Chinua Achebe knew

Chinua Achebe knew

Many who quote the Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, still love ‘the other tribe’ narrative regarding Nigeria’s trouble. It’s a contradiction because the sage they quote said Nigeria’s trouble is leadership. He means the elite – political, economic, traditional. Elite – the privileged few – come from all tribes and they share some characteristics – particularly the desire to maintain their privileges, and they will do anything possible to ensure them.


Achebe’s essay was one of the materials given to us to read as Year 1 students of Political Science. He didn’t mention tribe as Nigeria’s trouble. That was one man who observed some things around and he dissected them intuitively, intelligently, and logically before reaching his conclusions. I submit here that whoever concludes that the tribes are Nigeria’s trouble is not being logical in their thought process. Their understanding of issues regarding this nation amounts to reading a book upside down. Here, we place the book the right side up.


This piece came to be because someone sent me an audio which I suspected had the usual ranting about how ‘the other tribe’ was the cause of all of Nigeria’s problems. The name of the person in the audio was dropped by the sender as though the former was the ultimate knowledge regarding Nigeria’s challenges. The person in the audio was a former deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, who left office in controversial circumstances. He subsequently made his mark as a controversial and divisive figure, peddler of fables fabricated from his biases against ‘the other tribe.’ He was a favourite of those who liked divisiveness. I shall return to him.


Meanwhile, I shall be stating some things I imagine Achebe knew and wisely digested which made him write his essay. I do this to make the reader who wants to reason, rather than be pushed by blind hatred for ‘the other tribe,’ to clearly think through issues as they concern our nation. Many are drumming the wrong drums about Nigeria and its peoples, and some of us mustn’t keep silent and watch them think theirs is the ultimate view in town. Sometimes, I marvel at what one person says and what the other person with the same education or training says. Some factors are responsible for this. One, the prevailing narrative in a part of the country among members of a tribe influences people. I’m surprised, however, that people with some level of education buy such narratives. Two, there’s the issue of exposure, the kind of people a person has mixed with.


A Nigerian who doesn’t have Ndigbo as siblings to him can’t see Ndigbo in the manner I see them. A Nigerian who doesn’t have friends from the North to whom he’s a family friend cannot see northerners in the manner I see them. A Nigerian who hasn’t travelled to the North, doesn’t have friends who are like brothers, won’t see northerners in the manner I see them. A Nigerian who has never experienced among northerners the same kindness that an Igbo person extends to him won’t see members of these tribes in the manner I see them. Such a person won’t see that humans are the same everywhere, that our humanity should be the common denominator, and that it’s only when the question of who gets what, when, how, arises that Nigerians bicker. Instead, all that such a person will see is what transpires at the macro level, on the national scene where the elite mismanage power and resources, and based on this or his personal experiences, he categorises ‘the other tribe’ as the cause of Nigeria’s problems.


Regarding this disposition even people who’re highly educated aren’t exempted. In this same nation where Achebe cleanly identifies Nigeria’s problem as leadership (the elite), we also find academics and writers like him whose analysis indicates they believe as if only one tribe is the cause of all of Nigeria’s problems. They see one non-state actor that belongs to ‘the other tribe’ as the cause, for instance, of Nigeria’s security challenges. I find this narrow analysis shocking, and each time people who are supposed to be educated pursue a similar narrative, I cringe at the shallowness of the thought involved. Yet, many Nigerians belong in the category; a reason I believe, it’s so tough to find solutions to the issues troubling Nigeria. For when the understanding and analysis are wrong, the solution proffered will be wrong.


I imagine that Achebe in his mind rightly separated leadership – the elite – from the tribe they may come from. The elite have one focus – themselves, protecting their own interest. They’re never, first and foremost, for the interest of their tribe. If they link their interest to their tribe, it’s because this helps them to better entrench the status quo, use claims to a tribe to benefit themselves, while the unenviable condition of the majority in the tribe they use remains largely unchanged. Membership of the Nigerian elite is fluid; it can change depending on the fortune as well as the political wind that blows on each member. People move in and out of the elite circle. Everyone is qualified to be a member, and they protect one another. This isn’t the case with tribes. You may say you’re no longer of the Yoruba tribe; that you now belong to the Hausa tribe, but situations will arise when the Hausa will narrate the history of where you come from.


Now, Achebe must have also rightly observed that when people come into power or fortune smiles on them, they behave in a particular manner no matter their tribe. Particularly in Nigeria, the man of average means or the wealthy man who comes into a political office will use the office to accumulate public funds. He utilises the funds, sometimes, to seek higher offices or establish business that ensures he remains in the circle of the elite. Everyone does it. When the Yoruba office holder loots public funds, the Igbo office holder loots the government, and the Hausa or Fulani office holder loots; the negative consequences are felt by every Nigerian, including the disadvantaged members of all the tribes.


Achebe must have known that though the elite may do things in the name of tribe, it’s, nevertheless, a ploy. They often do so because it provides a platform for them to continue to access privileges, particularly at the national level, as well as shield them from criticisms among members of their own tribes. “No member of our tribe is in that ministry,” “none has ever been a minister,” “they didn’t give me the appointment because of the tribe I come from,” “they sacked me in the presidency because of my tribe,” are some of the excuses used by the elites to position themselves for privileges. Or, does anyone hear the uneducated poor villager make such claims?

Chinua Achebe knew
Chinua Achebe (1930 – 2013), Nigerian writer. (Photo by Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images)

When the opportunity opens to be co-opted into positions of privileges, particularly at the centre, the elite readily use tribe as a basis to fill slots. At the time one popular politician was in the opposition and he was seeking a second term as governor, he said at a rally that “Ajosepo wa pelu awon people yen oda a;” which means that “working with those people of ‘the other tribe’ in one nation is not beneficial to us.” This was said in an effort to discredit the candidate of the other party. When the political atmosphere changed later and he was in the party that won at the centre, this same politician was one of the first persons to be appointed as a minister. He’s still there enjoying all the privileges as the representative of the tribe he comes from. When he was in the opposition, ‘the other tribe’ was evil; when he now has the opportunity to make good for himself, he’s working with politicians from the ‘same other tribe.’


Across the nation, people present themselves as the right persons to be appointed into positions from their tribes. When they get there, they keep quiet and enjoy themselves. If they don’t get the appointments they escalate their disgruntlement, which invariably takes the form of claiming that ‘the other tribe’ is Nigeria’s problem. I’ve written about a couple of such characters on this page. One, a former minister has crept back into the political party that he used to demonise; the party with the tribe he used to claim was Nigeria’s problem.


To be continued.


Tunji Ajibade

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