity were so evident. Lamenting about the existence then Gbulie observed that
the terms ‘long legs’ and ‘as man knows man’ had been injected into the vocabulary of the Nigerian public. Thus, double standards had been created which, in turn led to frustration among millions of Nigerians. Mediocrity now sat unchallenged on the throne—mediocrity that was sustained by blind leadership. For merit meant nothing. Nor did talent and industry mean anything.
Against these backdrops, Ojukwu maintained that:
no amount of sanctimonious injunctions and no amount of erudite constitution-writing, can lift Nigeria from her mediocrity, to the greatest she deserves.
1.3.3 Tribalism Creates Social Injustice
Tribalism goes with a great deal of social injustice. A lot of injustices have been perpetrated in Nigeria, as a result of our myopic comprehension of the term tribe. Some Nigerians, because of their tribe, can never rise to he position of permanent secretaries in their ministries, some can never become the inspector general of police, defense and agriculture ministers. Certain industries must not be sited in certain places, and if they were put in place, a substandard firm would be assigned to handle it. This kind of situation does not help for any development.
1.3.4 Tribalism Retards Individual /National Development
A nation cannot exist without the citizens. In the same way, Nigeria cannot exist without the concerted mental and physical efforts of Nigerians. Because tribalism is separatist in nature, it retards the development of the nation. Tribalism retards development because in such a situation like Nigeria, due process is thrown to the winds and as such the people who are qualified for certain positions to keep the nation moving will not be given the opportunity. This being the case, the individual’s potentialities are left undeveloped, which in turn affects the entire nation.
1.3.5 Tribalism Promotes Cultural Underdevelopment
Variety, they say, is the spice of life. One major advantage that accrues from the existence of many tribes is the capacity of producing a variety of cultures that will eventually add more beauty to the national life. The languages and cultures of the various peoples that make up Nigeria have in different ways something to offer for national integration and development. Every culture ought to be open to other cultures, and through that way grows. But when people are too attached to their tribes as well as cultures to the exclusion of others, the cultures will hardly experience any growth. The silent adherence to tribe has made this possible, and as such, the various cultures remain dormant and underdeveloped.
1.3.6 Tribalism Leads To Disintegration
In a tribalism-infested society, there is always uneven distribution of the available resources, denial of equal opportunities, double standard, the born-to-rule mentality, and neglect of persons from other tribes. In such a scenario, some people tend to be marginalized. As expected, they will seek to defend themselves. And one way of defending themselves is to assert their autonomy and work towards secession. In this way, the things that hold the country together will start to fall apart. This is exactly what is happening in Nigeria.
1.4 The Positive Aspect of Tribalism
Tribalism is a word every individual who believes in Nigeria as a united country abhores. It would be very difficult for any Nigerian to envisage something good in it. The general understanding of this word has been and still remains in the negative.
On the contrary, the term tribalism is not entirely bad, if anything, it is the way people use it that is bad. “Tribe is very natural and normal; no one is without a tribe.” According to Azikiwe, the fact of tribe is not specific to Africa alone, it is a universal fact. However, irrespective of tribal differences, the common identity in the association with one another as a nation should uphold and endure.
Discussing tribalism as a pragmatic instrument for national unity, Azikiwe maintained that tribe has a positive meaning, the positive meaning of community. This means that tribalism could then become a pragmatic instrument for national unity not disunity. Thus Azikiwe said:
if the concept and practice of tribalism would be a mode of adaptation to reality, then tribalism is an instrument for national unity.
Still for Azikiwe, tribe is an anthropological fact. A tribe is made up of race, language and culture, and these, as it were, are the major anthropological factors that determine the level of integrability and assimilability among the tribes. Countries such as Switzerland, United States of America, U.S.S.R are examples of countries that are made up of less integrated tribes. Yet, they maintain their identities as single nations. This goes to show that over two hundred and fifty tribes that make up Nigeria are not disasters but great assets.
In this line of thinking, Achebe notes also that everyone agrees that there are manifestations of tribal culture, which we cannot condemn such as peculiar habits of dress, food, language, and music.
These and many other manifestations are positive and desirable and confer richness on our national culture. They add to the beauty richly embedded in African culture.
Tribalism has some positive benefits, and for Nigeria to achieve the desired positive aspect in tribalism, Azikiwe was of the view that loyalty to tribe must be transferred to loyalty to Nigeria as a nation. This will be well achieved when, according to him, “permanent guarantees of a constitutional, political, and economic nature are met”.
Our differences are therefore assets rather than tools for destruction. The practice of tribalism, I will maintain, is a defective attitude of the mind that eventually manifests itself in the utterances and actions of men.
 E. Ojukwu, Op. Cit. p. xiv.
 Cited by J. Uwalaka., The Struggle For An Inclusive Nigeria: Igbos, To Be Or Not To Be? (Enugu: Snaap Press Ltd., 2003) p.11.
 cited by A.Waugh and S. Cronje, Biafra: Britain’s Shame (London: Michael Joseph Ltd. 1969) p.22.
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