The ethos of the collective and the commonweal as I have explored it above is not an exclusive preserve of any people in the immediate afterlife of colonialism in Nigeria. The landscape I have been mapping in terms of the cultural values that regulated one’s relationship to society in the period of our national history under discussion must be familiar to everyone, irrespective of your ethno-geographic belonging in Nigeria. I may have tried to explore the foundation of our national civic process during the era of the regions from the purview of my own culture, I am sure you have all followed my train of thought thus far, drawing parallels between the scenarios I have sketched out and what obtained in your own corner of Nigeria. North and south; east and west, Nigeria was once relatively a postcolonial space for ethos of the collective good and the commonweal. This explains why Nigerians of a certain generation look back and wax nostalgic about that era, irrespective of our deadly faultlines of ethnicity and religion.
I am harping on these two concepts – collective good and commonweal – to underscore the point that the physical and material fact of modern statehood, of modern political arrangements, are just as important as the metaphors with which citizens conceptualize such polities at the symbolic level. As strange as this may sound, metaphors of self-fashioning are in fact what give solidity to the political identities we refer to as nation and state. Such metaphors may be foundational, coming from myths and legends passed on across the generations, as is quite often the case here in Africa. A good number of Western thinkers of nation and nationalism also understand the centrality of metaphors and myths to national identity. Ernest Renan understood this in his famous treatise, What is a Nation? Ernest Gellner also understood it in his master opus, Nations and Nationalism. And so did Benedict Anderson in his influential book, Imagined Communities.
By defining a nation as an imagined community, Anderson was stressing the importance of the collective mental image that the people have of their nation and hold dear. That mental image, more rooted in metaphors and myths than in concrete actualities, defines a people. When members of a nation speak about “who we are” or “our values” – you’ll get an overdose of these if you listen to American politicians in an election cycle – they are talking about the time-tested metaphors and myths of self-fashioning to which they collectively subscribe. This is what gives vigour to their peoplehood.
One of the most significant metaphors of American self-fashioning is the concept known across the world as the American dream. Such is the mobilizing power of this metaphor that nobody is indifferent to it – whether we are Americans or not. A visit to the gate of the American Embassy here in Lagos will give you a window into the sub-human indignities that Nigerians endure from rude and insufferably imperious American embassy officials just to get a chance to gain access to that dream. And we know that in the tortured logic of Al-Qaeda, it is better to die through self-immolation than hang around here and deal with the inevitability of the American dream.
So, what do Americans throw into the philosophical cauldron of a concept which represents the heart and soul of their nationhood? They throw into it their freedoms and the institutions which underwrite them; they throw into it their self-awareness of being the authors of a system which invests the most in the infinite possibilities of the human spirit; they throw into it the unquenchable optimism of the can do American spirit; they throw into it the idea of the fair shot which guarantees a certain level playing field for the pursuit of happiness; they throw into it their faith in a system which makes it possible to take out a car loan, a mortgage, and the occasional vacation if you work hard; they throw into it their faith that America’s got your back, always ready to do right by you.
These metaphors of national self-fashioning can mobilize even more effectively than the material manifestations of nationhood and statehood. The American flag as a concrete symbol is important but what drives those boys in Afghanistan is their belief in the need to lay down their lives for abstract notions such as “our values”, “our way of life”, “who we are”, in short, the American dream. They are defending not the American flag but the American dream. Where the American boasts the American dream, the French man responds with “impossible n’est pas français”. Impossible is not French. Time and space will not permit me to fully explore what this self-fashioning does for French nationhood so let me just quip that it does for the French what the American dream does for the American.
Like the Americans and the French, the metaphors of the commonweal and the collective good once defined us as Nigerians building the country, building nationhood from our different ethno-regional locations. Then we had coups and countercoups. Then we shed blood, a lot of blood. And we lost the regions to our self-inflicted follies and gained a perverse form of federalism via military fiat. And things fell apart. No, I am not talking about the civil war. I am talking about what we lost symbolically in our transition from regionalism to federalism. Do you want me to tell you what we lost? Okay, you must wait for the answer in part four.
[Being the third part of the Save Nigeria Group public lecture delivered by Pius Adesanmi in Lagos]