RESEARCH | Frontiers of belonging and politics of identity

This study has suggested that rituals and festivals are deployed as movements that mobilize people politically and organize them to claim ownership of urban space. As such, rituals and festivals play vital roles in the spatial politics of cities.


RESEARCH ARTICLE | Frontiers of belonging and politics of identity: The materiality of funeral rituals and festivals in Nigeria’s urban space

Onyekachi E. Nnabuihe | FAR-LeaF Fellow

Abstract

This article draws from funeral rituals and performative festivals to reflect on how and why burials, reburials and performances of Eyo and Nzem Berom festivals provide excellent examples of cultural politics and represent occasions for the (re)production of kinship, belonging and claims to ownership in the cities of Lagos and Jos. It argues that existing literature on the politics of belonging in Africa either understates or overlooks the roles of funerals and festivals in expressing and contesting ownership of the city. Relying on institutional ethnography, the article illustrates the essentially political nature of festivals and funerals in relation to city ownership, not only in the sense that traditional place identity benefits some groups more than others but also in that it defines who belongs and who does not while inducing conflicts.

Conclusion

In general, African – and particularly Nigerian – cultural events such as the Eyo, Nzem Berom and funeral rituals provide excellent examples of cultural politics in action. The festivals, for instance, epitomize the resolute commitment and determination of the Awori subgroup of the Yoruba in Lagos and the Berom in Jos to deepen and sustain the cultural celebrations that embody the values they have upheld for generations in general and the cities in particular. Whereas rituals and festivals have been strategically deployed to promote a distinctive city, attract people and boost economies (Johansson and Kociatkiewicz 2011), this study has suggested that rituals and festivals are deployed as movements that mobilize people politically and organize them to claim ownership of urban space. As such, rituals and festivals play vital roles in the spatial politics of cities. Often, city politics is about appropriation and negotiation of space and rituals are used to express and contest ownership of the city. This article illustrates the essentially political nature of festivals and funerals, not only in the sense that traditional identification with a particular place benefits some groups more than others, but also in ways that express and claim ownership of cities.

Consequently, in the two examples examined in this article, interment and festival performances constitute cultural politics and ‘a high point for the reaffirmation of belonging’ (Geschiere 2005: 59). Both cases draw attention to kinship and ownership of the city but in different ways. In Jos, ever since the beginning of violent conflicts, the festivals, burials, reburials and denial of burial spaces have attempted to demonstrate ownership of the city and have emphasized forms of belonging that are bounded by networks of kinship and affinity between persons and local groups. In a study by Trovalla et al. (2014), funerals were deployed by both the Berom and the Hausa to narrate their mythological past, institutionalize chieftaincy, show affinity and contest ownership of the city. For the Berom, burial is a return to one’s source – where they belong – and efforts are made to protect such environments from potential intruders.

In Lagos, the Eyo’s multidimensionality provides an important aspect of explanations of belonging, identity, city ownership and power dynamics. The relationship between local elites and the people, indigenes – owners of the land – and non-indigenes or strangers, ‘the state and the chiefs, and national and local identities is staged and negotiated’ in the field of action at the festival (Lentz 2001: 69). This plays out in the documentation and identification of performers, first by the local elite at Isale Eko and then by the Lagos State government. It is through this process that the actors identify those who are indigenes of central Lagos and those who are not. This politics of belonging also manifests in the Eyo’s Efe song, sung in the Awori dialect of the Yoruba language, which recognizes Awori as the true owners of Lagos. This draws attention to inter- and intra-group identity struggles to share in the socioeconomic and political resources of Lagos. In this way, power relations are negotiated between the people of Isale Eko and other Yoruba ethnic groups, between the Bini and other Nigerian ethnic groups, who have now found a home in Lagos. In this connection, explaining the relationships between funeral rituals, festivals and politics raises the significance of a people’s cultural capital and sheds light on the sources of conflicts in the city.

PUBLICATION DETAIL: Nnabuihe, O. E. (2023). ‘Frontiers of belonging and politics of identity: the materiality of funeral rituals and festivals in Nigeria’s urban space’. Africa 93, 331–350. https://doi.org/10.1017/ S0001972023000530

 

The Future Africa Research Leader Fellowship (FAR-LeaF) is a fellowship programme, focussed on developing transdisciplinary research and leadership skills, to address the complex, inter-linked challenges of health, well-being, and environmental risks in Africa.