Broken: On Anti-Tribalism in Nigeria

(In view of the controversial nature of this post, I have to insert a caveat. Most individuals of all ethnic groups in Nigeria, generally get along as individuals. We live, do business, fall in love, play, work, party and marry (within certain boundaries) with each other. It’s unfortunate that politics does not occur at the level of the individuals, but at the group level, which creates its own incentives and behaviors that no single individual can bear either the pressure or the responsibility of/for. In my own life, I have loved across ethnic lines, made friends that I trust with everything across those lines. BUT, when you talk about Nigeria as a political entity, reality is what it is and it does not care for your sophistry. So don’t take this personal)

I was going to first explore a thought experiment on how we could craft a Nigerian identity that pretty much includes every segment of the country, cohesively. But truth is, that’s pointless because it can’t happen. It’ll take a fully committed effort of strongly determined leaders who will take drastic action and keep at it for decades upon decades, sacrificing much of what we currently know about ourselves. For instance, The Tutsis and Hutus are not that ethnically different but in the aftermath of their genocide it’s taken a shocking amount of repression from the Rwandan government to preserve a semblance of national identity and cohesion.Nigeria has many more ethnicities, with much more distinction and differences in culture, religion, worldview, ethics, and histories. If you think any sort of national integration is about to happen any time soon, or that a Rwandan style repression is even something desirable you’re a more optimistic person than I am, and no one has ever accused me of being pessimist.

Instead, I’m going to ask that we address something a lot less impossible: seeing as we have all found ourselves in one country, and that despite our animosities with each other, we all have an implicit stake in making the country work both for us, our posterity and the African continent as a whole, how do we coexist despite our active hate of each other? Someone might say, hey now El, we might have our skirmishes every now and then but isn’t hate a little bit too strong? To which I’d reply. No. When you consider inter-ethnic hostilities in Nigeria, there is one big elephant in the room: Igbo vs Hausa-Fulani.Of the three major tribes, the Yorubas are the more diplomatic, and they’ve largely played a big part in keeping us together, for better or worse. The other two are hostile enough to kill each other, straight up, if any provocation occurs. It’s happened several times. Today, if you’re Igbo in the North, you might as well be a gazelle among lions. You might not get eaten, but only because they’re not hungry yet. Same goes for the Hausa man in the South East.Hostilities of course does not spare any ethnicities, but those two are the 800 pound gorillas in the arrangement. And different things might trigger the hunger for each side, but the result is the same. People end up dead. Yeah, you’re uncomfortable and your mind is actively trying to filter that reality out. So let me tell you, I’ve seen it happen. My friend’s mom was slaughtered like iced fish in a street in Kano in the 90s, because someone in a market she didn’t know did something to the Koran and unleashed mayhem. My friend had to run away from the North at 16, by herself, in three days to come back to the East. You think she’s under any one Nigeria illusions after that? No. She’s not. As she often reminds me, her Nigeria starts at the atlantic and ends at the Niger. The rest might as well be a foreign country. My uncle’s gateman, Nasir whom I’d known all my life was slaughtered by Bakassi boys during the 99 riots because some people somewhere in the North had killed a bunch of Igbos. I don’t even think any of those killings were in Nasir’s home state of Nassarawa. I know he definitely had nothing to do with it. Yet, I came back from school to see his cracked skull leaking grey matter in front of my uncle’s rusty red gate. Nasir had a wife back home, and a 13 year old daughter who I only met once when they came visiting but with whom I was in love with in the way only a ten year old boy could be. I cried for a week. How long did Nasir’s family cry? I couldn’t tell you. But I’m sure, wherever they are, they don’t think of the East with fondness. Their father died because he forgot where his Nigeria ended and thought he could be welcome in hostile territory. And he was. Until he wasn’t. They just didn’t tell him till it was too late. We can go back through each side’s history, counting the bodies, all the way back to 66 when our earthenware vessel was first broken.

When next you look at a map of Nigeria, trace the parts that you know are actually yours. Then trace which parts are a foreign country, where you’re second for a job opening, a political position, an apartment rental. Where the natural born citizens will always come first. Understand then, that each of our small nations will remain so unless someone decides to start over. And we can’t start over by papering over the past. We start over by bringing it all in the open, having conversations, reaching out to each side and talking about how we want to set up this country. Because at the end of the day, we live in it and we have to learn how to amplify the best of us, and minimize our worst. Our future depends on it.

Politically, many have posited that we need to restore a true federalism. Let each region stand on its own while a much weakened center provide our national cover. When the post of Premier was superior and more important than the post of Governor-General. Let us slowly evolve into a more unified country over time, as history, migration and shared experience pushes us together. Let us have that rivalry among the regions that spurs development for everyone. I agree. I think we should do that, and then go further. Much further. I’ve theorized here and there. A little on the edge but nothing ground breaking. Many people, much wiser and more experienced than I am, can come up with lots better.

As you read, you likely have ideas on how we could tackle this. Share them, work on them, join the process and work for them. Hit me up if there’s any way I can help. Let’s work together. Political affiliations are secondary. We’re Nigerians first. We can talk, and then walk. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Let’s stop pretending like we’re the exception. Let’s figure out how to build this thing. Let’s not wait till it falls apart.

Thanks for your time.




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