By Farooq Kperogi
My editor has told me that the Electoral Act forbids media organisations from publishing news or analysis about elections on Election Day that can be interpreted as tendentious. That, in my opinion, is a strange provision that violates the very spirit of democracy, but every country has a right to fashion its electoral laws in accordance with its peculiarities.
Well, since I can’t write about electoral politics on Election Day, I’ve chosen to return to an old pastime: comparing America (where I live) and Nigeria (where I was born and raised) and pointing out intriguing parallels and differences.
It is all too easy to look at the United States and be led to suppose that it is impervious to internal divisions because it prefixes the adjective “united” to its name—or to think that it’s immune from the sorts of disabling regional rivalries that we associate with our interminably feuding societies.
Even though the regional divide in America is less contentious than Nigeria’s, there are nonetheless strong, if subdued, provincial jealousies between the American North and the American South that have been bubbling to the surface in the last few years.
Just a few weeks ago, for example, conservative firebrand Marjorie Taylor Greene who represents a Georgia Congressional districtin the U.S. House of Representatives that’s not far from where I live suggested that the United States should have a “national divorce” along more or less regional lines. A few days later, she added that when Democrats move to Republican states, they shouldn’t be allowed to vote until after five years.
Most Southern states tend to be Republican, and most northern states tend to be Democratic, although this is an oversimplification.
Well, Greene’s ideas aren’t as unusual as they sound. As Richard Kreitner, who wrote the bookBreak It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union, told The Atlantic on Feb. 23, “No golden age of American unity exists that you can point to and say, ‘That’s when we were united.’ Even back then, people were issuing threats of secession when they were out of power, and then defending the Union as perpetual and inviolable once they had the power. Thomas Jefferson does this famous turnaround. In 1798, he mulls whether to threaten secession because he doesn’t like Adams’s administration. Then he wins the election of 1800, and says, ‘We must hold the Union together at any cost!’ The people backing Adams now proposed secession.”
The more I get to know about this, the more I find parallels between America and Nigeria. The first indication I got of how the North and the South perceive each other as two separate nations within a country was when, in 2005, I informed an American friend I’d met at Columbia University in New York, sometime in 2003, that I’d moved to Louisiana.
He asked how I was adjusting to life there. I told him I was still learning to come to terms with many culture shocks. His response took me by surprise. He said, “I understand how you feel. I also suffer culture shocks each time I visit Louisiana.” He said he found the people in Louisiana and the South in general “weird,” and that they all “talk funny.”
This didn’t make much sense to me. The notion of America I had come here with was of a country that had no noticeable internal differences. I had a concept of America as a country where sub-national identities were so fluid and so flexible that a New Yorker could go to Texas, for instance, and not only be a citizen, but stand the chance of being elected governor of the state, and vice versa. In short, I had thought that in America, there were no “natives” or, as we say it in Nigeria, “indigenes”; only citizens.
Why would an Americanspeak so disdainfully of another part of his country and even go so as far as to say that he experienced culture shock when he visited it? I soon found out that he was echoing the mutual contempt and distrust in which Northerners and Southerners in the United States hold each other.
Sometime in 2006, a friend in Louisiana was watching a sports channel but suddenly turned off his TV because, “It’s just a bunch of northern teams! I have no time watching fu****g Yankees.”
That outburst also caught me off guard. First, I used to associate the word “Yankee” with Americans in general. In fact, non-Americans usually interchange “American” with “Yankee” without the slightest hint that they are wrong. At first, it didn’t make any sense to me for an Americanto deride another American as a “fu****g Yankee.”
Well, I learned that day that “Yankee” actually refers only to an American Northerner. American Southerners don’t call themselves Yankees; in fact, some of them take serious exceptions to, sometimes outright umbrage at, being called Yankees. However, Northerners proudly wear that label. The word usually associated with the South is “Dixie.”
But what states constitute the South and North of the United States? Well, this is a tricky question. There is no universally accepted delineation of the South and the North. It is a shifty identity. However, it is usual to define the South to include 16 states: Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Oklahoma.
The 19 states usually considered Northern states are Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska.
In reality, however, such states as Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, Missouri, and Kansas don’t easily fit into the North/South divide. Citizens of these states sometimes identify themselves in mutually exclusive regional labels. I have, for instance, two friends from Maryland, and while one calls himself a Southerner, the other calls himself a Northerner. Similarly, people in southern Virginia call themselves Southerners, but it is not unusual for people in northern Virginia to regard themselves as Northerners.
The reason for this ambiguity is that, like in Nigeria, regional identity is not just a cold cartographic expression; it is also a socio-cultural, historical, and geo-political identity that sometimes mocks geography. Just like the rivers Niger and Benue appear to be the dividing lines between the North and the South in Nigeria, the American North and South are divided by what is called the Mason-Dixon Line. It was, and still is, the symbolic dividing line between the North and the South around Virginia and Pennsylvania before the American Civil War.
In many ways, it is like Rivers Niger and Benue in terms of symbolic significance. Such states as Benue and Taraba, for instance, would be regarded as eastern by a cartographer’s unaided imagination, just like Kwara, Kogi, and parts of Niger would be considered western. However, these states are both notionally and geo-politically in the North.
The equivalents of that in the United States are states like Maryland and Virginia, which are geographically in the North but are geo-politically in the South. In fact, Virginia used to be the political and military capital of the South during the American Civil War. It’s like Ilorin being the capital of the North.
In many significant respects, the American South reminds me of Northern Nigeria (with a few obvious exceptions) while the American North reminds me of the Nigerian South. In size, the American South, like Northern Nigeria, is a geographical behemoth, while the North is a comparatively small geographical space. (I’ve heard the joke several times here that a ranch in Texas is many times bigger than the state of Rhode Island).
Again, like Northern Nigeria, the American South is noticeably religious, culturally conservative, and emotionally attached to its socio-historical identity. The North, on the other hand, like the Nigerian South, is more urban, culturally liberal, and less attached to prefixed cultural values.
In the American South, the weather and the people tend to be warm—literally and figuratively. The North, on the other hand, is the opposite. Not only is the weather cold; the people are also cold, at least on the surface, although they can be warm on the inside if you get close to them.
Politically, the South is savvier than the North. It has produced more presidents than any region, including nine of the first 12 presidents of the United States. That’s similar to Nigeria’s North, which has produced more presidents and heads of state than the South.
However, after enmeshing itself in a four-year devastating Civil War, which pitted it against the North, the American South did not produce a president for nearly 100 years until 1976. The rest of the country was reluctant to trust a Southerner with the presidency of the country after the Civil War. This reminds me of the fate of the Igbo in Nigeria. And that is where the American South’s main difference with Northern Nigeria comes in.
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