Nigeria: The Politics of Identity, Power and Control

June 7, 2017

BY Fadekemi Akinfaderin

This month, as part of the activities planned for the Young African Feminist Dialogues, participants were taken to the Genocide Memorial in Kigali.  I didn’t really know what to expect, even though I had heard about the Rwandan genocide, while I was growing up in Nigeria.  I honestly can’t find the exact words to describe how I felt, watching the video of personal experiences from survivors of the genocide or walking through the museum.  I was overwhelmed with a mix of emotions, ranging from deep sadness, shock, anger, shame and guilt.  At the end of the emotional visit, there was one emotion that stayed with me: it was anger!

Why was I angry? I was angry at the role the Belgians played in the genocide. I was also angry at Koffi Annan’s role, as the Under Secretary General for Peacekeeping at the time, in letting the genocide escalate and take the lives of so many Rwandan, who are Africans. However, I think a lot of my anger was also a result of the fact that the warning signs of the genocide in Rwanda seem a bit too real, too familiar and that  made me very uneasy.  As a Nigerian, walking through the halls and reading the history, I could draw many parallels to Nigeria’s past and present; all of which centers around the concept of identity politics.

Not an exact replica, but similar in nature, the British during colonial times deliberately played on and fomented differences in Nigeria that were largely responsible for the persistent internal conflict experienced in the country in recent times.  The division of Nigeria along religious lines has been the root cause of stagnation in terms of the country’s development. Calling the southern region the “Christian South” and everywhere above the river Niger, the “Muslim North”, is a total fallacy that has been used over and over again for political influence and economic control. The truth is there is no Muslim North and Christian South. There are several states, local government and communities in the South, South East and South-South that majoritarily practice Islam and the same goes for the North. This narrative, married with ethnic divisions, takes root in many conflicts that have plagued the country like in the East, with the emancipation of Biafra; in the North Central, with livelihood-based conflict between pastoralists and farmers; and in the North East region with the Boko Haram insurgency. A true examination of the agitations of different groups in Nigeria reveals that they are not just because of religious or ethnic differences but rather a clamor for social, ecological and economic justice. The Nigerian government’s response to these agitations has been an increased use of military force against open conversations about power, disenfranchisement, exclusion and inequality. Sadly but honestly, the conditions for civil war in Nigeria are in place, we just hope that we never find the “igniter”.

Just like in our colonial history, I have noticed that women’s rights and feminist organizations are applying the same divide and conquer approaches to women and girls’ lived-realities; forcing women and girls to choose what needs should be met first.  The power dynamics from colonial times are being replicating in our work and activism within Nigeria and the continent at large.

During the recent advocacy activities on Nigeria’s potential gender equality bill that aims to domesticate CEDAW, there was a significant focus by activists on the issue of equality in the political and economic arena and less on health, including the SRHR needs of women. The division within the women’s rights movement is highly influenced by donors and the overall funding environment. For example, the European Union is providing funding to some women’s organization to push for the passage of a “watered down” version of the Gender Equality Bill that would make no real impact on the lives of Nigerian women and girls (this highlights some of the issues lost from one version to the other). Although not the colonialism that our grandparents had to contend with, this form of neocolonialism aims to achieve the same divide and conquer purpose.  

The EU is not concerned that the potential law will not change the status quo for Nigerian women and girls and will not get us closer to substantive equality. They just want a law in place to enable them to claim credit for its existence, regardless of the impact. The funding landscape has pushed many women’s rights or women-focused organizations to take labels such as “we are a violence against women and girls organization” or “we are an organization that focuses on women’s political participation”, or “we are an SRHR organization”. This is a deliberate strategy to fragment women and girls’ needs and lives, so that no real action can be taken to truly transform their circumstances for the better. We forget that beyond these labels, women and girls face multiple and intersecting forms of oppression and discrimination, which don’t care for the labels that we, as women’s rights and feminist organizations, place on ourselves.

We as feminists need to challenge the political climate that is centered on the social construct of identity.