“Our intelligence has recently provided us with awesome powers. It is not yet clear that we have the wisdom to avoid our own self-destruction. But many of us are trying very hard. We hope that very soon in the perspective of cosmic time we will have unified our planet peacefully into an organization cherishing the life of every living creature on it and will be ready to take that next great step, to become part of a galactic society of communicating civilizations.” Carl Sagan, Cosmos
Last week, President Barack Obama gave his farewell address to the American people. However, I am not—at the moment—pursuing a comparison of the message of equality and tone of empathy in Obama’s speech with the imperial and autocratic attitude typical of our Aso Rock and its minions. It is on a rare occasion that a Nigerian official—when not campaigning—would climb a podium and not issue orders or threats to the Nigerian people. But, as I have said, that is not the discussion for today.
What fascinates me in Obama’s address is his statement on nationalism as an incident of discriminatory ideology. The United States of America has always prided in its sense of nationhood. Yet, Obama understands the dangers of aggressive nationalism. In his words: “The fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression”.
“Nationalist aggression” is an ideology that invests ethnic identity with supremacy over human identity. This philosophy has plagued Europe since the 1900s. It seemed to disappear briefly after World War Two (after the Nazis had pushed the ideology to its logical conclusion and massacred millions of non-Germans) but has now resurfaced across Europe, and in America under the umbrella of the Trump Nation.
Certainly, Obama was addressing Americans on American interests. Clearly, he was advocating his ideal of a liberal nationalism. But liberal nationalism is just a short step from aggressive nationalism. The coercion of the world into national identities, exclusive of free movement and settlement, is a debate that should bother even those of us outside the domestic arguments of Americans. It should bother those of us in Africa who, without our contribution to concept or construct, have materialised as European-style nations through colonialism and slavery and then bound to the preservation of these nations under international law.
But what is this nationalism? How did national borders become fixed and intractable? Why has it become suddenly difficult for human beings to move around freely when this was possible a century ago? What principle of nature states that only people who, for example, identify as English can live and move freely in a space identified as England?
These questions are pertinent because the history of human evolution has been a history of migration. Humanity is in a continuous journey: from our origins in Africa to our spread to Europe and the Americas. People are born somewhere: they may thrive and stay, or struggle and move. The only proper barriers to movement are environmental: a river, a mountain, a desert. And these are surmountable.
Yet, at some point (after the Peace of Westphalia when all Europe agreed to be more sensible about religious wars) and through international and domestic laws, Europeans halted this natural inclination and created artificial borders less passable than physical ones. The European countries introduced the modern use of passports and visas at national borders. They invented “Nationalism” in its modern sense. In short, they declared a moratorium on the natural tendency to migrate.
This European-style nationalism is a dangerous invention for a world where the concept of human rights seeks to unify the human condition. Europeans had, themselves, spread and migrated around the world (for example: in the Americas, Australia, and South Africa) in the course of their development. The ability to freely migrate contributed to the wealth of the European races. The criminalisation of migration, however, came only after there was a marked distinction between developed and developing countries. Cause and effect were conflated and the world lost its senses.
Today, people who lack a sense of history and humanity define themselves—and others—by scraps of stamped paper. Border controls, passports, and visas have become a dehumanising mechanism to prevent free movement around the world. But, more importantly, from our African perspective, we are bound to observe our underdog position on the ladder of nationality, never mind that our claim to nationalism is arbitrary to the point of ridicule. Nigerians are Nigerians only because some white men put a ruler on a map of Africa and divided it.
Let me be clear: the problem is not the fragmentation of the world into autonomous regions. The problem is the assumption that this fragmentation is a justifiable qualification to the freedom of movement. This assumption means that discriminations against migrants (often, people from poorer or troubled regions) are permitted. These discriminations include: the rejection of refugees; the criminalisation of some types of migration as “illegal”; the denial of some rights to migrants; and the commercialisation of travel and migration for the benefit of those with economic ability.
It is astonishing that, not only have Europeans brainwashed the underdeveloped world into accepting this geographical confinement but, also, our governments continue to abet this oppression. For example, the government of the United Kingdom would, practically, kidnap people deemed as illegal migrants, take them to an undisclosed location and force them on a flight to Nigeria or Ghana. The Nigerian High Commission would issue surreptitious travel documents for these flights or issue travel documents for people who are not Nigerians, even by the same standards of nationalism. It is hard not to imagine that racial discrimination is at the centre of migrant discrimination. It is worrisome to imagine the Nigerian government assisting racial oppression.
African leaders continue to disappoint. Their basic responsibility is to make arrangements for the security and freedom of black people everywhere—as Europeans would do if roles were reversed. Instead, our leaders would call on Africans to “come home”. This is nonsense. The entire world is home for every human, irrespective of race or ethnicity. We need to stop validating the notion that the only geographical entitlement for Africans is Africa.
In a time of mind-boggling discoveries on our subatomic composition and cosmic expansion, primitive ideas of nationalism should hardly be in public debate. But here we are, arguing over land allocations. It would be rather ironic if, after interstellar technology has been perfected, we are confronted with some galactic authority that insists that no, space migration is illegal and humans must be confined to their home planet—until permission is sought and obtained. Maybe we’ll call that Planetarianism.
Originally published in slightly modified form here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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