By Sola Fasure
Dr. Bala Usman has been under severe criticism for his essay titled "Ignorance, Knowledge and Democratic Politics in Nigeria". At a time when fiscal federalism is in the front burners of national discourse following the rescue of Nigeria from the brink of collapse and the gradual lifting of the siege on the Niger Delta by rapacious military marauders, his essay could not have been anything but provocative.
Let me state clearly and ab initio that I am not an admirer of Bala Usman. We are not ideologically compatible. He is a Marxist, I am not. I believe Marxists are hypocrites who deny our essential humanity and prescribe grandiose ideas and live a lifetime of illusion on improbable utopia. Even though they claim to be students of history, they drew a wrong conclusion from correct historical premises and therefore commit the greatest historical fallacy. Secondly, sometimes in 1997, an international seminar on Nigerian federalism sponsored by the Institute for French Research in Africa (IFRA) based in Ibadan and the Department of Political Science of University of Ibadan was put off by Abacha’s security goons on the strength of Bala Usman’s objection to what he saw as French imperial intervention in our domestic affairs. Bala was invited as a keynote speaker but he wrote to the Nigerian government to protest the seminar. I was involved in organising the seminar which had to be put off in the last minute. I therefore have a legitimate basis to dislike this radical scholar.
My position, however, is that though I may not like Bala’s politics, I do not have to confuse that with his thoughts. We are always under constant impulse to commit the fallacy of ad hominen by dismissing a scholar’s work on the grounds of his politics and person.
Bala Usman’s article had been criticised on several fronts, especially by Professor Peter Ekeh and Dr. G. G. Darah, but I think there are two strands of his argument that are worth defending and re-examining. The first is that the Nigerian state antedates the ethnic groups in it as we know them today. Secondly, and flowing from this, the Nigerian state is superior to the ethnic groups and therefore have a superior claim to the land and the resources there-in.
Professor Ekeh’s rejoinder titled "THE MISCHIEF OF HISTORY: Bala Usman’s Unmaking of Nigerian History" seems to principally dwell on these two issues. He especially put up a spirited defence for his Urhobo ethnic group and the Niger Delta in general. He tries hard to fault Usman’s data on the authorship of the world "Yoruba" and used the inaccuracies he identified to upend Usman’s principal thesis that: ethnic identity as we know it in Nigeria today is a recent historical development.
I found the distinguished Professor’s position (or volte face) rather unsettling. Professor Ekeh is a foremost scholar on the impact of colonialism on Africa. The central piece of his inaugural lecture of June 1980 at the University of Ibadan titled Colonialism and Social Structure is that, contrary to the view of Ibadan school of history that colonialism was just an episode, it indeed was an epochal event distinguished by three landmark social formations that have implications far beyond the formal terminal date of colonisation. He identifies the first landmark as transformed indigenous social structures, in which traditional institutions such as chieftaincy, certain aspects of culture, etc., were changed from their original content into new forms. The second which he calls migrated social structures are institutions imported wholesale from the metropole but without their moral content such as democracy, bureaucracy, etc. The third phenomenon, and which is our concern here, is emergent social structure. Professor Ekeh argues brilliantly that ethnic groups are of recent vintage. "As I contended elsewhere… that Nigerian ethnic groups have their socio-political meaning only in terms of the development of Nigeria. As social formations, these ethnic groups are not older than Nigeria". Professor Ekeh had earlier argued in the same piece that: "With colonialism, the integrity of tribal societies was destroyed. Popular views to the contrary, these tribal societies were not replaced case by case with ethnic groups. In many instances what resulted were ethnic groups that are compositions of several tribal entities. By 1820, an Ekiti man would have been astounded if he were called a ‘Yoruba man’ whom he understood, if he was so knowledgeable, as a man from Oyo. In any case, an Ekiti would probably need an interpreter in order to communicate effectively with a Yorubaman in 1820. Eluwa, the Secretary of the Ibo State Union, confessed that by the early 1950’s he participated in persuading many ‘Ibos’ that they were indeed Ibos. Hausa is a composition of several tribal organisations that found their common relevance in modern Nigeria". It is most surprising that Professor Ekeh would turn round to accuse Bala Usman of mischief for saying what Ekeh has earlier stated with elan and gusto 21 years before.
On the second strand, I am tempted to question Professor Ekeh’s political science on the theory of the state. Students of politics know that with the transfer of legality from the precolonial order to the modern state, a new legal order which supercedes the old one is established in which it becomes self-evident that the state is the custodian of sovereignty. It is a moot point, therefore, that the social organisation, within a territorial boundary that enjoys international recognition and possesses the legitimate right to the monopoly of force is superior to all other social organisation such that the later derives its existence from the former. Whereas membership of all other organisations is voluntary, membership of the state is compulsory.
The problem with those who find it difficult to accept the superiority of the state over ethnic group is that they confuse the idea of the state in its essential stateness as seen in Europe and America with its distorted manifestation in Nigeria as coercive, unobtrusive, arbitrary, parasitic and hostile — in the most statist form.
If the Nigerian state is legitimate and its powers exercised justly with its laws and actions reflecting the true wishes of the Nigerian people such that there exists an organic linkage between the state and society, it will not be hard to accept that the state owns the people, the land and its resources. This is because the interface is that the people also own the state. Such a state, for instance, will ensure an equitable distribution of resources that will guarantee the people of the Niger Delta a fair deal. The challenge therefore is not to crucify Bala Usman for telling us a painful truth, but to tame and transform the Nigerian state and make it the state of all.