The Republic and I


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October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007



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The Republic and I




Obi Nwakanma



culled from VANGUARD, Sunday, April 24, 2005  

THE news was startling. A draft constitution was floating in secret hands at Abuja, and was circulated as a proposal for the consideration of the conferees at the National dialogue. I should say that, although I remain highly skeptical of that converge which has been described as a presidential retreat by the poet, playwright and Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, I left a crack open in the door of possibility, for the sake of Nigeria and her peoples. I am also in fact rather partisan to the proposed PRONACO conference because it promises more openness and a greater democratic representation, yet I always kept my fingers crossed that, no matter how fishy, the dialogue at Abuja may have to swim in the wider currents of the Nigerian reality.

Which is where indeed all things will end at some point. But the fishiness has been revealed early, anyhow. This floating constitution has at least two elements, preliminary to all other considerations, which will throw Nigeria into confusion. Voices have hawed and hemmed about President Olusegun Obasanjo’s ambition to continue for a third time as president, for a new six-year term. The rumours began to gain ground late last year. Everybody in the presidency and the PDP denied it. The president then hinted more recently in Germany, that he has been under pressure to remain in office beyond the terms prescribed by the even more fraudulent Abacha constitution of 1999. That rumour began to wear an Owu mask from then on.

It will reveal something of a human face by the fullness of time. No question about it. From our experience of Nigeria, no rumour about men in power should be disregarded. These stories are eased into the society through the government’s official underground, as a way of preparing Nigerians for future shocks. By the time the rumours become true, the shock would often have worn off, and Nigerians would have exhausted their anger and unbelief, by just talking about it. Then they would shrug it off with the typical Nigeria hyperbole: “God dey!' .

But I am not too worried about the alleged self-succession bid of President Obasanjo. Nigerians fought Abacha and saw him into his vault. I am more worried about another provision of this proposed constitution: the elimination of the Igbo language from the national register of things. Neither Professor Jerry Gana, nor Mr. Kanu Agabi, who spoke about the government’s draft proposal denied the provision of this mystery document that the Igbo language should no longer be considered one of the quartet of languages for which business could be conducted officially, especially in the National Assembly. Now, I choose to disregard this as mere rumour. Perhaps Obasanjo’s government merely had a freudian slip - you know, that wish that lurks, but merely lurks, inconsolably in the psyche.

However, were it to be true, that suggestion changes radically the relationship between the republic and I, as it would with all true Igbo people. It would clearly be a notice to all of us to begin to seek alternative identities, because what that amounts to is a declaration of intent to erase.

Diminishing of the Igbo

 Now, let me make this point: a number of my friends have asked me why I suddenly found myself speaking more and more about things Igbo. I have sometimes pointed to them that I believe, as did the Irish poet, W.B.Yeats, that the diminishing of one’s native earth, is the diminishing of the self. I also believe that the diminishing of the Igbo diminishes the great Nigerian enterprise. I believe that a defence of the Igbo is in part a defence of Nigeria, for without the Igbo, Nigeria rings significantly hollow. That’s at one level.

I also say, that ordinary Nigerians have no problem with their Igbo neighbours: they want good teachers for the children, they want good doctors when they are sick, they want great engineers for their public works, and it does not matter to them where the fantastic nurse who takes care of them come from.

They even want good deals for their spare parts and electronics. Ordinary Nigerians have no problems with electing Igbo as political leaders, left to them alone, except that in these matters, it is not left to them alone. Since the Igbo entered the vast territory called Nigeria, they have established great friendship and great enmity. Enmity against the Igbo, however, is mostly an elite feeling.

Which is why, I also address it as an elite challenge. It is the enmity of those who are competing for the heart of the Nigerian calf - the intellectual defenders of an anti-Igbo hegemony, the politicians, the deal makers in the corporate board rooms, rent-collectors, careerist civil servants, those generally frightened by the surge of what they see as an inexorable Igbo horde about to over-run the Nigerian space in their pushy ways. They see the face of the greedy trader, the insouciant upstart, the clever bastard, the clannish, conniving scum who says “nwanna” or “di anyi” on the face of every Igbo.

They also see something more frightening, the possibility that left alone, Nigeria could be taken, every inch, by the migrant, landless Igbo. This myth of the Igbo began long even before the Aro-Igbo nearly established what was increasingly the first indigenous transnational power and monopoly in West Africa in the modern era. I will not go into the history of Igbo diffusion here, but simply say, that the Nigerian elite has an Igbo problem.

Their post-war, trans-ethnic elite alliance has long authored into the official policy of the federation of Nigeria, the containment of the Igbo. I say, that their great fear of the Igbo is in the Igbo ethic of individual freedom, which if allowed to take possession of the national spirit, threatens all the feudal oligarchic institutions that have held Nigerians in their primitive grip. It is therefore in the interest of these oligarchies to suppress the Igbo and all other ethnic cultures like it in Nigeria which exhibit this level of individual freedom that have no fear of natural or unnatural rulers.

I see this draft therefore as merely enforcing the last post-war plan for the Igbo: erase them from national culture. That is the meaning of the proposal on Igbo language. I should say that this does not bother me only in one particular respect: no one can decree the end of a language. Language is people. They carry it in their soul, they express it in literature, in theatre, in dance and music, in the inflections of their bodies, in the performance of being. Every language lives for as long as a people and their culture remain conscious and alive.

If a language stops being official, it enters the underground and becomes subversive. It establishes its own authority, as the Igbo people have done, outside the range of official commerce, and then you have to deal with it on its own terms. But what bothers me is the implication of this draft constitution: it suggests that the next, exponential phase of attack on the Igbo has started, and it is no longer a matter of marginalizing them; it is now a matter of completely erasing them from the text of the Nigerian union. I am also shocked that two respected Igbo people - Ojo Maduekwe and Kanu Agabi - have their names associated with that document that seeks to eliminate the Igbo from the symbolic epicenter of Nigeria .

In any case, however the wind bends, one clear thing is, the Igbo have a duty to themselves and to the world to preserve their identity. If the powers in Nigeria threaten them - since the attack on language is the attack on the soul and spirit of a culture and its people - they also have clear alternatives. I have suggested, one, a method of selective erasure of the factors that threaten the Igbo, in which everything is fair game and no longer subject to ordinary dialogue; two, a silent but steady withdrawal from the Nigerian enterprise.

As for those who have authored this abomination, they should be reminded, that while Nigeria in its official policy should work to keep every language in Nigeria alive by all means possible, to threaten the erasure of one of those languages is not only a declaration of war, it is both short-sighted and mean-spirited. Above all, on a personal level, it puts to question my relations with this republic of madness. It challenges the rest of the Igbo nation to ask themselves again: what is Nigeria to me? The answer might be startling.


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