More than a century after it was taken away from the African kingdom of Benin and kept at Jesus College, Cambridge, Okukor, a bronze stature of a cock, finally made its way back home to the palace of Ewuare II, Oba of Benin, sometime in 2021. A punitive British expedition in 1897 to avenge the killing of Captain Philip of the Royal Niger Company, who was killed by the natives for attempting to violate an important ritual of the Benin Kingdom, destroyed one of Black Africa’s most advanced civilizations. And one hallmark of the Benin civilization was its highly sophisticated metal-working knowledge with a specialization in the stylistic use of bronze said to have been introduced into the kingdom by Oba Oguola as a means of historical documentation.
Characterized by plunder and pillaging, while the British expedition led to the banishment from Benin of the reigning Oba Ovonranwem Nogbaisi to Calabar, the many artworks of bronze that were in the ancient African kingdom were looted by expedition forces and carried to faraway lands, kept in museums in Europe and North America. After many years of concerted clamour by concerned Africans for the return of looted artworks of ancient African civilizations to continental Africa, Okukor was brought home Benin, Nigeria, from Jesus College, Cambridge, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, where it had been on display since 1905.
However, what should have been a moment of joy for Nigerians on the safe return of a precious artefact became a source of acrimony and dispute over the appropriate name of dear old Okukor. Controversy started when the palace officials of Benin Kingdom insisted that the correct name for the returned artefact was not “Okukor” but “Okhokho” because the former was Igbo and the latter Bini (the language of Benin Kingdom). And before the dust could settle over Igbo Okukor and Bini Okhokho, “Akuko,” a Yoruba word for cock, was thrown into the mix as the most probable original name for the artefact. Then came Ebira “Ukokoro,” Igala “Aiko” Efik “Akikor” and many other Okukor synonyms from other parts of Nigeria. In all of these various nomenclatures for cock among Nigeria’s many ethnic groups, Nigerians have once again majored in the minor differences while minoring in the major similarities between the peoples and cultures of modern Nigeria.
Sixty-two years after independence in 1960, Nigeria has remained a deeply divided country along ethnic and religious lines. This situation has slowed, if not reversed Nigeria’s journey to nationhood. Just as a house is not always a home, a country is not always a nation. A house becomes a home when members of a household are cohesive, united and bonded under a convivial atmosphere of love, care and equal treatment by the head of the house for the purpose of sustaining their basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. Similarly, a nation is one that is socially cohesive and united under a prevailing atmosphere of equity, fairness, inclusivity and justice for the purpose of advancing the course of the collective security and welfare of the constituent peoples. But for a country to achieve nationhood, recognition of the major commonalities and similarities between the constituent peoples must be emphasized more than the minor variations and differences in order to forge a sense of oneness, common purpose and national aspiration.
If the contention over the proper name for the returned artefact was intended to highlight the differences between the Nigerian people, it, ironically, revealed similarities and commonalities among the various peoples and cultures of Nigeria. The Okukor, Okhokho or Akuko controversy reveals Nigerians as essentially one people whose over 500 spoken languages are simply variations of a super Nigerian language that is largely mutually intelligible to all. Long before the colonial creation of the modern Nigerian state, the constituent peoples of Nigeria had interacted through trade, diplomacy, warfare and migration since time immemorial. That the Yoruba, Igbo and Bini have a similar word for cock is clear illustration of this pre-colonial Nigerian interaction and contact. Several centuries before the British creation of Nigeria, a group of people migrated out of Ile Ife, in the Yoruba-speaking West to Benin Kingdom in the southern region of what is today Nigeria, from where they moved towards the southeast to establish the Igbo-speaking Onitsha Kingdom alongside a party of Igala-speaking people from Idah in north-central Nigeria. The intersection between the Bini, Yoruba, Igbo and Igala (a people with ancestral links with the Kwararafa confederacy of northern Nigeria) in Onitsha effectively ties every component part of Nigeria to a cultural and linguistic commonwealth that is Nigerian in nature. And this explains the similarities in language, customs, traditions and norms of the Nigerian people, from north to south and east to west.
For example, among the Ebira people of north-central Nigeria, “Oricha” is the word for the supreme deity among traditional African religion worshippers. Among the Yoruba people of the South-West, it is called “Orisha” and, for the Igbo people of the South-East “Olisa” is it. And when Ebira people want to consult Oricha, they do it through a medium known as Eva, Orisha is Ifa for the Yoruba and Olisa is Afa for the Igbo. The famous oracle of Arochukwu, which was originally known as Ubinu Ukpabi, was a fusion of Aro and Ibibio cosmology in ancient times. In essence, what the British colonial authorities did when they created the country Nigeria was to formalize an existing linguistic and cultural commonwealth into a modern sovereign geographic entity.
Sixty years after independence Nigerians have not been able to create a Nigerian nation from the British-created Nigerian country.
Nigeria’s is not a problem of lack of unity in diversity but that of division in oneness. This division in oneness is a function of majoring in the minor differences but minoring in the major similarities of the peoples and cultures of Nigeria. Nigeria is a mono-racial entity that hardly qualifies as a diverse country but more as a plural country; a plurality of the pre-colonial Nigerian linguistic and cultural commonwealth.
The various ethnic identities in Nigeria are superficial products of pre-colonial migratory patterns, interactions and contacts within joint environments that make up modern-day Nigeria. Ethnic groupings are not genetically encoded in any individual, just as nobody was born with a pre-recorded language. People adopt the identities and languages of the environment they were born into. Some Nigerians that are northerners todays were southerners yesterday just as some southerners were once northerners.
To build a Nigerian nation that will be socially cohesive, united, peaceful and prosperous, a new consciousness of the oneness of the Nigerian people has to be instituted through a comprehensive national re-orientation. This nation re-orientation will have to be led by the political leadership at all levels that will demonstrate this oneness through an inclusive, fair, just and equitable administrative style that does not marginalize or discriminate against any Nigerian on the basis of ethnicity or religion.