GUEST COLUMNIS by Okey Anueyiagu
As a young boy growing up in a household filled with books, journals and newspapers, I questioned many of life’s contradictions and anomalies, and pondered about the evilness and hate of our divisive world. My father, who was an avid writer, writing for, and editing many radical and revolutionary newspapers, provided me with a platform and an environment of information on various issues, stemming from racism, tribalism, colonialism; all sins pointing to the injustices that pervaded and ruled our world.
Growing up, the major issues that agitated and disturbed my mind, were those of racism, tribalism, and particularly, the prejudices against the black race, and the festering squabbles between various tribes and nationalities within countries. Also of worry to me, were the rancors and wranglings between various religious sects and denominations. I was bothered by how insidiously, the problems of race, tribe, colour and religion all interconnect with a range of words and images, to the extent that black becomes associated with; blackmail, blackmarket, the dark, the evil, the shadowy, the despondent, the destructive, the hopeless, and with sadness, sorrow and corruption, while white is associated with light, hopeful, bright, cheerful, clean, elegance, and purity. These same mischievous mischaracterizations are also deployed in the polarization of our tribes.
As an impressionable child, I began to ask my father questions surrounding these anomalies. I asked him the real meaning of being black and of being Igbo. I wanted to know how these systemic despairs and inconsistencies about the black race and our tribes have become so endemic, so entrenched and widely prevalent. My father was very patient with his child’s prodding and nagging inquisition. He took his time and explained certain things to me. He explained the complexities and the lugubrious nature of our world and of its people. My father would often point me in the direction of his writings; to his ploy to get the whiteman (the colonialist) to realize his racist follies, and to bring him to a psychological point, where he feels a certain sense of compassion and becomes self-conscious of his sins against the black race. He allowed me ample time to read, and discover by myself, the genesis of the problems of colonialism and the impact on our race and our country.
As a child, my early susceptibility to the fears and anomalies of oppression and discrimination, be it from within or from outside, was palpable and perspicacious. I felt a certain gravity, and an unusual painful strain, mixed with deep anger and confusion whenever I came across the evil vices of these scourges. I constantly brooded over these incidents and occurrences, wondering if the problems of colour and those of where someone comes from, and their complications were real or imagined. I was further bewildered when I picked the Holy Book to behold God’s own words to the effect that all humans beings are created equal, and also the Constitutions proclaiming the same virtues and adding that all humans are endowed with inalienable rights to freedom, equality and happiness; that though tribes and tongues may differ, we all are the same, and must thrive together.
It did not take me long to realize that racism was, and may still be, in part, the exploitative motives and actions of the white race against the black and brown peoples of the world. For the white man, the realization that the black and the brown skin is all that is required to keep him and members of his race in money, prosperity, affluence, comfort and in power, became the motivation and impetus for slavery and racism.
As I began to mature and grow out of childhood, I started reading and studying the many elements of race issues. My father pointed me in the direction of American greats; Martin Luther King, jnr, Malcolm X, Mohammed Ali, who with others, had begun to demonstrate and shape Black American thought, and the history of racism in their society. The liberation movements in America fascinated me, as they began to give voice to the marginalized, and making the oppressor uncomfortable by compelling them to feel their racism in ways that were genuinely disturbing. My interest intensified as it became clear of how deeply racism, white supremacy and segregation cut through the American Society; “the land of the free”. This hypocrisy jolted me, as I encountered the deliberate and unrelenting emphasis on black and brown people as victims of slavery, oppression and racism. I was gravely saddened with the burden of white oppression, and the treatment of blacks as though they had no civilization, no existence beyond their connection with the whites as their beast of burden.
Throughout my academic life and beyond, I have become quite aware of my blackness without any iota of doubt or ambivalence. I have never seen my colour as a category to transcend, or a limitation to overcome, instead, I have been deeply inspired to constantly make a conscious and passionate effort to affirm my blackness with pride.
Today, as I reflect the lessons of my father’s writings on racism and colonialism; his talks and admonitions on our black identity, and all the poignant complications with which the subjects were surrounded, I feel confident that I may have learnt a thing or two. My feelings deeply represent a pilgrimage to the soil of our fathers and their ancestors, as I strongly believe that every black person, no matter what planet he or she is from, must undertake a rebirth; a spiritual journey and an understanding of the meaning of being black. We must know and accept that there is an excruciating pain that is associated with the colour black, and also a gleaning beauty too. We must also recognize that, the pain and the power to surmount it, and transform it into strength in endurance and perseverance is the essence and beauty of being black
With a touch reminiscent of my father’s lessons on racism and tribalism, I began my inquisitive journey into the vileness of these phenomena. With the publication of my book; Biafra, The Horrors of War, The Story of a Child Soldier, I began to explore the issues of tribal conflicts in our land, and the pains and agonies they have brought upon us.
There is a preponderance of evidence through various scientific studies that all humans are prone to these vices of racism and tribalism, and that we all have discriminatory tendencies inborn in us that cause humans to have polarization traits resulting in hate and prejudices. Historically, I have always thought that there was nothing wrong with one having tribal instincts, because we all do. I have also always known that humans are tribal animals, and that we bond socially and even politically with like-minded people, cultivating an instinctive desire to belong to races and tribes. There are obviously tremendous benefits to belonging to a race or tribe, in the sense that it creates unity and security against external threat, and ensures communal sharing of resources, goods and services. The instructive lesson here, is that we all from birth, form and forge our racial and tribal instincts, roots, influences and preferences. As much as I must admit the inevitability of these tendencies, and see nothing amiss with them, because they are ingrained into our DNA, I will caution that for those who in our country that have turned their tribal instincts into persecutory and pharaonic instruments against other tribes, spreading prejudices and even death, they have become an albatross to humanity and to God.
In my aforementioned book, I had written about the crisis in the North and how the members of the Igbo tribe and other tribes from the then Eastern Nigeria suffered horrible fate in the hands of their hosts that resulted in the death of thousands of innocent citizens. I was an eyewitness to the ugliness of that era, and never thought that it could happen again. As a boy, born and bred in the beautiful ancient city of Kano, I did not know much about any other cities or towns, or even other ways of life, except those of the then peaceful and welcoming people and the city of Kano. Most of my friends were Hausa, Fulani and Yoruba. We schooled and played together. We were all Nigerians who at Independence waved that flag with such pride, pomp and pageantry.
As a young lad, I recall my father admonishing me to see myself, first, as a Nigerian, before I called myself Igbo. But, it didn’t take long before my boyhood friend, Tijani, during a childish spat, reminded me that I was a nyamiri, a derogatory and insulting word for the Igbo. That inflection kept me in check growing up, and resurrected several years later, when a rude white man, without any provocation, called me a nigger on a train in New York City. These two incidents made me aware of my tribe and my race, and the continuous afflictions that come with them.
Only recently, these proclivity of tribal killings have returned to our country. These dastardly acts occurred mainly in Lagos and some other parts of the country where it was reported that the Igbo or anyone that looked like them, were attacked and deprived of voting in the elections. Some said that it was because they were perceived to prefer candidates that were unfavourable to the attackers and killers, and, others said that some unknown Igbo had referred to Lagos as a “no man’s land.”
Without wading into the causes of these rancors, because no one can win in the arguments, I am shocked at the ambiguity and senselessness of the violence associated with these tribal tensions around our country, right before independence to today. The impulses behind these hideous acts of aggression towards tribes, mostly women, children and non-combatant Igbo, and the resultant violence and deaths are gross and appalling. And the absence of accountability, empathy and altruism in these matters, is to me, the scariest part.
For those who mistake my writings as an apologia for the Igbo, I call on them to carefully think of those whose lives were wasted on the altar of tribal politics, or whatever name one chooses for this misnomer, and discover that I write and speak for a renewed and peaceful Nigeria where justice, equity and fairness for all must prevail. It seems clear to me, that for our country to grow and prosper, its constituent ethnicities must recount the horrible histories of our wicked past, embrace them with sincerity, confess them truthfully and reconcile ourselves with respect and profound love for one another.
What happened in Lagos during the last elections where the Igbo and others that looked like them were singled out, pursued, dehumanized, maimed and killed, and their properties and means of livelihood destroyed, was abominable, disgraceful and a blot on the image of those who perpetrated these criminal acts. For those who planned and sponsored this pogrom, and for those who kept silent while this went on, I find their actions to be rather inescapable and irreconcilable to common sense and reality. These virulent levels of violence, and minatory ethnic baitings, have continued to leave deep and festering scars on our generations. And for the very few who layed their voices down in condemnation of his carnage, I applaud them for upholding some things that mattered; things that once drew us together as humans without an introduction to hesitation, and to tribal and communal idealism.
The amorphous rhetoric and daft reasons advanced by the perpetrators of racism and tribalism, would never provide sufficient answers and reasonings to these crimes against humanity. When a long time cherished Yoruba friend called me from Washington, DC, where he has lived for decades, longing for a convincing explanation for why the Igbo deserved what they got in Lagos, I instantly knew that we were simply damned by fate or doomed by our unworthiness of being friends and coming from the same country. My friend admonished the Igbo for daring to call Lagos “a no man’s land”, and for not behaving like strangers.
I listened carefully as my friend lamented that the Igbo have bought up the entire Lagos and must allow the Yoruba to determine who rules them. I was startled, because I had regarded my friend to be more cosmopolitan, more reasonable and more informative. I was deeply disturbed, as I quickly reminded my friend of how he openly campaigned and canvassed for Barrack Obama’s presidency. How he wore Obama t-shirts and pasted Obama stickers on his cars and luxurious home in the midst of white Republicans in the DC neighborhood. I asked him if any white supporters of McCain the Republican candidate in whose domain he lives stoned him, burnt his car, or home, or even killed any members of his household? My friend of course had no answer. I reminded my friend that those like him who are carrying on with these tribal issues are not even from Lagos, and are only inflaming tribal tensions for stupid reasons.
I further informed my friend from Washington that the same rights he inherited when he acquired his multimillion dollar home in another man’s land in America, without molestation, is the same, if not more, that any Nigerian has to buy land and build in Lagos and any other part of Nigeria. I impressed upon him the fact that the dangerous and pernicious position taken by people like him, asking the Igbo and others to leave Lagos, is like upholding the Nigerian ideals of a corrupt, decadent and putrefying society where pogrom, racial and tribal profiling, and genocide are appropriate answers to any discord or dissension of opinion.
I am gravely troubled by the tribal animosity prevalent in our country today. It has become apparent how inextricably this is rooted deeply, not only in our psyche, but also in our practice. The anger, the bitterness and the desperation of those who cause this mayhem in our land are intricately sewn into the fabric of these tribal bigots who hate only for the sake of hate, and for the sake of covering their inadequacies as humans before God, their creator. These are the shameful tendrils of the old and new tribal compacts designed to stiffle and suffocate the aspirations, growth and development of our country and its people.
To be clear, I do not claim to be right on any of these issues on race and tribe. We must all be allowed to be “right” in our own ways by defending the positions we perceive to be right, as it is inertly difficult to change most people who will stick with the goals and ideas of their race or tribe through thick and thin. However, we must also be self-critical of things that our race or tribe does, even when they appear right or rational. We must realize when we make the wrong choices by looking outside our race and tribe for answers to opinions that differ with ours. Even though we all belong to one or more races or tribes, our ultimate aspirations, goals and ambition are the same. We all desire a good and happy life, a decent and proper, safe and secure living.
We are all one and the same. We must never allow the prejudices of Race and Tribe to divide and ruin us.
•Anueyiagu is author of “Biafra, The Horrors of War.”