Revisiting ‘How to be a Nigerian’

 By Edwin Madunagu (The Guardian 3rd May 2007)

ACCORDING to our political historians, the country now known as Nigeria, with approximately its present size and international boundaries, was constituted into a British colonial territory between 1885 and 1914. But, as Obaro Ikime stated in his book, The fall of Nigeria, “the events which took place between 1885 and 1914 were but a culmination of a series of events, indeed a process, which began early in the nineteenth century”. The territory was constituted from several chiefdoms, kingdoms, city-states, tribes, principalities and communities.

Many Nigerians still claim that Nigeria was an arbitrary creation; but some others insist that the creation was not so arbitrary. By this they mean that there were historical, geographical and economic factors that favoured integration. In other words, they are saying that if the British conquerors had not come, or had remained as traders and missionaries, a country with more or less the shape and composition of Nigeria would have emerged, with time.

Be that as it may, Nigeria did emerge in 1914. It was defined by its location, boundaries and composition. A people called Nigerians, also emerged and were also initially defined by these factors. That was 93-years ago. On Octoebr 1, 1960 Nigeria was granted political independence. A question which has not been exhausted by history is: To what extent has the original identification and definition of Nigeria and Nigerians been transcended? In other words, to what extent has Nigeria transcended the description of “artificial creation”? When we say the “Nigerian way”, “Nigerian mentality”, “Nigerian culture”, “typically Nigerian phenomenon”, what do we mean, if anything at all?

In 1966, Peter Enahoro, then 31-years old, but already Group Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Times newspapers, tried to answer these questions in a humour-loaded book titled: How to be a Nigerian. Enahoro had joined the Daily Times 11-years earlier as a sub-editor. By 1958 he had become Editor of the Sunday Times. Peter Enahoro, a younger brother of Nigeria’s elder statesman, Chief Anthony Enahoro, introduced the publication as a “guide book for natives and expatriates on the conduct, deportment, comportment, bearing, demeanour, mien, carriage, actions, the misdoings, misconduct and misbehaviours of the Nigerian adult, male and female”. The book carried the author’s real name and not the pseudonym, “Peter Pan”, by which he was known in his incisive and very popular column in Daily Times.

As How to be a Nigerian is more than 40-years old, we may need to recapture the historical background. Nigeria became independent as a federation of three regions-North, West and East – and a federal capital, Lagos. A fourth region, the Mid-West, was created in 1963. The population of the country at the time the book was written was 55.6 million constituted by about 90 “tribes” – the more edifying name, “ethnic group”, was not yet in popular use then. Governance was characterised by a triple affliction: tribalism, nepotism and corruption. The first military coup took place on January 15, 1966. This fact was, however, not reflected in Peter Enahoro’s book also not reflected was author’s narrow escape during the counter-coup of July 29, 1966.

Why did Peter Enahoro decide to write this book? I can deduce two reasons from the preamble. First: “Too many writers are trying to solve Africa’s political and economic problems, without looking at the people with whom they are dealing”. Secondly, “I offer this book as a tourist guide to those Nigerians who wish to break with tradition and visit their own country. Nigerians are great travellers, except in their own country. They travel far and wide in Africa. You will find them selling diamonds to Ivoriens in Ivory Coast; they run small businesses in Ghana and make thundering good living selling hand-woven Ghanaian cloth to Ghanaians. You will find them in the heart of the Congo too, selling elephant tusks off Congolese elephants to the Congolese”.

But at home, Enahoro lamented, “Nigerians are parochial. Flatters say we are a stable people. No doubt about that. At home, the Nigerian is intrinsically static. They are stable people who are immobile”. That was 40-yars ago. How far have we evolved? The preamble ended: “This book does not pretend that it is a philosophical or sociological work; it does not affect to be of scholarly depth. Its aim is to enlighten in an entertaining way, to show that the Nigerian can laugh at his own idiosyncrasies. For this reason, I commend this book to the man with a large sense of humour”.

The main body of the book has 21 short sections. From these I pick the section titled: The spirit of compromise. The reason for my choice will become clear at the end. Besides, the section give an insight into the entire book. Peter Enahoro opened the section with the declaration: “No Nigerian arrangement is permanent unless that which has been arrived at by negotiated compromise”. He then elaborated: “This fundamental principle is more than a habit. It is a religion. A situation in which normalcy is achieved without compromise is suspect and every effort will be made to disrupt it so that a proper compromise can be worked out to ensure stability”. He provided several illustrations from which I make the following selection.

First illustration: arbitration: “When a Nigerian is invited to arbitrate, he knows that he will be condemned by both sides if he does not find fault with either side to the dispute – and praise both for their infinite patience, at the same time. Thus, he will lean over backwards to blame the obviously innocent party and pick on a trivial trespass so that he can be seen to have been fair. The result of this arbitration would then be a compromise between a lasting scar and a fresh wound. The arbitrator’s equivocate upbraid of the guilty party is enough to instill a sense of guilt; yet his censure of the innocent party is sufficiently unfair to arouse fresh hostility”.

Second illustration: commodity prices: “In most parts of the world, a price tag tells you the exact cost of an article on display in a market. Not so in Nigeria. There are no price tags; although there are prices. Which is a fair compromise between giving goods away and having prices. What happens is that the market mammy knowing that the correct price of a dozen eggs is five shillings, asks one shilling more; the customer knowing that he should rightly pay five shillings offers one shilling less. Then seller and purchaser haggle and haggle and after driving a hard bargain, compromise on five shillings”.

Third illustration: the civil servant: “Civil servants are also a compromise between incivility and servitude. They are inherently uncivil and economically servile. The civil servants is underpaid, which makes his service equivalent to servitude. On the other hand, the civil servant takes a razor-sharp tongue to work with him and will snap like the jaw of a crocodile at the least provocation. Thus, while he is not civil, he is a servant. It is a rare compromise”.

Fourth illustration: diplomacy: “In the First Republic, our diplomats went to great lengths to see that they spoke when everyone else had finished speaking and half the conference were in the tea-room. This was in the great tradition of that technique of diplomacy highly favoured by the political leaders of the period. It was called the doctrine of self-effacement; or the overseas policy of self-concealment. In practice, it meant that if there was a slim chance to cancel ourselves out at any international affair, we had to snatch it. Most diplomats approved of this and would often tell journalists proudly that Nigeria’s successful policy was to hide from exposure. In other worlds, our foreign policy was a compromise between bring physically present and being effectively absent. Like playing right full back in a football match, sitting among the spectators”.

Fifth illustration: marriage and family: “Marriage is a rich breeding ground for compromise. In many happy monogamous homes, marriage is a contemplated compromise between bachelorhood and polygamy. This is largely accepted, as marriage itself is understood to be a compromise between promiscuity and public morality. The Nigerian family is invariably large. This is understandable, for the Nigerian family includes relations as far distant as the 12th cousin removed. Thus, in fact, the Nigerian family is a compromise between a village and a clan”.

Six illustration: summons: “When you summon a Nigerian, saying to him: will you please come here a minute?” he will say to you ‘I’m coming’. In fact, he is not moving. What he really means is that he will join you as soon as he can – which may be ages. Therefore, his answer is a compromise between outright refusal and rushing over to see you”.

I commend: How to be a Nigerian to Nigerian patriots and genuine democrats who desire to engage the Nigerian question afresh, and from the roots. A monumental tragedy has just befallen the country – a tragedy that is all the more tragic and complicated because of its farcical form. But soon, an unprincipled compromise will be proposed by professional, but satanic, peacemakers. This compromise will then propel the country to a greater tragedies – until we arrive at the point those who want to bury Nigeria want us to be.

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