Does ‘who gets what’ re­ally mat­ter?

Daily Trust - - SPORT -

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.

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