Before we get to the discussion proper of the issue at hand, we need to go down memory lane to revisit our checkered history. We are here talking of a history that’s not of our making, but a history imposed on us by more powerful of forces of control and domination. By accident or design, history has a way of acting on us in ways that are quite independent of our will and preference. We just need to recall our colonial history to get to the kernel of the issues I want to subsequently highlight. The historical constitution of Nigeria is characterized by our culturally complex nationalities, variegated ethnicities and plural identities. To that extent, our failure to forge a viable modern nation of our dream out of our seemingly irreconcilable differences may not be unconnected with our convoluted essences. Indeed, of all colonial creations and experiments in Africa, Nigeria appears to have fit the billing of Ali Mazrui’s concept of triple heritage, in which he sees Africa as a Janus-faced behemoth that is paradoxically capable of showcasing the beautiful promise of unity in diversity or the ugliness of irreconcilable differences.
Nigeria is like a pendulum that swings gingerly in desirable and not so desirable directions. And by virtue of our fragile history, the threat of making or marring our collective existence is eternally hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles. Our pre-colonial primordial essences seem to be perpetually standing against the building blocks of a virile nation. Over the years, some conscientious Nigerians have striven to build a nation we can all proudly identify with, but centrifugal forces poised to thwart such efforts are always lurking in dark corners in our journey to nationhood. In postcolonial Nigeria, mindless corruption, visionless and incompetent leadership structures are vitiating any prospect of social progress and development. This is more of the problem than anything else. If anything, our deficiencies in social engineering are everywhere reenergizing our ethno-religious fault-lines. Things have got so bad to the extent that every conceivable aspect of our postcolonial life is contested from the prism of religion, tribe or region.
To say it as it is, most non-Muslim groups in the pre-colonial territories that have formed modern Nigeria have welcomed British colonial incursions as a form of liberation from Muslim hordes bent on an expansionist drive to primarily Islamize peoples, but more significantly to grab territories in the processes of empire building with the establishment of what Murray Last called the Sokoto Caliphate. Before the coming of European conquerors to our shores, communities populating the territories of Nigeria have never witnessed a more formidable force that had almost conquered the entire hinterlands of Nigeria in the 19th century. This is one of the reasons why the European missionaries coyly presented Christianity as a tool of liberation from the horrors of slave raiding northern horsemen rather than ideological instrument used to facilitate colonial conquest. Christianity was then wholeheartedly embraced without even a whimper in some quarters. Despite the claims that some historians like Obaro Ikime made, the extent of our resistance to colonial conquest in the different parts of pre-colonial Nigeria was, to say the least, feeble.
As I tried to hurriedly urge us to look back into our history with a view to find plausible explanations behind our ever widening identity cleavages that have been relentlessly characterizing our responses to situations as they arise in the public domain, I believe we cannot move forward an inch without a coherent reappraisal or reexamination of where we are coming, and then where we going as a postcolonial nation. We need a revolutionary change of attitude in the spaces in which we collectively operate as Nigerians; spaces in which we wage our contestations over ideas, values and institutions we inherited from our colonial forebears. The current divisions are indeed negatively accentuating our conflated contradictory realities. Nigerians seemed to be programmed to behave the way they were initially designed to behave from the earlier days of colonial conditioning when the seeds of mutual suspicion and mistrust of one another were planted. As a result, the ensuing conundrum is everywhere hampering any robust attempt in our search for good life. Our attitudes to issues that require frank and open negotiations have always been compounded by total lack of honesty and sincerity; and often by ignorance and narrow-mindedness.
Thus from the day our dear Nigeria graduated from the yoke of direct British colonial rule, every issue under the sun is perceived or conceived from the perspective of our ethno-religious aspirations and loyalties. We see that in the series of debates on whether Nigeria is secular or multi-religious. Constitution Drafting Committees debates, Shari‘a debates, Gregorian calendar debates, inclusion of Friday as a work-free day, removal of Arabic inscription on the Nigerian currency, building of worship houses in public institutions, and currently the debate over the wearing of headgear against the strict regulations of the law school, et cetera. The list is inexhaustible. Our nation is always put at the mercy of such bickering. Although our opinion leaders, social scientists and public intellectuals think that answers to all these myriad problems lie in restructuring or instituting what they called true federalism, I think the problems are much deeper than the way they are naively presented. Our problems have clearly transcended simpleminded structural compartmentalization. We urgently need change of attitude more so now before we begin to talk of anything else.
Intensification of these sensitivities can also be attributed to the rising tide of global religious extremism and intolerance in a postmodern world where the boundaries of reason and unreason have totally become eroded. Are we in the least surprised that today the canvass upon which we engage in rational discourses is completely encrusted by religious zealotry? The situation is so bad that even professors in our universities, people that are suppose to teach young Nigerians how to think critically and act rationally, have since surrendered their rational faculties to the whims of some uneducated and pathetic looking priests and clergies of the different religions we professed – all in the name of ministering to their spiritual needs in the face of our dog-eat-dog system that is manifesting its putrid nature in both the ivory tower of the academia and the larger society. On countless occasions, I have watched with amusement how some professors talked about consulting their pastors or mallams first before they take decisions on the most mundane of matters that they are more qualified to dispense with than their spiritual benefactors.
Once again, our inclination to set reason aside as we bury ourselves under the cloak of our ethno-religious sentiments is showing its ugly face. By all parameters, the small matter of Miss Firdaus Amasa’s refusal to adhere to the regulations of the law school in what one levelheaded barrister referred to as the “appropriate dressing for Call to the Nigerian Bar” is not in my estimation an issue that warrants the hype it so generated. In the drowning cacophony of unreason, Christian and Muslim Nigerians alike have only succeeded in exposing their myopia and bigotry over procedural matters that have been in practice for decades without acrimony even before that little girl was born. While Christian zealots are behaving as if it is the article of their own faith to defend what they considered as the secular status of Nigeria, their Muslim counterparts think they are waging Jihad in the name of Islam by blindly standing behind the impudence of Miss Amasa. There is thus no earthly law that is absolute or sacrosanct. We need to categorically understand that. The law establishment in Nigeria must begin to realize the significance of the saying that necessity is the mother of invention.
As far as I see it, that girl has no cogent reason to flout the age-old procedures of the law school. And if anybody is not satisfied with those strict regulations, that person has no business going to the law school, defending our statutes or becoming a law practitioner in Nigeria insofar as those regulations remain in place. Lawyers must be the category of people that should have come out strongly to strictly defend the sanctity of the law, rules, regulations and procedures that have been enshrined in our law books and the constitution. We must all always aspire to follow the laid down procedures of addressing grievances. I find it strange to see lawyers defending the action of that girl. I wish to state that there is no alternative to rational criteria in negotiating or renegotiating our mode of existence in Nigeria.
Again, I see those who want to hide behind Islam to support the action of that girl as being hypocritical especially in a context where even the position of female judge in the most vociferous sect of Islam is a contested terrain. Anyway, in sourcing for solutions to socio-cultural problems as they arise in diverse and complex setting like ours we must not be quick at condemning things because they are not acceptable to us. Instead, we should put the interests, concerns and fears of every segment of Nigerian society on the table before we arrive at decisions that are expected to be binding on all and sundry. At least, the principles of justice and equity warrant doing just that. Above all, Nigerians must learn to accept that there is nothing under the sun that is immutable and unchanging. Reality is not fixed. So is time, and space as well. Those that are defending fossilized codes and practices governing our national life must come to terms with changing realities. In the same respect, those who think that they are not comfortable with the way things are run in Nigeria should also follow the appropriate channels of airing grievances.