In a “side bar” article I wrote years ago, I noted that the then central bank governor, Professor Chukwuma Soludo, was still signing the naira as “Charles Soludo” and joked that I would not spend the Nigerian currency again until he did the needful. I got an e-mail from a young reader who said although he always enjoyed reading my articles, he just could not understand my “constant criticism” of Soludo. He accused me of being an “Igbo hater”. I chuckled. Why did he not accuse me of “hating” Soludo because he is a professor and I am not, or because he is richer than I am, or because he is more handsome? Why must my “hatred” for Soludo be based on ethnicity?
I did not bother to reply the mail. (Unknown to the reader, I enjoyed, and still enjoy, a fantastic relationship with Soludo.) But I took away one disturbing message from the mail: creating a “Nigeria first” identity is going to be the toughest task ever. The divisive mindsets we inherited from our “founding fathers” pervade not just the older generations but even the new ones. The older generations viewed Nigeria from a narrow ethno-religious prism. Over the decades, closer interaction, greater integration and much education have neither renewed nor reset our mindsets. We still continue to interact with Nigeria the way our “ancestors” did.
In my mind, I often see two Nigerias — the Old and the New. In the Old Nigeria, ethnic and religious identities take precedence over national identity. That is, you are first and foremost a Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Muslim, Christian, southerner, northerner, etc, before you are a Nigerian. Your first line of thinking is always along this myopia. For instance, if the federal government makes appointments, the first thing you do is count how many Muslims and Christians or southerners and northerners are on the list before asking whether the appointees are good enough to deliver development to Nigeria. You can’t be bothered about the competence as long as they are from your village.
In the New Nigeria, the one I would love to see, it is “Nigeria first” before your ethnic and religious leanings. You are Yoruba or Christian quite all right, but that is not what determines how you treat issues of common significance. What that means, in practice, is that if a ministerial list comes out, your first instinct is not the religion of the appointees but their CVs. It means if Yoruba and Hausa are fighting, your first instinct is not to side with the person from your part of the country but to seek to understand the contending issues before taking a position. You remain Yoruba or Hausa, of course; nothing can take that away from you. But that is not what controls your brain.
Building a New Nigeria is a tall order, let me say that. We start acquiring narrow mindsets from a tender age. We are socialised to view people from other ethnic groups, religions and cultures in a particular way, mostly unflattering. Every ethnic group harbours prejudices and biases against others. The good news, as if there is any good in the news, is that this is not a Nigerian problem. It is universal. Human beings are brought up under the influence of mindsets that eventually colour how they see their world and the world around them. This regulates how they think and how they understand and analyse issues. Their worldviews are shaped by inherited prejudices and biases.
In Nigeria, there are established terms with which we describe people from other ethnic groups and religions: illiterates, beggars, cows, cowards, drunks, traitors, fraudsters, money worshippers, cannibals, terrorists, infidels, and all that. You hear racist tags such as “yamiri”, “malo”, “ofe mmanu”, “kafir”, and all that. From infanthood, children are told stories about other ethnicities in a way to prejudice their minds, to sow seeds of hate, mistrust and discord in their souls in preparation for their future. Don’t make friends with those people — they are traitors! Fraudsters! Infidels! At age 10, a child is already using derogatory terms to describe people of other faiths and ethnicities.
As tensions begin to well up in the land again with secession threats and “quit notices” flying up and down, the biggest challenge is how to continue to preach “one Nigeria”, “Nigeria first” or “New Nigeria”. We are losing the argument by the day. The most dominant voices in the public space today belong to hate merchants. They are prisoners to the prejudices and biases with which they were nurtured. Every problem in Nigeria, for all they care, should be looked at with the tinted lenses of ethnicity, region and religion. All analyses, opinions and positions start and end with ethnicity and religion. It is the inherited Old Nigeria at work, no thanks to the “founding fathers”.
I have gone round Nigeria a bit. Everywhere I go, I see dilapidated schools, helpless children, weather-beaten hawkers, sick hospitals, potholed roads, and wailing generators. I mean every single state of the federation. I see harassed and pauperised Nigerians from every tribe and every tongue, from every religion and every persuasion. And I see stinking rich government officials in their convoys of gold-plated SUVs, waving their diamond-crusted wristwatches in the air, frolicking with their bevy of indecent beauties. Every state, every region, every religion. Yet we’ve managed to conclude that our problem is the person from other ethnic group. Who bewitched us?
We desperately need a New Nigeria, but we cannot build a New Nigeria without New Nigerians. We need new thinking and new thinkers. Old Nigeria was built on ethno-religious chauvinism. The evangelists of Old Nigeria made sure that they reproduced themselves, such that people who were born in 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, who are supposed to be New Nigerians, are also hostages to ethnic hate and bigotry. So their age is not the issue; it is the age of their mindsets. A New Nigeria can only be built by those who can see beyond their nose, beyond their ethnic cocoons, beyond the hate that has been sown and groomed in their minds. Old Nigerians cannot build a New Nigeria.
There are people who see themselves as custodians of sectional interests, who continue to fuel division and discord in Nigeria. They are enemies of nation-building. They cannot see what binds us together. They are too blind to see it. They cannot see the common afflictions holding back Nigerians of all faiths and all ethnic affiliations. They are too blind to see. They cannot see the diseases that kill lowly Nigerians in the north and the south. They are too blind to see. They cannot see the politicians and public servants pillaging the commonwealth. All they can see is how another part of the country is their problem. This Old Nigeria mindset is, sadly, the king in the ring.
I will give a recurring example. The beef some people had with President Goodluck Jonathan had nothing to do with his performance in office: it was all down to ethnic and religious biases. Jonathan’s performance, or lack of it, only helped their case. It is exactly the same thing going on today: some people cannot just stand the sight of President Muhammadu Buhari because of his ethnic identity and religion — and they cannot wait for him to fail. That is the Old Nigeria mentality. The New Nigeria mindset is more focused on how the president can succeed, and criticisms are directed at the issues rather than at his person. After all, if he succeeds, Nigeria succeeds.
Lest I forget, ethnic diversity is not a problem in itself. Diversity is a fact of life. Using stereotypes to describe other people may not be a problem in itself. Stereotyping is a universal phenomenon. However, the fierce competition for the political-cum-economic space, in the face of scarcity, is what usually leads to the propagation of hate and violence. Limited opportunities often get twinned with identities and ethnic entrepreneurs jump on the opportunity to magnify and manipulate prejudice. Until we build a New Nigeria that works for all, that keeps poverty on the fringes, that gives every part a sense of belonging, the hate merchants will continue to call the tune.
For the time being, this is a clarion call to New Nigerians to rise up and drown out the voices of Old Nigerians. The country is overdue to be hijacked and controlled by those who think they are first Nigerians before they are Ijaw, Igala, Urhobo, Ika, Kuteb, Kaje, whatever. We must commit to bringing up our own children in a new way, helping them acquire broader worldviews, with emphasis on celebrating the good in others, building new mindsets on putting the overall interest of Nigeria above narrow ethno-religious narratives. Enough of the parochialism that is holding Nigeria hostage. This cycle must be broken. We cannot make real progress this way. Never.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS
There is a video going round in which an Igbo cleric utters unprintable words about Hausa people and President Muhammadu Buhari. I recently watched one in which the IPOB leader says horrible things about the Yoruba. Is this not harmful to Igbo people living in other parts of Nigeria? If other people start making hate videos against the Igbo and begin to circulate them, there can only be one outcome. Can’t people make their points decently without insulting and provoking others? I am totally against hate speech, even if it is made by my mother or my pastor. Maybe IPOB sympathisers now need to think twice about the possible consequences. Caution.
It is coming to light the key role the social media plays in turning people to valuable kidnap assets, thanks to the arrested Chukwudi Dumeme Onuamadike aka Evans, reputedly Nigeria’s most notorious kidnapper. The way people live their lives on social media these days makes no sense to me. I have this contact on my WhatsApp who is always announcing his leisure trips to Dubai, Rome and Los Angeles, sometimes with status videos. He even uploads the videos of himself and his wife at the first-class check-in counter and lounge of Emirates Airlines. Can someone please tell me what’s going on in this world? Am I just too old-fashioned to understand? Bewildering.
The midnight fire tragedy that engulfed Grenfell Tower, London, killing yet unspecified number of residents, is one too many. I hate to imagine the agonising cries of people, young and old, woken up from their deep sleep by the inferno that cremated them alive. While investigation begins, it has been established that the flammable cladding on the outside was responsible for the rapid spread of the fatal fire from the fourth floor to the top of the 24-story building. Flammable cladding is commonly used on office buildings in Nigeria because of its beautifying effect. The Nigerian fire services may want to take a look at its health and safety implications. Proactive.
BLESSING IN DISGUISE
Our own Blessing Okagbare-Ighoteguonor was the cynosure of all eyes at the Diamond League event in Oslo, Norway, on Thursday. No, she did not win her long jump event. She actually placed seventh. She had a bad hair day: her wig jumped out of her head, turning her into an instant internet sensation. Even the global mainstream media could not resist the fun of the wardrobe malfunction. But don’t I just love her? There was no trace of embarrassment on her face. She dusted herself up, picked the wayward wig and restored the disguise to her head. Pictures of the incident are surely going to endure and become iconic, long after she’s left the stage. Drama.