Ken Saro-Wiwa: A Nation and its Parts, 1941-1995
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Noted Nigerian author, poet, political activist, and leader of the Ogoni people, Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged along with eight of his colleagues on November 10, 1995 for their alleged involvement in the May 1994 slayings of four Ogoni elders. Saro-Wiwa was an outspoken opponent of Royal Dutch Shells presence in Ogoniland and of the governments involvement in local politics.
The following is an excerpt from "Ethnicity and National Development," in Saro-Wiwas collection, Nigeria: The Brink of Disaster (Port Harcourt: Saros, 1991) and is reproduced courtesy of African Books Collective [distributors], Oxford, United Kingdom.
The [Nigerian] nation got into its present pass because it failed to develop a strong political structure in keeping with its traditional set-up The lack of competent personnel, the canalization of all energies into the struggle for power, debilitating corruption and other social evils have arisen because we have ignored the ethnic nature of our society, choosing to pretend that the ethnic groups do not exist and stubbornly refusing to build our house on the strong fundamentals of ethnicity.
This may sound rather perverse because it has always been argued that our strength lies in unity and that tribalism is the bane of our nation. This brings me immediately to the difference between ethnicity and ethnocentrism. Ethnicity is the fact of the ethnic group. It poses no danger to the nation. Ethnocentrism is the danger; it is the misuse of the ethnic group, of ethnic sentiments against other ethnic groups in a sterile competition. Ethnocentrism can be combated. Ethnicity is permanent.
Even at the risk of sounding trite, it has to be stated that Nigerian existence is due neither to "the exigencies of geography nor to ethnic unity." It came about as a result of the disastrous rivalry and the chase for colonial aggrandizement of the Great Powers at the end of the 19th century. It was always a mere geographical expression. In the words of Obafemi Awolowo, Nigerias greatest political thinker to date, "Nigeria is not a nation. It is a mere geographical expression. The word `Nigeria is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria from those who do not."
This is not surprising. Most great nations today started as mere geographical expressions; in time, they build their peculiar national character from the different ethnic and cultural elements within their boundaries.
Since the Amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914, we have been trying to do the same. The only problem is that our efforts have been fumbling because we have failed woefully to think deeply about it and we have stubbornly refused to learn from our mistakes.
Following upon Amalgamation, all ethnic groups, big or small, were absorbed into a greater system than they were used to. People were mobilized in the broadest sense of the term and became conscious that they were part of a system which embraced other ethnic nationalities. But their commitment to their ethnic groups was not "eroded." On the contrary, the competition for the crumbs from the colonialists table forced the ethnic groups into an internal solidarity which they might not have had before the advent of the British. The major ethnic groups in particular found themselves consolidating their internal unity...
The blame for [post-civil war corruption] must be laid squarely at the door of the major ethnic groups who have consistently behaved as though Nigeria is a nation of themselves alone, whereas it is well-known that the nation consists of over three hundred ethnic groups.
None have recognized this more than the minority ethnic groups who have borne the brunt of the indigenous colonialism of the majority groups. These minorities were aware of the dangers they faced from the very beginning. Obafemi Awolowo had warned: "Certainly these minority groups are at a considerable disadvantage when they are forced to be in the midst of other peoples who differ from them in language, culture and historical background."...
I cannot end without outlining precisely what will be the configuration of the country should ethnicity be adopted as the base of our national development.
In the first place, it will have a most pleasant effect on self-reliance and social justice. The many ethnic groups in this country who have been denied their freedom, either in pre-colonial times or after the advent of the British, will rediscover themselves and will be forced to take their fortune in their hands. Thus, indigenous colonialism will have been dealt a death blow.
Second, the majority ethnic groups will be forced to stop battening on other peoples and will have the opportunity to develop at their own rate without feeling [others] are holding them back...
Third, the considerable energy which is being spent in a sterile struggle for power will be released and channeled to more imaginative and productive ends...
Fourth, the resources of the country will reach a broader mass of the people.
And fifth, there will be greater stability, as the need for changes of boundaries and structures will no longer arise and new rules will have to explain in full any tinkering with structures that have stood the test of time.
The scientific method, once used successfully, will replace arbitrariness, jingoism and deception in decision-making at the highest level. The Nigerian nation will become stronger.