Do you identify yourselves as members of an ethnic group that your great-grandparents did not. It is very unlikely that your great-grandparents regarded themselves as Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Efik, Ogoni, Tiv, Kanuri or [insert name of applicable ethnic group from the list of 250+] in the manner than you do today. When Nigerians engage each other in bitter ethnic battle, the extent to which the effects of colonialism still holds them captive becomes apparent.
Until the 19th and 20th centuries, many African ‘races’, ‘tribes’, or ethnicities such as the Yoruba, Shona, Igbo, Hutu, Tutsi and Ogoni did not exist in their modern form. Many African ethnic groups are fictional social constructs created by the departed colonial masters. Colonial authorities did not just create the nation called Nigeria, they also “created” many of the ethnic groups inside its borders.
The existence of Igbos, Yorubas, Ogonis, Hausas etc as centuries old, ancient, stable, ethnic groups, each with their own homogeneous culture and unambiguous identity, is nothing but a myth. Nigeria’s governments have also bought this colonial lie of ethnicity hook, line, and sinker. Today ethnic riots often break out over “ethnic groups”, “indigenes”, and “settlers” that did not exist before 1900. Prior to colonialism, there were numerous groups of people with cultural and linguistic links who later became Ogoni, Yoruba, Igbo etc. However 200 years ago, people from Ogbomosho and Abeokuta did not regard themselves as part of the same ethnic group. Neither did people from Owerri and Onitsha.
THE “YORUBA NATION”
People who currently self identify as “Yoruba” did not do so until around approximately 110-115 years ago. The Yoruba phrase originally applied only to the group of people in modern day Oyo. Even the famed Oyo Empire was not a Yoruba empire as such. It incorporated areas of modern day locations that are regarded as Nupe-land or Ebira-land (as well as modern day Benin Republic). Even Transatlantic slaves taken from (modern day) Yorubaland and emancipated by the British in the early 19th century did not identify themselves as Yoruba.
Pan Yoruba consciousness grew in the early 1900s when trading, migration, religious conversion and education drew various related groups in modern day south-western Nigeria into contact with each other. Neighbouring groups who are today regarded as Yoruba (such as Ekiti, Ondo, Ilesha, Ijebu etc) subsequently adopted Yoruba identity. These groups thus acquired collective identity and designation under a common name.
The pre-independence nationalist agitation for independence, and Nnamdi Azikiwe’s pre-eminence in the Igbo State Union and National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) amplified pan-Yoruba identity. This encouraged the creation of a pan-Yoruba movement to compete against other ethnic groups (especially Igbos). This phenomenon later manifested itself in political form via the NCNC/Action Group political party rivalry.
ETHNICITY AND BORDERS
Early European arrivals in Africa had a tendency to observe their African hosts through European tinted binoculars, that automatically correlated geographic location with language, identity and race (as is the case in Europe). Colonial authorities’ use of maps and geography assigned unique ethnic or tribal identities to Africans living within a certain area – where no such identities had existed before.
The myth of large African ethnic groups compartmentalised within neat geographic boundaries, was reinforced by colonial bureaucracy’s arbitrary use of borders and maps to demarcate and classify where one ethnic group’s ‘turf’ ended, and another group’s began. Remember the British division of Nigeria into three regions? Is it not odd that such geographic division just happened to coincide with the notion of a country dominated by ‘three major ethnic groups’ (whose geographical boundaries just happened to coincide with the intra-country regional borders created by the British?).
THE BIBLE AND RELIGION
Colonialism was not the exclusive vehicle for the creation of ethnic identity. Religious missionaries also unwittingly contributed. Lost in a breath-taking matrix of African languages, and eager to communicate with, and spread the word of the Judeo-Christian God to newly ‘discovered’ populations, Christian missionaries were prone to compiling ‘standardised’ versions of several local dialects they encountered. They thereby transformed these standardised versions into ‘authorized’ or ‘official’ versions of the other/related languages spoken nearby. For example, Christian missionaries translated the bible into the Oyo/Egba dialects and designated the dialect of the Oyo kingdom as ‘standard Yoruba’. These translations and their teaching in schools also perpetuated pan-Yoruba identity. The same phenomenon was observed among the Igbos with missionaries’ translation of a “Union Igbo” bible.
By compiling and translating new grammars from one among a diversity of variant local dialects (usually that spoken around the mission station), missionaries frequently transformed a local dialect they encountered into the ‘authoritative’ version of the language of a whole ‘tribe’ and propagated it through their schools.
Lazy European anthropology also played its part. Anthropological observers would often spend time researching an isolated group, then issue ‘authoritative’ academic treatises identifying that group’s customs and culture as emblematic of a much larger group of people in that area. This is turn encouraged the lopsided recording and standardisation of local histories and customs. The practices of a group near a mission station or anthropologist’s base, would often be incorrectly propagated as being the customs of an entire region or ethnic group.
PEOPLE OF THE BOOK
Since religious conversion often came with the added bonus of literacy attached, various sub-groups had an added impetus to attach themselves to, and identify with, the modified ethnic identities that were being created by the Europeans in their midst.
Education, literacy and the recording of religious texts into local languages added to this pattern of ‘standardised’ grammar and language. Since the “standard Yoruba” and “Union Igbo” came wrapped with the enticing benefits of education and literacy, it became first a social, then an ethno-linguistic group. The demarcation of Nigeria into federal units also accorded political benefits and relevance to those who ‘belonged’ to this Yoruba group (and encouraged such belonging).
A modern example of constructed ethnic identity are the Ogoni. The people who today identify as Ogoni originally spoke what one academic described as a ‘cluster’ of languages (such as Khana, Gokana and Eleme), one of which could be further sub-divided into different dialects. As recently as the 1930s, there was no great pan-Ogoni consciousness. The efforts of colonial and post-independence governments to create states for minority ethnicities, encouraged pan Ogoni nationalism and identity. This was motivated by a desire to form a new state separate from the Eastern Region, which minorities wanted to leave in order to rid themselves of Igbo domination.
So before the next time you suggest breaking up Nigeria into its “component ethnic nations”, or express frustration at your inability to understand or get along with your “Aboki”, “Ngbati”, or “Nyamiri” neighbour, or your “Mai Guard”, consider that you are playing a game created by a colonial referee that has long since left the playing field…