Friday, 10 December 2010

‘Ijere’: Questioning Ethnicity (2)

‘Ijere’ is an Igbo word for ‘soldier ants’. Widely known for their ‘ecological syndrome’ or ‘legionary behaviour’, soldier ants offer crucial metaphorical tools for interrogating the ethnic perspective.

Peter Kropotkin’s masterpiece on ‘Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution’, (first published by Heinemann in 1902, and republished in 2008, by Forgotten Books), employs a related metaphor, to argue the need for cooperation. On ants’ and termites' highly successful lives, based on cooperation, (Kropotkin: 2008) writes:
Their wonderful nests, their buildings, superior in relative size to those of man; their paved roads and overground vaulted galleries; their spacious halls and granaries; their corn-fields, harvesting and "malting" of grain; their rational methods of nursing their eggs and larvae . . . and, finally, their courage, pluck,and superior intelligence-all these are the natural outcome of the mutual aid which they practise at every stage of their busy and laborious lives.

Kropotkin’s observation inspires a nostalgic feeling. Growing up as a young boy in a rural Nigerian village, surrounded by beautiful green vegetation, I spent time with playmates searching and finding colonies of soldier ants, with the sole purpose of breaking their movement. We drew lines on sands to disorganise them, but we were often amazed by the ease and speed with which they re-grouped. Their forward -looking mission and resolve were unbroken by the predatory threats of mischievous children.

The metaphor of ‘ijere’ exposes the short-sightedness of the North-South discourse. At the national level, the ordinary Nigerians are hardworking and resilient people that are united in needs: electricity, clean water, efficient and effective transport system, access to healthcare, access to education, employment, speedy and efficient justice delivery system, winning the war on corruption. The list could go on and on. For the common Nigerians, whoever supplies these needs is a hero. Contrary to what the self-interested elites tell us, no one really cares whether this hero is tall or short, male or female, Northerner or Southerner.

At the trans-national level, we observe a striking similarity. In the counter-hegemonic struggle of the global commons, from Prague to Seattle, the common people are asking for accountability, responsible leadership, socio-economic justice and leveraging of the people’s power. The champions of the ethnic perspective, employ the tactics of ‘divide and rule’ to break the ‘ijere’ solidarity of the people, both at the national and trans-national levels. For quite some time, this tactics seemed to have worked, for them. The counter-tactical challenge of today is to institutionalise the ‘ijere’ consciousness of the people, both at the national and trans-national levels.

How we do it is to emphasise the things that unite us and de-emphasise the things that divide us. As (Appiah 2007: 97), rightly observed:
...the points of entry to cross-cultural conversations are things that are shared by those who are in the conversation…Once we have found enough we share, there is the further possibility that we will be able to enjoy discovering things we
do not yet share.

In the light of current realities, there seems to be no alternative to increasing and sustaining conversations/dialogue, within and across borders. Such conversations offer opportunity for learning as well as an avenue for dismantling stereotypes. In cross cultural conversations, however, carrying the victim stigma rarely strengthens a discussant’s case, it tends to weaken it. The illogicality of the exclusionary tendencies that tend to block such conversations must have to be exposed, using the contrasting methodology of inclusion. 'Methodological cosmopolitanism’ that (Beck &Sznaider, 2006) recommend, does not close its eyes to the reality of staggering inequality. What it does is to challenge inequality by demonstrating the power and potentials of egalitarian solidarity.

At the normative level, it is remarkable that every functional legal system endeavours to trace allegiance to the legitimising power of the people. ‘We the people...’ is the building block of the Nigerian constitution. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is also founded on ‘we the people...Although, the invocation of people’s power in legislative documents/treaties may turn out to be a ploy to mask autocracy, with legitimacy, the invocation gives credence to the vibrancy of popular mandate; a vibrancy that every dictator detests and fears.

What the North-South discourse does, in Nigeria and anywhere else, is to break the ‘ijere’ consciousness of the people. When consciousness is broken and visions are clouded by primordial egotism and sense of revenge, the common people may abandon the ‘elephant' at hand and scramble for the ‘cricket’ in the bush, thus allowing the very few elites to unleash havoc in our name!

But something else is happening…There is resurgence of what (Sousa Santos, 2005) calls subaltern cosmopolitan consciousness. The ‘divide and rule’ strategy of the few power drunk elites has no future. Like ‘Ijere’, it is recommended that the common people, everywhere, endeavour to work together, no matter how difficult, and fashion a world where people can be whatever they what to be. The narrow perspectives of ethnicity, racism or other similar binaries, which the liberated political elites employ, in drawing lines on sands, will surely hinder progress, but these barriers are not insurmountable. As Beck himself rightly observed the ethnic perspective is a ‘monologic imagination, which excludes the otherness of the other. The cosmopolitan perspective is an alternative imagination, an imagination of alternative ways of life and rationalities, which include the otherness of the other’ (Beck, 2002).

In sum, my goal is to show in these blogs that our traditional understanding of ‘North’ and ‘South’; ‘local’ and global’; have been ruptured by complex interconnection and bundling of fates. At the local, national level, we continue to face the tensions of 'us and them'. At the global, trans-national level, the North-South discourse remains heated. What this reality demonstrates to me is that in order to comprehend the complexities of today, our frame of analysis must invariably change. The North-South methodology is too elementary to aid understanding of complex ‘glo-local’ issues that we face today. It seems to me that the way forward is for us to begin to see, on a consistent basis, ourselves in others; the local in the global and the global in the local. It stands to reason, therefore, that in this ‘age of comparison’, to borrow from Nietsche, it is more productive to choose the ‘dialogic’ over the ‘monologic’ and inspire a forward -looking -Ijere vision; capable of surmounting the barriers of binaries and other predatory threats of the vanishing ‘hegemons’.

[Excerpts from Wilfred Mamah’s Random Meditations]

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