Cross-Cultural Conversations and the Semiotics of Ethnocultural Domination in Nigeria 

Obododima Oha (Ph.D.) 
University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria 
Department of English

Cultural pluralism makes cross-cultural ‘conversations’ inevitable and, indeed, necessary. This paper examines the interruptive and unequal ‘conversation’ in multi-ethnic and multicultural Nigeria, showing how it has been undermines by elements of primordial differentiations and polarizations. It argues that conflictual interethnic/intercultural relations in Nigeria have often exploited tropes of coloniality and mythology of captivity, which interestingly signify the difficulties of the conduct of cross-cultural conversations in a plural society under the agenda of homogenization and one-nationness. Homogenizations, in the plural nation, tend to assist ethnocultural groups in securing control of, and in maintaining, a monologic and non-neutral centre, in the same way that globalization, in the way the margin imagines it, tends to favor the dominance and control of periphery nations by centre nations. 

It is inevitable and desirable that different cultures hold ‘conversations’. ‘Conversation’ in this 
case figuratively refers to interaction, which transgresses a given cultural space. In this case, 
cultures attempt to overcome the barrier of difference, suggesting the boundary, Martin 
Heidegger would say, as “that from which something begins its presencing” (1971: 153); or as a symbolic challenge for openness. Just as in normal conversational interaction requiring the 
Gricean Co-operative Principle,(1) cultures in conversation ideally have to target the arrival at 
some understanding of each other. In this case, we assume that cultures are not prisons, as the Whorfian hypothesis proposes, and that one culture can enter another (and also be entered), a situation the semiotician, Yuri Lotman, refers to as “the culture within the culture” (1994). The entry of the one culture into another is, as Lot, an argues, transformative: it transforms the 
semiotic space of the host culture; in other words, producing some hybridity. 
Cross-cultural conversation appears friendly and useful to the idea of globalization, especially 
as it offers what seems to be a solution to the primordial hostile imagination of cultural 
difference as a matter of “Us versus Them, Insiders versus Outsiders, the tribe versus the 
enemy” which, as Sam Keen (1986:17) states, underlies identity perceptions of “most 
peoples”. Thus the hope of globalization (in one sense) is the emergence of a culture of 
understanding, a Pentecost that signifies the triumph over babelization of the world. Marshal 
MacLuhan presents globalization as a force of economy and information technology remaking 
the world (into a global village)  - the metaphor of ‘village’ suggesting closeness, intimacy, 
being at ‘home’ with self, the pleasures of ease. Of course, we do recognize that the term, just like all signs, is subject to difference, with multiple and postponed meanings; with meanings that are unstable- and may change significance form one context to another. Thus a pan-African reading of globalisation is just one of the many possible readings. 
The problem, however, is with the manner of this cross-cultural conversation according to 
some Afrocentric readings. Some Afrocentric cultural critics have argued that the creation of a global culture has not been devoid of cultural politics of domination, that what often 
masquerades as global culture is centering of European and American value systems and that 
African and other Third World cultures have been placed at the margins. In this regard, Ngugi Wa Thiong’O in Moving the Centre (1993) argues that it is desirable for cultures to interact, 
provided this is not an excuse for one to dominate the other, or for Western culture to become the norm and goal: 
... cultures that stay in total isolation from others can shrivel, dry up or wither away.  
Cultures under total domination from others can be crippled, deformed, or else die.  
Cultures that change to reflect the ever-changing dynamics of internal relations are the 
ones that are healthy... While there is a need for cultures to reach out to one another  
and borrow from one another, this has to be on the basis of equality and mutual respect (P. XVI). 

He further contends that “the call for the Western-based new world order should be countered by a continued call for a new, more equitable international economic, political and cultural order within and between nations, a world order that reflects the diversity of world peoples and cultures” (P. XVI). A healthy cross-cultural conversation, therefore, is free from 
domination (just as a normal conversation cannot be described as healthy if one party 
consciously dominates or tries to dominate the other). 
This problem of the possibility of domination in cross-cultural conversation is also very much 
present in inter-ethnic relationship in multiethnic contexts like Nigeria. Often the challenge is 
how to build a united nation (i.e. a national culture) out of the diverse ethnocultural voices 
available. Thus we find the nation vacillating between a programme of homogenization and 
multiculturalism. As in the slogan, ‘unity in diversity’, which Nigeria’s politicians have 
unconsciously used to describe the inherent difference of one-nationness, Nigerian 
multiculturalism is ambivalent: it is encouraged in policy and discouraged in practice, especially when it appears to resemble self-determination (of ethnic ‘nations’). 
The focus of this paper is to discuss the problem of domination in the idealized and imagined 
conversation between ethnocultures in Nigeria, especially in terms of the tropes used by the 
aggrieved ethnocultural identities in configuring their relationship with the perceived dominant groups. These topes which we will discuss include those of captivity, coloniality and slavery, which, interestingly, occur in themacro-dscourses of racial relations. We will, in the section that follows, provide a brief contextual background on the politics of ethnocultural identity in 
Nigeria. We will then turn specifically to discourse on ethnocultural domination in Nigeria and the logic underlying the representations of ethnic victimhood. We will then conclude by noting the implications of these representations for the plural society. the assumption underlying the semiotic approach adopted in the paper is that through the study of the frames used in representing ethnocultural relationships, we will arrive at a clearer understanding of the nature of those relationships, as well as the attitudes of aggrieved ethnic identities to self and the other. 

The Politics of Ethnocultural Identity in Nigeria 
Nigeria has about 259 ethnic groups, each of which is often identified with a particular 
language and culture. However, only three of these ethnic groups - Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo - have large populations in the Northern, Western and Eastern parts of the country respectively. 
Their languages are also recognized by the government as the major languages that could be 
used in the 1979 constitution of the Federal republic of Nigeria as languages that could be used in conducting business at the National Assembly. The apparent promotion of the three 
languages by the government has been criticized and rejected, especially by speakers of the 
so-called minority languages. The strongest criticism has been that the promotion of the three 
languages is an indication of (cultural) assimilation, especially as language expresses and 
transmits culture, or is perceived as a signifier of cultural identity. In other words, the selection of Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo as major indigenous languages of the country appears to suggest ethnocultural domination, a suspicion that seems to be reinforced by the fact that these three ethnic groups have been producing the rulers and contenders to rulership of the nation. Above all, as Efurosibina Adegbija (1997:10) has argued, the speakers of (these) ‘small-population languages’, along with their languages, “tend to be discriminated against in a multilingual context”. This ethno-domination in Nigeria is not perceived to occur at the linguistic level alone. 
Indeed, the domination at the linguistic level is seen to connect to, as well as signify, other 
sphere’s of domination like the political and the economic. 
It is then noteworthy that individuals in the context become more and more conscious of their 
ethnocultural difference when they perceive elements of ethnic discrimination and domination 
at these various levels. With reference to the control of power in Nigeria specifically, rulers 
who have emerged over the years (whether civilian or military) have mainly been identified as 
representatives of their ethnocultures, and not as individuals. Thus we find, in the recent riots 
over the death of Chief M.K.O. Abiola in detention, that the Hausa-Fulani persons who live in Lagos and Ibadan have reported that they (easily) became victims selected for attack by the 
protesters, who were Yoruba ascendancy to rulership of Nigeria (which was dashed by the 
annulment of the election by General Abacha and subsequent detention of Abiola). This attack on the Hausa-Fulani is indeed a play-back of the attack on the Igbos by Hausa-Fulani and the Yorubas in 1966, on the same basis that Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu and General 
Aguiyi-Ironsi were representatives of the Igbo ethnic group. 
In the main, the conflict over the control of power in Nigeria appears to be not only between 
North and South, but also between Islam and Christianity, between majority ethnic group and 
the minority, between the rich and the poor, etc. Thus, it is a very complex conflictual situation, which has the perception of difference as a major underlying factor. This slows down even socio-cultural processes like interethnic marriage and adoptions of names from other Nigerian cultures, despite the fact that Christianity, formal (Western) education and urban exposures as global forces have had far-reaching impacts on interethnic relationship in Nigeria (Oha, 1997: 137). Eward Siad as, in Culture and Imperialism, argued that: 
No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or Woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which is followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind. Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But it worst and most parodoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only mainly, exclusively, White, or Black, or Western, or Oriental. Yet just as human beings make their own history, they also make their cultures and ethnic identities. (1994:336). 

This perspective, of course, takes care of the condition of many Nigerians who, born within 
interethnic marriages, cannot define their identities strictly in terms parentage. As would be 
expected, cultural hybrids become significant victims in the context of rigid cultural 
Another point made by Said, which has also made in the Nigerian case, is that (Western) 
imperialism consolidated perceptions of ethnic difference among the colonized. Okwudiba 
Nnoli in Ethnic Politics in Nigeria (1978) maintains this position, arguing that this 
encouragement of perception of difference was a strategy used by the colonialists in preventing the colonized peoples from uniting into an effective subversive force. But its effect has survived into the post-colonial period, this time subverting interethnic communication and understanding. As we find in the Nigerian context, the basic character of ethnic prejudice is that it generates mutual suspicion  between one ethnic group and the other. It is, therefore, not surprising to find, in Nigerian ethnocultural discourses, configurations of domination and victimhood that appear to suggest the impossibility of pursuing a neutral cross-cultural conversation. 

The Semiotics of Domination and Victimhood 
The discourse generated by ethnocultural conflict situation in Nigeria reveals appropriations of the tropes of coloniality, slavery and captivity which have strong historical meanings (for 
instance, reminders of the colonization of Africa by European nations, the transatlantic and 
trans-saharan slave trades, and the Babylonian captivity of the Jews). Implicitly, we are 
presented with a parallel care argumentation in which we compare the condition of the ethnic 
group to the historical narratives. The implied argument thus is that the rational judgement 
applicable to the situation in the historical narrative ought to be applied to the (imagined) 
prevailing condition of the ethnoculture. Also, we are presented with a binary logic of Agent 
versus Victim, which requires us to have an attitude of dislike for the Agent, a logic that seems to confirm Keen’s claim that “The mythic mind, which still governs modern politics, in 
obsessively dualistic. It splits everything into polar opposites” (P. 18), and within the dualistic 
framework, the Homo hostilis (enemy-making human) would choose to become a 
“passive-aggressive victim” while projecting aggressiveness and vice to the (imagined enemy 
The trope of coloniality, which recalls the colonization of Africa by Europe, is used mainly in 
minority ethnic discourse in Nigeria in interrogating the control of power by the majority ethnic groups.(2) In other words, it is a trope that analogizes the colonial condition with the 
postcolonial(3) , suggesting that the “post” in “Postcolonial” is not an actual movement away 
from temporal situation. It is suggestive of the “presence of the past”. The presencing of the 
past, which is appealing to post-modern culture and postmodernist criticism of culture, 
apparently resonates an inherent paradox. But this paradox is indeed what the minority 
interrogation of the majority ruler’s claim of having moved away from the politics of domination to that of protection is all about. A significant exploitation of this trope of (internal) colonization is found in some of the writings of the late Ogoni activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, especially in his life writings, A Month and a Day (1995), Second Letter to Ogoni Youth (1992a) and Genocide in Nigeria: The Ogoni Tragedy (1992b). Saro-wiwa presents the Ogoni as a nation that has been “colonized” by the Nigerian nation, specifically by the majority ethnic groups that have been producing Nigeria’s rulers. The Ogoni “colonial” subject, in this thinking, is an endangered being, made deliberately so by the “colonizers”. 
Related to this political deprivation of autonomy is economic exploitation, which, as we know, is fundamental to all practices of colonization. The colonizer’s major pursuit is economic gain. 
Thus Saro-Wiwa configures Nigeria as an exploiter of Ogoni wealth and natural resources. He is particular about the collaboration of Nigeria (the internal colonizer) with multinational oil 
companies (representing the external colonizer) in exploiting Ogoni and destroying its 
environment - implicitly saying that birds of a feather flock together. 
The trope of slavery, on the other hand, is used, not only in minority agitations against majority domination, but also in some discourses of the ethnic majority. Indeed, before its use in Saro-Wiwa’s Second Letter to Ogoni Youth, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu had used it mainly in some of his war speeches to stimulate hatred against the “Nigerian” (Federal) side of the war. Again in his life-writing, Because I am Involved (1989:18) he extends this image of slavery to what seems to be an antecedent, “captivity”. A slave is first of all a captive who 
loses his or her rights. The captivity image used by Ojukwu is that of Jonah in the belly of the 
whale - which in later revisions in Nigerian political discourses has been alternatively expressed as “being in the belly of the tiger” or “being in the belly of the beast” (especially in referring to those who worked for Babangida and Abacha during their tenure as President). The beast image is mythical and calls to mind apocalyptic portraitures of the anti-Christ and W.B. Yeats’ spiritus mundi. It is an image that suggests a demonization of the (ethnic) other. 
Ojukwu suggests matrimonial relationship as a preferable image in Nigerian interethnic 
relationships, on the presupposition that matrimonial relationship is based on love, give - and - take, and is devoid of domination. Of course, this cannot be valid in a typical patriarchal 
context. Ojukwu, perhaps, has ideal marriage in mind, which could best describe a condition 
of mutual pursuit of understanding and helping the other which is typical of dyadic matrimonial communication. 
Saro-Wiwa’s use of the master-slave image to describe the Ogoni condition is particularly 
allusive to traditional enslavement, in which the slave’s labor is exploited.(3) It is for him a 
condition of “Monkey de work, baboon dey chop” (The monkey works, the baboon eats) as 
it is put in Nigerian popular discourse. 
But apart from exploitation of the “slave”, his or her cultural “death” is important to 
Saro-Wiwa. One of the harmful impacts of slave trade was the amnesiac blow, which came as a result of the uprooting of the slave from his/her cultural milieu and being subjected to the 
process of deshumanization and violence that entailed forgetting (of most of the acquired 
values), what Homi K. Bhabha (1995:160) refers to as the “syntax of forgetting or being 
obliged to forget”.(4) Saro-Wiwa thus puts the Ogoni in the context of the historical slave, 
saying that Nigerian major ethnocultures consciously remove Ogoni from their roots, turning 
them to promoters of other Nigerian cultures, and of course pursue the assimilation of the 
It is possible that Saro-Wiwa’s claims here are exaggerated, his logic simplistic. His rhetoric as a minority rights activist was, understandably reliant on the strategy of appealing to pathos 
(pity). The Ogonis are not comparable to (culturally) dislocated slaves. Their learning of other 
Nigerian languages and movement to the city (the centre) are results of global pressures - of 
movement from isolation to association - which the Ogonis, just like some other Nigerians, 
seem to find necessary for their individual progress. 
Obviously, these representations of the victim as the colonized, the captive, the slave, are 
subtle appeals to pathos, as well as means of stimulating hatred for the “enemy” dominant 
ethnoculture. They problematize the idea of cross-cultural conversation in Nigeria, but then 
they remind us more that “conversations” ought to operate on the basis of respect of the right 
of each participant, each voice, each culture, to speak and to be listened to. 
Conversation is a rule-governed behaviour in which the following conditions apply: 
a) each of the participants is desirable (i.e. is welcome to speak), 
b) each can make a valuable contribution to the interaction, and 
c) each is autonomous. 

These conditions agree with the model of facework suggested by Lim and Bowers (1991). 
According to Lim and Bowers, there are three types of face, wants namely: “fellowship face”, 
“competence face”, and “autonomy face”, which are addressed by facework strategies - 
solidarity, approbation and tact, respectively. Fellowship face refers to the desire to be 
included, to be seen as a desirable member while competence face refers to the desire that 
one’s abilities be recognized and respected. Autonomy face, on the other hand, refers to the 
desire to be left undisturbed or unimposed upon (Lim and Bowers 1991: 420). ‘Facework’ 
refers to ‘the ways in which people mitigate or address... face threats’ (1991:421). Although 
the doing of facework applies to conversational interactions (at the micro-level), they could 
also be seen as applicable to macro-relations and macro-discourses, as studies by Paul Chilton (1990) and Scollon and Scollon (1983) have proved. Scollon and Scollon interestingly show that the idea of face is very useful and applicable to interethnic communication. 
We find therefore that cross-cultural conversation ought to cater for ethnocultural face wants, 
and that it is understandable that cultures should feel uncomfortable with processes of 
homegenization, which could involve assimilation and domination. 
On the other hand too, representations of the dominant ethnocultures, as in the Nigerian case, 
are tremendously face-threatening, and therefore deconstructive of the idea of conversation as a means of arriving at mutual understanding. As we have seen, these representations are 
attack-oriented, and very common in the rhethorics of aggrieved identities generally. 

The semiosis of ethnocultural domination we have examined tends to suggest clearly the 
difficulties of the conduct of cross-cultural conversations in a plural Nigerian society under the agenda of homogeneity typically reflected in the slogan of “one nation, one destiny”. Nigeria, as a text, is multivoiced and resistant to monologism. Homogenizations in the plurial nation, tend to assist the so-called “major” ethnocultural groups in securing control of, and in maintaining, a monologic and non-neutral centre, while pretending to protect multicultural rights. This deceptive ironical strategy is also present in the way that globalization (in the way that pan-Africanism reads it) tends to favour the dominance and control of periphery nations by centre nations, even when it pretends to neutralize the negative uses of difference at such a 


(1). This Co-operative Principle (CP) which Grice presented in his essay, “Logic and Conversation” (rpt 1996), requires thus: “Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged” (p. 124). Grice gives the categories of this CP as “Maxim of Quantity” (“Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity)”), “Maxim of Quality” (“Try to make your contribution one that is true”), “Maxim of Relation” (“Be relevant) and “Maxim of Manner” (”avoid ambiguity/obscurity”). 

(2). It needs to be noted here that some minority ethnic group, in their search for security, have sometimes sought alliance with one majority ethnic group or the other -i.e. as a way of countering a perceived regional majority domination - only to submit to another ethnic domination. This exchange of one domination for another has made things worse for the minorities, especially in terms their having to promote an image which they later turn to deconstruct. 

(3). This image of the minority as a “colonial” subject could be analysed in Toulmin’s model of  
argument as shown in Appendix One (A and B). 

(4). See Appendix Two for an analysis of this image in Chilton’s model of Metamorphism. 

(5). The process of deliberately making the slaves forget their cultural roots and identity was very interestingly signified in making them walk round a tree (called “the tree-of-no-return”) several times before continuing on their journey into slavery. This semiotic of enforced forgetting, which we find on the slave trial at Quidah, Benin republic, shows us how close to literalization and shallow then slaver’s understanding of memory appears to be, for memories of identity are not easily erased like chalk marks on a blackboard. 


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© The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author
and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO.

© Les idées et opinions exprimées dans cette article sont celles de l'auteur
et n’engagent pas la responsabilité de l´UNESCO.