Monday, November 22, 2010

Naija is not Enemy Territory

I read the report online at first with bemusement and then with a growing sense of grief. It was of the Minister of Information and Communication, Professor Dora Akunyili condemning the usage of “Naija” in place of Nigeria as “very uncharitable and unpatriotic.” Speaking to participants of a reality show, she said, “It is very offensive to call Nigeria 'Naija'. We are making plans to write companies to stop using the word Naija. I have heard that name Naija in adverts. I want them to go back and remove that word. If anybody says this is Naija, ask the person, 'Where is Naija?' We have to stop this word because it is catching up with the young. If we don't put a stop to its usage now, it will continue to project us wrongly,” she said. (Thisday, November 15, 2010)

At first, I was tempted to dismiss it as another instance of official logorrhea but was driven to put pen to paper because such gaffes delivered with undue zest from high government officials often somehow wind up informing policy. And also because such cant should not go unchallenged or be allowed to frame public perception of the issues. The minister’s response demonstrates almost everything that ails our government. The planned censorship of the term ‘Naija’ is an example of a typical misappropriation of energy in the service of petty ill-conceived goals. The obvious misplacement of priorities at a time when so much is going wrong exhibits the devotion to frivolity that defines high office in Nigeria. The incident also verifies the lingering presence of a ghastly bequest of military rule – the refusal to engage intellectually with popular phenomena and instead to reflexively “ban” whatever is not understood. Instead of seeking first to understand, we move immediately to undermine and to antagonize. It is the knee-jerk reaction to whatever does not emanate from the narrow and squalid precincts of a dysfunctional state bureaucracy.

The question that should engage us as thinking beings is this: What is “Naija”? The term is increasingly pervasive and has found near ubiquitous expression on the platforms of popular culture, media, advertizing and in the corporate world. Among the younger generation, it is a slang of popular usage. Yet, young Nigerians do not turn up at airports describing themselves as nationals of Naija nor do they brandish passports issued by the Federal Republic of Naija. The term is simply a colloquial diminutive of “Nigeria” with roots in the idiomatic treasury of urban Lagos. This is why its most common expression is in the vibrant popular culture of which Lagos is the trend-setting capital.

But Naija has come to mean more than a casual slang. In a profound sense, in the generational consciousness of its proponents, there are figuratively two countries – Nigeria and Naija. Nigeria is what it is: a complex, unfair and unequal post-colonial travail for a meaningful human existence occurring in a pungent paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty. Naija represents what the emergent generation of Nigerians born between 1975 and 1995 are making of their beleaguered nation. It expresses the vitality and the resiliency of youth in a realm where dreams die first. It is the parallel universe that young Nigerians are constructing with their sweat, creative toil and irrepressible dreams channeled principally through popular culture – songs, art, films – but also through the entrepreneurial dynamism that enables them to make an honest living against incredible odds. Naija is the labour of love of an orphaned generation. 

To grasp its poignancy, we must understand the socio-economic circumstances in which this generation lives. In 2008, the Ministry of Youth Development disclosed that 80 percent of Nigerian youths, that is 64 million Nigerians, were jobless. Success rates in post-secondary school examinations have cratered at around 20 percent. According to the federal government, 71 percent of Nigerian graduates are unemployable – a living testament to the collapse of our education sector overseen by successive regimes since the 1980s. 86 percent of Nigerian graduates remain jobless for up to two years after graduating. These are a few of the demons that young Nigerians confront daily amid the absence of basic social amenities such as electricity and potable water.     

Above all, the government has shown little inclination to address these issues; to promote an agenda that gives Nigerian youths a sense of belonging, civic purpose and hope for the future. Instead, from time to time, we are treated to government officials trotting out a youth culture they barely understand to publicly flay it with the scourge of pious hypocrisy. For if anything projects us wrongly, it is surely the conduct of those in authority, whether it is the juvenile brawling in the national assembly or the grand larcenies of those entrusted with leadership. Indeed, it is the chasmal divide between state and society, between politics and public priorities that Naija represents as a conceptual community. Naija is the patriotic poetry of a generation that has been left for dead by its fathers and mothers, and yet has chosen to make this country, warts and all, its own and to convert its frustration and angst into a fuel for creative endeavour. It is, in fact, a term of endearment.

Advert companies did not invent ‘Naija’; they simply discovered a wave in the popular culture among the dominant demographic subset of the social economy and are now exploiting it with aplomb.  If intelligence instead of mind-closure was the directive principle of governance, the official response would have been to seek ways of harnessing this viral idiom and seek interface with its purveyors. Rather, what we saw was a quasi-militarist response that perceives the creative space that young Nigerians have forged for themselves as enemy territory. In ‘Naija,’ a generation has found not only a common syntax for defining its reality, but also potentially, the raw materials of a unifying political ethos, a core around which they can rally and contend for their collective destiny. It holds the basis of a patriotism far more authentic than the sterile sloganeering proffered by uninspiring politicians. 

Instructively, President Goodluck Jonathan’s campaign has co-opted young artistes who are exponents of ‘Naija’ signaling an effort to tap into this phenomenon, to reach the youth vote and cast the president as a voice of youth. Since youths also demographically dominate the electorate, this is either savvy or opportunism or both. This demographic, it should be noted, also lacks genuine representation in the high councils of government that could conceivably advise on the nuances of youth culture. For these attacks on youth culture also stem from a generation gap that alienates politicians from their children and from youths in general who constitute the majority of our population.  

Nations all over the world have socio-cultural and informal appellations by which they refer to themselves (Britannia, Yankees, Kiwis, Nippon, Aussies, and Zion etc.)  There are also ontological and philosophical ramifications to a people choosing a formal or informal name for themselves instead of retaining their colonial cognomens. Names are vectors of values and identity and ‘Naija’ is an affirmation of values and an identity construct distinct from the post-colonial conundrum inherent in “Nigeria” – the name with which Flora Shaw baptized us.  Ironically, during the 1950s, Tai Solarin, the great educationist and social critic campaigned spiritedly against retaining the name ‘Nigeria’ because of its etymological kinship with the term “nigger.” He argued that preserving this name amounted to acquiescing to our national baptism with a racist epithet. Possibly, he feared that it would signal the “niggerization” of the world’s largest black nation and entrap us in a physical and metaphysical ghetto. Considering our present circumstances, Solarin might have been on to something.    

There is no telling how seriously the Ministry of Information will pursue its self-assigned censorial task but it is worth noting that words can’t be killed. They can only be buried or momentarily driven underground from where they will inevitably resurrect with greater rhetorical and intellectual potency. In view of this, we are better off allowing the positive values of Naija, chief among them the ability to coax hope and excellence from the jaws of despair and defeat, to permeate our public life. There is much to be gained from analyzing Naija and letting its essence revitalize our broken society. Nigeria is reeling from many ailments. Naija is not one of them. 

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