Saturday, 19 May 2012

No Longer at Ease: Intellectuals and the Crisis of Nation-Statism in Nigeria in the 1990s

Intellectuals, traditional and modern, as producers and purveyors of knowledge, ideas and societal totems linked to identity, meaning, culture and politics, have always played critical roles in the construction of nationalism(s).This should not be taken to imply the denial of the more fundamental role of the masses – the
popular forces who seek national liberation, and whose anger and blood, fire the engines of national resistance against the exploiter/oppressor, and who expect the most from the fruits of freedom. Yet, while the masses fuel the nationalist fervour, it is the intellectuals who have control of the architecture of the ideology of national resistance, and the construction of a political-territorial space of refuge hinged upon a ‘national identity’. They are the ones that provide justification either for integration or for decentralisation, in ways that different units would be given autonomy, or even independence, in order to take control of their affairs. Conversely, some intellectuals may work for the perpetuation of the status quo under a national banner, while others seek its transformation either by the devolution of power and autonomy to (sub)national units, or by advocating secession.

Within the African context, in the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial eras, intellectuals played vital roles in all facets of socio-political life. It may be argued that in pre-colonial Africa, intellectuals as priests, griots, artists, Islamic scholars, philosophers and historians, gave meaning to identity and social progress. They were also important in giving expression to the short comings, strengths, unity, knowledge and common aspirations of their communities or kingdoms. In this regard, colonialism apparently interrupted the process of the evolution of Africa by its interventionist and exploitative logic. The colonial state in the process of destroying pre-colonial modes of production and integrating Africa into the capitalist mode of production under mined the substructure of African traditional intellectualism and its links with the nation. In its place, missionary and western education became the new fountains of African intellectualism that had to cohere with the imposed European-style colonial state. Although the western-educated African elite was relatively small and initially viewed with suspicion by the traditional elite and colonial administrators, by the end of the Second World War, they had emerged as the articulate spokespersons of the masses, and the mobilisers of Pan Africanist and nationalist energies towards political freedom.

In spite of the nationalism of the western-education intellectuals and the ways their newspapers, books, speeches promoted the ideals of Pan Africanism and political freedom, they ended up inheriting a colonial state apparatus. Indeed, the new nation-states that emerged out of Africa at the ‘end’ of the nationalist struggles of the 1950s and 1960s did not really signify a break with the past. They were made in Europe, and were accepted by African nationalists. In real terms, independence amounted to the indigenisation of the colonial state. This implied that the state was not transformed in terms of its exploitative, extractive and oppressive nature, and that the imposition of the European model of the centralised nation-state on Africa had been legitimised. This was in spite of the fact that the ‘artificial’ nation-states in Africa with arbitrarily drawn boundaries each harboured many ‘nations’, and did not reflect the interests of the people lumped together in each nation. That all these multi-ethnic nations subordinated their differences to the over-arching logic of the nation-state during the decolonisation phase was no doubt influenced by considerations of expediency in the face of imminent independence. Some intellectuals in the name of national unity also justified such expediency, and they went ahead to advocate particular types of political arrangements that would best manage the differences/diversities between the constituent ethnic (nations) groups in the new nation-state. Clearly these were influenced by expectations of the gains of power, or from clear naivete as to the magnitude of the political struggles that lay ahead. It would appear then that there were two nationalisms – that from above – the elite, and that from below – the masses. The temporary unity of the ‘two nationalisms,’ unravelled when that from the above inherited the state and began to enjoy the perquisites of power.

Most of the intellectuals that articulated the project of the Nigerian nation-state in the decolonisation phase ended up as politicians, civil servants, or academics at the various tiers of the Nigerian federation. It did not take long after independence for the cracks to begin to appear in the nation-state project. At that point, hitherto suppressed ethno-regional passions were unleashed as the divisions between the factions of the Nigerian political class widened. Unfortunately, the intellectuals were not left out of these divisions based on their class interests. Even those who were apolitical, or even truly nationalist, found themselves in a minority, and unable to stem the strong influence of ethno-regional sentiment among the masses. This much was clear from the Western Region electoral crisis in 1965, the coups of 1966, the pogroms in Northern Nigeria, and the mobilisation of the Igbo ‘nation’ for secession in1967, and the ugly descent into civil war in the same year.

However, with the end of the Nigerian civil war – a war of national unity in1970, which coincided with an oil-boom – and integrative (centralist)nation-state project was imposed on Nigeria by the military. It was informed by two considerations. First was the fear that regions (states) should not be strong enough to challenge the Centre, and secondly, that the Centre should control the oil produced in the Niger Delta, and distribute it equally to all parts of the country for national development. This was also to prevent any unit of the federation from being strong enough to challenge the Centre.

However, in spite of the sub-division of Nigeria from four regions in 1966,2to twelve, then nineteen, then twenty-one, and finally thirty-six states by the1990s, the nation-state became immersed in a crisis. This crisis was owed partly to the collapse of the external oil sector, and the feeling in some parts of the country that the nation-state project was short-changing them. It was also alleged that federal power (particularly over oil wealth) had been in the hands of the northern faction of the Nigerian political elite, who had proceeded to monopolise the wealth for the long years of military rule, to the exclusion of other groups. The feelings of alienation were particularly strong in the ethnic minority region of the Niger Delta, where in spite of being the country’s main oil producing region it had suffered neglect and the people remained impoverished, with their region under developed and faced with the vagaries of oil production.

It was in the context of the foregoing grievances that ethnic nationalism re-emerged in Nigeria. At its heart lay the interrogation of a hegemonic nation-state project that had allegedly been to the advantage of a hegemonic ethnic group, and was considered unfair and skewed against other ethnic groups (particularly the minorities that ‘owned’ the oil). It was further worsened by the emergence of ethnic militia which force fully sought to pursue an agenda of self-determination and local autonomy within Nigeria. This went alongside loud demands, particularly from southern Nigeria and the Niger Delta, for the convening of a sovereign national conference of all the ethnic nationalities in Nigeria, in order to re-negotiate the very basis of their belonging to the Nigerian Union. Although the hegemonic bloc that controls the Nigerian petro-state has so far resisted the efforts at restructuring Nigeria, there is little doubt that the country is immersed in a crisis of nation-statism which is yet to be resolved. There is no doubt that the present crisis of nation-statism in Nigeria is partly due to the inter-, and intra-ethnic struggles over the oil found in the Niger Delta. However, intellectuals have not been left out of the struggles for self-determination, and for the demands for the restructuring of the Nigerian federation.

It is therefore important to raise questions about the factors that led to the intellectualisation of ethnic nationalism as a critique of the hegemonic nation-state project in Nigeria, and how some intellectuals today could seemingly lend their support to the deconstruction of a nation-state project they worked for decades ago. How does globalisation come in, particularly in the face of the challenge of mediating the tensions between intellectualised ‘ethno-nationalisms’ in Nigeria, in the face of the imperatives of national unity and Pan Africanism in the 21st Century?

In going about its analysis, this paper is divided into four broad sections. The introduction provides an overview of the issues in the paper, while the second section examines the conceptual issues in the crisis of nation-statism in Nigeria. This dovetails into the third, and main section, of the paper that examines intellectuals and the crisis of nation-statism by drawing essentially on the case of the Niger Delta, Nigeria’s main oil producing region and chief revenue earner, upon whom Nigeria’s oil-hinged unity and existence as a nation-state ultimately depends. In the concluding section, the arguments are summed up, and the prospects for the future are captured.

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