May 1, 2017
Is there always a doctor on board?
The flight from Atlanta to Dallas took off 15 minutes behind schedule. If that was an omen, I had no inkling. Up in the clouds, they brought food and drinks. Not free, one had to pay. In my country, you don’t pay for food on board. Stingy people. That was how they charged me extra dollars for my check-in luggage. How many people travel without some check-in luggage? Again, in my country, you don’t pay for that unless the weight exceeds a stipulated maximum.
I started to read a book but soon dozed off. Then I was jolted out of my sleep by a commotion in the cabin. Any doctors on board? Deja vu. This time last year something similar happened to me on a Frankfurt-Abuja flight when I had to attend to a patient on board. This time around, I honestly hoped there was another doctor on board. I hadn’t attended to a medical emergency for ages. But I unbuckled my seat belt and rushed to the focus of the hubbub.
A young woman was convulsing – a generalized tonic-clonic seizure. A woman, probably a nurse, was already holding her down on her left side and shouting reassuring words while a flight attendant held her head to prevent head injury. Then she became calm and fell into what looked like a short post-ictal sleep. She must have fitted for at least a minute. Any anticonvulsant in the first aid box? No. Then a guy who had been helping to hold her brought out a stethoscope and a sphygmomanometer and a pulse oximeter. Hammad was an MD, licensed in Alabama. He looked Ethiopian but had an Arab accent. Sudanese. As-salaam alaikum. I checked the woman’s BP and pulse – normal. The chest was clear. She had no fever.
Then she had another fit. And another. Each episode lasted 30-60 seconds with about 10 minutes between. I asked how much time to touchdown at Dallas/Fort Worth. Two hours sounded like an eternity. How many more episodes to go? Then she came around and spoke, lucid. She had four more episodes but was quite lucid in the interval and even cracked some jokes. She had a total of seven episodes. A grand mal seizure without sphincteric incontinence, tongue-biting, and deep post-ictal sleep? Good news but confusing. We took a history and she told us she had psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (PNES). That’s it – it wasn’t epilepsy. She was having pseudo-seizures. False seizures, literally. She didn’t have some organic brain lesion. No physical epileptogenic focus in the brain. No abnormal electrical discharge from the higher centres. She was a white 27-year old who had been seizure-free for a while, just came out of some sort of rehab and had her anti-convulsant medications suspended. We asked for her medications and made her take carbamazepine. She remained lucid and chatted for a quarter of an hour making us all laugh. We were out of the woods.
I left the patient’s side to use the lavatory. One of the attendants looked at me and asked what would I like to eat or drink. Nothing, thanks. I went back to my seat and resumed reading p. The rest of the journey was calm.
As the plane descended through the turbulence to DFW, she had a final episode. After a bumpy landing, on-ground health workers came with a wheelchair and took her away.
December 1, 2016
Road Traffic Accidents and Public Health
When people think of road traffic accidents (RTA), they only think in terms of the worst outcome – death. But, the truth is, for every fatal accident, there are several others resulting in injuries, disabilities, and damage to property. In fact, for the 1.3 million lives lost every year globally to road crashes, 50 million people sustain injuries of varying severity – this is indeed a huge toll on health and development. So, even when life is not lost, quality of life may be severely affected. In short, road traffic accidents cause huge human and economic losses that they deserve a concerted comprehensive approach. The economic loss to developing countries has been estimated at $100 billion yearly.
To cap it all, the vast majority of road casualties – out of which 90% occur in developing countries – are preventable. There is an opportunity to save life and limb which must be exploited. Sadly, this an often-neglected aspect of public health. Leading road safety experts believe that, with the right action, up to 5 million lives could be saved and 50 million injuries prevented during the Decade of Action (2011-2020). This would represent a reduction of about 50% on the predicted global death toll by 2020.
As an epidemiologist and a very frequent road user, I have observed that we do not pay enough attention to the causes and consequences, nor do we employ a data-driven scientific approach to prevention and control. According to the third Global Status Report on Road Safety, 2015, published by the World Health, RTAs are the leading cause of death among young people aged between 15 and 29 years, and cost governments approximately 3% of GDP.
The same report also shows that low and middle-income countries are hardest hit, with double the fatality rates of high-income countries and 90% of global road traffic deaths. Vulnerable road users i.e. pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists account for half of these deaths. Low-income countries are also the least capable of dealing with the medical and economic consequences of RTAs.
What do we need to do as government and individuals?
In Nigeria, we need more than the good work FRSC is doing. We need a lot more. It has to be a multi-sectoral collaboration involving education, health, works, transport, police, justice. The overall governance or such a concerted action must be informed by a public health and social equity framework in synergy with safety policies and legislation. Actions must be focused on the road users (motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians) in terms of imparting knowledge, promoting attitudes, and ensuring practices that improve road safety; the roads, with respect to design (including signage) and maintenance; and the vehicles regarding design and maintenance. Above all, the existing road safety laws must be enforced and new laws enacted. In Abuja, the Federal Capital, several times every day, I see people dangerously beating the lights with impunity. The traffic lights are not enough, we need CCTV cameras to monitor them and identify infractions and exact penalties. Beyond prevention, response to road crashes must also be significantly improved especially the swiftness with which victims are evacuated for medical attention and the competence of emergency and other health workers to give optimal emergency care within the golden period and hence reduce morbidity and disability.
This is essentially to draw our attention to a serious public health problem in Nigeria and give an outline of what we need to do to stem the tide. Specific aspects will be addressed in greater detail in subsequent write-ups. Meanwhile, wear your crash helmets, strap your seat-belts and keep an eye on the speedometer.
August 8, 2014
Nigeria was slow to act on Ebola – it now needs stricter measures to contain it
The current epidemic of Ebola, which started in March 2014, has reached Lagos, the most populous city in the most populous country in Africa. This is a huge concern. And while Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO has called for international help for “fragile” West African health systems unable to cope with what it has declared an international public health emergency, it’s clear that the Nigerian authorities could have done much more to prepare for it.
Ebola is spread through contact with fluids of an infected person who is showing symptoms. But the virus has an incubation period of up to 21 days so knowing who is infected is difficult. Patrick Sawyer, the first ever recorded case of Ebola in Nigeria, died after flying in from Liberia and there are now seven other deaths related to his case.
The WHO has stopped short of recommending a general travel ban, but British Airways has cancelled connections to Sierra Leone and Liberia. Does this go far enough?
On a recent live radio programme in Zaria, northern Nigeria, last month a caller asked me whether they should be worried about the fact that one Ebola case had been diagnosed in Lagos. I reassured the caller against panic and advised on general precautions that should be taken. But deep inside I knew that, with the way public health emergencies are handled in Nigeria, it would be all too easy for the disease to find its way to other parts of the country and become a national problem. It’s likely to be just a matter of time.
Nigeria had ample time to prepare for Ebola but it did little about this right up until the moment Patrick Sawyer, the first ever recorded case in the country, came to Nigeria and collapsed in a Lagos hospital. This was a man whose sister, with whom he had close contact, had died of Ebola and who had reportedly been under surveillance by Liberian authorities. We’ve been carrying out investigations into the outbreak and it’s likely he knew he had the disease.
It is worrying that the free movement of people within the West African sub-region remains unrestricted. Nigeria has installed infra-red detectors and set up quarantine procedures for suspected passengers at our international airports; but our borders are notoriously porous and a lot of people travel between Nigeria and other West African countries by road. A corpse was hazardously transported from Liberia to Nigeria. News reports demonstrate that people continue to move freely in and out Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. And people simply deny contact with Ebola cases to avoid quarantine. People have even dumped corpses by the roadside in Liberia to avoid association with an Ebola victim.
In order to forestall a disaster, the Saudi government has banned pilgrims from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone from this year’s hajj. I think Nigeria should be included in this list even though the WHO in Nigeria encourages the screening of all outbound travellers to prevent exporting the virus.
Right now I do not know of any health facility with a ward or room that has adequate isolation facilities for epidemic-prone infectious and severe diseases such as Ebola. This is despite the fact that every year we have outbreaks of the equally deadly viral haemorrhagic fever, Lassa fever. These outbreaks are often attended by the spread to and death of health workers and other patients. We also have limited capacity to carry out laboratory tests when timely diagnosis is of the essence. Only two labs in the most populous country in Africa are capable of diagnosing Ebola and are both located in the south-west.
By August 6, seven primary contacts with Sawyer – including doctors and nurses – had tested positive and one nurse has died. The driver who picked up Sawyer at the airport fled to Port Harcourt, another city in the deep south of the country. We managed to get him to Lagos this week to interview as part of our outbreak investigations and his status is yet to be determined. Not all of his close contacts have been traced so far.
The government has been very slow in responding to the presence of the disease in Nigeria. Even the Emergency Operations Centre, which should be co-ordinating control activities is yet to take off. The health minister, Onyebuchi Chukwu, said on August 6 that each of the 36 states in the country would set up isolation facilities. I know that’s going to take another couple of weeks. And the situation is not helped by striking doctors.
Chukwu has also declared an emergency and specifically asked the United States to help with the Zmapp treatment which seems to be helping the American doctors, although the US has said that even if it proves safe and effective in trials, it wouldn’t be available for at least several months.
The WHO has convened a special meeting to discuss the implications of using experimental drugs and some Ebola experts have called for the treatment be made available to Africans. It’s time we looked at stricter measures to contain the virus too.
April 1, 2013
Universal Health Coverage – the right thing, the smart thing
One cold evening in 2005 I was with my cousin in Grays, a quiet town in Essex County some 35 km east of London. Glued to the computer screen as I was wont to for several hours every day, I was utterly oblivious to my surroundings until I began to hear a barely audible, almost musical sound, emanating from someone’s chest. I turned around – my cousin’s first son who had come visiting from London was having an asthmatic attack, having left his inhaler behind at Peckham. The wheezes quickly got louder and his breathing more difficult so his dad dialed 999. Within a few minutes, as if by magic, the medical emergency guys were in our flat on the 6th floor to attend to him.
After stabilizing him they took him in the ambulance to Thurrock Hospital where they carried out a battery of investigations to further evaluate him. I went along and spent the night at the hospital as he was being observed. The next day, my cousin who had spent the night at work, came to take us home. All the while no payment was made for any of the services. It would have been the same whether my cousin was employed or not. So, who paid for all the medications, tests and other services? The National Health Service (NHS), I was told. Few institutions in the world epitomize the concept of universal coverage like the NHS.
Universal Health Coverage (UHC), also known as Universal Coverage (UC), is a global health policy and agenda borne out of several historical, economic, social, and moral imperatives. According to a recent report, The New Global Health Agenda: Universal Health Coverage, the implementation of the UHC idea could be traced to 19th century Germany when Otto von Bismarck introduced a comprehensive medical care that covered large segments of blue-collar workers.
As a global health agenda, it is a logical consequence of the WHO constitution of 1948, which declares health a fundamental human right. It was driven home by the Health for All agenda set by the Alma-Ata Declaration of 1978 and is also at the core of the health-related Millennium Development Goals.
But what is Universal Coverage? As the name implies, it means a system where the health needs of everybody – not only the well-to-do – are duly met. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines it as ensuring that all people can use the promotive, preventive, curative and rehabilitative health services they need, of sufficient quality to be effective, while also ensuring that the use of these services does not expose the user to financial hardship. This definition of an ideal scenario implies that all who need a particular health service can utilize it whether they can afford it at the time or not. This means that a poor farmer in the village with end-stage renal disease can have dialysis, expensive as it is, rather than left to die as is often the case in Nigeria today. An unemployed youth involved in a car crash and requiring an urgent CT-scan or MRI can have it immediately. A hypertensive and diabetic pensioner can have access to good quality care that would otherwise have wiped out her pensions or savings. It means the child of a poor bus conductor can have that surgical procedure required to close the life-threatening hole in his heart – without the parent being driven to beggary or further into penury.
Now, there’s no free meal anywhere – someone has to pay for it. Since billions of people the world over often cannot afford the healthcare they need, even where and when available, who pays for them? Are they to be allowed to wallow in disease and die? It becomes obvious that at the heart of Universal Coverage is the question of healthcare financing. Since healthcare utilization, for billions, is often attended by the risk of bankruptcy, it is also a question of risk bearing.
The cost of healthcare is usually met out-of-pocket or through a prepaid mechanism, or a combination of the two. Out-of-pocket cost-bearing, except for an infinitesimal minority of mankind, is not a viable option toward achieving UHC. According to a World Report, over 60 million people in India were forced below the poverty line by healthcare costs 2011. A vicious circle between ill-health and poverty has long been recognized. A poor man cannot pay for healthcare, a sick man cannot work or be productive, and an unproductive man cannot maintain his health. As for the pre-paid, whence comes the payment?
The United Kingdom, one of the earliest countries to take a concrete step towards achieving UHC, launched the National Health Service in 1948. The system is overwhelmingly funded by tax-generated revenues. So, it’s a social system of re-distribution of wealth to take care of the health needs of people in an equitable way. The healthcare system in Spain and Portugal, as in Denmark and Sweden, is similarly driven largely by taxes. It’s the ‘single-payer’ model.
The single-payer model is in place in Cuba as well but in a communist economic system. But in Germany, Japan and France, Switzerland and many European countries it’s a mixture of public and private contributions. Importantly, there is no UHC in the United States, which relies largely on private insurance funding that leaves out a lot of people. Recent attempts by the Obama government to address this lack of equity have met considerable resistance.
According to the International Labour Organization, by 2008 nearly 50 countries had achieved near universal coverage. A new wave of attempts at universal coverage has engulfed so many emerging economies from India and China in Asia to Ghana and Rwanda in sub-Saharan Africa. Success in implementing UHC seems to mirror economic success.
Where is Nigeria in this global picture? The National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) was established in to provide medical insurance. But the coverage has been very low. Only federal government workers and the organized private sector are covered. The vast majority of Nigerians are outside this system. Even those ‘covered’ still pay a lot out of pocket to meet a lot of health needs. As has been noticed in other countries, a lot of the resources pooled for medical needs through health insurance ends up in the pockets of providers and health management organizations (HMOs) rather than in direct benefits to the end users. NHIS has barely made a dent. The government has also launched a Community-Based Health Insurance Scheme (CBHIS) which is still at the pilot stage. In short, currently, we are nowhere near UHC.
I take the view that UHC is a matter of social, economic and moral priority. It resonates with one’s intrinsic sense of morality that everyone, no matter their station in life, should have access to prompt quality healthcare without the risk of bankruptcy.
I am also convinced that the federal government collects generates revenue – from petroleum, customs, taxes etc – to fund a universal access to quality healthcare in Nigeria. The government should bear the risk, for its own sake. We hear about individuals misappropriating billions all the time. The point has been made by that government spending on health should be seen as investment rather than expenditure. Universal coverage is an economic issue, a development issue. Health is wealth. A sick population cannot be productive, a people impoverished by health care needs cannot contribute to the economy. It only makes economic sense to invest in health.
But, alas, there are enormous challenges and barriers to the implementation of UHC in this country. At the root are poor governance, weak systems, lack of accountability, and corruption. Universal coverage cannot be implemented in isolation. It is not attainable where infrastructure is poor; equipment is inadequate; technology is obsolete or grossly inefficient; governance is decadent; personnel are poorly trained, poorly motivated, and inadequate in numbers; communication is poor.
To provide UHC, the healthcare system needs a lot of engineering, a lot of strengthening. But we must not lose the tree for the forest; universal coverage is an attainable ideal exceedingly worth aiming at.
The people of Nigeria, with the enormous resources which abound in their country, deserve, among other fundamental things such as quality universal basic education, the right to health for which they must hold their leaders accountable.
In Dire Need of Verdification
My old man, bless him, has an almost artistic, if somewhat quaint, sense of beauty. And he has photo albums (one of them he entitled ‘Memories are Made of These’, some of the contents of which I have purloined) wherein camera captures moments of history, personal and national. In those days when he was a roving sales representative of Kingsway Chemists and subsequently Johnson & Johnson he collected scenes that caught his fancy in his peregrinations all over the country, almost all of which he duly captioned in an elegant semi-cursive hand and with a touch of professional imagination. He must have considered himself some sort of amateur Sunmi Smart-Cole. But he’s no photojournalist or photographic artist. Some of the captions include, “The Niger Bridge at Onitsha”, “Federal Palace Hotel at Night”, “Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport”, “Shere Hills, Jos”, “Army Day Celebration in Kaduna”, “Sallah Durbar, Kano”, “A Polo Match, Kaduna”, “Gidan Goldie Overlooking Mallam Kato Square”.
This last was one of the beautiful, abiding vignettes of my childhood. It was the picture of an imposing building named after Sir George Dashwood Taubman Goldie, an infamous entrepreneur of Empire who created the Royal Niger Company. It once housed my dad’s place of work. It maintained its staid façade until recently when it got an utterly tasteless facelift by, presumably, a new owner. The other part of the picture, on the other side of the boulevard, was Malam Kato Square. It was one of the places to which I performed a pilgrimage as soon as I was old enough to find my way about town. Of course, before that, I had passed by it a number of times in my dad’s car. A concrete parabola arched over its entrance from which a walkway led to a pavilion containing a fountain, a canon and a cenotaph dedicated to heroes of the World Wars and other theatres of hallowed bloodshed thereafter, as proclaimed by the bronze plaque. The fountain was surmounted by a gun-wielding soldier standing in petrified anonymity. On this pavilion, wreaths are laid every Armed Forces Remembrance Day. Gowon laid the first bundle of flowers in 1969. Laid out in artistic proportions, it contained cacti, neems, a few conifers and a variety of flowers in huge concrete flower beds.
It was one of the vestiges of the opulence and architectural splendour of the generous, though sometimes extravagant, Gowon era. And like most public monuments across the country (the state of the National Theatre at Iganmu is especially heartbreaking) Malam Kato Square languished in a state of barbarous disrepair for years until…
Until the return to civil rule at the end of the lean nineties – when it was dealt the final indignity. The PhD-taunting rural aristocrat – to borrow an apt phrase from a friend – who tenanted the Government House at that time savagely hived off the larger part of the ‘square’ that gave it the most modest trappings of a public park, leaving just the ceremonial platform. On it he erected a most aesthetically repugnant motor-park – a veritable eye-sore – for the rattle-boxes we call public transport buses. Equally appalling is the colony of commercial motor-bikes and rickety cabs that has sprung up around it like hideous flies buzzing around a turd. It’s a particularly galling instance of the sustained uglification of Nigerian cities abetted, nay, spearheaded by the authorities.
When I was growing up in the eighties there was a large public park with benches, flower hedges, guava trees etc on the southern side of Zoo Road until a decade later when the considerable swathe of greenery and open air was carved up amongst people who couldn’t care less that it must have been intended as a neighbourhood park for the thousands of people living in the federal housing units on both sides of the road. Shameless Capital, corrupt officials, and sheer philistinism are collaborating to guzzle up whatever green space is left in Nigerian cities. Today, in the vast urban sprawl called Kano only the Kano Club golf course has the slightest semblance of a park. And I doubt if it’s open to public use. It’s as if the authorities abhor open spaces. Every available piece of land, especially along major roads, is soon sold and developed into a ‘shopping complex’ without the least regard for urban planning.
Each time I go around Kano I can’t help feeling a nostalgic pang for the erstwhile decency, if not beauty, of many areas of the metropolis. While authorities all over the world, including even some African countries, apply the latest knowledge and technology to make their cities more habitable, we are willfully allowing our cities descend into previously unknown depravity. Kano is not alone; it’s worse for the mega-city of Lagos. So much pathos has been spewed on the pervasive chaos in the Centre of Excellence by people who knew it in its age of sanity. When I went round Onitsha I knew it must have seen more civilized days. Imagine what salubrious effect a large public park at the heart of that most bustling city would have on its harried, ever tensed-up inhabitants. I suggest that the huge vermin-infested chasm lying between Main Market and Fegge be drained into the nearby Niger, filled up (there are enough junks, scraps and refuse to do the job) and a park created in its place.
In our thoughtlessly built-up, barely inhabitable cities children hardly find space for play and recreation leading to heightening juvenile delinquency. There’s hardly any open space left for people to assemble in cases of disasters such as a fire outbreak or take a leisurely walk without the fear of being run down by a car or the omnipresent motorbike. And in a country where electricity supply is abysmal, there’s no place to seek refuge from the blazing sun during the sweltering hot season. Recently in a clumsy attempt to salvage what remains of the public green spaces in the Nasarawa G.R.A. in Kano the government ended up adding insult to injury by constructing inherently unsightly fences around the tiny plots of grass largely taken over by flower sellers and their nurseries, and painting them an exceedingly gaudy white-and-bright yellow, and red. Dreadful lack of taste or aesthetic feeling.
It’s in this regard that I laud the restoration of the neighbourhood parks in the Abuja Master Plan by the FCDA even though, I must say this with loud, painful emphasis, it could have been carried out with greater consideration for the livelihood of affected citizens. Nigerians were rendered homeless while the vast majority of the houses in Gwarimpa, built by the government, remained colonized by reptiles and rodents. But to return to my point, the importance of the green areas in Abuja to the city’s beauty and sanity cannot be exaggerated. The last but one time I was in Abuja I spent some time in one of the parks and, moved by the almost idyllic serenity and beauty of the place, I scribbled a few lyrical lines in poetic rhythm with the gently flowing brook coursing through.
Even though all this may sound indulgent in the midst of the myriad of pressing, more immediate problems (to wit – grinding poverty, scandalous illiteracy, scarcity of safe pipe-borne water, epileptic power supply, diabolical roads, lack of social security etc) bedevilling this nation, it still doesn’t take anything out of its urgency. And who says multiple problems cannot be solved at the same time? Moreover, I didn’t intend this to be a litany of the frightfully proliferating decay in public and social infrastructure in the country – this is getting constant, if yet futile, attention from journalists and commentators – but rather to focus on a particular problem.
For crying out loud, our cities are so ugly, ungreen, unclean, and psychologically unhinging that no sensible person can deny that they are in dire need of verdification among a number of pressing needs.
* Verdification: my coinage; from Greek ‘verdi’, meaning green
With words, all beings are possible
When a hopeless sucker for magical realism and words extravaganza like me is asked to nominate his best Nigerian book he has only one choice: The Famished Road. Many good novels manage a couple of breath-taking set-pieces but this humdinger of a book, like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, is one enchanting string of set-piece after spectacular set-piece. It is epic poetry set not in verses but in dazzling sentences – now epigrammatic, now dramatic, often funny and always memorable: the building blocks of a telling metaphor for the perniciousness of politics and the rapacity of politicians. Okri’s narrative masterfully segues between the dirt-poor, hardscrabble existence of the characters, including Azaro the protagonist, his visits to Madame Koto’s parlour of shimmering grotesqueries and his constant flights into the phantasmagoric realm of the ghosts, spirits and demons. Feverishly, I read the humdinger into my final Obstetrics & Gynaecology examination in med school while my mates did their final cramming. Couldn’t help myself. For me Ben Okri’s chef-d’oeuvre was a watershed event in Nigerian literary history, the most impressive novel ever written by a Nigerian. It contains the fecund imagery and magic of One Hundred Years of Solitude, the perverted Ulysses-like (if more charming) tendency to list, the sheer wickedness of Midnight’s Children and the Achebean ability to make the English language speak with a Nigerian idiom. And much more. Indeed, if Achebe’s writings gave us the permission to write, then The Famished Road opened a whole new world of infinite dreams and possibilities.
June 19, 2005
Identity and its politics (II): Morality and Other Issues
When I started this write-up I envisaged the second part to be a detailed exploration of my observations of the complex and perplexing dynamics of the politics of identity in Nigeria which mechanism is oiled by tribalism, religious intolerance and the unfathomable capacity of our leaders for greed, selfishness, and corruption. The present circumstances of my engagements, however, necessitate shelving this task until a more conducive time.
So, in this piece, I shall, as promised, take up some of the interesting issues raised by my friend Ibrahim Waziri in his ‘Identity, Values and the Thesis of Muslim Marginalisation: Engagement with Sanusi Lamido’, and point out the grave inaccuracies and misinformation therein. This is because any ‘intellectual engagement’ must, at least, be seen to be worth the gravitas it pretends to. A real intellectual exchange occurs between two individuals that are demonstrably vibrating at the same cerebral frequency. Arguments must be sound. Information should be accurate.
The fluid and dynamic nature of the concept of identity implies that it is as much a matter of ‘what we are’ as that of ‘what we want to be’. So, by nature, identity politics tends to be normative, imposing a culture or mentality to which its members have to conform to be so identified. It calls for solidarity – one that exists uneasily with individual notions of ‘self’ and doesn’t brook criticism. In the extreme, criticism is tantamount to treason or ‘dissidence’.
However, the crux of the matter is that if, as we have earlier pointed out, identity is a process of ‘becoming’, a constant search, then self-criticism is necessary for a sound outcome. The informed, discerning insider who feels the yearnings and aspirations of the group, but not necessarily always in accord with the modus operandi, is uniquely placed to ask questions of fundamental importance, foster a healthy atmosphere of debate, and proffer strategies. The truth is, even with an identity group that invokes sacred symbols, the necessary human agency in its realisation in a social context makes it imperfect and must be continually subjected to criticism and, hence, improvement. It is also pertinent here to note that, while tapping from the same well-spring, interpretations ultimately vary. In the constant and complex challenges of daily living, this is all the more important.
In every day experience friction flares up between individual and group when people are intimidated into subscribing to a ‘manufactured consent’ against the dictates of their own conscience or individual morality. So we can easily see why Ibraheem Waziri, as a proponent of identity politics, charges himself with the responsibility of showing Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, ‘why the northern religio-cultural establishment finds his opinions abhorrent and unrepresentative of its understanding of citizenship in plural societies.’ Also, ‘It is his failure to do these things within the confines of our paradigm, which is very possible and most effective, that leads him into constant disagreement with many us among the elite. It is also the reason why many will find it easy to label him a hypocrite, an apostate, a secularist or a lackey of the West recruited to cow our intelligentsia into submitting to its prejudices.’ Check out the florid name-calling! And who made him the representative of the people? Does Sanusi fairly deserve all these names? The fact is, anybody who open-mindedly goes through the numerous contributions from Sanusi to the debates of the day is bound to find an engage Nigerian Muslim intellectual who genuinely desires the progress of the Muslim community and the Nigerian nation. That is why he has taken to task, at different times and in different contexts, people from all ethnic origins and religious persuasions, not for what they are, but because of what they do or say which he found unfair, unjust, hypocritical or dishonest. I think such a person could be pardoned for his foibles (and who amongst us is free from them?) and idiosyncrasies, which are part of human nature. To condemn everything he says just because of these human failings is counterproductive. People like Waziri should know that Sanusi is not among ‘…those that seek for being different for the sake of it; those who express readiness to unnecessarily attack the rich and powerful from their society for cheap popularity.’
Sanusi’s redoubtable Islamic erudition, extensive familiarity with contemporary intellectual discourse, keen intellect, genuine concern for justice and fairness, and an admirable chutzpah all converge to always make him place ‘criticism before solidarity’ (a la Edward said). He is, with some qualification, of kindred spirit with Noam Chomsky who, despite being an American and a Jew, is the most outspoken critic of the injustice of Zionism against the Palestinians and America’s hypocritical foreign policies. The retired MIT don started his long career of being a ‘dissident’ with his criticism of his country’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam. In this connection, the de-tribalised Gani Fawehinmi and Edward Said (‘…I instinctively feel on the other side of power’) spring readily to mind. Of course, history is replete with such personalities across all climes and cultures.
This condition of being almost an outcast was eloquently captured by Vaclav Havel in the following words :
‘You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.’
However, even the dissident intellectual, by virtue of being human, is not perfect and has also to be constantly challenged. But because he operates from a platform of intellectual rigour and, usually, an amazing wealth of knowledge, he has to be engaged on his own turf. I doubt if Sanusi’s critics have always measured up to that.
At the beginning of the second part of Sanusi’s ‘Identity, Political Ethics and Parochialism: Engagement with Ja’far Adam’, he makes an important observation:
‘Many of the problems associated with public intellectual discourse on Islam in Nigeria have their roots in the universities that trained the participants, especially in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Modern research in Islamic studies has transcended the purely religious, and in most universities, Muslim societies are studied from a solid base in the social sciences – anthropology, sociology, political economy and international relations. Because of the emphasis on theoretical and methodological issues, students with a social science background soon begin questioning the underlying myth of Muslim essentialism that is shared by those who aim to demonise Islam and those who claim to be its defenders in equal measure.’
Waziri voices his contention:
‘…why must we think that people must be thought(sic) religion in some “new” way or we must have some “new” pattern of thinking before we can understand certain situations and circumstances? No. Those advocating for something new must understand the reality that not everything “new” is desired or useful to different groups of people. They must learn to let others be for sameness is not in the design of nature; it is not part of the essence.’
Again, for want of knowledge and insight, Waziri misses the point woefully. Sometimes I wonder whether he actually takes his time to consider what he’s contending with before rushing to pick his pen. Waziri’s view is one of the symptoms of the malady that has haunted Muslim intellectual thought for the past couple of centuries – what some have termed the ‘crisis in Muslim thought.’ What Sanusi is advocating – he’s not the first to do so – actually corresponds to the true spirit of the Islamic intellectual heritage.
The fact is that Ibn Khaldun (1332-1395), in his Muqaddimah (or Prolegomena) demonstrates the importance of a firm grounding in the social sciences in the proper study of Muslim societies and their dynamics, and believed the methodology was universally valid. His book, a masterpiece in literature on philosophy of history and sociology, was chiefly concerned with ‘identifying psychological, economic, environmental and social facts that contribute to the advancement of human civilisation and the currents of history.’ The Prolegomena was ground-breaking and earned him the well-deserved recognition of ‘the father of sociology’. It is a shame that we have not carried on with the legacy of his unwonted prescience and prodigious insight. We have also to remember that this Tunis-born Muslim scholar was the Chief Maliki Judge of Egypt as well as a lecturer at the Al-Azhar. So, even a cursory perusal of the intellectual history of Islam would reveal that it is the approach to higher Islamic education, as obtains in Saudi universities, and criticised by Sanusi, that is a deviation from the true Islamic intellectual tradition.
Our worthy forebears like Ibn Khaldun recognised the importance of an encyclopaedic approach to education. An account of the books in the library at Al-Azhar taken as far back as 1045 revealed the presence of 6,500 volumes on disciplines ranging from astronomy, architecture, philosophy, and mathematics to logic and the linguistic sciences. But today Muslims have become so alienated from this tradition as a consequence of the ‘closure of the gate of ijtihad’, and the attendant intellectual laziness that beset the Ummah, that Waziri can enthusiastically argue against such an otherwise obvious, albeit informed, observation. Waziri, this is not a “new” way, it is the tradition. It is an appreciation of the Khaldunian approach that led the Iraqi Fiqh scholar Taha Jabir al-Alwani to conceive the mujtahid as a social scientist. For our scholars to be able to competently prescribe or suggest Islamic solutions to social and political problems, they would do well, in addition to having a firm grounding in ‘traditional’ religious studies, to also have a sound knowledge of the social sciences i.e. history (and not just Islamic history), anthropology, sociology, political science and theory, economics, and psychology. The charge that social science may not be as value-neutral as it seems is the more reason why Muslim intellectuals must participate. They have no excuse.
Ibrahim Waziri, in his ‘engagement’, also enunciates his ethics of journalism which I find very disturbing. In the penultimate paragraph he argues:
‘But if we still like insisting on the question of competence, then we will have to recall back (sic) Mallam Sanusi from the front of public commentary and allow others like Mohammed Haruna, Kabiru Yusuf, Garba Deen Mohammed, who are professional journalists, who understand the profession in the way and manner it is practised everywhere in the world, as a purely sentimental front, to do the work. People like Mallam then must remain in the banking sector and must not be allowed to contaminate the waters and spoil the show in the realm of political life.’ Italics mine.
What Waziri appears to be saying is that since Sanusi will not subscribe to being purely sentimental in his public commentary, he is not competent. What journalistic ethics! He also indirectly attributes ‘sentimental journalism’ to those gentlemen which I don’t think they will find overly flattering. By the way, it doesn’t take a professional journalist to make useful commentary, which is simply a matter of well-reasoned and informed opinion. The fact that some people abuse the practice of journalism with pure sentimentality should not make us cast aside the dictates of reason and our conscience and jump at the bandwagon. That would be the perfect recipe for chaos. This trivialising and morally-empty conception of journalism is dangerous, especially in Nigeria where violent conflicts do not lie so deep beneath the surface. Facts must maintain their sanctity and analysis must be well-informed fair, and balanced. Allah says:
‘O you who believe, stand unflinchingly firm for the sake of Allah as you bear witness in justice, and do not allow the dislike for a people swerve you towards being unfair. Be fair – it is closer to righteousness…’
Anyway, the editors of the Trust group of newspapers i.e. Kabiru Yusuf and Garba Deen Mohammed know their jobs better and that’s why they can’t wait to publish Sanusi’s articles.
Ibraheem Waziri misinforms his readers regarding the concept of ‘deconstruction’. In the first part of his article he writes: ‘…antiquated diagnostic paradigm called deconstructionism.’ In another passage, with an air of one who knows, he says, ‘What is unfortunate is the resuscitation of the old deconstruction tool in the late nineteenth century by some self-serving scholars who compliment the military wing – as Edward Said would affirm – of Western world in its so-called battle of supremacy in another dubious intellectual fraud known as the “clash of civilisations”. In this new fight, intellectuals use Saint Beuve’s method on Muslim scholars of the past and present in order to strip the religion from its original mode of interpretation under the claim that, Mr Islam Does Not Exist.’
When the first part of his article was published I immediately called Waziri’s attention to the historical and factual inaccuracies in the passage. He stuck to his guns and repeated the same errors in the second part; so I felt obligated to point them out to the unwary reader. Such an intellectual blunder as this could be appraised in a number of perspectives: Waziri could have been tinkering with the truth in order to make a point or was simply ignorant of the facts. Of course, nobody knows everything and that’s why we should be humble and heed correction when it’s tendered. But when we remain adamant in the wrong, then it’s unacceptable. The truth is that even a beginning student of the history of ideas couldn’t have made such mistakes.
First of all, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-69) lived about a century before the word ‘deconstruction’ appeared in the vocabulary of philosophy or literary criticism. The name almost solely associated with the origin of deconstruction is Jacques Derrida, the Algerian-born French philosopher. It was a wholly novel idea. The earliest foretaste, if any, that we can discern of deconstruction is in Heidegger, in criticism of whom Derrida originated his theory. In the summer of 1927 (fifty-eight years after Sainte-Beuve’s death and three years before Derrida was born), Heidegger delivered a lecture course known as Basic Problems of Phenomenology. According to James E Faulconer (1998), ‘Borrowing creatively from his teacher, Edmund Husserl,’ Heidegger, explaining phenomenology as a way of doing philosophy, described it in ‘three steps – reduction, construction and destruction.’ He then goes on to identify philosophical destruction as ‘deconstruction’ in the German word, Abbau (literally, ‘unbuild’). But Heidegger’s ‘deconstruction’ is fundamentally different from Derrida’s. Without bothering you with the details, it would be sufficient to identify deconstruction as a poststructuralist theory, based largely, but not exclusively, on the writings of Derrida.
Further, to position Edward Said in opposition to deconstruction, like Waziri did, betrays an almost appalling lack of familiarity with the writings of the Palestinian-born Columbia University professor of blessed memory. In fact, Edward Said’s Orientalism is a grand exercise in deconstruction; probably the most celebrated one. To quote Barbara Johnson (“On Writing”), a foremost authority on Derrida and deconstruction: ‘The writings of Western male authorities have often encoded the silence, denigration, or idealisation, not only of women but also of other “others”. Edward Said, in Orientalism (1978), analysed the discursive fields of scholarship, art, and politics in which the “Oriental” is projected as the “other” of the European. By reading against the grain of [i.e. deconstructing] the writer’s intentions, he shows how European men of reason and benevolence could inscribe a rationale for oppression and exploitation within their very discourse of enlightenment.’
Still on deconstruction, Waziri, like some shepherd warning his flock of an evil he’s very familiar with, says:
‘This brings me back to the issue of Deconstruction that is being used by the intolerant Western scholars, the intellectual wing of the military war on The Clash of Civilisations, in order to create a monolithic society, against the design of nature, by coming up with a hermeneutic in social and legal theories of the world to “redeem” the Muslims from the clutches of conservatism.’
In order to create a monolithic society? Deconstruction? Waziri simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. In fact, like all postmodern theories, deconstruction seeks to ‘disassemble’ or subvert all ‘monolithic’ entities and undermine all ‘grand narratives’ and paradigms. Deconstruction fosters difference, alterity and plurality; it brings subaltern discourses to the surface. Anybody who appreciates that deconstruction up-ends dominant discourses while reminding us of ‘other’ discourses cannot, by any means, associate it with right-wing intellectuals like Samuel P Huntington. I refer Waziri to Huntington’s latest book which is shot through with palpable xenophobia (a fear of the ‘other’) directed against Latinos and other minority cultural groups threatening the purity of ‘mainstream’ (read White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) American culture.
Rather than being ‘old’ and ‘antiquated’, deconstruction is still a fashionable intellectual ‘movement’. For the last thirty years, it’s been the ‘rave of the moment’. Let’s listen to J Douglas Kneale (1997):
‘As the initiator of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida has begun a project that, in taking language, arbitrary and differential, as its medium and focus, continues to engage a striking array of topics, from philosophy to psychoanalysis to contemporary architecture, that have implications for virtually all aspects of human activity – culture, discourse, science. After nearly three decades of productive theory and practice, deconstruction remains one of the most significant developments in twentieth-century critical thought.’
Deconstruction makes no truth-claims – and I’m not making any on its behalf – and therefore, engenders intellectual humility; it is more of an attitude than an assertive over-arching philosophy for action.
I think the reason why Waziri conflates Sainte-Beuve’s method of literary criticism with deconstruction (a more encompassing method of ‘reading’) is because, Sanusi, in his article, deployed ‘deconstruction’ along with something that bears some similarity to the approach of the 19th century Frenchman. You see, some words are their own worst enemies and ‘deconstruction’ is a good example of such words.
Lastly, in the last paragraph of his second article, Waziri lapses into an uncritical appraisal of the Northern Muslim society which is only bound to engender a self-deluding moral complacency. He says:
‘At the level of theft, armed robbery our people are ranked higher in being able to exert a degree of self-control wherever they go. Our leaders are known to be the ones with greater conscience responding to the demands of their people even when the national watchdog in the rule of law is not effective.’
Our leaders? In this country? Rather than reflect this figment of Waziri’s imagination they have been unworthy ambassadors of Islam. They have proved as good as their non-Muslim compatriots from the other parts of the country in the elite art of state thievery. No doubt, robberies are more common in the South, but this is just one part of the full picture of the wide range of corruption and moral decadence that permeates all spheres of our national life in all parts of the country. It is such hypocritical self-praise as this, a guarantee for lack of progress, that makes us yet unable to address probably the worst case of ‘epidemic’ child abuse in the world – the ubiquitous uncared-for child brandishing a begging bowl, at the mercy of the elements. What happened to our prophet’s precept and example of the affectionate upbringing of children?
Waziri writes another uncritical passage:
‘Young women at the age of 18 are found with their foreskin (sic) untouched. This is really a virtue in a world where suspicion, infidelity and killer diseases ravage family units, in a world where such acts signal the breakdown of civilisation.’
It seems we are still in the stage of denial of the pervasive moral decadence of these times from which our society has not been immune. An ailment diagnosed is half-treated. If Waziri were working in the health sector he would know of the rapid but unacknowledged spread of HIV/AIDS among our populations. A laboratory scientist from the Sokoto/Zamfara axis once wrote a piece alerting us to the sky-rocketing trend in the spread of the disease while identifying the cultural factors that enable it. Long-distance drivers pick up the deadly virus from their several nights out of base and then spread it amongst their wives who subsequently spread it to other men, and yet more women, in a society characterised by an ‘un-sunnatically’ high divorce rate and where re-marriage is common.
What of the girls hawking cola-nuts and cooked food who are deflowered in uncompleted or abandoned buildings in remote parts of town? What of the men -young and old – who, in their flashy cars, stop by the road-sides to pick up women of easy virtue at night? And the ones that visit the Sabon-Garis of this world? Saying things like this, instead of really looking into the problems, will only continue to make us a laughing-stock of other people.
The problem, of course, is not with Islam but Muslims who default in their adherence to Islamic injunctions. Also at the roots of problems like this, is the equating of the criticism of a Muslim or Muslim societies with Islam – that transcendental religion of God.
May God increase us in faith and knowledge and forgive our trespasses.
June 13, 2005
Identity and its Politics (I): Between Proponents and Critics
…identity. It is superbly fluid, adaptable to almost any argument or conclusion. But deployed without sufficient care, it can mask banalities with profundity or lose its users, like Orwell’s hapless speakers, in the infinite cultural representations of a runaway world.
(John MacInnes, BJS, 2004)
Apart from the social scientist, whose method simply seeks to be empirical and evaluative; and the philosopher, who raises wide-ranging fundamental questions; most of the interlocutors in the discourse of ‘identity politics’ have been proponents and ideologues on one side, and their critics on the other. Sometimes, however, the critic and the philosopher are the same, just as the ideologue and the philosopher also sometimes coincide.
All those who have studied this socio-political phenomenon situate it within a modern context. In fact, according to Wendy Brown (1995), a key condition for the possibility of its contemporary existence was institutionalized liberal democracy – the spine of modernity. It has also been noticed that the two – identity politics and liberal democracy – exist in a state of perpetual tension. In the light of this observation, it is not difficult to see why the voices of the politics of identity have become louder, with all its unsavoury consequences, since the reinstatement of democracy six years ago. Now, as before, the politics of difference has been played in an atmosphere suffused with mutual perceptions of ‘marginalisation’. More on that later.
It was in this atmosphere of cries of marginalization, particularly the one coming from politicians, traditional rulers, journalists and social commentators who are invariably Muslims from the geopolitical region of the country called the ‘North’ that Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the Kano-born Muslim critic, wrote a series of articles criticizing their politics of identity. Their position was that since President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian from the ‘South’, came to power, he had deliberately and consistently short-changed them in appointments to federal political positions. This perceived injustice achieved its most blatant form in the composition of members of the National Conference which was skewed in favour of Christians and ‘Southerners’ to the detriment of Muslims and ‘Northerners’.
Sanusi’s first article was a defense of the fairness of the controversial composition of the ‘Confab’ and particularly the leadership, in the person of Rev. Father Matthew Hassan Kukah whom the Northern Muslim challengers felt was far from being a neutral participant with no vested interests. He was seen to be there to serve a Christian agenda. This first article, surprisingly, didn’t provoke as much furore as expected. The next two, which were actually two parts of one essay have caused a much greater expenditure of energy. With a delicious heading ‘Identity, Political Ethics and Parochialism: Engagement with Ja’far Adam’ to which the content was faithful, it generated a controversy which has left several write-ups in its wake. Unfortunately, because Sanusi’s critique of identity politics ‘devoid of moral content’ was mixed with scathing remarks attacking a certain Northern Muslim cleric named in the title, who had actually thrown the gauntlet, the vital issues he raised were not properly addressed by the rejoinders. The baby was thrown away with the bathwater in a manner that echoed Nietsche’s saying that one often contradicts an opinion when what is uncongenial is really the tone in which it was conveyed. I personally contributed a piece which was a sort of a word of caution.
Of all the articles that purported to engage Sanusi two stand out because of their meretricious veneer of intellectualness and seriousness. Kabiru Banu az Zubair’s article loudly titled ‘The philo-sourpuss and his so-called engagement’ has been adequately reviewed by Ibrahim Ka-Almasih. The second, in two parts, and titled ‘Identity, Values and the Thesis of Muslim Marginalisation: Engagement with Sanusi Lamido’ was written by my dear friend Ibraheem A Waziri. It contains some issues and claims worth exploring and which we shall attend to as this essay unfolds.
Now, before I proceed to my main task I think it would be pertinent to give a kind of overview of the history, philosophy and sociology surrounding identity politics with relevant references to our local situation. This should help us to know where the critic is speaking from as well as provide us with a conceptual framework for appreciating the position of the proponents.
Historical and philosophical perspectives
According to Cressida Heyes (2002), even though the writings of intellectuals from Mary Wollstonecraft to Frantz Fanon intellectually adumbrate what is now known as ‘identity politics’, literature that actually uses the phrase, with all its contemporary baggage, emerged in the late eighties. Also, many of the terms and referents have appeared in the context of the emergence, in the second half of the twentieth century, of large-scale political movements – second wave feminism, Black Civil Rights in the US, gay and lesbian liberalism, and the American Indian movements. The fundamental arguments are the same deployed in other places and contexts.
The advent of identity politics has been associated with a corpus of philosophy with which it co-exists in a symbiotic, and more or less dialectic, relationship. As stated by Heyes (2002): The social movements are undergirded by and foster a philosophical body of literature that takes up questions about the nature, origins and futures of the identities being defended. Some of the titles mentioned by Sanusi in his article are in this genre.
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (1989), as reported by Heyes (2002) argues that the philosophical discourse of the merits of identity politics are about the nature of subjectivity and self : an emphasis on its inner voice and capacity for authenticity – that is the ability to find a way of being that is somehow true to oneself. For many proponents of identity politics, this quest for authenticity includes a yearning for a golden past, a search re-tracing the trajectory of history. In this connection, Heyes quotes Taiaiake Alfred (1995) in his defense of a return to traditional values: Indigenous governance systems embody distinctive political values, radically different from those of the mainstream. Western notions of domination (human and natural) are noticeably absent; in their place, we find harmony, autonomy, and respect. We have a responsibility to recover, understand, and preserve these values, not only because they represent a unique contribution to the history of ideas, but because renewal of respect for traditional values is the only lasting solution to the political, economic, and social problems that beset our people.
This, in my understanding, roughly corresponds to the position of proponents like Ibraheem Waziri which he vaguely utters in the statement “the question of identity is a question of worldview”. Another relevant passage from Waziri in this connection is: There is a myth that calls for a need in our society to change our worldview to something some people consider most befitting in the 21st century. This can also be deduced from: Different groups or people have different ways of reading the world; hence different ways of pursuing their identity in those shared “Who” universal values. For example, Muslims have Qur’an as their way of reading, interpreting and understanding events and circumstances in the material world, and they believe it to be the only way that will lead them to rhyming with those “Who” aspects of identity as defined by Sanusi. Of course, critics are apt to point out that this is the attitude of those who seek to evade the ravages of modernity, a real and present force, an unrelenting phenomenon; and not the method of those who want to realistically grapple with the challenges. It is also pertinent at this juncture to note that this equating of identity to ‘worldview’, a complex and different entity, stifles analysis. At best it is a proposition, a novel one for that matter, and not analysis in which name it was offered. We may also remark that if identity is a matter of ‘worldview’ or ‘paradigm’ which, according to Waziri, is a way of interpreting or ‘reading’ (Waziri’s preferred term) ‘events and circumstances in the material world’, what happens when these ‘events and circumstances change? The consequence of the process of interpretation remains the same?
Also to be noted is the fact that Sanusi himself does not advocate a wholesale jettisoning of heritage but a critical intellectual engagement with it in light of present challenges: The task of the intellectual is not one of blending into the opaque consciousness of the tumultuous mob around him, his voice drowned in a cacophony misdirected protests. His task is to remind them of who they are and what they ought to be. Our values are not to be taken from the conduct of our adversaries but from the great heritage of our people.
The problem with the politics of identity, according to Heyes, is that while the public rhetoric of identity politics both served useful and empowering purposes for some (e.g. women, Blacks, gays, lesbians), it belied more subtle philosophical understandings of what political liberation requires.
Ultimately, it is not a matter of whether one is for or against identity politics, since the notion of identity has become indispensable to contemporary political discourse, but because of the troubling implications it has for models of the self, political inclusiveness, and our possibilities for solidarity and resistance (Heyes, 2002).
It is this last point that underlines the analytical, philosophical, or if you like, critical attitude of people like Sanusi, especially its consequences for society and social science alike. In Nigeria, where it is often a matter of life and death for citizen and country alike, the importance of dispassionate critical analysis cannot be exaggerated.
The primary line of fracture between proponents and critics, which yields what amounts to a liberalist critique, is the accusation, as stated by Heyes (2002), that the politics of difference has appropriated the language of authenticity to describe ways of living that are true to the identities of marginalized social groups while egalitarian doctrines press the notion that each human being is capable of deploying his or her reason or moral sense to live an authentic life as an individual.
Obviously this has consequences for ethics and criticism which are as fundamental as are far-reaching. More on this later.
In the 17th and 18th centuries i.e. before sociology really came to its own, the dominant view of identity was historical – an individual’s identity was static, remaining unchanged throughout life.
However since sociologists have started to grapple with the concept of identity, a number of perspectives have emerged. This are not necessarily mutually exclusive but rather complementary to one another and all converge on the recognition that identity is formed against a social background and is thus deployed and interpreted in a social context. That is, identity is a social construct, and all notions to suggest that identity is innate is rejected. This seems to undermine the ‘essentialist’ claim sometimes made in the name of identity. To give a practical illustration in the Nigerian context : consider a child separated at birth from his Yoruba Christian parents from Esa-Oke in Osun State and brought up in the household of the emir of Kano. Can anybody deny that such a child would grow up to become a Hausa-Fulani Muslim like any of his cohorts?
The spectrum of sociologic perspectives ranges from the structuralist to the interactionist. Most sociologists probably fall in the middle of these two and discursively segue from one framework to another in their engagement with complex and perplexing social phenomena. Along these two are the Marxist and the poststructuralist (or postmodernist) views.
Simply put, structuralists argue that man is the product of society i.e. society shapes humans in its own mould, while interactionists (e.g. G.H. Mead) emphasise the creative potential of human individuality i.e. humans shape society in their own mould. If structuralists view the process of socialization as the driving force behind the categorization or labeling of people into particular structures of cultural identity, then interactionists indicate that, even though identity is ultimately socially constructed, the capacity for it is already ingrained in us.
For Marxists, social class is the primary source of identity and self-image while postmodernists hold that identity is no longer fixed but is continually being changed – individuals are free to select identities based on their capacity to deliberately decide upon the social milieu in which an identity develops.
Cooley’s “looking-glass self”, and Ervin Goffman’s dramaturgical approach which employs an instructive theatrical metaphor, both offer insights into the sociological notion that identity is, indeed, a social construct. Considering that it is as much a matter of how people see us as how we see ourselves, we can discern a psychological component which means that it is ultimately a ‘psycho-social’ phenomenon.
To conclude this part I would like to highlight the other critiques of the politics of identity.
Further challenges to the politics of identity
Since when it became a social movement for political action accompanied by philosophical underpinnings, identity politics has been constantly pummeled by critics ranging from liberals and Marxists to poststructuralists.
Heyes (2002) tells us that many Leftist commentators see identity politics as something of a bete noir, representing the capitulations to cultural criticism in place of analysis of the material roots of oppression. And, identity politics, for these critics (i.e. Marxists, both orthodox and revisionist; and socialists – especially those who came of age during the rise of the New Left in Western countries) is both factionalising and depoliticizing, drawing attention away from the ravages of late capitalism toward superstructural cultural accommodations that leave economic structures unchanged.
Again, we can see the connect between what has been articulated above and the views of intellectuals like Sanusi Lamido. This also reflects the view of Dr Yusufu Bala Usman and Alkassum Abba as they chastise people that selfishly exploit the politics of difference to the detriment of Nigerian nationalism.
Poststructuralist challenges to identity politics are, philosophically speaking, far more sophisticated and nuanced, and almost otherworldly to the novice. They have, in turn, been accused from a practical point of view of a characteristic ‘indeterminacy of meaning’ which, as stated by MacInnes, subverts their ability to reach conclusions. In the words of Heyes (2002) poststructuralists charge that identity politics rests on the mistaken view that a cohesive, self-identical subject can be identified and reclaimed from oppression. The arguments and counter-arguments around this point are beyond the scope of this essay.
Finally, in my opinion, it is a lack of appreciation of this intellectual backdrop to the debate that made Waziri to employ the invidious neologism of ‘academysticism’ to describe Sanusi’s approach.
May 2, 2005
Between Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and Ja’far Mahmud Adam: A Commentary on Fatimah Sulaiman’s Response
The moment I saw the title of Sanusi Lamido Sanusi’s latest article at the gamji website I knew what to expect. By the time I came to the last word I said “Ah! Sanusi Lamido has stirred the hornet’s nest again and he should get ready for the stings.” This morning I logged on and saw Fatimah Sulaiman’s response. The first sting! It didn’t fail my expectation. Sanusi had taken a popular and revered Islamic preacher head-on and must be put in his place. Fatimah, as a devout student of the mallam, took Sanusi to the cleaners as she praised her mentor.
My aim in this article is to give my own analysis of Sanusi’s position, take up some of the issues raised by Fatimah and make a conclusion.
If indeed I understood Sanusi properly and got the drift of Fatimah’s response I have to say that she didn’t address the central issue contained in the article even though she raised important fresh issues. Sanusi’s main task was to “deconstruct the origins of his perverted (i.e. Ja’far’s) morally empty conception of what is a true sense of Muslim of Fulani identity”. That is, he meant to employ the post-modern critical tool called deconstructionism to expose the fallacy of Ja’far’s position. What position? The position of “those who feel the need to build up identities out of biological accidents, fate, providence or serendipity and attach moral worth to ambivalent facts”. Sanusi also set out to assert that “we do not subscribe to an identity divorced of moral content”. Her saying that “calling on the Sheikh’s background to discredit him has proven that Sanusi is an illiterate in Islamic History” suggests that she was being simplistic or didn’t know what Sanusi was talking about. I think what is more obvious is that he was offering a perspective on contextualizing some of the things a person says given their background. We all walk around with our prejudices, pains and fears and they all inevitably colour our understanding of the world no matter what name we eventually give to the system we have built it upon. Our duty is to recognize them and be on our guard. No two students of Islam even though they read exactly the same texts will have the same outlook, the subjective and experiential component always comes to the surface. Check out the differences between Abubakar Gumi and his students Lawal Abubakar and Sunusi Gumbi even on some rather fundamental issues. We all know that no thought system or philosophy, no matter how rational or objective it appears, can be totally divorced from the subjective experiences or events in the formative years of the life of its proponent. Put another way, one’s outlook on life, regardless of which group-label one bears, is subconsciously influenced by so many subliminal factors not least significant events in one’s psychological biography. This means that we would be making a big mistake to think that an Islamic scholar’s opinions and judgements derive only from the sacred texts, i.e. Qur’an and sunnah. What we must hasten to add is that this is in no way to cast aspersions on the person of the scholar or doubt their sincerity. It’s quite obvious that the extreme tenor of the matyr Sayyid Qutb’s Fi Zilaalil Qur’an and the Milestones stems from the treachery and cruelty he and others suffered in the hands of the godless and tyrannical Egyptian authorities. That’s why some of his most articulate critics can be found in the ranks of The Brotherhood. They drank from the same source afterall, why the sharp difference? We cannot simply say he had more iman, knowledge or intellect than they. We couldn’t know the former anyway. Just look at how easy it is for a scholar in the US or even Nigeria, in their relative comfort, to denounce ‘suicide bombers’ in Palestine (of course backed by Islamic texts) and the scholar who witnesses the daily realities of existence in that most troubled place (who also justifies his support for the method by invoking Qur’an and Sunnah). Many observers are convinced that the agnostic temper of Darwin’s philosophy is directly attributable to the pathetic death of his beloved daughter. So many scholars, Muslim and Christian, also affirm that had the medieval Catholic Church been less bigoted, less dismissive of science and less senselessly inquisitorial of men of science etc Europe and its seeds in the new world wouldn’t have been so suspicious of religion. It was an attitude that was born of a peculiar history not an inexorable unanimous conclusion of humanity. So, to hold that “extremism is a route to recognition and vertical mobility'” isn’t such an atrocious analysis.
However, the whole corpus of Sanusi’s writings tends to suggest there is more to it than meets the eye. I think, behind the facade of this particular analysis lurks a profound disdain for people Sanusi has severally tagged ‘fundamentalists’, ‘religious bigots’, ‘mullahs’ and ‘extremists’. In his condescending ‘interventions’ his contempt comes up thinly veiled. I think terms of that vintage are more properly left in the employ of unsympathetic critics of a generation of Muslims grappling with the onslaught of westernisation. Can we comfortably exonerate Sanusi’s phrase, in referring to Ja’far, “an up-rooted, rudderless exile” of aristocratic condescension? Can we clear him of disdain and contempt for the person of Mallam Ja’far? What of the expression “a Kano based religious demagogue”. Sanusi has spoiled an otherwise insightful and interesting analysis with his characteristic hauteur.
Now, to come to Mallama Fatimah’s comparative juxtaposition of Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and Ja’far Mahmud Adam in terms of their direct service to Islam or benefit to Muslims. The difference is clear. Even Sanusi, if begrudgingly, concedes this when he said Ja’far may claim to be the living defender of the Prophet’s sunna. I am more inclined to think that Ja’far is acclaimed to be rather than claims to be, at least in Northern Nigeria. Only God Himself knows how many people Mallam has taught the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet at Gadon-Kaya, Dorayi, Triumph, Beirut Road and so many fora within and outside the borders of Nigeria. Many also have entered the fold of Islam via the proselytizing activities of Izalatul Bid’ah Wa Ikamatus Sunnah of which Ja’far is a pillar. I personally have benefited from Mallam’s erudition, eloquent delivery and didactic prowess as much as Sanusi Lamido has kindled in me a critical approach especially in contemporary Islamic discourse. I would not miss Mallam Ja’far’s weekly Tafsir sessions at Beirut Road (which he delivers in his captivating, elegant but succinct Hausa) for the whole world. But I wasn’t an uncritical student. Many of my friends can testify to this. The Mallam raised for me so many questions even as he answered a lot more.
And what of Mallam Sanusi Lamido? No doubt he has been outstanding in stimulating debate on vital topical issues but a man immersed in usury is hardly the most desirable role model and cannot be an effective advocate of Islamic values. I eagerly await the banker’s explanation of his cosy romance with riba. But we must give kudos to people like him for exposing the hypocrisy of the so-called leaders of Northern Nigeria who whip up religious, sectional and ethnic sentiments to self-serving ends, those who exploit their fellow Muslims and â€˜Northerners’ riding on the crest of ‘the northern identity’ and Muslim unity and solidarity.
Mallama Fatimah accuses Sanusi of lying on a number of statements. Let’s examine them. She said “Sanusi however blatantly lied when he said the Maiduguri businessman is a patron of Sheikh Ja’far”. Sanusi should substantiate that himself. As for the second one that “Sanusi again lied and discredited himself by identifying the sheikh with a religious sect. Sheikh Ja’far never identified himself with any sect and says so” (italics mine), it is simply not true. God is my witness that, some years back, I heard with my two ears when the mallam declared that “mune ‘ya’yan Izala” meaning “we are the children of Izala”. And it would take hard-headed casuistry to claim that Izala is not a sect. I would also like to refer Mallama Fatimah to the preachings of the pre-Saudi phase of Mallam Ja’far’s career especially those ones at ‘Masallacin Triumph’. Then he typified a hot-headed Izala demagogue. No doubt since he returned from his Saudi sojourn he has been more tolerant, more compassionate. But that his adversarial stance towards Shi’ites and Sufis continues is just a matter of degrees. The form has only been gentler, more scholarly. Even though the Izala of Kano now prefer to be known as Ahl-us-Sunnah wal Jama’ah and have actually followed it up it up with actually being more expansive and civil, it would definitely be standing the truth on its head to say they they never claimed to be a sect, Izala. They have shifted from the excesses of former days to more enlightened and more beneficial activities in contradistinction to the ever-trivial and ever-bickering Izala groups of many other parts of the country.
Further, Fatimah says that “Sanusi must understand that he cannot speak on the deen until he studies the deen. He cannot study controversial philosophical books and claim he has enough knowledge to speak on religious matters”. While it is true that Sanusi relies on philosophy to marshall his arguments it’s only a person ignorant of Sanusi’s biography would claim that he is ignorant of the deen. He actually did four years of Islamic Studies in the Sudan after obtaining his BSc (Econs) from ABU. Prior to that he had, in the traditional way, studied the primary and secondary Maliki texts, mostly under the tutelage of his learned relatives. We can only add that a person so educated would be more competent in handling contemporary Islamic discourse.
Finally, the sister says, “Another gross deficiency in analysis on the part of Sanusi became evident when he branded the Sheikh a racist”. Racism is a serious charge to be laid at the door-step of anyone and Sanusi certainly didn’t use the term all he says is that “he glorifies tribalism”. What is glaring is that it would take the most clever attorney to clear the Shaikh of ethnocentric chauvinism in the statement attributed to him that “They don’t have the identity of the religion they belong to. They equally don’t have the identity of the tribe they belong. President Obasanjo has his Yoruba identity and Christianity as a religion which he overzealously protects; Sardauna had a northern identity and that of Islam which he overzealously protected; Awolowo had his Yoruba identity, Ojukwu had his Ibo identity. Every person who knows what he is doing must have such an identity”. Now tsakani da Allah what does the mallam seem to be suggesting by overzealously protecting one’s tribal (and religious) identity. Maybe it was the devil of translation.
In a world in which what we see on the surface, even if it bears the label of religion, is the result of so many factors and motivations. We cannot take things for granted. We have to develop an intellectual sieve to filter what scholars give us. Don’t get me wrong I repeat this is not to set out to question the intentions of anybody. My point is not to miss Sanusi’s point. We should be on our guard when traditional scholars take up contentious contemporary issues such as ‘identity’, ‘democracy’, ‘pluralism’, genetics and complicated scientific issues that they are not trained to handle, as much as we must beware of secularists and liberalists masquerading as Islamic reformers.
Sanusi Lamido Sanusi is playing a vital role in stimulating dialogue on contemporary Islamic matters and nudging us to consider things we hitherto accepted unquestioningly but he could do so without condescension. He should climb down from his high horse to make contribution and not ‘intervention’ not least because the word assumes superiority and connotes finality. Finality is not exactly a feature of dialogue. He should be more compassionate to those ‘less intellectually endowed’ than he.
Traditional scholars exemplified by Mallam Ja’far could also be more useful by broadening their horizons with the modern subjects of sociology, political science, space technology, reproductive health, psychology etc as we do not live in an intellectually closed system.