#BookClub Nigerian politics & journalism: Embers of empire

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Why are calls for the restructuring of Nigeria a recurring subject of debate?  For our popular #BookClub feature, Mercy Ette celebrates the publication of her new book by explaining why more than 100 years after the creation of the country, Nigerians are still challenging the idea of “one nation”.  

Nigeria and the long-tail effect of the colonial heritage

Nigeria’s is currently experiencing its longest spell of civilian rule. This milestone suggests democracy is becoming entrenched. But going by recent developments in the country, Nigeria is a state in transition and the integrity of its democracy is open to debate. Democratisation has not advanced public trust in state institutions, the rule of law or led to a significant improvement in the quality of life for many citizens. Worse still, the security of the average Nigerian had become dramatically worse over the past two years.

At present, the country appears to be under a siege and yet those who are supposed to be solving the country’s problems stand accused of stoking some of its most toxic dynamics through controversial statements in some cases, and apparent indifference in others. From this standpoint, Nigeria’s democratic prospects – and even survival – are uncertain, especially as insecurity and fear fuel ethno-religious tensions, leading to greater threats to national security and the stability of the state.

A return to civilian rule in 1999, after several decades of failed democratisation programmes, suggested a recalibration or rebalancing of power relations in the country. Yet m than two decades after that significant political shift, deeply entrenched cleavages and unresolved fault-lines continue to pommel the Nigerian state. An understanding of the underlying causes of this tension calls for a level of introspection that goes right back to the beginning: the emergence of Nigeria as a colonial construct.

My new book, Journalism and Politics in Nigeria: Embers of the Empire (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021), does this by examining the impact of the colonial heritage on Nigerian politics and journalism. It argues that the country’s colonial inheritance is central to understanding the nature of political and journalistic practices. In particular, the book discusses how the colonial rule constrained and at times serrated both the society and the narratives of the geographical space known as Nigeria, leaving a profound legacy for the Nigerian state by shaping the political, social and economic structures that uphold and sustain it.

Taking off from the view that Nigeria is a British geopolitical construct, the book argues that without the colonial intervention, Nigerian politics and culture would have evolved in a profoundly different way – indeed, the Nigerian state in its current form would not have come into being. This has important implications for a range of issues. For example, professional journalism may not have replaced traditional story-telling as a popular mode for the dissemination of information. In this way, the book identifies several trends and patterns of colonial influence that continue to bear on the present, and uses them to re-conceptualise Nigerian political and journalistic practices as embers of colonialism.

Embers of the Empire

The term ‘embers’ is used in the book as a condensational symbol to epitomise overt and subtle residues of the colonial interlude in Nigeria. Fundamentally, the term encapsulates the destructive and transformational impact of the encounter between the colonial authorities and the people who occupied the geographical space that became Nigeria. The embers represent the continuing processes of cross-cultural and socio-political domination of that space by an external power.

They also illustrate how colonialism empowered Britain to successfully assume political, economic and social control over a large territory by exploiting the subjected area for its own benefit. The long-tail effects of that encounter still have the potential to ignite a ‘fire’ in the politics of modern Nigeria, and have, indeed, fanned the flames of political conflict in the country at critical moments. More than 100 years after the creation of Nigeria, the state still manifests the paraphernalia of colonial rule. One symptom of that impact is the issue of identity.

Contested identity

When the colonial authorities amalgamated a mosaic of nations into one country in 1914, without concerted effort or a systematic programme of nation-building, they set in motion a process that significantly increased the potential for conflict. Amalgamation in combination with “indirect rule” failed to construct a blended country.

Consequently, the idea of ‘Nigerianness’ is a contested identity. The absence of a strong sense of belonging means there is a limited sense of shared destiny or purpose. As the conglomerate of nations that were fused into one country did not have common cultural attributes that could nurture a national identity, they held unto their ethnic identities as their primary identity marker. In the absence of a robust sense of belonging, strong perceptions of alienation, marginalisation and exclusion became entrenched. As a result, Nigerians are yet to prioritise their national identity in terms of their collective hierarchy of loyalty.  

As outlined in several sections of the book, geo-ethnic competition – and at times conflict – is a critical feature of Nigerian politics. While this conflict cannot be attributed strictly to the colonial encounter, colonial rule reconfigured relationships among the diverse nations, which were welded together to create a dynamic but conflicted political entity.

British administrators created a system that is widely seen to have empowered one part of the country to exercise political power over others. In fact, even the simple physical structuring of the country introduced fault-lines. For example, allocating almost two-thirds of Nigeria’s land mass and about 60 percent of the population of the country to the northern part was an ingenious way of positioning that region to exercise political power. But the cost of this strategy was to undermine national unity, so that colonial rules ultimate legacy was to ‘amalgamate and divide.’

The north-south divide still casts a shadow over the country, even though the Middle Belt is recognised as being separate, in part because the country is now structured into six geopolitical zones in a format that entrenches polarisation of the two halves (three northern zones and three southern zones), which risks creating pitching one set of zones against the other.

Mediating the performance of divisive politics

The colonial interlude also introduced journalism as a popular mode for the disseminating information. Prior to the advent of colonialism, communication strategies ranged from the instrumental, demonstrative and iconographic to visual modes. Oral traditions ensured information, histories, norms and values were passed down from one generation to another through recognisable sounds, signs and symbols. Yet with colonial government emerged a system that depended on written records and hence appropriated the space that had previously been dedicated to oral traditions. “Modern” journalism brought with it considerable benefits of course, but also significant costs: through oral traditions, repositories of culture and belief systems were contextually nuanced to meet the needs of their communities.

More significantly, the new mode of communication was intertwined with the political system as journalism became an important tool in nationalistic struggles. The print media, which were introduced into the country by Christian missionaries, provided a platform for the performance of divisive politics. Today, journalism continues to play a critical role in political development, providing a scaffolding for political activities in the country. While it has been domesticated and indigenised, Nigerian journalism still manifests its foreign origin in the sense that it is not rooted in indigenous culture and traditions.  

Smouldering embers

Framing political activities and journalistic practices as residues of colonial rule could be seen as an attempt at revisionism, but it is important to illustrate how the past continues to shape the present. Colonial rule generated centrifugal forces that amplified conflicts in Nigeria by introducing new fault-lines and failing to simultaneously generate mechanisms of conflict resolution.

Independence in 1960 did not fundamentally recalibrate political relationships – rather it intensified rivalries as regional leaders struggled for power. Today, the north-south rivalry is still problematic because it threatens to polarise society, and so undermine the evolution of a national consensus. This explains why Nigerians continue to question and challenge the idea of “one nation”. And why calls for a restructuring of the country that was birthed by British colonial rule is a recurring motif in public discourse.   

Mercy Ette (@MercyUEtte) is a visiting research fellow at the University of Leeds. She was a Fulbright Scholar at Elon University, USA, in 2018.

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