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Cultural Diversity and National Identity

african presidents with buhari
Posted: Jun 18, 2016 at 1:00 am   /   by   /   comments (0)


Dr. Bukar Usman

Abuja-There is continuing debate about sustenance of cultural diversity vis-a-vis national identity. Worldwide segregation of people into races, languages, religions and cultures gives rise to diversity in the societies, communities or groups which develop identifiable interests, the protection and promotion of which may evoke cooperation and sometimes conflict.

Diversity in Africa vis-à-vis other parts of the world has been made more complex by the incidence of colonialism which has left a legacy of languages and cultures different from what hitherto obtained. The impact of colonialism on cultural diversity has been examined in relation to Nigeria and Niger Republic, two neighbouring former colonies.

Along with the growth of culture is technology which also impacts on culture and language with the trio fostering civilisation and globalisation. Disparity in technology and development is also making it more difficult to foster unity and harmony among nations.

Globalisation is also encouraging greater mobility and migration elements which intensify diversity and resistance to such phenomenon. The European Union (EU) is taken as a classic example.


africultural dancers in Nairobi

Colonial Legacy

For us in Africa there is need to cast our mind back to colonialism in order to appreciate the situation we currently find ourselves as countries and as communities and nations vis a vis each other and the rest of the world. History tells us that against the background of some petty communal warfare some Africans were taken into slavery to some parts of the world. Some Europeans who were the powers that be were also said to have met in Berlin, present capital of Germany, in 1885 and divided Africa among themselves in what was termed the scramble for Africa. At stake were the enormous resource endowments of those territories. Boundaries were drawn somewhat arbitrarily cutting across communities. These boundaries were inherited by the emerging nations after the spate of decolonisation of the 1960s. Some of the emerging nations decided to live with those borders while some of the borders remain scenes of misunderstanding requiring international arbitration and sometimes flaring up into armed conflicts. As in Africa so was the case in other parts of the world more especially in South America and Asia.

More fundamentally and even more relevant is the legacy of colonialism which left most African countries and other parts of the world imbibing alien languages and cultures that add to their complexities. Issues of language and religion account for some of the restrictions in movement as well as misunderstandings which result in breach of peace and security on the African continent and in other parts of the world. A road journey from Kano in Nigeria to Niamey in Niger Republic affords one the opportunity to have a firsthand experience of the topography, the people, the fauna and flora of Niger Republic. However, amazingly the people of these two countries, Nigeria and Niger though sharing common boundary hardly know each other in-depth. This ignorance subsists despite very strong ties that bind a significant proportion of both countries’ populations in terms of territorial proximity; cultural similarities, linguistic affiliation and blood ties through intermarriages and ancestral origins.

Many young and elderly Nigerians would confess that they have never visited Niger though some live not too far away from the border. Anyone who takes the about 19-hour journey by road from Kano to Niamey would not fail to notice that the two countries have similar terrain and the people share similar physical appearances and mode of dressing. In Niger just as in Nigeria people converse in Hausa. However, unlike Nigeria where few Nigerians speak French many Nigeriens speak English. It can thus be argued that a French speaker on a visit to Nigeria would face much more difficulty conversing in French as only a few Nigerians speak the language. It is probably to redress this barrier in communication that the Federal government of Nigeria declared in February 2016 that students from primary to tertiary institutions would compulsorily learn French. This is a good policy as French is one of the major languages of international diplomacy and commerce.  This is mainly because French was the first international language after the demise of Latin, and so remained until the end of the World War I, when it shared that pride of place with English.

Another contentious issue between Africa and some of its colonial powers in recent times is adjudication at the International Criminal Court. The African Union members feel that Africans are the most targeted and so have threatened to renounce their membership of the international institution that was established to check crime against humanity, genocide, war crimes and crime of aggression. Ironically many of the developed countries have declined ratification of the treaty establishing the court. Thus attainment of universality even in matters of crime fighting is rendered impossible on account of political differences.


African drummers


Global and Regional Institutions

It is to arrest wanton destruction to life and property by the scourge of war worldwide that the League of Nations was formed following the First World War in 1918. Yet that did not save humanity from the Second World War in 1945. Following that war another attempt was made to form another global body. That resulted in the creation of the United Nations Organisation (UNO) and its affiliate agencies. Humanity is currently saddled with that arrangement in a state of uneasy peace. Some of the unease are attributable to apparent reluctance of nations and groups to sacrifice cultural diversity and national identity in favour of universality.

Hence today UNO has no standing police or army to enforce its decisions and no strong government to provide for the welfare of humanity. Regional bodies like the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) formed ostensibly to promote security and welfare are in a similar situation of ineffectiveness in spite of efforts made since 1960s to forge a continental government with a military high command. Effective unified approach to cross border issues has therefore become difficult.


Human Diversity and Group Interests

The phrase “cultural diversity” is sometimes used to describe the variety of human societies or cultures in a specific region, or in the world as a whole. But looking at cultural diversity (symbolised by ethnic and linguistic diversity) and national identity globally, it should be noted that in spite of the variety of opinions on definition of terms, ‘identity’ simply is a form of ‘classification’ or ‘categorisation’ of things be they living or non living things. Human beings have come to be classified mainly by their physical features and the environment in which they live. The classification is stratified beginning with race on the global scale down to communities and associations at the local level. Such classifications at the global or local levels make groups or communities to develop common interests and cultures as individuals, communities and nations or group of nations vis a vis others.

It is mostly in the process of projection and preservation of such common interests and cultures that cultural diversity and national or communal identity often generate collaboration or conflicts among and against others; the latter  sometimes leading to a breach of the peace at local, regional or world level.

We are all witnesses to the disturbing scenes of conflicts and violence all over the world and the challenges posed to peace and security presently. Today, few nations are monolithic, in terms of the citizens of a nation having a common origin, tradition, language and religion. Most nations, in varying degrees, have more than one racial, ethnic, linguistic or religious group. In spite of these differences, national identity can be constructed using powerful cultural tools such as the nation’s common history, shared values, national flag, national anthem, music, literature, cuisine, adoption of official language or languages, and various forms of economic and social interactions. A nation is thus kept together by these tangible and intangible forces that reinforce the citizens’ sense of oneness and distinctiveness.

It is therefore left for one to consider whether humanity and one’s community would fare better in the future against issues of diversity and national identity that breed disaffection, injustice, discrimination, disenchantment and friction. These issues should be of common concern because often they are liable to degenerate into serious threats to peace and loss of life and property.


Technology, Diversity, Universality in Perspective

Looking into the future against the strong and valid positions taken by the proponents of cultural diversity and national identity on the one hand and the proponents of civilisation and universality on the other, there should be no hesitation in proclaiming that the former are fighting a lost battle in the growing quest for civilisation (development) and universality typified by the forces of ICT and digitalisation. That is not to down-play the valid argument that, by comparison with biodiversity, which is thought to be essential to the long-term survival of life on earth, cultural diversity may also be vital for the long-term survival of humanity; and that the conservation of indigenous cultures may be as important to humankind as the conservation of species and ecosystems is to life in general.

But as stated earlier, culture is not static. It keeps growing in every society. Therefore it would be a constant struggle to those who want to maintain the status quo regarding diversity and national identity. Group interests would continue to challenge forces of integration, globalisation and universality. The challenge would largely be on the basis of groups’ insatiable quest for participation, representation, self-determination, self-expression and access to or denial of opportunities for improvement to their living standards.

As people move from one country to another, many countries become more and more culturally diverse, in terms of ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity. So, globalisation promotes cultural diversity, although the socio-political implication of such diversity has become contentious across the world. How well the multicultural impact of globalisation has enhanced or diminished the average citizen’s sense of national identity is currently one of the burning issues.

Globalisation appears to have led, in the opinion of many, to a diminished sense of national identity because of its tendency to homogenise cultures and values.

Enormous capabilities and opportunities for advancement in the way of doing things have dawned on humanity. Hence, the view gaining ground is that the present state of development in ICT, artificial intelligence and robotics is enough to say that the world is on the verge of a 4th Industrial Revolution.

This state of affair is no respecter of culture, ethnic and language diversity. Only those who avail themselves of the opportunities could reap the benefits no matter the language, culture, and ethnic diversity. Technology would invariably continue to retain the upper hand in an inseparable tripartite relationship with language and cultural identity in shaping human relations.

The relationship between globalisation and national identity is puzzling. While some observers have found that globalisation reduces people’s identification with their nation, others have reached the opposite conclusion. One obvious instance of a challenge to cultural diversity and national identity is in the field of communication. Some decades ago communication about the colloquium would have required sending letters. However in this instance some participants were simply contacted via electronic mail (email) in only a few seconds…

However, like education although globalisation may burden humanity with the awareness of new problems, it will also broaden ingenuity and the pool of resources at the disposal of humanity to deal with them in management of human relations.



(Dr. Usman, who is currently, the National President of the Nigerian Folklore Society (NFS), was born in 1942 in the ancient Biu town, Borno State, North-Eastern Nigeria. A philanthropist and public policy analyst, Dr. Usman, has written over 30 books including his most recent A History of Biu. A thorough bred bureaucrat and public administrator, Usman rose from a 3rd class clerk to a permanent secretary in the presidency of the Federal Republic of Nigeria before his retirement in 1999.He turned 73 in December, 2015.)