Before or shortly after the return to civil rule in 1999, a curious word crept stealthily into the national lexicon. It was “Marginalization.” Suddenly every ethnic, religious and cultural group was claiming marginalization. Even individuals with their political fortunes in eclipse pleaded marginalization. The politics of victimhood emerged. Since then, the country polarized along religion, ethnicity, gender, culture and geopolitical zones has seemed locked in a neurosis of mutual victimization. Histories have been revised and new narratives drafted to accommodate a new cast of arch villains and faultless victims. Ethnic groups blame their lack of progress on the machinations of other ethnic groups. Conspiracy theories of agendas for domination are rife. Of course, before 1999, it was usual for various groups to claim that other groups were marginalizing them. However, from 1999, claims of marginalization crystallized into a handy ideology for political engagement. The all-pervasive claim to victimhood resonates with a multiethnic society in which politics is a brutish scramble for the lion’s share of the national cake. In Nigeria, the officially recognized victim status of any group is a passport for its elite through the portals of political power and allied economic advantages. The poetry of victimhood is an effective means of rallying the tribal warriors and mobilizing the ever-dependable kinfolk.
To be sure, there are legitimate issues of fairness, equity and justice that need to be resolved in the polity. The republic is far from perfect but few of its problems stem from actual ethnic animosity as proposed by the champions of marginalization. If politics is to provide solutions to the Nigerian condition, it must evolve beyond its current fixation on convenient scapegoats and mutual recrimination. This must happen across the board. This shift will be driven by a new sense of civic vigilance, a willingness to interrogate the myths that pass for political gospel and to repudiate the falsehood and hypocritical cant that characterize so many claims of marginalization. As citizens, we must exercise greater discernment in our appraisal of the political rhetoric on the airwaves and in the news headlines. With this, we can properly apportion culpability and identify the true antagonists of the Nigerian cause.
Among sections of the northern elite, it is now customary to blame the Obasanjo administration and a larger southern conspiracy for the rampant beggary and squalor in the region. They cite as an example the region’s poor representation in the financial sector and claim that Obasanjo’s banking sector reforms were designed to erase northerners from the financial domain. This is clearly bogus. The problems of the region preceded the Obasanjo era. In fact, the northern elites impoverished the north by their blatant neglect of investments in education, health and social infrastructure. Northern politicians plundered the Bank of the North, the region’s bank, and ran it aground. External machinations cannot account for why a child born north of the Niger is more likely to endure a quality of life far lower than that of a compatriot born in the south. It certainly does not explain the surrender of millions of youths in the region to the incendiary alchemy of nihilism and homicidal zealotry draped in the banner of religion. Southern intrigue is not the reason why substance abuse and narcotics addiction is highest in the northwest zone. However, we can argue with veracity that decades of clueless northern politicians using religion as a smokescreen for their misrule have only deepened the misery of their people. Northern elites, heirs of an illustrious legacy of learning have turned their land into a hub of illiteracy and ignorance.
Politicians from the Niger Delta can lay claim to victimhood with more seriousness. They can convincingly narrate their suffering at the hands of oil companies, an insensitive federal government and “parasitic” northern elites. Multinational oil companies have had a checkered history in the region and have fully earned the distrust of the oil-producing communities. But let us be clear, it is one thing to insist that the oil companies observe the highest standards of environmental and operational safety in their extractive activities; it is quite another to demand that they must build schools, hospitals and roads as a sop to those communities. There is a reasonable argument for corporate social responsibility but these companies also pay taxes. The real issue is how the government utilizes the taxes paid by these companies. We should worry more about the absence of local government in the area (and beyond) despite the billions of naira allocated to them. We should be asking what governors of the zone do with the hefty amounts that accrue to them each month. Over the past decade, during which the country experienced an oil boom, the richest states in Nigeria, apart from Lagos, have been in the Niger Delta. Asking multinationals to build schools and hospitals in these communities is asking them to assume the role of local governments – an alarming invitation to state failure.
The picture that is emerging is that of politicians using the misery of their people to extract queer concessions from oil companies. It is extortion, really. As for the rap about “parasitic” northern elites, a dispassionate appraisal of the Niger Delta will conclusively establish that southern Nigerian elites are no less parasitic than their northern counterparts are. The ignoble exploits of former Bayelsa State governor, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha and the continuing saga of former Delta State governor James Ibori now on the run from both Nigerian and British law enforcement suggest that more oil money and a revised revenue allocation formula will not solve the Niger Delta’s problems.
The elites of the Middle Belt like to attribute the woes of their region to the diabolical machinations of the so-called “Hausa-Fulani” hegemony. However, Hausa or Fulani domination does not explain the range of social plagues now devastating the region – the disintegration of families, the epidemic spread of alcoholism and the fact that the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in this area is the highest in the federation. A supposed “Islamic Fulani agenda” does not account for the bizarre culture of sloth that has gripped middle belt communities even as their leaders point to the entrepreneurial dexterity of other ethnic groups as evidence of a plan to dominate the region. Besides Middle Belt elites have been willing partners with their far northern (mostly Musli ) counterparts in their pillaging of the commonwealth. It is absurd to argue, for instance, that former Plateau State Governor Joshua Dariye’s theft of state funds was inspired by a nebulous conspiracy in the far north. Here and elsewhere in the federation, the Nigerian people are suffering from the self-impoverishment wrought by their own leaders.
The politics of victimhood is leavened with the yeast of hypocrisy. This is what makes it untenable as a basis for intelligent debate or for constructing the nation’s future. Sections of the so-called Lagos-Ibadan media axis may persist in demonizing “the north”, the “Hausa-Fulani” or the “Sokoto Caliphate” as the arch-foes of the Nigerian enterprise while conveniently sidestepping the collaboration of the southwestern liberal elite with northern-led military regimes. Their diatribes cannot mask their disingenuous belated realization of a supposed “northern conspiracy” only when one of their own was denied political power in the 1990s.
At first glance, Igbo elites can justifiably plead marginalization. The southeast bore the brunt of the civil war and many Igbos lost much more than property during those dark days. Even now, in the scheme for allocating federal assets and resources that denotes our politics, the east can convincingly argue that it has been shortchanged. Forty years after the end of the civil war, we can also contend that forces of decay other than those unleashed by external intriguers are at work in the Igbo heartland. It will take more than marginalization to explain the scale of banditry now sweeping the region, the steep decline in male school enrolment figures, the apparent monetization of the culture that sustains the veneration of rich dimwits and the celebration of overnight wealth generated through fraud and other criminal endeavours. Marginalization does not explain how an assortment of pocket emperors and dubious panjandrums claiming aristocratic pedigrees that have no basis in historical reality have overrun a fiercely republican people with a neo-Calvinist work ethic and a disdain for aristocracy and inherited privilege.
Let there be no mistake: interethnic tensions exist in some parts as they do in all culturally diverse societies. The quest for fair shares and equitable relations in the polity is important and should be intensified. Nevertheless, the plagues that ail us are not only those pertaining to constitutional structure; they are also of the culture. We should certainly work to institute systemic guarantees for fairness and equity that will nullify the zero-sum idea that one group’s progress means another’s retardation. We can all make progress together. But it is also clear that a debilitating moral contagion is afflicting our communities across the nation submerging any sense of socio-cultural etiquette and public virtue beneath tidal waves of violence, greed and sloth. The crisis of our politics is at its root a cultural and moral collapse. The values that once made our disparate communities strong have melted away depriving us of the spiritual and social capital needed for progress.
The rhetoric of marginalization is marked by its conspicuous lack of referents to personal and communal responsibility and self-discipline. The notion that individuals and communities can take charge of their own destinies is almost lost. The politics of victimhood stokes the embers of hate by making religious, cultural and ethnic differences marks of rivalry and antipathy. When we define communal identities in sharp contrast or contest with other communal identities, an “us against them” siege mentality develops. Demagogues take over politics with ethnic cleansing and genocide not far behind. These trends in our public life make our society so violent and insecure.
The politics of victimhood distracts us from the imperatives of addressing our moral squalor and cleansing our culture because it persists in pointing the finger at imaginary external enemies. When politicians lay the blame for our communal failings on the doorsteps of some other group, they distract us from the all-important task of scrutinizing their conduct in office. Raising the bogey of domination by some other group is a diversionary tactic. Nigerians are indeed victims but not of their fellow citizens of differing ethnicities and religions. They are victims of a pan-Nigerian confederacy of political pirates, which despite its occasional apparently sectional façade is of a resolutely national character. The politics of victimhood serves to divert our attentions from the true nature of this leviathan and erodes our capacity to discern its real character and confront it accordingly. The portrait of blame for the Nigerian condition, if it is to be true, must be painted with very broad-brush strokes. All of us are in some sense marginalized, all of us are legitimately aggrieved and above all, all of us have sinned against each other. In the often-contentious plurality of Nigeria today, no one group has a monopoly of just grievances or stands upon the moral high ground.
The politics of victimhood has failed because it is manifestly not about improving the material condition of the Nigerian people. It is about elites using the legitimate grievances of the poor to negotiate power and privilege for themselves. The rancid poetry of marginalization prevents us from noticing that even as we dance to the drums of sectarian disharmony, a fate of dispossession, hopelessness and indignity has been foisted on Nigerians, binding them with chains of a common victimhood from Talata Mafara to Brass, Shendam to Abakiliki, and Sagamu to Garkida. The task of reformist intellectuals, politicians and activists in this generation is to highlight the civic solidarity latent in our shared victimhood. Much more has always bound us together than divided us. In our common victimization, we can surely realize a solidarity that serves as a basis for organizing redemptive social and political action.