Of ‘Indigenes’ and ‘Settlers’ – the National Question in Nigeria
By Femi Olugbile
During the recent Football World Cup in Qatar, many people in the world-wide audience became aware for the first time of the population dynamics of the host nation.
The Western World complained about the Qataris’ treatment of migrant workers. It turned out, on close examination, that the indigenes of Qatar were only 15% of the population. The overwhelming majority of the population- 85% were ‘immigrants’. Though many foreigners enjoyed generous working conditions and were able to live opulent lifestyles in the Arab nation, the indigenes controlled everything of significance in the nation. They were the people you met at the Immigration and Security posts at the airport. The whole apparatus of government was controlled by them. And there was no pathway for transition from immigrant to indigene, even for fellow Arabs who had lived in the country for decades.
The picture is similar for Dubai, a popular watering hole for the Nigerian elite. Of a population of 3.5 million, only 10% are indigenes, and they are the only real ‘owners’ of the Emirate.
There are fifty-four countries on the continent of Africa. Many of them are colonial creations, with boundaries that often make no sense geographically or historically, because they were drawn up for the convenience of colonialists, with arbitrary mergers such as the one carried out by Lugard to create Nigeria, or by the drawing of lines that placed people of one ethnic stock on two sides of a border line, so that in time the cousins ended up speaking two different colonial languages and having traditions of governance that were poles apart. However, no colonial experience has been able to change the fact that African peoples are deeply rooted to their ancestral lands. The land, like their personal names, their local language, and their culture, provides an underpinning for their sense of identity. For many, it may be said that the land is not what you own but who you are. Much of the still unresolved psychological damage evident in the behaviour of many African Americans is believed to be attributable to a psychological sense of rootlessness and dislocation from ethnic identity. This is why every year, thousands of African Americans spend vast amounts of money trying, through DNA and other methods, to find out their African ethnic roots.
From the beginning of the existence of the Lugardian contraption known as Nigeria, there have been several discussions and controversies concerning how the people should interact and relate to one another. There is a natural wanderlust inherent in the social behaviour of virtually all ethnic groups in the country, and even before Nigeria was formed, there was a lot of movement from place to place and intermingling among the various tribes. Much of the cross-territorial movement has been for work or business purposes. Some national institutions, such as the Nigeria Railways which operated across the new nation for several decades, led people to take up residence in distant places. The trade in agricultural produce and commercial goods generated similar movement. People of various stocks seemed to blend with ease across the nation, so that there were Igbo spare parts and electronics traders who became part of the landscape of Sokoto, just as people with Ogbomosho tribal marks could be seen driving taxis and teaching in classrooms in many northern cities, and the sight of northerners running corner stores and guarding houses in Lagos became so rampant that ‘Malam’ became an alternative name for ‘Security Guard’. This easy blending, especially in the days before the nation’s Civil War, led to a sense of false security in a nascent national identity. Nigeria was one, according to its Constitution, whichever version was operative, and every Nigeria could live and thrive in any part of Nigeria he chose.
Closer inspection could easily have shown anyone of discernment that there was a rotten underbelly to this assumption, and that there was a National Question that had been dodged by successive governments. Who owned the land, and how were the various peoples to relate vis a vis their ancestral lands? What were the rights of ‘indigenes’, and what were the rights of ‘internal migrants’? If a time could be put on it, how long would a ‘migrant’ have to live continuously in a place to acquire the rights and privileges of an ‘indigene’? Could a person be an ‘indigene’ of two places simultaneously – his original ‘native town’, and his new ‘native town’, or would he need to give up identification with and rights and civic obligations in one to claim the other? What were the responsibilities of a citizen seeking to acquire the privileges of an ‘indigene’ in another land? Was there a minimum requirement to identify and acculturate, to empathise and share, regarding the local language, culture and aspirations, apart from the requirement to pay tax, which very few people paid anyway?
The military President Ibrahim Babangida was a leader of exceptional insight who could have done a lot of good for the Nigerian entity. Unfortunately, he was also a leader of exceptional mischief. During his watch, the National Question bubbled to the surface. He could have mustered the intellectual and grassroots engagement to put it to bed forever. Instead, he allowed the discussion to fizzle out.
The National Question haunts Nigeria to this day, in the form of ‘herdsmen’ who rape and pillage, to take over the land of ‘indigenes’ in Benue; in the form of ‘settlers’ who want to form their own separate and politically distinct local governments in Plateau, in the teeth of opposition from locals; in the form of ‘herders’ who claim they are entitled to the forests of Ekiti; in the form of some people from the East, who think they are entitled to ‘take over’ Lagos.
In all these scenarios, what is obvious is not just a sense of hubris and a lack of respect for other people, not just a lack of commitment to ‘do onto others as you would like them to do onto you’, but the absence of any formal National writ that is reciprocal and uniformly enforceable across Nigeria.
Whichever ways the present crises go, Nigeria will, someday, be compelled to address its National Question. Only if it does this successfully will it become a nation.