Like the transient severity of winter, the blistering storms of ethnic rule in Nigeria will blow over and progressive forces could yet become ascendant
By Chudi Okoye
I woke up from fretful slumber this morning and found there is finally a promise of tranquility.
What a blustery winter night it had been!
Here in the sticks, my neck of the woods in the sparse suburbia of the US Pacific Northwest, the withering winds of winter can be especially severe in some years. Despite the usually delightful sparkle of summer and the deciduous charm of autumn in these parts, winter on occasion can be exceedingly windy and worrisome. As I write, the temperature is subzero, at -5 oC, much as it had been through the turbulent night. Winter storm alert remains in place from the canny weather authorities in Washington State. It is all a far cry from the alluring warmth of my ancestral homeland, the ancient town of Awka in Nigeria, where the temperature currently hovers around 30 oC. I dream often of my ancestors and my homeland.
Last night, as I lay cloistered in my lair, I could hear the cackle of wind and the crackle of giant cedar trees in the greenbelt adjoining my backyard as they fall, finally succumbing to the tempestuous blast of winter. I lay awake much of the night, ready to activate the household emergency plan if electricity snapped out, or if, heaven forbid, a tree fell on the roof – not an uncommon hazard in the hazy severity of winter in these parts.
But now it is morning. And as I look out the window, the weather is benign; there is a beauteous blitz of snowflakes and piles of settled snow in the driveway. It is breathtaking. It is innocent. My kids, were they here and not away to a more clement weather, would be outside now molding snowballs or playing some snow game.
As I ponder the transition, from a turbulent night to a benignant morning, I wonder anew about the transience of experience, about the impermanence of adversity. We like to worry about the momentary turbulences of existence. But other than the immortal dictatorship of time, nothing of our exigent experiences and catastrophes persists into perpetuity.
And so it can be in Nigeria, an inchoate ‘democracy’ currently under the yoke of a primitive and stupendously incompetent oligarchy dominated by a Fulani core.
Fulani political dominance in Nigeria is founded on little else besides brute force and institutional corruptions: a far cry from the hegemonia of enlightened classes in more developed societies. The Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, taught us that the ruling class in bourgeois society maintains its power not so much through brutish control but through cultural hegemony – through an almost imperceptible control of the beliefs, perceptions, values and mores of society. The enlightened bourgeoisie and its governing vanguards maintain power largely because their worldview (their Weltanschauung) is at the core of accepted culture in broader society.
But this is far from the situation in the chaotic pseudo-capitalist periphery that is Nigeria. The current governing elite in the country, over which the predatory Fulani core presides, is not sophisticated enough to impose democratic order in the cacophonous society over which it seeks to assert control. The Fulani-dominated governing class is politically covetous, but it lacks enlightenment and can only maintain power and aggrandize itself through brute force and institutional corruption, albeit in a supposedly democratic setting.
For this reason, the ascendant Fulani-dominated political oligarchy in Nigeria, though controlling an overly expansive federal government, cannot long sustain its power. Its ambition is far in advance of its cognitive and intuitive capacities. Its grip over Nigeria is taut and tenuous, and will surely snap at some historic moment.
The Fulani-dominated governing elites lust after power, in part because – lacking imagination – they see political power as their principal means of economic accumulation. But the governing elites in Nigeria have no sophisticated understanding of power, or indeed of society, and so they rule the country through a vulgar mix of force and malignant corruption – in the manner of most primitive tyrannies in history. The dominant classes have no coherent governing agenda, no idea how to translate the immense potential of Nigeria into greatness. They stumble from one disjointed development program to another, fumbling through a prismatic ecosystem marked by an unworkable mix of poorly performing but modernizing institutions and decaying tradition. Nigeria’s ascendant elites cannot formulate an organic agenda of governance. Nor can they execute any such, because the shiny policy programs often borrowed from abroad by their harrowed technocrats are subjected, without fail, to the rapacious interests of the primitive oligarchy and its Fulani core.
Because of the historic failure of Nigeria’s Fulani-dominated governing classes, there is no consensus attending their leadership in the broader constituencies of Nigerian society. The governing factions rule but they are not sovereign.
The modern state is defined in part by its monopoly of law and force; it alone can lawfully wield the coercive instruments of power. But the wobbly hierarchies of Nigeria’s political elite have no such monopoly. They maintain control by corrupting the body politic. Or they marginalize vast sections of society as they exploit social resources, corruptly enriching themselves, their cohorts and their consorts.
Or they unleash the illiterate legions of their region and their religion to terrorize vast populations in far-flung localities in Nigeria. We have seen this of late, a burgeoning spate of terror from Boko Haram and wanton criminality by Miyetti Allah. The latter is supposedly an advocacy grouping for Fulani pastoralists. But it is a barely masked front for the ambitions of cattle colonialism and Fulani imperialism in Nigeria.
The Nigerian polity has lately become overwrought, increasingly so in the era of its incumbent president, the reclusive but exceedingly ambitious Muhammadu Buhari: a wild political jungle where contending elite formations use primitive instruments of coercion to maintain power and ethnic advantage.
But this is unsustainable. It is historically unsustainable. We can assert this thesis of unsustainability if we properly dissect the dialectic of political and ethnic conflict in Nigeria. We often – to an extent, correctly – posit the politics of Nigeria in terms of ethnic competition for scarce resources, whereby state power is pursued with viciousness because it confers distinct advantage in the competition for resource control. Sometimes we – correctly as well – also characterize political conflict in Nigeria as elite or even class struggle, with accumulation at its core.
Yes, we couldn’t begin to understand Nigerian politics without situating at its center the struggles for resource control among elite groups and the ethnic enclaves to which they belong. Yet, this is only a partial picture. We might just as usefully characterize the conflicts of Nigerian politics as a historic confrontation between the retrogressive but increasingly assertive forces of Fulani oligarchy and its disparate allies, seeking to entrench hegemonic control over the Nigerian state, and the diffused forces of progress and modernity, mostly but not exclusively entrenched in the South, which are slowly emerging to dominate the Nigerian civil society. This is an unmistakable dialectic of Nigerian politics: the swelling trends of civic modernity colliding with the claims of a neo-patrimonial order, a veritable confrontation between modernity and backwardness.
The arc of historical progress may be long and daunting in Nigeria, with records of intermittent reversals in fact, but all things being equal it should result in the triumph of modernity and progress over the forces of stagnation.
In the face of their increasing marginalization, especially under Buhari’s ‘democratic’ junta, the despondent peoples of southern and other parts of Nigeria are wont to invoke God as their rescuer, expecting divine redress for their unbridled neglect and exclusion. But, assuming that God is a disinterested observer or a neutral arbiter of ethnic politics, I would argue that it is not God as such that will rescue the oppressed peoples of Nigeria. Rather, it is their own redemptive efforts driven by the inexorable logic of progress – the unstoppable march to modernity – that will ultimately overwhelm the forces of reaction in Nigeria.
The Fulani core increasingly dominates Nigerian politics, vastly gaining ground under the parochial presidency of Mr Buhari. But a nescient culture based on cattle economy and primitive accumulation cannot long resist the onslaught of progressivism; it cannot long prosper in an interconnected world powered by supercomputers and superphones and the cumulative advance of artificial intelligence.
History is on the side of the currently despondent peoples of southern Nigeria and their progressive allies.
Or, it should be.
If the assured triumph of progress is delayed in Nigeria, it may be due in part to the vicious contradictions in the Nigerian civil society wherein scientific progress coexists with resistant superstition, seen in a growing retreat from reason and enlightenment and a return to religious fatalism. Churches and hopeful hallelujahs everywhere!
If the forces of stagnation led by the Fulani attain hegemonia in Nigeria, this will owe in no small measure to the persistence of these polarities in the Nigerian civil society between superstition and modernity.
World history is replete with instances where barbarism triumphed, for a while, over the forces of enlightenment. But almost always, it was the decay of enlightened civilization that paved the way for barbarian ascendancy.
On first view, the vignettes of history provide only cold comfort for the increasingly marginalized peoples of southern Nigeria. But in time, if these marginalized civilizations could rise up, they will find that the logic of history favors them, that the magistery of modernization favors those with an enlightened outlook.
The peoples of southern Nigeria and their progressive allies elsewhere could change Nigeria’s muddled history if only the huddled masses and their befuddled leaders will rise up and claim their destiny.
Progressive forces could ride the storms of reactionary rule in Nigeria and emerge to a new morning, as we did in these parts, riding the roaring blasts of a winter night to find a benevolent new day.