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“New” National Anthem is National Self-Debasement – Kperogi

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By Farooq A. Kperogi

Nothing in my adult life has made me more ashamed to be a Nigerian and more inclined to completely divest my emotions from Nigeria than the readoption of “Nigeria, We Hail Thee,” a colonially created national anthem whose first stanza drips wet with the spit of racist condescension, gender exclusion, and stodgy, ungainly archaisms.

First, it’s inexcusable national self-humiliation to discard a home-made national anthem, irrespective of its defects, for one that was made by an imperialist whose influence we’re supposed to be independent of. That instantiates a phenomenon that social anthropologists call cultural cringe.

First propounded by an Australian scholar by the name of Arthur Phillips in the 1950s to describe Australia’s complicated cultural relations with Britain and the US, cultural cringe is the deep-rooted inferiority complex that causes psychologically damaged, formerly colonized people to inferiorize and disdain their own country and its culture and to uncritically valorize cultures and countries that their low self-esteem persuades them to believe is superior to theirs. 

In previous columns, I have called this Nigeria’s national xenophilia, which I have defined as our predilection for irrational, unjustified, inferiority-driven veneration of the foreign and the corresponding sense of low national self-worth that this veneration activates.

A country whose symbolic song of independence is inspired, written, and composed by the appendicular remnants of imperialist oppressors of whom the country has supposedly been independent for more than six decades isn’t worthy of its independence. Such a country has lost the moral and philosophical argument for independence and against recolonization.

That is why, as I’ve argued in the past, our leaders are routinely infantilized by the West. As a people and a culture, we have internalized a mentality of low self-worth and an unwarranted veneration of the foreign, especially if the “foreign” also happens to be white. Nothing has demonstrated this more than the readoption of a national anthem that was written and composed by colonial British women.

But my worry transcends this. I am mortified that the very first stanza of our national anthem derogates our humanity. I have written multiple articles on what I have called the vocabularies of racial differentiation and exclusion in which I have repeatedly pointed out that “tribe” and “native” are racist words that white people reserve only for people they consider inferior, and that their appearance in Nigeria’s first national anthem was one of the reasons for the anthem’s rejection in 1978.

I’ll repeat some of the things I’ve written over the last few years on this issue and hope that President Bola Ahmed Tinubu sees reason to rescind the readoption of this denigrating British anthem written for Nigeria.

Shorn of all pretenses, “tribe” basically means backward, primitive nonwhite people.  Let no one deceive you that the word means anything other than that in the English language. Even the Oxford Dictionary of English recognizes this fact. Its usage note on “tribe” reads:

“In historical contexts the word tribe is broadly accepted (the area was inhabited by Slavic tribes), but in contemporary contexts it is problematic when used to refer to a community living within a traditional society. It is strongly associated with past attitudes of white colonialists towards so-called primitive or uncivilized peoples living in remote underdeveloped places. For this reason it is generally preferable to use alternative terms such as community or people” (p. 1897).

I personally prefer “ethnic group” as an alternative to “tribe.” But I am aware that “tribe” has been congealed in our lexical repertory and can even be said to have been resemanticized by Africans, that is, given a meaning that is different from its original one.

For most English-speaking Africans, “tribe” is simply the English lexical equivalent of the words in their languages that they deploy to denote peoplehood. That may be so, but I come to language from a communication standpoint. To effectively communicate, you have to speak the same codes and share the same meanings.

Native English speakers would never call themselves “tribes” and understand the word to mean a group of primitive, nonwhite people who are still stuck at the lower end of the civilizational hierarchy.

You may understand the word differently, but if you tell a native speaker you belong to a tribe, you are inadvertently authorizing your inferiorization. That’s why when anybody asks me, “What is your tribe?” I always say, “You mean my ethnic group? I don’t belong to a tribe.” That was, by the way, Chinua Achebe’s attitude, too. He hated the word “tribe.”

That was also why when former US President Bill Clinton visited Nigeria and other African countries in 1998, experts told him to steer clear of the word “tribe” and its inflections such as “tribal,” “tribalism,” “tribalistic,” etc.

An influential American newspaper called Politico contrasted Clinton’s studied avoidance of the word “tribe” and Obama’s liberal use of it. “Keep in mind that the word ‘tribal conflict’ is extremely insulting to Africans,” the paper quoted a scholar by the name of Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to have told American reporters who would cover the presidential visit. “Don’t write about ‘century-old tribal conflicts in African countries’… Yet, when Obama uttered the phrase ‘tribal conflicts’ at a press conference Friday as he discussed his planned trip to Africa, it went virtually unremarked upon. So too did several references he made in his Ghana speech to battles among ‘tribes.’” “Another president,” the paper concluded, “might have been accused of racism…”

Well, I criticized Obama for this in a Jul 18, 2009, column titled, “The Anti-African Racist Insults Obama Got Away with in Ghana,” which attracted the attention of the White House at the time.

A column I wrote earlier on February 27, 2009, titled “What’s my tribe? None” got the attention of CNN International’s copy desk. After a back and forth with its Chief Copy editor, the organization banned the use of the word “tribe” from its style guide. It came from their admission that no white ethnic group would ever be called a “tribe.”

In my September 30, 2018, column titled, “‘Tribe’ and ‘Detribalized’ are Derogatory Words,” I wrote: “Sadly, in 2018, our elites not only still call us ‘tribes’; they defend doing so. Lillian Jean Williams, the British colonial who wrote the anthem, would be proud.” I had no inkling that Tinubu would take this embarrassing sociolinguistic suicide to the next level.

“Native” is another linguistic marker of racial inferiorization that has no business being on Nigeria’s national anthem. The word was originally used by white colonialists and later by Western anthropologists to refer specifically to nonwhite people. The New Oxford American Dictionary (3rd edition) captures this subtlety well. One of the definitions of “native,” which the dictionary says is “dated, often offensive,” is “one of the original inhabitants of a country, especially a nonwhite as regarded by European colonists or travelers.”

Lillian Jean Williams was a British colonialist who thought herself superior to the “natives” and reflected that in the first stanza of the anthem she composed for us.

Notice, though, that in American (and Canadian) English “native” is used widely in a non-racially discriminatory way. When people call a city their hometown they often say they’re natives of the city, as in “I am an Atlanta native.”  I am not sure how widespread this usage of “native” is in British English, but it appears only 148 times in the British National Corpus.

The New Oxford American Dictionary’s usage advice on “native” is instructive. It says, “In contexts such as native of Boston or New York in the summer was too hot even for the natives, the noun native is quite acceptable. But when it is used to mean ‘a nonwhite original inhabitant of a country,’ as in this dance is a favorite with the natives, it is more problematic.  This meaning has an old-fashioned feel and, because of its association with a colonial European outlook, it may cause offense.”

There is exactly zero reason to revert to “Nigeria, We Hail Thee.” Its readoption symbolizes the starkest evidence of national defeat, national self-humiliation, and national inferiority complex that I have ever seen. If Tinubu doesn’t reverse himself on readopting this national disgrace, the next government should. This is simply unbearably embarrassing!

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