There are really only a small handful of historical cases where constitutions have actually exerted real authority over later generations, have actually organized or channeled social and political conflicts. Mostly modern constitutions are like bad peace accords between fundamentally antagonistic groups: a pause in a longer process of conflict. Even the US Constitution had that aspect to it, that it deferred a bloody and inevitable confrontation about slavery.

If the Iraqi Constitution cannot answer the question of why there should be an Iraq, it is because the elites writing it (and the occupying authority anxiously supervising the writing of it) cannot answer that question convicingly. The fault is not in the constitution itself, but the constitution is no solution, either.

Some blame the British-written constitution of Nigeria at independence for the Biafran civil war and persistent rumblings of secession or partition ever since. Not really, though the whistling past the graveyard in that original constitution didn’t help. It’s not even the classic old saw that Nigeria was a completely artificial entity made by colonialism, blah blah blah. Zambia’s a completely artificial entity. The Democratic Republic of Congo’s a completely artificial entity. The boundaries of Nigeria actually have some vague correspondence to actual historical connections between precolonial African societies, but the problem is that those connections were largely antagonistic or at least competitive between the societies of the forest and the societies of the savannah, woven together by the braids of the Niger River as it empties towards the sea. It’s not inconceivable that the remnants of Oyo and the territory encompassed by Sokoto could have reached towards some larger political amalgamation, but a constitution, no matter how written, could not do that in and of itself. It would have taken finding some pressing reason to make that union, something shared that was a positive product of local experience as opposed to a negative and reactive opposition to outside force.

If the Iraqis writing the constitution are just writing the prelude to partition, then the most helpful thing the US could do might be to midwife that partition now rather than deny its inevitability later. If the authors of the constitution can’t find a thing that makes them all Iraqi besides colonial inheritance and authoritarian repression by Saddam Hussein, then maybe there is no such thing to find. I can’t help but think that Nigeria might have been better off as three nations, or at least two. I’m sure that the Congo would have been better off as three or four nations.

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2 Responses to Constitutional

  1. It’s not even the classic old saw that Nigeria was a completely artificial entity made by colonialism, blah blah blah.

    This is a statement with which I have to vigorously disagree. There really is no getting around the fact that ethnic rivalries between the three largest groups have been the dominant factor in Nigerian public life since the 1940s at the very least; there’s no explaining the refusal on the part of the Northern region to push for independence along with the South in 1957 or Northern reaction to Nzeogwu’s coup and the subsequent Ironsi regime’s attempt to introduce a unitary regime without reference to ethnic tensions. The various peoples living within the country’s borders had never all historically been under the same political authority or even within shared influence of one, and outside the North where Sokoto-led forcible homogenization was well under way, they shared nothing in common by way of religion, culture or even language; Hausa isn’t even a member of the Niger-Congo family tree like almost all other West African languages, but belongs in the Afro-Asiatic group alongside Hebrew, Coptic and Arabic. At least with a place like India there were the Indus Valley civilizations or the Mughal Empire to set the ground for a later sense of national unity, but Nigeria lacked even that much logic to it.

    That said, I agree with the rest of your points, and I do think Iraq would have been better off had the Bush administration acknowledged from the start that partition wasn’t necessarily the worst of all possible outcomes. As it is, it will be a miracle if civil war doesn’t break out as soon as American troops begin to pull out, as the Sunnis seem incapable of reconciling themselves to Shiite domination after enjoying five centuries of ascendancy.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh, I agree with you: I’m merely observing that the three major societies that were crowded into Nigeria shared a complex historical interrelationship, which is more than you can say for the Congo, where societies in the northeastern corner of the borders drawn by the Belgians literally had no meaningful relationship with the Kongo Kingdom down towards the coast, or Zambia, which is almost a random assortment of societies with any number of historic relationships (or lack thereof). But Nigeria’s not Ghana, in this respect, where there really is a historic core “nation” within the borders: it’s three very distinct major societies that had extremely different inherited political histories by the mid 19th Century–the Yoruba city-states & Oyo are one thing; Igbo communities something very different, and Sokoto yet something else altogether. But they knew each other, related (antagonistically) to each other, they had a history that was at the least intercommunicating and relational, as opposed to a handful of other truly “artificial” colonial states.

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