Comments and Reflections on Aminu Baba's Rejoinder on the Jos Genocide
The sectarian crisis in Jos was a terrible and horrendous situation for anyone that has carefully followed what happened during and after the crisis. Contrary to the way some people have characterized it, however, my opinion is that it is terrible and horrendous because human beings with human dignity died for no good reason. I find people who feel bad about the situation because the people killed were Muslims, Christians, Minorities, or whatever as innocently shallow in their conceptualization of the situation. People are human beings first before they are Muslims or Christians, Minorities or Hausa-Fulani.
Fundamentally, the victims are human beings with dignity and my response to Aminu Baba's passionate rejoinder to Saratu Ali is inspired by the fact that while I share with him his passionate, deep, and sincere concern about the situation in Northern Nigeria, I am not going to premised my reaction to the situation as he did on the inherent superiority of Hausa-Fulani people, the superiority of Islam over Christianity or vise versa. That way of responding to the situation in my view suggests a lack of deeper appreciation for the reality that all human beings have dignity irrespective of their religious beliefs, ethnic group, gender identity, social class status etc.
As far as I am concerned, a Buddhist or Rastafarian has the same human dignity as a Muslim and a Christian. If Muslims and Christians think differently about this, they are confusing their power and privilege and how that shapes what they consider worthy of respect, with the right of all human beings to exist and freely practice the religion of their choice in so far as they do not harm other human beings. This summarizes my vision for Northern Nigeria. I know this will be difficult for many Muslims and Christians to accept because the two religions at certain historical junctures and places have committed some of the most terrible violence in human history because each of them makes exclusive claim to universal truth. Indeed, Baba cited "Human Rights Watch" but failed to appreciate the fact that at the deeper level, the values underpinning "Humans Right Watch" may not be acceptable to many Nigerian Muslims and Christians who would prefer to see the whole world believe only in what they believe or be treated as second class citizens because they do not belong to the right religion. All religions that make claim to exclusive access to universal truth are likely to be belligerent because they do not grant equal status to another person that believes in something else. They may recognize the existence and sub-humanity of such a person but assign him or her a diminutive status.
I differ with many Northern Nigerians because I disagree with Christians who want to create a Nigeria where the main criteria for citizenship is Christian righteousness, and Muslims who believe that to be fully recognized as a human being one has to be a Muslim believer. The only way forward for Northern Nigeria is for everyone to recognize the humanity of each other and use that as the essential minimum criterion for full participation in the society. Any other criterion over and above that should be treated with suspicion unless it can be established that the criterion introduced is based on the authentic goal of improving the welfare of all.
This does not mean that people should not be religious or that I am skeptical or against it. I truly believe in the importance of religion as preparation for eternity but more than that, social science research has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that when properly practiced, religion is a source of social ethics and care for the "Other." Note that I said when properly practiced. I say so because religious people can commit some of the most horrendous atrocities against other human beings and feel highly exonerated in their conscience if they believe their religious ethics approve their behavior. By the same token, genuinely religious people can make huge sacrifices for the welfare of others, if they believe their religious social ethics prescribed that. Given this, we cannot from the social scientific perspective say that religion is absolutely good or bad, because religion throughout human history has never been practiced in social or cultural vacuum. Indeed, some social science research confirms that religion promotes prejudice. Furthermore, no religious group interprets religious doctrine in social or cultural vacuum. Interpreting scriptures and making meaning of it is a social act embedded in culture and social relationships, and the culture, social contexts and relationships shape the interpretation and the meaning making process.
Let me respond to a few issues that Baba raised that in my view need some interrogation. First, I do not believe on methodological grounds that there is one "collective history" of Northern Nigeria. The writing of history is a highly contested venture. It is actually a terrain of class conflict and struggle no matter how sublimated this may be. Briefly, one scholar argues that there are three types of ways people can write history. There is first what he calls "monumental history" which is history written from the perspective of the ruling class, winners in historical struggle, or upper class people. This kind of history is very triumphalist in tone. There are some elements of such triumphalism in the tone of Baba's rejoinder. The second type of history he calls "antiquarian history" which is when the writers of history are fundamentally concerned about conserving the past, claiming their past antiquity represents the universal yearnings of humanity. In reality, the antiquity such as the Egyptian pyramids only reflect the vision of life of a tiny group of people (i.e., the pharaohs who wanted to immortalize themselves), whether those people are social classes, or ethnic group etc. etc. This kind of history sees the best of humanity as something that had existed in the past and the way to create a better future is to reenact the past into the present and future. Its subjective attitude to time is past in orientation. The third type of history is called "critical history." This is history written from the point of view of the oppressed and socially disenfranchised people, the masses, or history written from the bottom-up. Contrary to monumental history, which focuses on the perspectives of the winners and the ruling classes or the powerful, this kind of history is written from the perspective of the socially marginalized or what Fanon calls "The Wretched of the Earth." This is history written from the periphery or margins of society.
If one applies the three ways of conceptualizing history to the history of Northern Nigeria or any society for that matter, it is easy to conclude that there is no "collective history" except as elites have tried to socially construct one and impose it on the region or the country. The ordinary peasant in rural Northern Nigeria, never had the same historical experience and privileges like that of the elites of the North, and this is true whether the peasant is a Muslim or Christian. Social marginalization in Northern Nigeria is so pervasive and beyond the narrow confines of being Muslim or Christian. Those are just diversionary categories from the real issues of the North, a region that has been misgoverned, though this is true for the whole country. Let us be honest with ourselves and we will admit this. From my perspective, the term "our collective history" is somewhat simplistic and na´ve. If we want a collective history for Northern Nigeria, or Nigeria in general, then the voices of the masses will have to play a fundamental role in public policy formulation and implementation and how public resources are expended. This is not the case and I believe Baba and I agree on this.
Historical Facts: Baba's rejoinder itself proves one simple reality which is that there are no facts but "interpretation" of facts. Baba is reacting to what Ali considers to be facts. Yet, Baba believes he has the correct facts. From this simple analysis, it is clear that it is na´ve, simple and simplistic to assume that facts exist without interpretation. Interpretation is made by human beings based on particular human interest; as one scholar asserts, knowledge is produced based on human interest. Ali has a certain human interest and that shaped the way she interpreted the facts. Baba has a human interest and that shaped the way he interpreted the facts. We all have human interests. The only way around this is for both of them or all of us to come together and recognize each other's humanity and agree on certain non-negotiable ideas about the kind of good society we want. We need inter-subjectivity in order to develop common grounds. If they cannot agree on some fundamental principles, then there is no way out. Even if there are facts they are there because we humans developed certain criteria for understanding and used them to determine what the facts are. But humans are rooted in culture and society and so all the variations in culture and social location shape how people assign meaning and decide whether something is a fact or not.
Cultural Sophistication of Hausa-Fulani: In my assessment, Baba's human interest is leading him to denigrate other human beings. I will not do that because it is not a worthwhile vision for any human society. With all that we know about how some human beings have tried to denigrate other people in history, how can we accept this simplistic way of reasoning? Any person that wakes up in Nigeria and feels he or she is superior to another human being because of his or her ethnicity, level of education, socioeconomic status, lineage etc. etc. needs some soul searching and development in their moral and ethical reasoning. Such persons are a danger to human civilization.
In the Western world, right from the time of 5th Century BC ancient Athens, we see elements of Baba's attempt to use cultural superiority to justify certain claim to privileges. Pericles, the great leader of ancient Athens during his funeral oration after Athens defeated Persia, used the same kind of language that Baba used to describe Hausa-Fulani people. Pericles used the language and rhetoric of cultural sophistication to dehumanize the Persians and this laid the foundation for Athenian imperialism. Some scholars argue that Pericles' funeral oration marked the unfortunate beginning of West-East dichotomy in social and cultural analysis which has had damaging effect to humanity as Edward Said has eloquently demonstrated in "Orientalism."
Unfortunately, Athenian civilization was built on the imperial exploitation of other people. The history of Northern Nigeria cannot be fully understood without applying the perspective of "internal colonialism" or the relationship between vassal and overlord. I still remember my history of Northern Nigeria from the 19th century onwards. I think no one will deny the reality of this. The problem is the interpretation, which I concede is an open question. Some will say that internal colonialism in Northern Nigeria is justified because it was a "civilizing mission." But note that the Western world (see Rudyard Kipling's poem on the internet titled "The White Man's Burden") used "civilizing mission" as a justification for imperialism and colonialism in all their ramifications. That imperialism actually transformed the Sokkoto Caliphate. The Roman Empire used the same idea of cultural superiority or sophistication to justify the domination and oppression of "barbarians." The Spaniards used the same logic of reasoning in Latin America.
Today, under neoliberal hegemony, many scholars are justifying the economic domination of the developing world on grounds that they do not have what it takes to succeed in the global economy so they need to be "nurtured." The dominance of Western corporations is justified on grounds that they are peaceful and they are just successful because they are more sophisticated in terms of what it takes to succeed in business in the modern world. How can we fight Western chauvinism and cultural imperialism but use arguments that have the same logic of reasoning in Northern Nigeria?
Poverty has increased for the most part among peasants in rural Northern Nigeria. In one book that I read, one of the lowest "human development indicators" in the world is in Nigeria's Yobe state. This increase in poverty is among all ethnic groups including Hausa-Fulani? To assume that all Hausa-Fulani have some special cultural sophistication irrespective of their social context, social class background, history and politics of Northern Nigeria, is to fall into the trap of quasi-racist reasoning. The logic of the argument is exactly the same as in racist theory that say Whites dominated the world because they have more cultural sophistication and that cultural sophistication is somehow accounted for by something in their DNA even though it is not categorically stated. Is Baba trying to make a case for "The Hamitic Hypothesis" through the backdoor? This is inconsistent with true Islamic ethics. I did my doctoral research in Malaysia and became very familiar with more cosmopolitan Islamic scholarship while there, and I believe this kind of reasoning will never be condoned at the international Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur. The argument will not withstand rigorous scholarly interrogation. My argument here is methodological. If the assertion is not methodologically sound, then any knowledge claim that comes out of it is questionable.
I live in many villages in Northern Nigeria and I have seen people who are of Hausa-Fulani descent suffering and struggling just like any members of any other ethnic group. In rural Bauchi state, I have taught intelligent and smart children that are from ethnic groups called "Denawa" and "Gerewa." I still remember young girls that could have studied medicine but denied the opportunity. I am not a Hausa-Fulani person by birth, but my heart and passion identifies with the struggles of the down-trodden Hausa-Fulani people as it is with all humanity. Instead of wasting time dividing ourselves on grounds of whether someone is Hausa-Fulani or Berom, let us dedicate ourselves to creating an inclusive Northern Nigeria, where irrespective of the person's ethnicity, he or she will prosper. This will only happen if we fundamentally agree on a point that I made earlier on recognizing the human dignity of all as the criterion for participation in public affairs.
While doing research in Malaysia, I was impressed by the strong position taken by Royal Professor Ungku Abdul Aziz at the University of Malaya, who argues that poverty is no respecter of ethnicity or religion; it is a social condition. He opposed any attempt to treat some people as inherently backward because of their religion or ethnicity. Once you find yourself in the "right" social condition, you will be affected by it. Note that in contemporary social theory, there are scholars who now argue that the idea of an inherent human nature is problematic because human nature and behavior can drastically change if you alter the conditions. I agree with this line of reasoning but I do not have the time to develop the argument here. I fully agree with Professor Aziz of the University of Malaya, and therefore do not find it profitable that we begin to focus on inherent superiority of one ethnic group over another in Northern Nigeria. We have more serious issues to face and that kind of argument suggests a provincial way of thinking. The implication of that line of reasoning is that others must submit to domination on grounds of their lack of cultural sophistication. This is the 21st century. Europe did not have the right to colonize Africa simply because Africa was backward. In the same way, even if one group in Northern Nigeria think of themselves as superior, that is not philosophically or ethically enough justification for them to insist on being a hegemonic power. However, if as Baba asserts, there is peaceful, respectful co-existence characterized by the prosperity of all, a minority can govern, but on grounds of their service to the people, not based on some pseudo theory of superior cultural sophistication.
Just as we fought and are still fighting Western cultural prejudice, (and many Westerners are supporting us in this struggle, see "The Colonizer's Model of the World" by J. M. Blaut), we should fight any cultural prejudice in Northern Nigeria in particular, and Nigeria in general, whether it is ethnic or religious. Indeed, we should fight it in the whole world. Martin Luther King Jr. said that injustice for one person is injustice for all.
Democracy: There seems to be an attempt to equate democracy with elections. But election is only a small part of it and actually, you can have a democratic society without necessarily having elections the way Baba described it. Often we talk about democracy in the strict Western sense of it, which is narrowly legal-rational (See "From Max Weber" by Gerth and Mills). Democracy can be examined in different ways. Legal-rational democracy can help but it may not always guarantee the kind of results that constitute the true spirit of democracy. We should therefore guide against making a fetish out of it. I do not think there is any elected official in Nigeria who would say that the election that led him or her to be elected did not involve some rigging because rigging is virtually a norm in Nigerian politics. Democracy in Nigeria as in many other countries tends to serve the rich and powerful more than the weak and socially marginalized. Interestingly one may achieve the results of a democratic system using other means. Botswana's political system actually uses some traditional system of governance to ensure the representation of people.
The real issue about democracy is the guarantee of people their rights as human beings and ensuring that decisions are made in such a way that take into cognizance their voices and interests. Not all elected governments do this and everyone knows what is happening in Nigeria. So while I am not against democracy in principle, we should not confuse virtual democracies that have elections and perform all the other rituals of a democratic system of governance, but are never democratic in the true essence of the term and do not produce democratic results. If anyone is in doubt of my assertion, then he or she should design a research and draw a representative sample of Nigerians in the rural areas of the North, and ask them what are their fundamental human rights that have been guaranteed by the Nigerian constitution? How many will give you a straight answer? To what extent do such rights remain in the consciousness of Nigerian elites and guide their decisions in how they treat the citizens of the North? The lack of straight answer will cut across all ethnic groups, including Hausa-Fulani in Northern Nigeria.
At one time, Kano State to the best of my knowledge under Governor Rimi made significant progress in this respect and they are still probably in the lead now. So what are we talking about? For the most part, what the great majority of normal Nigerians care about is good governance and an environment where they will be treated with dignity, be given their due rights and entitlement irrespective of their identity, and an environment where they will pursue their aspirations and prosper with their children and grand children. I say "normal Nigerians" because Nigerians, who are suffering from the social-psychological pathology of self-aggrandizement and narcissism wherever they are, want to be at the top and dominate others. This kind of people exists in all religions and all ethnic groups in Nigeria. They lack humility and do not recognize the human dignity of others because they are willing to deny others the benefit of conditions that guarantee them their own dignity. If there is a system in Northern Nigeria where people realize that being Berom, Hausa-Fulani, minority etc. etc., does not matter, but instead, what matters is what they have achieved based on hard work and diligence, then there will be less emphasis on tribalism. People will focus more on developing their human capital broadly defined. Unfortunately, the preoccupation of the average Nigerian political elite is one of the following: acquire power by all means; remain in power by all means; own and drive the "best" and most expensive car; own the "best" and most expensive house or houses; wear the "best" and most expensive clothes they can afford; and in some cases, have the most beautiful women around. All these have no direct bearing to the struggles of ordinary people of Northern Nigeria, both Muslims and Christians. From the reading of social history of nations that have escaped underdeveloped, these kinds of issues are not the preoccupation of leaders that transform their nations. If the situation remains the same, Northern Nigeria cannot escape its terrible predicament, unless people are expecting miracles. But so far no country in the history of the world has escaped underdevelopment by just praying for a miracle.
Religion in Nigeria: I want to conclude by making some observations about religion in Nigeria. When I was preparing to come to the U.S. to pursue further studies, we had to pray fervently in my church so that God can give me "favor" in the passport office in Bauchi. I hate using the term "favor" but it shows you how some Nigerian bureaucrats have converted their status into a fiefdom. I am a bonafide Nigerian citizen and did not break any law in the country, but still getting the passport required prayer and fasting. But here is the contrast. When my wife and daughter were travelling to Nigeria, we applied for an American passport for our daughter, but we did not have to pray about it. It will be laughable to do that. We did not care who was in the office. We did not even think twice about applying for the passport. We just picked up the forms, completed it, and dropped it in the post office and in less than five weeks the passport arrived. I am not saying prayer is bad or wrong, but if you travel internationally to different countries you will quickly conclude some percentage of the total spiritual piety of Nigerians is tied to the unpredictable and unreliable and whimsical nature of the way our institutions function. Whether ordinary Nigerians realize this or not is an open question.
Nigerians are very religious people, but what bothers me is that this religious piety does not seem to show very much in the way our institutions operate; neither are they evident in the way human beings in Nigeria treat other human beings. The only way one can say that the religious piety of Nigerians is playing a significant role in national development is to explain it negatively i.e., the situation in Nigeria could have been worst without the flamboyant demonstration of piety, which of course never translates into good governance and accountability.
God-fearing Nigerians would say that you have to be honest and God-fearing because of eternity, but the country remains highly corrupt. Why? Is the talk about eternity truly authentic? Has there been a new revelation excusing the consequences of dishonest behavior in eternity? Again, the question is: where is the concrete result religious piety? Christians and Muslims claim God exclusively for themselves, but in Nigeria, the majority of them continue to languish in poverty, underdevelopment, and unfreedom. Is there nothing in Christian and Islamic ethics that speak to these issues? Are these situations eternal characteristics of the two religions i.e., poverty and underdevelopment?
Japan, which is a Buddhist nation, a religion that Christians and Muslims consider pagan, are doing fine. Their institutions are functioning effectively. And many African countries with great Muslim and Christian population are not ashamed to be begging for investment from China, which for the most part is a "pagan" nation by Christian and Islamic standards. Think about that? Based on observation, it looks like you could be Christian or Muslim but if you do not do certain things right, you will remain poor, ignorant and underdeveloped. On the other hand, you could be a pagan, but if you do certain things right, the God that Christians and Muslims exclusively claim for themselves is more generous in heart than them, to the extent that He allows the pagans to reap the benefit of their hard work. A Hausa proverb says: "Ubangiji ya ce, tashi in taimake ka?" We can use this proverb to write a book interrogating Northern Nigeria.
How does our religion translate into concrete reality in Nigeria or Africa in general? In the past one hundred years, what difference has it made to human dignity in Nigeria when conceptualized in a very comprehensive way? Public officials in some parts of the world are expected to be honest not fundamentally because they go to Mosque or Church and pray i.e., they are religious. On the contrary, people expect them to be honest because it is their duty as citizens. I truly believe that there is much in Islamic and Christian ethics that can be used to interrogate the practice of the two religions in Nigeria with a view to improving the lives of our people. While in Malaysia, I was exposed to what I will consider a totally different kind of Islam than the one I experienced in Nigeria, especially, when I went to school at Bayero University, Kano. The same thing with Christianity, where I believe the Churches in Africa are significantly a free market for dumping theology developed in the West. The African is still not considered as capable of developing his or her own theology, rooted in his or her existential reality. He or she is allowed only contextualization, which is some adjustment of theology developed in the West at the margins. He or she is taught to expect that the fundamental way meaningful change can come is through miracle. Unfortunately, some of the local theologies that have developed use Christianity to create a fiefdom for the founders.
We have a long way to go and please do not feel bad about what I am saying. If you feel bad, challenge yourself to examine these two religions historically, globally and locally in Nigeria and then ask yourself whether what I am saying is true or false. Please do not confuse apologetics with the rigorous examination of human society. This is a question of systematically examining ideas and their social consequences in history without getting into the question of their eternal truth claims. If it is true, I hope you will have the courage to deal with the reality instead of vent your anger at me.
I think there is a need to conduct some empirical research on religious piety in Nigeria. How can a country be very religious like Nigeria and still be corrupt? There must be something missing somewhere. Religion has never been practiced in social vacuum and all the sectarian crises in Northern Nigeria will not end if we do not address fundamental problems such as poverty, and accepting and recognizing the humanity of others in a multi-cultural and multi-religious context. Northern Nigeria can prosper and there was a time when we lived in peace with each other. Our hope was that by now we would have evolved to a higher level of intercultural understanding and greater respect for each other's humanity. Ours is a region that looks like two people that are married but cannot have divorce.
Muslims cannot eliminate Christians and still expect to be Muslims; Christians cannot eliminate Muslims and still claim to be Christians. Every sectarian conflict pushes the clock back for Northern Nigeria's development. We are making ourselves irrelevant to global challenges that face us but that have implications for our future and that of our children. We cannot afford get ourselves bogged down in provincial squabbling. Do not assume you are inherently superior to other human beings because of your status, whatever that is. Everyone should honestly desire to coexist peacefully and respectfully with others. Any hegemonic process produces a counter hegemonic movement. It will not work. I lived in many villages in Northern Nigeria where I was the only Christian and was treated with respect in spite of religious differences. Often those that treated me badly were the elites in power and I will never forget that. But the typical "talaka" was alright with me even though I was the only Christian in town. They related to me as a person. I honor and appreciate the integrity of this simple-minded people who have been marginalized by our elites since independence. I will never forget them and their hospitality. So a good research question is to ask: why did sectarian crisis become an issue in Northern Nigeria at a certain point in the history of the region?
If the older generation is failing us as testified by the concrete situation in Northern Nigeria today, then a younger generation of Northern Nigerians that is fundamentally committed to creating a prosperous, socially, and culturally inclusive multi-cultural and multi-religious Northern Nigeria must come together and forge a new future. As Fanon said, every generation needs to discover its historic task out of "relative obscurity" and pursue it. Note that there are many elites and religious leaders (Christians and Muslims) that either fail in their role, or in some cases benefit from such sectarian crisis. Thus, this is not a problem of one religion or one ethnic group as many people tend to think. Within each religious and ethnic group in Nigeria, there are those who are truly good leaders that are concerned about the welfare of the people; and there are those who are concerned about pursuing their own narrow selfish agendas and are willing to use whatever strategy to succeed. If anyone is in doubt, let us commission an empirical research to verify the validity of this assertion. This is my lamentations as someone from the Northern part of our country, Nigeria.