It was fortuitous that I read Tunde Fagbenle’s Sunday column “The Sad Cankerworm of Ethnicity” while Kollington Ayinla’s 1993 album, Unity, played on in the background. In their own way, both offerings (despite a gap of 20 years between them) sued for peace among the various ethnic factions that constitute Nigeria.
Their moral suasion is a good call because the amount of energy we dissipate on proving my-tribe-is-better-than yours, and the breathless race to declare one’s tribe as the one that has been most disadvantaged by Nigeria should have been enough to do more productive things, like generate 40,000MW of electricity for instance.
The angst of the peacemakers who wonder why Nigerians cannot just get along, reminds us we can barely afford the luxury of the pettiness that arise from our factionalism; ask Congo, Syria and Zimbabwe.
From time to time, ethnic dramas occur in Nigeria and it is not all the time that people merely use words to settle their differences. Remember the Ife-Modakeke battles? The Ijaw-Ilaje conflict? The settler/indigene tussles that are still ongoing in Jos? We should be thankful that this time, the brouhaha that resulted from the Lagos deportation saga was rested on the social media where it gained traction initially. But then, while it lasted, it showed us to ourselves.
First, it was interesting that folk who have never written an article for once in their life on corruption or any of the many disablers of our corporate existence suddenly found their vitriolic pens and poured out venom unabashedly. Funnily enough, those who yelled loudest when their tribe was assaulted with hate-rhetoric conveniently looked away when their own ethnic champions wrote hate-draped rejoinders. Apparently, it is only “hate” when it targets your tribe?
And please do not think we have seen the end of this hate-mongering. By the time the 2015 campaign starts, we can be sure politicians will dredge up ethnic sentiments to manipulate the unwary. Folk who are currently observing an undeclared ceasefire will resume shelling.
It is all so funny, like all human tragedies are wont to be.
One other interesting thing about the recurrent ethnic war is that most commentators and analysts are unable to distinguish between prejudices; nativism; tribalism and bigotry. They throw everything into the same basket and label them “tribalism.” Of course, there is considerable overlap between the concepts but their planks are different. Without trying to glorify any, I must say that prejudices –and the acts they promote- are as old as human existence. Even the Holy Books are full of them; countless acts of genocide carried out by those who regard themselves as God’s chosen.
That is why it’s amusing when writers say there ought to have been an Igbo governor in Lagos but for tribalism. It is an ideal that Nigeria should strive for, no doubt, but that kind of aspiration forgets that the Nigerian federalism, as it is currently exists, is not the same as its asymptote – the US’. To start with, can an Ekiti indigene win a governorship election in Ogun state even though s/he has lived there all his/her life? When a non-Lagos citizen had to be governor in Lagos State, we saw the extent to which he went to obliterate his own identity. It is that bad.
From time immemorial, people have sought to differentiate themselves from those they consider others. Historical texts document how Ibadan people disdained Ijebu settlers at the dawn of the 20th Century. The homogeneity that seemingly exists among Yorubas grew out of economic and political permutation (same is true for other tribes of Nigeria). One of the mischief Lamidi Adedibu deployed against Lam Adesina’s governorship ambitions in 2003 was simply to spread the news that Adesina’s family migrated somewhere from Igbira-land. Didn’t the people of Ahiara in Imo State, recently, reject a Bishop of Anambra extraction for similar reasons? What makes Ahiara’s case more tragic is that it took place in a church context, the supposed bastion of love.
Should it matter where a wo/man comes from as long as it is the same nation? No. But of course, Nigeria is not yet a nation. A part of me wants to blame the artificialness (or emptiness, if you like) of the Nigerian identity for the recurrent ethnic war-war but then, our cultural acts of bigotry that seek what divides us at the expense of what unites us is not exclusive to Nigeria. In other diverse societies where people are differentiated according to their skin colour or similar features, bigotry still exists despite legislative pronouncements. We can hardly eliminate them; it is what reminds us of the human factor. In Nigeria, I believe ethnic fights occur because there are things certain people have always wanted to say to others but do not always get the chance.
While, however, it is natural to harbour bigotry, it is dangerous for modern societies to tolerate them. And that is why people like Femi Fani-Kayode –and all those who responded to him in similar hateful tone- should have been shut down from day one by all sides involved. When we tolerate their rant because they voice the things we want to say against our neighbours, we — unwittingly or not — prime our future children for slaughter. This is not mere alarmism; history tells us that “bitter truths” targeted against a people are never harmless. They are a precipitate of acts of violence. The Hutus of Rwanda did not merely wake up and slaughter a million Tutsis neighbours and friends on an impulse; the massacre was fuelled by all manner of hate prepping on radio. Those who turn themselves into spectators and applaud the bigots with vuvuzelas are as guilty as those who look away (and like Pontius Pilate, wash their hands off) are guilty of the same sin.
I admit that it is not easy not to take sides in an ethnic war because, no matter how much we try to suppress it, there is still a tribalist in all of us (and that is why the term “detribalised Nigerian” is the emptiest phrase ever invented) that constructs our attitudes, perspectives and general outlook. We cannot easily do away with such loyalties but for the sake of the higher good, we can at least work with them.