Wednesday 8 October 2014

Why Do We Distrust Ourselves As Nigerians? - by Bayo Olupohunda

In our country, ethnic and religious bigotry runs deep. It has become part of our national DNA. An extreme form of these mistrusts is also permanently ingrained in our character. 

In our relationship with other Nigerians we often exhibit the worst form of ethnic, religious and primordial prejudice toward one another. This intolerance has continuously led us to the brink and threatens our unity. They have also left deep scars in our national psyche. After more than fifty years of independence, we are still not more than strange bed fellows forced to cohabit under the same roof. Our co-existence as a people has long been defined by our differences rather than the strength of our diversity.

The farce of our union as a nation is best seen in the personal stories of individuals that make up our country. As Nigerians, we are so distrustful of ourselves. Now the seed of hatred has developed into a giant monster threatening to consume us all. Our differences also define our perception of one another. The distrust is so deep-seated that we have an incongruent group of people rather than compatriots with a shared destiny. Our diversity has become our worst nightmare. Our personal stories such as the one I am going to relate here are microcosm of a bigger malaise. Our true picture as a people is best reflected in the experiences of our daily lives—how we relate to our fellow Nigerians of other ethnic or religious inclinations.

Growing up as young people, we were soon confronted with the hypocrisy of the cliché ‘unity in diversity’. As young adults, the distrust becomes complete as we are drawn into exhibiting these biases and stereotypes. We often hear phrases like: “These Igbo people” or “these Yoruba people” and so forth. Usually, the phrases are used to play up negative stereotypes about the individual or group. This distrust has manifested in several ways. Nigerians experience the gulf of disunity when they attempt to inter-marry across the ethnic divide. A friend once told me of his experience. After his National Youth Service, he brought a lady of different ethnicity home.

His mother called him aside. With tears streaming down her eyes, she lamented ‘’this boy you want to kill me. How can you bring a woman of that tribe? Can’t you find any beautiful girl from this village?” In my friend’s search for, a bride, he headed to the up North. In Kogi State, his prospective mother-in-law did not allow him to settle down after a tiring journey. She was blunt. His enthusiasm of marrying his beautiful Kogi beau was soon quenched. The woman counselled: “My son, we are Igala. We do not marry across borders.” There are many untold stories of personal disappointments on account of ethnicity yet we know that inter-marriage can heal our disunity. Why not encourage and promote it?

Our differences also affect our perception of others. Before I left for NYSC, I never imagined being posted out of the South-West. For me it was unthinkable. I am not alone, except for the adventurous; the average Nigerian is fed with stereotypes about other groups that they soon begin to develop a phobia. Recently, a colleague in the office narrated how he had had nightmares about coming to serve in the South-West. Having spent his entire adolescent years in the East, he had been fed the usual stereotypes. Later, my friend’s story of love, kindness and humanity shown to him by his host is the reason why we must always see the good in ourselves. It is the reason why we must ignore ethnic irredentists and scare-mongers among us. 

This is exactly why the NYSC scheme can contribute to national integration. Unfortunately, its laudable objectives have succumbed to the Nigerian factor. Personally, the experience of my youth corps year has taught me not to form opinion of others without first interacting with them. Harbouring stereotypes of other ethnic groups has been the bane of our unity as a nation. In Imo State, I experienced the best moments of my life. I am sure there are many more stories like mine. As a people, we must judge our fellow Nigerians not by their ethnic origins but by the content of their characters. The people we must be wary of are the greedy, selfish political class who has continued to exploit our differences to plunder our resources. I have also come to know that there are bad Nigerians, just as we have the good ones. Good and bad people exist in all ethnic groups.

One touching story told by my parents taught an enduring lesson in the inherent goodness of ordinary Nigerians. During the civil war years, an entire Igbo family, who had lived in my village for ages, soon faced imminent slaughter by invading federal forces. But the villagers risked their lives to hide the terrified Igbo family. In 2010, some Christian worshippers in a church in a northeastern town were protected by the largely Muslim population when insurgents invaded the town to kill infidels. These unreported everyday acts of kindness by ordinary Nigerians tell the essential Nigerian character – good people, bad leaders.

These acts are the true reflections of who we are as a people. Ordinary Nigerians are inherently good people, but our greedy political elite seem determined on driving a wedge in the chord that binds us together. The seed of our differences has been planted long before Fredrick Lugard ever thought of forcing us together. Religious and ethnic hatred has bred conflicts leading to violence and bloodshed. Those who profess the faiths – Christianity and Islam — have been at war since the making of Nigeria. But as Nigerians, we must acknowledge the unique features of our country’s diversity and harness them for peaceful co-existence.

What is the way forward? How can we begin to maximise the benefits of diversity? Our leaders must lead by example. Using religion and ethnicity to divide the people for selfish agenda will further polarise us. Our diversity can be a source of strength. Our potential to be great is further enhanced if we resolve to see ourselves as one people rather than from ethnic and religious worldviews. The current campaigns of ethnic and religious hatred in the race to achieve political ends in the next political dispensation portend nothing but danger for us as a nation. In recent times, the struggle to dominate power by the political class has created divisions among Nigerians.

Our differences are more pronounced today than in previous years. There is just too much hatred in this country. Rather than bring development, our brand of politics is leading us to the precipice. As we mark Independence, we must realise that we have no other country to call our own. If we must continue to live together in peace and harmony, then we must do away with all forms of prejudices toward one another. The president must lead by example by affirming our secularity as a nation. In the words of Martin Luther King Jnr, “we must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

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