A year ago, my five year-old son was asked to give a talk to his class about himself. He stuns his teachers when he tells them he’s Nigerian. The teacher corrects him. “You’re American, your father was Nigerian as were your grandparents,” the head teacher tries to correct him.
“No, I’m not American. I’m a Nigerian. I just live in America,” he shot back.
The panicked teacher who has probably never taught a black kid in her career puts a call to his mother. His mother tried to correct my son’s impression of who he was. But, the boy was stubborn. This is what his father told him and his father is never wrong.
Funny thing was, at about that same period, I was making my way through the immigrations lines at Murtala Muhammed airport where there is really no sign that says “welcome to Nigeria” but the stuffy heat in the tiny hall and the customs and immigrations officials with 19th century methods and attitudes straight out of a dentist’s chair welcome you in their own unique way.
At the moment my son was affirming his “Nigerian-ness” I was probably staring angrily, as I always do, on a portion of the form that asks questions about my tribe, religion and local government area. Of all those, the one I hate the most is tribe, disguised on the forms as place of origin.
Tribe. Just five alphabets and it’s the one poison that is ruining the Nigerian nation. Once, men and women fought for Nigeria’s independence. They were called nationalists because they represented a nation. Then came the military who set in motion a bitter war that made us aware of how very different we were.
My son sees my friends gather in the house and talk things Nigeria. He sees us watch Nigerian games on television and proudly waves the green-white-green flag. He rides in the car and mimes the Nigerian hip-hop songs. He doesn’t know under the American skies, he’s been shielded from the reality of a country sometimes so divided you wonder, is it really a country?
A government that should be busy repairing infrastructures instead tasks itself with reminding Nigerians what makes them different. Once, a key part of the anthem was, “though tribe and tongue may differ in brotherhood we stand”. Now, it might as well mean “ yes, tribe and tongue are different so pack your bags and go to your forefathers’ house”.
A man is born in Lagos but his parents are Ibo. He has no right to aspire to the highest office in the state because everyone thinks he’s a stranger in the land of birth even though he pays his taxes in Lagos. It’s the same for a Yoruba in Kano and an Hausa kid in Onitsha. Forget it if you’re a minority. You have no hope except you were lucky enough to go to school without a shoe and happen to be reading newspapers to pass the time when your boss dies and you have to fill his shoes.
Worse, you can get deported in your own country. I thought the Russians did it just to freeze the butts of criminals in Siberia. In Nigeria, they do it because you’re poor, forgetting that it’s the government’s duty to provide a threshold of survival for the citizens. And, everyone is quiet until it affects one tribe and they forget that within that tribe, they also self-discriminate.
Yet, we are a federation. We’re not talking Goodluck Jonathan. He’s just been here a few years and being a minority, you can’t accuse him of getting here on the wings of his tribe. Or, can you? We’re talking about a life, a pattern and a cancer that’s ridden the whole nation for decades.
When they don’t haul tribe at you, they fish out its twin – religion.
Love him or deride him, one thing Majek Fashek, the one time musical prodigy who took a wrong turn on the streets of New York got eternally right about Nigeria was the line in his song that “religion na politics. Lots of people know all the tricks. Religion na politics”.
You wonder why this is so? Why should this continue? Why should a country with so much promise because of its diversity at birth be trashed in the gutters of history half a century later? You wonder if there’s a way out?
You can’t hide from the grip of tribalism in Nigeria, even amongst the learned elite. I’ve noticed that even my friends now congregate mostly in tribal caucuses. I sit with a politician waving a broom that he says will sweep the country clean but he’s surrounded by men who speak his tongue.
You can argue that tribe is essential to an identity, that a tongue gives you a sense of historical continuum and you may argue that every country has a tribe. But, what you can’t argue is that no country uses tribe and religion to divide and batter its people like our leaders do in Nigeria.
I still wonder what I’ll tell my son the day he asks me what is the meaning of tribe. They don’t really have it in his America. And, you wonder why they still celebrate it in his father’s father Nigeria fifty-three years after we all came together formally as a nation.
Kindly follow the writer on Twitter: @iam_ose
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