Conversations and the Semiotics of Ethnocultural Domination in Nigeria
of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria
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
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
as it offers what seems to be a solution to the primordial hostile imagination
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
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
the world (into a global village) - the metaphor of ‘village’ suggesting
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
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).
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
available. Thus we find the nation vacillating between a programme of
multiculturalism. As in the slogan, ‘unity in diversity’, which Nigeria’s
unconsciously used to describe the inherent difference of one-nationness,
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
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.
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
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
at these various levels. With reference to the control of power in Nigeria
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).
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
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.
Nnoli in Ethnic Politics in Nigeria (1978) maintains this position, arguing
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.
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
“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
apparently resonates an inherent paradox. But this paradox is indeed what
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Conversation is a rule-governed behaviour in which the following conditions
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.
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:
“competence face”, and “autonomy face”, which are addressed by facework
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:
refers to ‘the ways in which people mitigate or address... face threats’
the doing of facework applies to conversational interactions (at the micro-level),
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
The semiosis of ethnocultural domination we have examined tends to suggest
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
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”).
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.
image of the minority as a “colonial” subject could be analysed in Toulmin’s
argument as shown in Appendix One (A and B).
Appendix Two for an analysis of this image in Chilton’s model of Metamorphism.
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 Location of Culture. London: Routledge.
Chilton, Paul, 1990,
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Loman, Yury, 1994
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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.