I remember discussing this with some of my students during my post-graduate days at the School of Oriental and African studies. This was when the Church of England was trying to pick its new Archbishop of Canterbury. Rumours had been swirling that the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu was being considered for the position. The Archbishop, an African immigrant had been a Primate of the church since 2005 and was seen as a contender, but I told them that it was highly unlikely that he would be chosen for the position. My students naively wondered why and I told them that they forget that the United Kingdom has a dominant identity which is mainly White Anglo-Saxon Protestant and picking a black African would go against the identity of the church and the nation. And just like I thought, a white Archbishop was selected above him. We saw the same thing happen in the recent United Kingdom Conservative party leadership contest where a Caucasian woman was pitted against an Asian man and lo and behold, the Caucasian woman won.
These two incidents highlight the importance of identities even in countries that are liberal by definition, more accommodating and pretend it does not matter; it does. In Francis Fukayama’s book ‘Identity’, he notes this when he states that ‘people are often judged not on their character and abilities, whatever the law says, but in assumptions about them as members of groups. We see this in the rise of nationalism across nations being manifested in restrictive laws against groups such as the French attempts at banning the wearing of hijabs.
We can once again see identity divisions rearing their ugly head as the country marches toward the elections in 2023. The parties are divided along ethnic and religious lines. The main political parties, the All Progressive Congress (APC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) are currently embroiled in a running battle around the makeup of their party structures, from the party offices to their presidential candidates and their running mates. For the APC the crisis is around the emergence of an all-Muslim presidential ticket that has APC chieftains such as Babachir, the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation losing their minds on the perceived injustice. In the PDP, similar concerns along ethnic, regional and religious lines are also being made regarding the way offices have been zoned.
While many commentators demand that the country can only move forward when we have put our identities aside, this will be difficult because this would mean discarding what clearly defines many of us. Identities are our lens of how we see the world and pretending that it does not matter means we are not true to ourselves. I am always amused when some Nigerians claim to be detribalized but I am not sure if any such Nigerian exists. Of course, most Nigerians have friends that are not from their ethnic or religious groups and there are instances of interethnic and inter-religious unions but these are few and far between and in many cases, there are still underlying tensions that exist.
Of course, a national identity must be developed but this must encompass all groups so that they feel a sense of belonging. To do this, we must begin to acknowledge that Identities exist, define us and help guide our decisions, either rightly or wrongly. As John Lonsdale notes in his study of the Kenyan political landscape, identity has two parts, Moral Ethnicity and Political Tribalism, two distinct parts that are positive and negative. We cannot continue to relegate Moral Ethnicity to the background with the focus being on Political Tribalism, as the major ethnic groups try to grab control of the spoils of the state. We must put a greater focus on Moral Ethnicity, on the things that bind us not those that divide us. These things might seem small and irrelevant, but they will provide the building block for the national identity we seek. To do this we need to create a narrative of the positive aspects of the different identities that exist within the country.
There is also a political solution to this constant conflict, we must develop a political system that allows for adequate representation, rather than one that gives the spoils to the most dominant group. The current ad-hoc arrangement that allows for the rotation of power between the north and south still gives an advantage to the large groups ignoring the smaller ethnic groups. Apart from the chance elevation of Goodluck Jonathan to the Presidency, do we see a situation where a Tiv, Idoma, Kanuri, Nupe, Itsekiri or Ibibio become president or at least these groups have some significant voice in the affairs of this country? So, this Presidential system of government must be stripped down brick by brick and restructured so that the voices that are currently muted find a space in the political space, that is only when we can begin to build a nation that is not mired by endless contestations.