Does ‘who gets what’ really matter?
The inspiration for this reflection is a robust conversation I had with someone regarding my last week’s column. A sub theme in the column was on ‘Buhari should look into allegations of northernisation policy’. My friend, let’s call him Ahmed, said he was disappointed that someone of “my intellectual calibre”, a supposedly “cosmopolitan academic” should concern himself with the petty issue of ‘who gets what’ in Nigerian politics. He called the politics of ‘who gets what, when, how and why’ purely an “elite game”, since a “poor farmer from Daura, practically gets nothing from coming from the same village as Muhammadu Buhari, the President of the country.” He added that, if anything, coming from the same village as Buhari would add to the array of environmental and societal inconveniences the poor farmer suffers such as an added discomfort from traffic congestion and the inevitable ubiquity of security and secret service personnel whenever the President visits. For him therefore, he would not really mind if Buhari appointed all his operatives from Daura provided such people were qualified, are men of integrity and would deliver results. He said he would similarly not have been concerned if former President Jonathan appointed only people from Otuoke. His problem with Jonathan, he said, was that the former President was so grossly incompetent that most of his appointees were mediocre while he lived in awe of the few competent ones.
I agreed with my friend that the politics of ‘who gets what’, or ‘ethnic/regional/ religious watching’ is an elite game which only benefits the various regional, ethnic , religious and social factions of the same elite. If people from say Anambra, Ekiti or Borno complain that they were left out or ‘marginalized’ in key federal appointments, they are essentially saying that the factions of the same Nigerian elite from these states had been excluded or marginalized in such appointments, not the ordinary people from those states who would never be appointed to the positions in question.
I elaborated that ethnicity and regionalism and the related ‘ethnic/ regional/religious watching’ only exist in the context of the struggle for scarce socioeconomic resources by the same Nigerian elite. This means that Nigerians are fine when they engage in horizontal relationships – intermarrying, comingling, and conniving to loot the treasury- but not in vertical relationships that deal with citizens’ relations with the state and the intra -elite competition for access to critical state resources. And this is why social scientists often point at the colonial urban centres as the cradle of ethnicity – or what some people inappropriately call ‘tribalism’ in Nigeria. It was in those colonial enclaves that the various ethnic groups for the first time came into intense contact with one another and struggled for the scarce resources from the colonial order such as scholarships or the location of infrastructure by mobilizing ethnic sentiments as veneers to mask the intraelite character of such struggle. For instance, prior to the formal institution of colonialism, there was no consciousness of being Yoruba, Igbo Ibibio or Hausa/ Fulani. It was in the colonial enclaves that such consciousness developed.
The above were the common grounds I shared with Ahmed in his contention that the politics of ‘who gets what’ and the concomitant ‘ethnic/regional and religious watching’ is just an elite game that sensible people should not fall for.
My point of divergence with Ahmed is that I went further to argue that even though ethnicity originally existed only in the context of the struggle for the scarce resourcesmoderatedthroughstatepower, over time, it has acquired an objective character, and exists independent of the original cause. I argued that it is within this context that one should understand ethnic/regional/religious watching in political appointments. It is also within that context that it is wrong to call it ‘just an elite game’. In other words, ethnicity/regionalism over time becomes ideological. Ideology typically is like a pair of binoculars through which the people who share the ideology filter information from their political world. As an ideology, ethnic and regional concerns shape the actions of the adherents of the ideology and also provide a guide for their political behaviour.
In the above sense Ahmed was wrong that it does not really matter ‘who gets what and when’ in the authoritative allocation of values in the society. This is because ethnic/regional watching as an ideology means that perception of marginalization or exclusion by a group fuels a sense of otherness, and with that a proclivity to ‘de-Nigerianize’ (i.e. delink from the state and regard the state as an enemy). This is why, in my opinion, it is dangerous to play the politics of ‘it is our turn’ as it not only undermines the nation-building process but also accentuates the anarchic character of our politics. Twenty years, they say, is not eternity. Those who feel excluded will bide their time to revenge when it gets to their turn.
Let me mention that I am usually suspicious of people who claim to be ethnically and regionally blind or ‘detribalized’ - such as my friend was trying to imply. The truth is that people are emotive about their primordial identities and any identity that is perceived to be under threat is the one most vociferously defended by the people that share such an identity. Therefore anyone telling you that his or her primordial identity does not matter is being less than honest. Being proud of one’s primordial identity such as one’s ethnic or religious group does not necessarily mean that one is an ethnic, regional or religious bigot. It becomes a problem when it is conflictual in form, that is, when you see the interaction between people of your ethnic, regional and religious identity and others as a zero-sum game - a competition in which ‘your people’ must either win or lose. When ethnic/ regional watchers convince the rest of the in-group that their homeland is under threat by discrimination and marginalization, the hitherto harmless pride in one’s ethnicity and regional identity morphs into dangerous bigotry.
One issue I agreed with Ahmed is on the need to find ways of breaking the vicious cycle of the ‘politics of our turn’ – where the group that captures state power believes it needs to use such power to privilege its in-group or redress the group’s perceived historical wrongs. The oft repeated justification for the ‘politics of our turn’ is that the previous regime did the same –an argument readily bandied around by those defending Buhari against accusations of favouring the North, especially Northern Muslims, in his political appointments. The corollary to this argument is that the next group that captures state power has a right to use state power precisely in the same manner – to privilege its ingroup and address the group’s perceived historical wrongs against it. I believe that for this country to make any meaningful progress, the country needs to break this vicious cycle.
This is why very early in the Buhari regime some of us were goading him to be a reconciler, a statesman who will reconcile and unite a fractious country, rather than a sheriff brandishing koboko to whip sense into the heads of those suspected of being corrupt. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not against fighting corruption. I have been a consistent critic of the style, which is the same ‘gra-gra’ used by previous governments. I do not believe any of the past efforts at fighting the corruption which assumed that the problem is a simple matter of moral lapses on the part of the corrupt has worked –otherwise fighting corruption would not have continued to be a big policy plank of all the governments in the country from independence till date.
Though the Buhari government has lost tremendous goodwill since coming to power - and has not helped matters in some ways - I still believe that the President will eventually re-invent himself to play the role of a statesman and a reconciler. Leaders can be radicalized or de-radicalized by system dynamics at any time in their tenure. Intrigues and back-stabbing are the soul of politics. Some will bring out the animal in a leader, other forms of experience in power can humanize the President or change his perspective. I remain hopeful that surrounded by the right people, Buhari may still surprise his critics.