Most urban Nigerians, wherever they find themselves in the country, the city is rarely ever considered home; even those who have lived nowhere else but one of the country’s large cities, will sheepishly admit to considering a town or village elsewhere in the country their real home. From the colonial era, when the large scale urbanisation of many parts of the country began, and cities became the primary places of economic and social power and opportunity, commercial centres like Lagos, Kano, Ibadan, Jos and Abuja have been places of bewildering ethnic diversity, even whilst they remained, more often than not, the location of existing indigenous, urban communities. Arriving in and navigating these new, urban spaces has always been fraught with risks; risks that new arrivals have traditionally lessened by drawing on their existing networks, forming hometown and ethnic associations, to facilitate their integration into city life.
In No Longer At Ease, the second novel by Nigeria’s most famous writer, Chinua Achebe’s novel, the protagonist Obi Okonkwo, is sponsored by members of his hometown association, the Umofia Progressives Union, first to study in England, and later to defend himself in a case of corruption. Though Achebe’s Umofia Progressives Union is fictional, associations like it, with their clout, and influence over the lives of urban Africans have long been a strong phenomenon in Nigeria’s urbanisation, supporting the transition of formerly rural people into the urban environment, and demanding a concomitant loyalty to their place of origin. Josef Gugler, a sociologist, writing in the journal of the African Studies Association describes their primary aim as self-help, resolution of disputes, and contributing to their hometown’s development, and, he writes, many were crucial to mobilising rural masses for Africa’s independence movements. But in the post-independence era, many declined, emasculated by governments, and/or the economic decline of the late 20th century.
Younger generations of urbanites, see the city radically differently from their parents or grandparents, many of whom would have been first generation inhabitants of some of the country’s largest cities.
For these younger generations, the city is home, and hometown associations are often quaint or totally irrelevant institutions, despite the feelings of older urbanites who may still feel some obligation to these organisations. Minna Jaja, a 20something financial executive, whose family hail from Opobo in Nigeria’s South-East but lives in Lagos says “some of her older relatives are still part of their hometown association; but they do it grudgingly, because “the meetings never lead to anything concrete”. She envisions her future permanently in the city. These new urban Nigerians are less inclined to want to live in their hometowns, or even shape their associational life around it; instead their concerns are resolutely about their urban surroundings, and the country as a whole. Indeed, they are more likely to express their political and social frustrations in global and national terms. Many of this generation are behind the recent, overwhelmingly, urban social movements like Light Up Nigeria and Occupy Nigeria. If they take an interest in their hometowns, it’s with a view to bringing them closer to urban standards, for which there is, undoubtedly a need. Kunle Adeyemi, an architect, in a recent interview with The Africa Report cited de-ruralisation: people looking for opportunities in urban areas, as a major source of rampant urbanisation, and suggests a focus on the development of rural areas as a way of controlling urbanisation. Perhaps the need for the old style hometown association has declined for the aspiring bourgeoisie, as their offspring make it in Nigeria’s cutthroat society through their connections – but for the poorest of the poor, ethnic connections remain the lynchpin of how they make the move to the city. Simidele Dosekun, a PhD candidate in London, describes an informal landscaping business run by a family member in which all the gardeners are from Adamawa State in Nigeria’s North. Most are recruited through referrals from existing employees, and more often than not, are kin or townsmen or women. Nigeria isn’t unique in this respect, where particular ethnic groups come to be identified with particular skills, but in a region where ethnicity collides with perceived scarcity of resources, the need to manage ethnic tensions in urban areas, should mean encouraging diversity in how and where people live, and using the natural tendency to organise as an advantage rather than a challenge.
For African government’s seeking to implement such development, the associational ties to hometowns offer a glimmer of hope. Many of the younger generation of urbanites still return to the ‘hometowns’ with parents, and meet fellow hometown folk informally through social occasions like traditional weddings, even though many of them are dispersed across the country, and the world. Minna Jaja says she’d be motivated to participate in a hometown association if it was focused on modernisation, and formalising the economy of Opobo, whilst retaining its traditional character. Though many see their identities as national, global and cosmopolitan rather than particularistic, they are likely to be interested in developing and making their ancestral hometowns more urban, and although not fully enshrined in law, Nigeria’s laws which means states recognise indigenes and non-indigenes, according to cultural identity – essentially makes even long-term residents of a state ‘foreigners’ if they don’t have a long-standing ancestral link. These laws mean many urban residents still find it pragmatic to maintain a link to ‘home’; in the face of rapid urbanisation, and the need for the best skills to run cities and the country as a whole, such ‘ethnic protectionism’ may have run its course, particularly as many younger Nigerians may feel tied to their language, and religion but less so to their ancestors’ geographical origin.
Hometown associations, as well as governments, particularly rural ones will have to adapt to such changes in attitudes to capitalise on the energies of younger urban residents. Some Nigerian states are already trying to address this. The governor of one state, Bauchi has declared that after seven years of living in his state, non-indigenes will become ‘state citizens’ – such policies should be replicated across the country, to offer citizens, whether urban or rural, a sense of security, and encourage diversity across the country. Such diversity, well managed, is good for cities, and through hometown associations, rural residents could tap into this social and cultural skill base too.
Dele Meiji Fatunla is a writer. He is currently Communications Co-ordinator at The Royal African Society. He is a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies, and holds an MA in Sociology from City University, London. He tweets at @delemeiji