Orile Ede is Yoruba for the cluster of nation/state/country. Basil Davidson, one of my favorite chroniclers of Africa, famously declared the African nation-state a curse. Davidson was coming from the overwhelming evidence of the failure of the state in Africa. Long before him, Obafemi Awolowo, in totally different circumstances, declared Nigeria “a mere geographical expression”, empty of much of the conditions that Ernest Renan, the famous 19th century French philosopher, assures us must be assembled before we can speak of a nation. Awolowo’s became a prophetic phrase that subsequently found immense currency and fortune as the unlucky Nigerian state fell into the hands of successive generations of some of Africa’s most talented buccaneers. In fact, to declare the African nation-state a curse in the presence of a Nigerian is to make him experience the uncomfortable itch of an old woman in whose presence dry bones are being mocked. Apologies to Chinua Achebe and the Igbo owners of that proverb.
Whenever I’m invited to reflect critically on the condition of the state in Africa using Nigeria as an example, I always love to unpack the philosophical underpinnings of Orile Ede, if only to illustrate how and why Nigeria’s project nationhood was doomed from the very beginning and why we need to revisit those beginnings, correct so many errors of the rendering, if we are to stand any chance of renegotiating our way out of the current stasis to genuine nationhood. My strategy carries, obviously, the risk of assuming that what is valid in/for the Yoruba world is valid for the rest of Nigeria and Africa. I do not necessarily want to echo Wole Soyinka whose “African World” in Myth, Literature, and the African World is largely a Yoruba world.
The risk, I believe, is worth taking. All you need do is reflect on your own African mother tongue to determine if it is embarrassed by the same conceptual dilemmas in the attempt to imagine and name the modern concepts of nation, state, and country. I intend this as a template upon which any African could try to inscribe cultural imaginings of the nation-state in their languages. Orile Ede, again, is how the Yoruba express the geographical and political categories of country, nation, and state. Hence, “Orile Ede Naijeria” literally means “the land of the language of Nigeria.” If you insist on a further breakdown, you end up with “the head, land, and language of Nigeria.” This is the first sign of trouble. There is a conceptual dissonance between two orders of apprehension, the one Western and the other Yoruba. Being a civilization of the verb, the Yoruba have no use for the restrictive lexical and conceptual economy of European civilization, hence three major elements of Yoruba cosmogony, each worth several doctoral dissertations, are packed into Orile Ede.
If the “orile” part of the business stopped at just meaning “chief-land”, “head-land”, “origin-land” or “source-land”, our trouble would be considerably reduced even if not altogether eliminated. But logged in the profundest semantic recesses of “orile” in the Yoruba world are aspects of “ori”, which means “head” in the deep African sense of that word. Head is not just the physical locus of the face, skull, and brain that we carry around. Head is at once the expression of origins, fate, and destiny. It authenticates the Yoruba being in its marriage or contact with the earth, hence its ecumenical unity with “ile” in “orile”. For the Yoruba subject, to declare that “my head touched the earth” in this town or on this soil is the ultimate pact of origin. If you want to really kill the soul of a Yoruba man, tell him that he or his fathers “walked to their home town on their legs, not on their heads”. You just called him a bastard. This explains why the “oriki orile”, associated with the praise of sources, origins, and beginnings, is one of the most important aspects of the oriki genre. Significant verses in my family’s/clan’s “oriki orile” continuously evoke the intermingling of “head” and “land” in the historical trajectory of my people.
Chinua Achebe makes it easy to translate this head for the non-Yoruba and non-Africans. The Yoruba “Ori” is a rough equivalent of the Igbo chi. If you were translating Things Fall Apart to Yoruba, you would have to use “ori” everywhere Achebe uses chi in the novel. I will therefore use ori and chi interchangeably in this discussion to remind non-African readers of the pertinence of Achebe’s rendering of things to my purposes here, while mindful of the ethno-cultural specificity of each. The “ile” part of the equation in “orile” is just as problematic. “Ile” means land in all its African psychic and chthonic dimensions that European languages are not equiped to carry. For instance, there is no proper rendition in English of the expression “Ile Yoruba”. All you have are paltry consolations such as “the land of the Yoruba”, “the territory of the Yoruba”, or the more common “Yoruba land”. There is an entire world lost in translation here. Finally there is “ede” which means language. In essence, a country/state/nation needs “ori” (head), “ile” (land), and “ede” (language) – all in the African sense - for that Western reality to be in Yoruba.
Let’s start with the enormous problems posed by “ori”. Now, I do not speak Igbo. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Igbo idea of country/state/nation also contains chi. That would mean that Nigeria as a geo-political entity has a chi. Were this the case in Igbo as it most certainly is in Yoruba, the first question any serious Igbo should ask instinctively is: who owns this chi? The Ashanti should ask the same question if, like the golden stool, their idea of Ghana contains aspects of sumsum (soul). I ask myself that question all the time: who owns that “ori” in Orile Ede Naijeria? The answer is as unpleasant as it is unacceptable: a murderous Hausa-Fulani establishment, aided by Yoruba, Igbo, and other ethnic minority bellhops like Goodluck Jonathan, has owned Nigeria’s “ori” since 1960.
Now, we all know how extremely personal the ori – and its equivalents all over Africa – is to our people. So, who, among Nigeria’s three hundred or so fiercely independent ethnic nationalities is willing to dissolve their group’s “ori” into a political contraption manufactured by English men for the economic benefit of one parasitic Queen? And how were those poor fools from England to know that beyond territory and resources, what they were actually trying to do was to weld more than three hundred “oris” or “chis” together in a single political union? A total recipe for disaster. Has anyone ever heard of a marriage of oris? Even in the context a traditional conjugal union between man and woman, each retains his and her individual “ori”, hence the Yoruba proverb: “ile aiye l’a pade, ototo l’a rin wa”.
The trouble with land is self-explanatory so I will move on to “ede” – language. Implicit in the Yoruba rendering of country/nation/state is that the said political entity has a language. Ironically, the Yoruba are even better equipped to describe that reality when it applies to Europeans. The French have no profounder way of naming and calling their country than France. For the Yoruba, it is “Orile Ede Faranse”, which would translate roughly as “the head, the land, and the language of France” or “the land of the language of France”. The Yoruba rendering is immensely richer than what any French national could ever come up with. But that is possible because France has one language that commands the loyalty of all French nationals as the bearer of their identity, history, culture, and civilization. Even where you have separatist tendencies as in Corsica, we must bear it in mind that the Corsicans are only fighting for their own separate “ori”, not their own separate language. No one is contesting the finality of French. As a nationalist rallying cry, ‘Our ancestors the Gauls’ will always be in business in France.
Shift the discourse to Nigeria and the problem becomes immediately obvious. Which “ede” do the Yoruba have in mind when they say Orile Ede Naijeria? I have shocked so many Yoruba interlocutors with this question because it has simply never occured to them to think about Nigeria from that perspective. Again, which ede? Nigeria does not have a language. There are more than two hundred warring languages – much more if you consider dialectal variants – whose petty squabbles are arbitrated by one language: English. For obvious reasons, English does not command anybody’s affective loyalty in Nigeria. The Yoruba have no concept of a country/state/nation without an “ede” yet Nigeria has no “ede Nigeria” in that collective sense that the reality of nationhood requires in Yoruba. Only the ethnic entities within it have their respective “edes”. The South Africans have tried to resolve this conceptual dissonance by recognising eleven official languages but anyone who even remotely suggests that for Nigeria is looking for Rwanda and Darfur combined.
If this Yoruba example is anything to go by, the conclusion to be drawn is that Nigeria is a foreign mirage not easily transposable into the psychic and cognitive world of Yorunaija people. Nigeria as is does not represent anything that the Yoruba call “orile ede”! The nation-state has worked in the West largely because it requires only your submission to the absolute authority of its cartography, national myths, real or invented pasts, a collective present, a common destiny, the envisionment of a collective future, and, above all, the production of native Others. In Africa, the nation-state demands a lot more than these elements as I have tried to show with the example of the Yoruba. It demands the sublimation of your “ori”, “ile”, “ede” within the unifying logic of a foreign political concept. This is where the ship of Benedict Anderson sinks on contact with the iceberg of Africa. Nigeria is the imagined community of whose ori? Of which and whose “ede”? Of whose chi? Ghana is the imagined community of whose sumsum?
Now, the components of Orile Ede as I have described them are not things you ask an African to surrender for any higher, collective purpose. Let me remind you that whatever the state takes from the citizen in the West, it gives back a lot more in terms of the rights and guarantees of citizenship under a democratic dispensation: the right to life, dignity, security, and the pursuit of happiness. In essence, there is a trade-off that demands a lot more from the state for the minimal conditions of the social contract to be met. I do not need to belabour the fact that Nigeria is a career defaulter that cannot be unjustly accused of possessing even the most rudimentary understanding of her obligations to the citizen under the social contract. We all know that. The unserious rebranders in Abuja and the rabid servicers of their illusions in the Diaspora know that.
I am saying in essence that I find all the contemporary explanations – especially in the social sciences - of the atrophy of project nationhood in Nigeria utterly unsatisfactory. The failure of the Nigerian state is too often tied to measurable corruption indices, failed state institutions, poverty, military in politics, neocolonialism, and neoliberal propositions on how multi-national and trans-national globalization and corporatism have weakened the state in Africa. These are all secondary explanations. As useful as I find them, Immanuel Wallerstein, Ernest Renan, Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, and Masao Miyoshi are not sufficient to account for these things. The state failed in Nigeria because it was never able to harness the psychic, cultural, and chthonic predispositions it met on the ground to begin with. In fact, its Western arrogance and conceit made it dismiss those things as superstition. Can anybody imagine Lord Lugard calling a meeting of District Officers to ruminate on how the Protectorates and Colony he amalgamated into a state would negotiate such concepts as “chi”, “ile”, and “ede” and make them workable within the dynamics of the state? Today, rather than return to and seek to understand these things in preparetion for the future of Nigeria, there are still “sophisticated” and “postmodern” Nigerians prowling America, calling on us to grow and mature out of our ethnicities. Such is the tragedy!
Deep down in the Yoruba psyche, Nigeria will always be that strange and dubious Western entity asking for the surrender of your “ori”, “ile”, and “ede” without giving anything in return. I am assuming variations of this interpretation to be true to some extent for all or most of the constituent ethnic groups in Nigeria. I do not know any Igbo that would surrender his/her chi to something as factitious as project Nigeria, a project they even deem genocidal in the first place. I will not talk about our folks from Ogoni, Odi, Zaki-Biam, and Agge. One would insult them by even asking what they think of project Nigeria! Resentment of project Nigeria by the majority of her citizens – those who are “eating” do not resent anthing – therefore goes beyond competition for and access to resources, injustice, and the other usual explanations.
These are the cultural troughs we need to revisit in the context of an open dialogue to renegotiate the terms of our national co-existence. Project Nigeria does not stand a chance if we continue to allow the selfish traducers of our destiny to block these discussions. The rulers (I refuse to call them leaders) who deceive themselves in Abuja that these questions are no-go areas while mouthing useless platitudes about the non-negotiability of “the corporate existence of Nigeria” are not just blind to history because blindness sails their greedy boats. Tragically, they are tone deaf to the memories logged in their cultures. Otherwise they would understand that there can be no finality over the making and remaking of project nation-state, a project which Ngugi wa Thiong’o reminds us is indicative of “the planting of European memory in Africa”.
If by its nature this planted European memory requires me to surrender my “ori” as a precondition for its very existence, you cannot outlaw negotiation and continuous renegotiation of the terms of engagement. What does the future hold should the rapinous status quoists in Abuja and their voluntary megaphone s in the Diaspora continue their macabre dance on the grave of our hopes and aspirations as a people? The answer, my friends, is not blowing in the wind.
*Thanks to Rotimi Ogunsuyi for serving as fact checker as I prepared this lecture.