In the diaspora, our Nigerian-ness brought us together
A few days ago I was on the bus to Yaba. In a bid to avoid traffic the bus driver pulled a risky move as a result knocked an okada driver off his bike. The man on the bike quickly pulled himself up (luckily he was unhurt) and started shouting at the bus driver, who surprisingly, considering he’d just knocked someone over, started shouting back. After some yelling back and forth, the bus driver drove off, cursing the bike driver loudly, first for being such a careless driver, and then for being a northerner. He launched into an uncomfortable, disjointed tirade that touched on everything from illiteracy and Boko Haram to the current state of Nigeria, all of which he seemed to blame on this okada driver, his lineage and the entire population of northern Nigeria. As his rant continued a number of people on the bus, nodded their heads or vocally expressed their agreement by disparaging northerners.
I was taken aback by the vitriol, but sadly, since moving here tribalism and ethnic prejudice is something I’ve become more and more accustomed to.
In the abroad things couldn’t have been more different. Whenever I met another Nigerian we’d instantly find something to bond over. It could be anything: shared laughs over the horrible mispronunciation of Nigerian names, shared looks of exasperation when people would ask if our families in Africa really lived in mud huts, shared anger over the Western media portrayal of Nigeria, shared confusion over the bits of our culture we didn’t really get. Yes, we’d all heard the stereotypes surrounding other ethnic groups (Yoruba’s are shifty, Igbos love money etc.) but none of this was taken very seriously, above all we saw ourselves as British Nigerians, and that’s what mattered.
Perhaps it’s because there aren’t that many of us in the grand scheme of things, (according to the 2011 census the black population in the UK was approximately 3%), in the eyes of everyone else we were just Nigerian, differentiating between who’s Ijebu or Ijaw seemed almost futile. Or maybe it’s because, even for us born and raised in the Diaspora, there was always a feeling of not being quite British enough and carving out a Nigerian identity with the help of other Nigerians was important.
Whatever the reason in the Diaspora, our Nigerian-ness brought us together.
Fast forward to my moving to Nigeria and things are not the same. Being Nigerian isn’t really a thing unless we’re talking about the Super Eagles, Alex Iwobi or Kelechi Iheanacho.
People identify with their ethnic group first, followed by state and then, if we’re really getting precise, village. Identity aside, there’s the depth of hostility and mistrust of ethnic groups other than your own, those silly little stereotypes I used to laugh about are actually viewed as real reasons to vilify, hate and discriminate against each other. It’s almost ironic that the National anthem, pledge and coat of arms talk of unity, because if we’re being honest there isn’t any—unless it’s time for AFCON.
It’s inevitable a country with over 250 ethnic groups will face challenges and conflict, but given there are more ethnically diverse countries than Nigeria in the world, it’s mindboggling how tribalism has not only been able to pervade society so deeply but how it has poisoned all aspects of Nigerian life, from politics, to employment to relationships. Tribalism is everywhere.
The explosion of the internet and social media has only added fuel to the fire. You only have to scroll through the comment section of any popular Nigerian website to see how disagreements quickly spiral into hateful arguments about whose ethnic group is the most terrible, and sadly this divisive way of thinking is being spread to the next generation
I worked as a civics teacher during my NYSC year and one day I held a discussion about different cultures. It quickly became heated as the kids threw different accusations about which group practiced juju more or held the ‘weirdest’ beliefs. It was worrying and saddening to watch. My class was made up of pre-teens but their attitudes and beliefs about their fellow countrymen already seemed hardened.
In the current climate of conflict and with the rise of sectarian groups it looks as though the lines in the sand are being drawn even deeper, with no end in sight.
There’s no simple solution, no quick fix, or hashtag that will make things right. The roots of tribalism run deep and dealing with it properly will be difficult and uncomfortable, there are many questions that will need to be asked and answered. Old wounds will be reopened and new ones will form. That said until it is confronted Nigeria will continue to go around in circles, with each group placing blame at each other’s doorstep, and since there’s no sign of progress on the horizon, those looking for unity are better off looking for it elsewhere.