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Obadiah Mailafia: From Fulaniphobia to embarrassing ignorance

I normally don’t respond to responses to my column if the responses do no more than disagree with me. But when a response drips wet with pitiful ignorance and willful misrepresentations, such as Obadiah Mailafia’s (see his June 7, 2018 response titled “Re: El-Rufai’s hypocritical xenophobia and Obadiah Mailafia’s Fulaniphobia”), I have a duty to set the record straight in the interest of knowledge.

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I will ignore his juvenile ad hominin attacks on me. It bespeaks the barrenness of his intellect that he chose to descend to unprovoked sophomoric name-calling. Ad hominem attacks are the rhetorical weapons of first choice for the intellectually weak.

Mailafia’s original article in the Business Day of May 11, 2018 titled “Genocide, Hegemony and Power in Nigeria,” which inspired my June 2, 2018 column, is an astonishingly ill-informed farrago of xenophobic and simplistic garbage that masqueraded as serious thought. I encourage the reader to read the column firsthand.

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In the article’s very first paragraph, Mailafia deployed what he understands to be Gramscian hegemony to explain “what is going on in relation to the genocide being perpetrated by the Fulani militias in the Middle Belt of our country today.” I actually let out a guffaw when I read this. It’s an entirely illiterate misuse of the concept. Gramsci used hegemony to explain how the ruling classes in capitalist society naturalize their dominance by getting subordinate classes to accept ruling class values as “common sense” values for all. This is achieved through artful consensus building, which requires that the consent of the subordinate classes be perpetually won and re-won voluntarily, “for people’s material social experiences constantly remind them of the disadvantages of subordination and thus poses a threat to the dominant class.”

The replacement of “Hausa” rulers with “Fulani” rulers in the far north is certainly hegemonic now. No one questions it without coming across as an extremist, anachronistic troublemaker. But by what logic can hegemony explain “genocide”? Is Mailafia implying that people who are being murdered by “Fulani militia in the Middle Belt” have accepted and internalized their condition as “common sense” and that fighting the “genocide” would come across as deviant and out-of-line?

Even when Gramsci extended his theory of hegemonic domination to encapsulate physical violence, he used it exclusively to describe totalitarian states such as Tsarist Russia. He recommended a “war of maneuver,” which is resistance against the state through physical violence, in such circumstances. But Mailafia didn’t even reference this extension of hegemony. He referenced ideational hegemony for which Gramsci recommended a “war of position.” Mailafia obviously used the word only because it sounds grand and intellectually fashionable, not because he understands it.

This is just one of several examples of Mailafia’s self-indulgent wooliness and pedestrianism. He also, for instance, described the racial admixture between black Africans and “North Africa and the Middle East” that putatively produced the Fulani as “biological miscegenation.”

“Miscegenation” is a thorough going racist term that only white supremacists use – with a tone of violent disapproval – to describe interracial marriage between white and black people. White racists hurled that word at  Obama  throughout his presidency, and many of them suffered untoward consequences for it. But Mailafia, a hate-filled, self-aggrandizing dilettante, uses the word to describe how the Fulani, his compatriots, evolved.

In both his Business Day article and his response to me, he repeats the claim that “Guinea” is the “ancestral homeland” of the Fulani. He got this information entirely from Wikipedia.Well, here is why the claim is unacceptably ignorant. Linguistic evidence shows that the provenance of the Fulani is traceable to what is now Senegal. In his 1971 article titled “West Atlantic: An Inventory of the Languages, their Noun-Class Systems and Consonant Alternation,”  Emeritus Professor David Sapir, son of famous linguist Professor Edward Sapir, found that the closest language to Fulfulde in the world is Serer, Senegal’s third largest ethnic group after Wolof and Fulani. Serer is a Niger-Congo language like most languages in West Africa. (Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal’s first president who is famous for Negritude, was Serer).

Linguists have also found a smattering of Berber words in Fulfulde, which gave rise to the theory that the Fulani are the product of the ethnic fusion of Berber and Serer people around Senegambia. Only a Wikipedia-reliant dilettante like Mailafia would describe Guinea as the “ancestral home” of the Fulani. The fact that the Fulani enjoy relative numerical dominion in Guinea doesn’t make the country, which was invented by colonialists only a few decades ago, their “ancestral homeland,” whatever that means.

In any case, ethnic identities and formations are intrinsically labyrinthine and irreducible to Mailafia’s simple minded, vulgar empiricist, and essentialist formulations. And talking about the “ancestral homeland” of any contemporary Nigerian group, not just the Fulani, whose ancestors have populated this country centuries before the formation of Nigeria is textbook case of “othering,” which is the intellectual precursor to genocide.

 I strongly recommend that Mailafia read Jean-Loup Amselle’s discipline-defining book, Mestizo Logics: Anthropology of Identity in Africa and Elsewhere, to understand the fluidity, dynamism, and originary syncretism of ethnic formations in West Africa. The genetic ancestors of several people who self-identify as Fulani today never did so several generations ago. For instance, Amselle showed that thousands of people who were Senufo (an ethnic group now found in parts of Ivory Coast, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ghana) generations ago became Fulani, and many people who were Fulani centuries ago became Bambara or Mandinka, and so on and so forth.

Mailafia has no knowledge of this vast complexity in identity scholarship and chooses to mask his ignorance with laughably infantile self-congratulation and exhibitionistic preening of ill-digested, barely understood concepts.

When I said identity is fiction even though it’s an emotionally valid, politically consequential fiction, which is a stale fact in identity studies, Mailafia’s theoretically sterile mind couldn’t grasp it. He wrote: “What he is really saying, in plain English, is this: If a madman from Damaturu wakes up one morning and solemnly declares and earnestly believes himself, to be the long-awaited ‘Mahdi’, we are, ipso facto, bound to believe him, ‘even if that’s not necessarily who they are’. Our friend has clearly read too much post modernist trash for his own good.” I was embarrassed on his behalf.

Let me explain this in a simpler, less convoluted way that Mailafia’s a-theoretical mind can hopefully understand. Identity isn’t just genetic or biological; it is also cultural, historical, emotional, and often arbitrary and variable. For instance, many people who are called Hausas today merely changed to that identity; a few decades ago, their ancestors were not Hausa. Yet, this fact doesn’t invalidate their claim to being Hausa because, in any case, all modern identity is syncretic and evolutionary. To understand this point, read Frank A. Salamone’s 1975 article titled, “Becoming Hausa: Ethnic Identity Change and Its Implications for the Study of Ethnic Pluralism and Stratification.” When Arjun Appadurai talked of the “paradox of constructed primordialism,” he was talking about the variability and artificialness of identity, which nescient jingoists like Mailafia ironically choose to reify.

Interestingly, Mailafia admits that his “effort to explain” whatever he wrote in his column “may not have been adequate” and thathe is“prepared to concede that”  his “conclusions may have been inadequate,” yet he wasted his energies to write a worthless, self-humiliating rejoinder that was high in juvenile self-praise and ad hominem attacks and low in substance and nuance.

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