By Prof. (Senator) Banji Akintoye
AT THE NATIONAL CONFERENCE ON PROMOTING PEACE, DEMOCRACY & STABILITY ORGANISED BY THE JOURNALISTS FOR DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS, (JODER) AND THE FORD FOUNDATION IN LAGOS.
Tuesday 26 April, 2016
My Esteemed Countrymen,
Permit me to start by humbly thanking you for asking me to deliver this Keynote Address today.
Black Africa is peculiarly a land of mostly very small ethnic groups or nationalities. Even at today’s population levels (after a century of rapid population growths), almost all of the sub-continent is still home to very small nationalities. Its largest nationalities are the three that live in the West Africa sub-region, namely the three giants of Nigeria (Yoruba, Hausa-Fulani and Igbo, each of which is estimated at roughly between 40 and 47 million). After these three, about ten other nations across the sub-continent have populations averaging some 15 million each, and about five others have populations averaging about seven million each. The rest of the sub-continent is shared among thousands of very small nationalities. Some have populations in the range of a couple of millions. The overwhelming majority each has much less than that – many having populations of only a few tens of thousands.
With this minute ethno-linguistic fragmentation of the Black African sub-continent, every Black African country of our timeshas had to comprise tens of nationalities. Nigeria, the largest in population, with some 170 million people, has over 300 nationalities. Clearly over one-hundred of Nigerian nationalities have populations of only a few hundred thousand or less each.
Nigeria’s immediate western neighbor, the small Republic of Benin with a population of about eight million, is home to about 40 nationalities. Tanzania, with a population of about 38 million, has about 120 ethnic nationalities. That is the dominant pattern all over Black Africa.
Therefore, no matter whatever form Black Africa’s entry into the world of the 20th century would have taken, this fundamental fact would have been indeed a difficult reality to handle. If we, the peoples of Black Africa, had been free to formulate and delineate our own countries at the beginning of the 20th century, we would still have needed to find ways to group our small nationalities into a manageable number of countries – and that would not have been an easy task at all. It is instructive that even each of the two Black African countries that were not founded by European imperialists – that is Ethiopia and Liberia –still comprise many different nationalities.
But, unfortunately, it was other peoples, the Europeans, that came and carved out our modern countries. These Europeans were not only vastly different from us in culture, history and background by the time they came to create our countries, they also had solid historical reasons to be disrespectful, and even spiteful, of us. For three centuries before, the relationship between them and us had been largely the relationship between masters and slaves. They had prospered enormously from the trans-Atlantic slave-trade, through which they had transported millions of Black Africans to other continents to create foundations of wealth for themselves. Thus, Black Africa’s entry into the world of the 20th century actually took perhaps the worst form imaginable in the circumstance – namely, through conquest, control and direction by a people who were operating from deep reserves of disrespect and even spite for Black African peoples.
In the process, European imperialistscompounded and confounded Black Africa’s fundamental problem – the problem of minute ethnic fragmentation. Approaching Black Africa with the typical arrogance of Europeans of the time, various European imperialist agents trampled down their parts of theBlack African sub-continent, conceding no respect or consideration to any people, cutting boundaries through even obviously solid peoples, and creating territorial agglomerations in such ways as make no sense in many cases, and in such ways as to make no room for any possibility of cohesion and unity immediately or in any future.
European imperialist rule over Africa was brief in duration – lasting roughly from about 1900 to about 1960, and much less in many countries. But in that brief period, it molded Africa very profoundly. Its first major act was the determination and demarcation of boundaries for the countries of Africa. A Briton, Lord Salisbury, said of the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 at which European countries agreed on how to share Africa among them:
“We have been engaged in drawing lines on maps where no white man’s foot ever trod; we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we have never known where the rivers and lakes and mountains were.”5
Another Briton, a British colonial agent who took part in establishing the boundary between British-owned Nigeria and then German-owned Cameroons, wrote years later:
“In those days, we just took a blue pencil and ruler, and we put it down at Old Calabar, and drew that blue line to Yola. I recollect thinking when I was sitting having an audience with the Emir (of Yola) surrounded by his tribe, that it was a very good thing that he did not know that I, with a blue pencil, had drawn a line through his territory.”5.
Those “blue lines”, products of minds that were almost totally ignorant of the territories with which they were dealing, established the international boundaries ofAfrican countries. They also established, within each country, the boundaries of administrative districts and provinces. Virtually all Black African countries were thus handed international and internal boundaries that, from the first day to now, have been beset by problems of inter-ethnic relations.
Moreover, in every country, the goal of imperial administration was not to “build” a country, but to wring from it the maximum economic advantage for the imperial power.Imperial investments, such as there were, targeted the exploitation of resources capable of the highest and quickest yields – such as mineral deposits, forest resources, export produce. In some countries, European companies were given concessions to exploit certain resources or even whole regions. The development of roads, railways and ports was designed to serve the goals of economic exploitation, to facilitate the evacuation of resources from the interior to the coast, and had no interest in facilitating the unification or growth of a country. In those countries where the climate permitted the introduction of farmers from Europe, infrastructural developments were focused on helping the European farmers by opening up the areas where their farms concentrated. In order to give European companies free rein, imperial policy discouraged indigenous entrepreneurship – or even destroyed it where it already existed.
Even the administrative unity of each country was nominal for most of the colonial period. For instance, even after two protectorates were amalgamated to form Nigeria in 1914, the administrations of the two regions continued to be essentially different.It was not until the late 1940s, after the Second World War, that constitutional arrangements for one Nigeria were at last embarked upon – and that was just over ten years before Nigeria’s independence. Belgian Congo (Congo Kinshasa), territorially the largest country in Africa, was a country only in name even until independence – its widely dispersed provinces and peoples were virtually out of touch with one another. In 1919, the French formed the territories of Upper Volta into one colony. In 1932, they split it up and shared it between neighboring French colonies. Then in 1947 they brought its parts together again as one country called Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) – only a few years before independence.
Furthermore, policies of the imperialists commonly promoted disunity and distrust among the nationalities in their colonies. In most countries, the few scattered nodal centers of colonial administration, and the areas where resources were being exploited, tended to receive all of the colonial government’s inputs into infrastructural and social development. Thus, in every country, the roots were planted of socio-economic development focused on a few urban centers, to the neglect of rural concentrations of population that were regarded as less important. In a country with many different ethnic national territories, this holds the potential of establishing the seeds of unhealthy inter-ethnic rivalries and hostilities.
Moreover, most colonial powers employed, in their tropical African possessions, policies and practices based on the race theories that developed in the slave-trade era and that were powerfully promoted in European scholarship during the 19th century. In general, the French used the race theories much more widely than the British, while the Belgians employed them very intensively in their colonies of the Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. The heritage of these theories and policies has been the growth of inter-ethnic animosities and hostilities even where none had existed before European colonialism, and their intensification where some had existed.
Still more, as independence seemed more and more inevitable in Africa generally in the years after the Second World War, each imperial power sought out a preferred nationality, a “friendly people”, to hand power to in each country at independence, as a means of further protecting their own interests after independence. Usually, working towards that kind of objective called for various kinds of crooked maneuvers and manipulations. These included manipulations of the independence constitutions, falsification of politically important national statistics (such as censuses), unfair manipulations of the pre-independence elections, etc. And usually too, once the colonial rulers of a country had thus concocted their chosen leadership for the country, they gave it support for long after independence – by meddling with the country’s affairs from the shadows.
These then are the facts and realities about our indigenous nations. They are the background tothe horrid experiences of our countries since independence. Our indigenous nations were mostly too small to constitute the sizeable countries appropriate to the modern world. To create such countries, it was necessary to group some nations togetherinto each country. Unfortunately, we did not get the chance to carry out this crucial exercise for ourselves. Another people who were mostly ignorant about our continent, about our ways of life, and about our political culture and history, pushed their way in and did it. And they did it out of minds that disrespected and even despised us, that were not much disposed to give consideration to our well-being, and that sought virtually all the benefits and profits for their own countries back home in Europe. These foundations launched our nations ineach of our modern countries into a very rocky journey together.
These foundational weaknesses,authored by the colonial rulers, are very important, no doubt. However, after more than fifty years of independence, we Black Africans have now developed a broad consensus that we cannot continue to blame only the European imperialists for our troubles, and that we must blame ourselves more significantly. Most of our countries have been independent now for more years than they were ruled by European imperialists. Independence offered us the duty and the opportunity in each country to consider what the imperialists had bequeathed to us, and to adjust it appropriately in order to provide a setting for harmony among our various nations and for stability for our countries. For the most part, we have failed to rise to that duty and respond to the opportunity. From their positions of power and influence, our foremost citizens have tended mostly to seek power without restraint, without limit, and without responsibility, and personal wealth without account, to the detriment of their countries and their people. And these have been prone to promote, among many other ills, weakness, poverty, confusion, fear, desperation, hostility and conflict among the masses ofcommon people.
And most of such urban-based conflicts have tended to play out as inter-ethnic. In the poor urban destinations to which the poor masses tend to swarm in a hopeless quest for economic survival, fights by the poor against the poor, meaninglessly developing as fights of ethnic national groups against one another, have become common all over Black Africa.
But, in Nigeria, these urban fire-storms are by no means the only kind of inter-ethnic conflicts. Much more serious ones, with more devastating consequences, occur frequently. One of the earliest of these, and the most memorable, was the massive killing of Igbo nationals from the Nigerian Southeast in some parts of Northern Nigeria in late 1966. One major series, consisting of widespread conflicts between armed Fulani herdsmen and local farming folks in virtually all parts of the Nigerian Middle Belt and South, is now shaking the very foundations of Nigeria. Others are based in religion – consisting of Muslim indigenes in parts of the North attacking Christian congregations (mostly from the South), burning their churches and killing some of the worshippers therein.
In every case of these inter-ethnic conflicts in Nigeria, poor governance and poor leadership of the Nigerian state is the cause. Gradually since independence, governance at all levels in Nigeria (local, state and federal) has taken on the character of indifference to the needs of the people, concentration of most of leadership energy on the acquisition of personal unearned wealth, and cynically deceptive propaganda for the purpose of hiding the truth from the people. Therefore, as poverty has grown all over Nigeria, the myth grows among citizens everywhere that citizens in other parts of the country, or in some favoured nations, are faring better. Usually, the politicians, while mostly giving their energies to enriching themselves from public funds, tend to succeed at deceiving their ethnic nationals that they are serving the interests of their ethnic nations. The politician thus manipulates ethnicity to whip up electoral support for himself, but he also thus reinforces inter-ethnic animosities. Much of the explosions between different ethnic groups springs from this sad fact.
Side by side with these trends, the people in control of federal power in Nigeria, irrespective of where they come from in the country, tend to view people of some parts of the country as potential enemies and threats. Policies, actions and body-language aimed at marginalizing or subduing such enemies and threats are a constant feature of the behavior of federal governmental leadership in Nigeria. Policies subtly designed to gradually weaken and destroy some nationalities – policies such as discouraging the teaching of their language and history to their children, or weakening the participation of their men and women in the commanding heights of the Nigerian economy –are also constant features of Nigerian federal governance.
Maneuvering to pull all power and resource-control together at the federal centre, and to reduce the federating units of the country to impotent entities easily manipulated by federal authority, are also constant features of federal leadership. Quite often, some of these noxious policies are justified as necessary for unifying and integrating Nigeria, but most of what they achieve is reinforcement of ethnic fears and inter-ethnic animosities – animosities that ultimately fuel inter-ethnic conflicts.
What then, and how much, can Nigerian youths contribute to the changing of these trends and thereby to harmony, stability, and progress in Nigeria? I hold the view that our youths intrinsically command a lot of capability over the direction of our country. Even your coming together to hold these summits is a potentially big push forward for our country. You are getting together and getting to know one another, creating avenues for discussion of the direction of our country and for exchange of opinions. None of you is likely to leave these summits still holding to all of the ideas you held before you came. You have inaugurated a process of change, and I urge you to do everything to keep it going.
As you talk among you, I am sure you will constantly come to the mostcrucial fact about the composition of this country of ours. Ours is not a country consisting of one ethnic nation(like Russia or France or Germany), it is a country consisting (like India or Switzerland or Britain)of many different ethnic nations, each with its own language, culture and way of doing things, its own ambitions, desires and hopes, its own image of itself and its own national pride.Of course, we Nigerians can build this country into a country in which all our nationalities are happy to belong, a country that works smoothly, a country that progresses and prospers. India, Britain and Switzerland are doing that – by respecting each nationality and its culture, and by adopting constitutional arrangements that allow each nationality to manage much of its own affairs and to make its own kind of contribution to the overall prosperity of their country. They know that too much centralization of power in their country can kill their country, and they keep taking step after step to make the separate units stronger. Make yourselves familiar with these facts, and make your voices heard in the affairs of your country.
Much of what the politicians present to their people as necessary for the interest of their people are really not so. The masses of people in all parts of our country are suffering from desperate poverty. It is not true that upholding an excessively powerful federal government that controls all resources benefits the people of any part of our country. What it does is to make our people poorer and poorer in all parts of our country and to uphold corruption, and it threatens to destroy our country. Our youths must give their strength to truths that benefit their people and all the peoples of Nigeria.
Respecting our differences is the key. In a meeting of our country’s topmost leaders (Sir Ahmadu Bello, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe) sometime in the 1950s, Dr. Azikiwe urged, “Let us forget our differences”. Sir Ahmadu answered, “No, we cannot forget our differences; we should respect our differences”. Both really meant the same thing – namely that we should recognize that we are different nationalities and therefore manage our differences respectfully and constructively. Chief Awolowo, always the philosopher, wrote whole books to plead that we should respect our different nationalities and their cultures and make our constitution to reflect that respect.
I must close by letting you into some little bit of our past. When I was about your age, I was passionately convinced that my country would become the greatest country in modern Africa, the Blackman’s world power of modern times. As a university student in Ibadan, I was very active in students’ leadership. at home and abroad, I represented Nigeria in many student conferences in the world and in Africa, and I was enormously proud for my country and of my country. Let me tell a story from one of my conferences abroad. It was a conference in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia in 1960, some months before the independence of our country. I was leader of the Nigerian delegation. The Ethiopian Minister of Education, Mr. Endalkatchew Makonen, invited us Nigeria students and other West African students to dinner at his home. When the dinner was over and we were being taken back in cars to the dormitories of the Haile Selassie University where we were staying, the honourable Minister came over to my car, laid his hand on my shoulder, bent over, and said very seriously, “My young Nigerian brother, congratulations in advance for your country’s independence. I hope that as you Nigerians prepare for your independence, you will not forget that a lot in our Africa from now on will come to depend on your country”. I was so proud for my country that I shed tears all the way back to my dormitory. And I could not sleep even a minute all that night. Nigeria can be a great possession, in spite of the brutalities it has suffered since independence. Let us struggle to make it a great possession.Its future depends on you our youths.