New Internationalist

Strange bedfellows

Issue 381

I only became interested in the French referendum on the EU constitution when news reports began to say that the tide was turning against the constitution. Before that I had just assumed that France was so closely tied to the EU that the idea of its rejecting the constitution was inconceivable. When I began to watch the news reports, the analysis and the interviews about the referendum, I was immediately struck by the convergence between those I would describe as ‘progressives’ and some really sinister-sounding people on the far right.

I only became interested in the French referendum on the EU constitution when news reports began to say that the tide was turning against the constitution. Before that I had just assumed that France was so closely tied to the EU that the idea of its rejecting the constitution was inconceivable. When I began to watch the news reports, the analysis and the interviews about the referendum, I was immediately struck by the convergence between those I would describe as ‘progressives’ and some really sinister-sounding people on the far right.

I remember one late-night programme that seemed particularly surreal. Three senior politicians were being interviewed: two from the Socialist Party, the other a leading member of the National Front. One of the socialists and the National Front leader spoke eloquently about why the constitution was unacceptable while the other socialist struggled to make a case for a oui vote. Sometimes his two opponents, from very different political constituencies, sounded nearly alike. Both of them seemed to agree that the fundamental issue was preserving the ‘character’ of France. There were enemies to be kept away even if the enemies were somewhat different: for the socialist, it was Anglo-Saxon notions of competitiveness; for the fellow from the National Front, it was the innate Frenchness of France, its cheeses, its neighbourhoods, its culture (which are in danger, I suppose he would think, from being corrupted by immigrants).

I remember one late-night programme that seemed particularly surreal. Three senior politicians were being interviewed: two from the Socialist Party, the other a leading member of the National Front. One of the socialists and the National Front leader spoke eloquently about why the constitution was unacceptable while the other socialist struggled to make a case for a oui vote. Sometimes his two opponents, from very different political constituencies, sounded nearly alike. Both of them seemed to agree that the fundamental issue was preserving the ‘character’ of France. There were enemies to be kept away even if the enemies were somewhat different: for the socialist, it was Anglo-Saxon notions of competitiveness; for the fellow from the National Front, it was the innate Frenchness of France, its cheeses, its neighbourhoods, its culture (which are in danger, I suppose he would think, from being corrupted by immigrants).

The question that troubled me after watching that programme was this: is there a danger that the legitimate desire to defend national cultures against the assaults of globalization can result in a nationalism hardly different from the politics of the extreme right? Pundits say that the referendum in France was anyway decided on the basis of the unpopularity of the French Government. So the issue is not about the outcome of the referendum but about the strange bedfellows who came together around the non campaign.

The question that troubled me after watching that programme was this: is there a danger that the legitimate desire to defend national cultures against the assaults of globalization can result in a nationalism hardly different from the politics of the extreme right? Pundits say that the referendum in France was anyway decided on the basis of the unpopularity of the French Government. So the issue is not about the outcome of the referendum but about the strange bedfellows who came together around the non campaign.

Some political tendencies that are emerging in Africa in response to the failures of the post-colonial state are even closer to the politics of the extreme right. Fed up with self-serving and repressive regimes, some in Africa have turned to an ethnic and religious politics. They seek to replace the failed state put together by the colonial master with ‘more authentic’ political structures founded on shared ethnicity or religion. The colonial state, it is argued, is fragile precisely because it is an arbitrary creation. If new nations are established in its place on the basis of real linkages between peoples or if it is recognized that ethnic groups are really ‘already existing’ nations and allowed to go their separate ways, then states with an identifiable ‘character’ would emerge. Only then would we have truly viable African nations. The irony of course is that Africa’s most homogeneous state is Somalia, the one African nation where people share almost completely a common ethnicity and religion. Yet it fell apart almost a decade and half ago and shows few signs of regaining its national coherence.

Some political tendencies that are emerging in Africa in response to the failures of the post-colonial state are even closer to the politics of the extreme right. Fed up with self-serving and repressive regimes, some in Africa have turned to an ethnic and religious politics. They seek to replace the failed state put together by the colonial master with ‘more authentic’ political structures founded on shared ethnicity or religion. The colonial state, it is argued, is fragile precisely because it is an arbitrary creation. If new nations are established in its place on the basis of real linkages between peoples or if it is recognized that ethnic groups are really ‘already existing’ nations and allowed to go their separate ways, then states with an identifiable ‘character’ would emerge. Only then would we have truly viable African nations. The irony of course is that Africa’s most homogeneous state is Somalia, the one African nation where people share almost completely a common ethnicity and religion. Yet it fell apart almost a decade and half ago and shows few signs of regaining its national coherence.

Some 25 years’ ago when I was a student in university beginning to associate with progressive circles, the gravest sin anyone could commit was to suggest that ethnic or religious politics was anything but ‘reactionary’. Today, some of my colleagues from that period and some of the heroes of progressive struggles in my country, Nigeria, say that the only way to preserve the country as a single entity is to restructure it as a federation of ethnically based nations. And I have witnessed several debates, as surreal as the one I saw on television during the French referendum campaign, where my old friends sound almost the same as politicians whose entire careers have been based on the cynical exploitation of difference.

Some 25 years’ ago when I was a student in university beginning to associate with progressive circles, the gravest sin anyone could commit was to suggest that ethnic or religious politics was anything but ‘reactionary’. Today, some of my colleagues from that period and some of the heroes of progressive struggles in my country, Nigeria, say that the only way to preserve the country as a single entity is to restructure it as a federation of ethnically based nations. And I have witnessed several debates, as surreal as the one I saw on television during the French referendum campaign, where my old friends sound almost the same as politicians whose entire careers have been based on the cynical exploitation of difference.

The politics I grew up with have sometimes been criticized for being too remote from the lives of real people (a little like the EU). It has been said that the twin notions of social equality and pan-Africanism which animated us had no meaning for ordinary people. In our multiethnic and multireligious setting, some argue that what matters is the sense people have of how much their beliefs and sense of self are respected. It is said that this need for respect is far more important to many of our people than struggling for the redistribution of wealth along equitable lines or establishing global bonds amongst people who have a shared history of racial and colonial oppression. In other words, their place in the world, as defined by religion and ethnic kinship, is what is fundamental to them, what they are prepared to die, or even kill, for.

The politics I grew up with have sometimes been criticized for being too remote from the lives of real people (a little like the EU). It has been said that the twin notions of social equality and pan-Africanism which animated us had no meaning for ordinary people. In our multiethnic and multireligious setting, some argue that what matters is the sense people have of how much their beliefs and sense of self are respected. It is said that this need for respect is far more important to many of our people than struggling for the redistribution of wealth along equitable lines or establishing global bonds amongst people who have a shared history of racial and colonial oppression. In other words, their place in the world, as defined by religion and ethnic kinship, is what is fundamental to them, what they are prepared to die, or even kill, for.

We were probably too dismissive in those days of the rights people claimed as ethnic or religious groups rather than as individuals or members of social classes. When we stigmatized expressions of ethnic and religious feeling with words like ‘reactionary’ or ‘primordial,’ we excluded a significant part of people’s experiences as social beings and of the issues they wanted addressed. But it is one thing to concede that and quite another to say that the only hope for Africa now lies in creating separate religious and ethnic states.

We were probably too dismissive in those days of the rights people claimed as ethnic or religious groups rather than as individuals or members of social classes. When we stigmatized expressions of ethnic and religious feeling with words like ‘reactionary’ or ‘primordial,’ we excluded a significant part of people’s experiences as social beings and of the issues they wanted addressed. But it is one thing to concede that and quite another to say that the only hope for Africa now lies in creating separate religious and ethnic states.

Our idealism had its roots in a strong optimism about the capabilities of our societies to provide fulfilling lives for our people, about the abilities of our various ethnic and religious groups to respect but at the same time reach across their differences. This is how to create vigorous new nations and even one great African state. Savage dictators, massacres, famines and structural-adjustment disasters have since sobered us up considerably. Yet the core of what we believed in remains as true as ever – that to entrench ourselves in our ethnic and religious fortresses is to turn away completely from hope and opportunity. To reduce our horizons to the obsessive preservation of difference is to diminish ourselves terribly. And it is not just narrow-minded and pessimistic: it is also, as the tragedies in Rwanda, Burundi and too many elsewheres have shown, extremely dangerous.

Our idealism had its roots in a strong optimism about the capabilities of our societies to provide fulfilling lives for our people, about the abilities of our various ethnic and religious groups to respect but at the same time reach across their differences. This is how to create vigorous new nations and even one great African state. Savage dictators, massacres, famines and structural-adjustment disasters have since sobered us up considerably. Yet the core of what we believed in remains as true as ever – that to entrench ourselves in our ethnic and religious fortresses is to turn away completely from hope and opportunity. To reduce our horizons to the obsessive preservation of difference is to diminish ourselves terribly. And it is not just narrow-minded and pessimistic: it is also, as the tragedies in Rwanda, Burundi and too many elsewheres have shown, extremely dangerous.

The novelist Ike Oguine lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

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