The Wall and The Bridge

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By Ekenedirichukwu Anselm Alita


Achebe, in the memorable lines of his most controversial diatribe ‘the trouble with Nigeria’ said ‘tribe has been accepted at one time as a friend, rejected as an enemy at another, and finally smuggled in through the backdoor as an accomplice’.

One of the major problems of the Nigerian state has always been its heterogeneous composition, that has so much been over emphasised, and has torn Nigerians across ethnic lines. Thus even with this so many years of evolving, where Nigerians have grown so much cosmopolitan in nature, in the sense that, one can be born in Lagos, he schools in Borno and be working in Enugu, such that one who says, I come from this or that place, should be looked as someone behind the times, this is for the simple truth that it is actually better to say such a person was actually made in Nigeria.

But over the years, we have been stuck in the doldrums, because we have been fed with many stereotypes, many wrong bedtime stories we were told as children, thus that an average Hausa man wakes up in the morning sizzling with hatred for an Igbo man, the average Igbo man loathes the Hausa, and same with the Yorubas.

What do these stories do to us? It closes up, such that we are not ready to open ourselves up to the other or change our views of the other even in the face of glaring facts. Thus each tribes sing ‘to your tents’ This ultimately leads to the politics of clannishness, whereby we build the present with models formed fifty years ago, thus we end up prioritizing mediocrity to meritocracy.

We are not so much interested in the man that will give us results even if he does not come from our tribe, we are interested in the man that comes from our side, even if he is practically inept in the particular area that needs attention. This is our problem, that we crucified competence on the Calvary of ethnicity, that that which should have brought us together is the same thing driving us apart.

Recently the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa appointed Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, to Head of the country Economic Advisory Council, so that with her expertise, she could help revamp their nations economy which just entered recession.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has held many positions in the international scene, including her present position as the board of chair of AR Capacity, a two time Nigerian Minister of Finance, and former Managing Director Operations, World Bank. With these outstanding portfolios, she was given no place in this present administration, at least to help this poor country that goes stumbling with the wave of economic pummels. Why then is the present administration not employing the aid of her expertise, not that she has been incapacitated in any way. If not for anything, the present administration could have employed gifted hands like hers to fully set sail the economic ship of this country. But ours is rather a clear cut case of a people who value tribalism over competence. The administration were so much concerned with the path that led to her home, than on what her hands could offer.

We ask why Nigeria seems to be in a vicious cycle of all forms of mediocrity, it is simple, we have been gridlocked in the cesspool of tribalism.

Tribalism and the enthronement of mediocres have been recurrent in the annals of Nigerian history. 1951 has been said by some scholars to be the official birth year of ethnic politics in Nigeria. That year, the country got a new constitution, known as the Macpherson constitution, which was historic in providing for the first Nigerian general election. It also vastly increased the powers of the three regional assemblies-Western, Eastern and Northern-thus significantly upping the stakes for the likes of Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikwe and Ahmadu Bello. With the glaring possibility of Azikwe leading the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon (NCNC) to capture both the eastern regional assembly and western regional assembly. The anti-Azikwe Yoruba elite in reaction to this in March of 1951 formed the Action Group (AG), with the aim of turning the minds of the Yorubas against Azikwe.

The major theme of the AG campaign that year was opposition to Zik, the idea that the west should be for westerners, and the threat of Igbo domination. How do we talk about Igbo domination when a preponderance of the members of the NCNC were Yorubas and Herbert Macaulay was actually the first leader of the party before Azikwe took the mantle of leadership.

Truth be told, Azikwe was a true nationalist who championed the noble cause of ‘one Nigeria’, to the extent that he contested and won the first general election to the western house of assembly. But when Chief Awolowo stole the government from him in broad-day light, he abandoned his principle which dictated that he should stay in the western house as leader of the opposition and give battle to Awolowo. Instead he concedes victory to reactionary ethnic politics, fled to the east where he compounded his betrayal of principle by precipitating a major crisis which was unnecessary, selfish and severely damaging in its consequences.

When Azikwe came back, he deposed Professor Eyo Itah, who just assumed office as the leader of Government Business in Enugu. An urbane and detribalized humanist politician. Achebe commenting on this said, that Prof. Eyo Ita did not understand why he should give up his seat to Zik. Neither did most of his cabinet which in sheer brilliance surpassed by far anything Enugu has seen or likely to see in a long time.

So using privately owned newspapers and political muscles, Azikwe maligned and forced Eyo Ita and his team out of office and proceeded to suffuse his own cabinet with primary school teachers, ex-police corporals, sanitary inspectors and similar highly motivated disciples who were more of lackeys that kowtowed to his whims and caprices. Reflecting on this, Achebe said in his work ‘the trouble with Nigeria’ ‘the rule of mediocrity which we suffer today received an early imprimatur in Eastern Nigeria, of all places’.

As expected, Professor Ita being an Efik, his people reacted to the ‘the brutally unfair treatment’ that was doled out to their kinsman, it was not swept under the carpet in Calabar. It contributed in no small measure to the suspicion of the majority Igbo by their minority neighbours in Eastern Nigeria – a suspicion far less attractive politicians like Eyo Ita fanned to red-hot virulence, and from which the Igbo have continued to reap enmity to this day.

The above is one of the remote causes of the civil war, the Igbo phobia, the fear of Igbo domination. Thus the civil war was a proper avenue to decimate the whole of Igbo populace. Since then till now, Nigerian politics have not actually gone beyond clannishness and tribal politics. Such that about fifty years after the civil war, a preponderance of young Nigerians still view their present realities through the lens of the virulent past and interpret their realities  in the light of models that were invented years ago. And our politics is much more divisive than ever because, we are still locked in the past, consciously and unconsciously seeking revenge for the evils done to us or our ancestors

What is the way forward, the way is to realize first of all is aptly expressed by the Nigerian poet, Dike Chukwumerije, in his TEDX speech-no culture is older than being human’ he emphasised on the need to invest in creating a climate, that is conducive for tolerance and integration, for whenever people feel less secure, they tend to be xenophobic. We equally need to invest in the body language of integration as Nigerians; we ought to be conscious of the fact that we are living in a highly charged political environment. We are living in a space that is highly fragmented across frontlines, and that any word carelessly spoken or actions carelessly taken, can provoke a traumatic or extreme reaction from any section of this country. We need to begin to invest in the language that demonstrates our awareness that we are citizens living in a fragile nation.

We need to also invest in the stories of integration. For the only stories we hear here is how the Igbos killed the Sardauna, how the Hausa Fulani killed the Igbos, how the Yorubas betrayed the Igbos. You never hear the stories of how the Emir of Katsina went out of his way to save the Igbos during the pogrom; you never heard of the Nigerian soldiers that came into Biafra and was giving food  and drinks to the children they saw. You were not told that it was General Aguiyi Ironsi’s wife, Victoria, who housed the children of Brigadier Ademulegun in Lagos and they were given government scholarship to the university level. You were not told it was Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, who in the company of Northern soldiers invaded and murdered the Sarduana in his house, in the presence of his Northern brothers.

You were told the Yoruba’s betrayed the Igbos, you were not told that Obafemi Awolowo was the Minister of Finance in Gowons government during the civil war, thus it was his responsibility to provide a fiscal strategy for the Nigerian side. You were not told that Murtala Mohammed led an army into Asaba during the war, that it was under his watch that the Asaba massacre took place. No, what you were told is that the Hausa-Fulani murdered the Igbos. We did not hear about Umaro Altini, the Hausa man who became the first mayor of Enugu, etc. We did not hear these stories because they did not fit the mainstream narrative. But any government interested in the future of this country must be interested in pushing these stories.

We must learn that no nation can stand dividing its people, that one cannot build on foundation so brittle; that if we cannot see ourselves in each other, this journey ends here, we are going no further.

So, if  the Hausa keep saying, the Igbo are greedy and crude, and Igbo say Hausa are haughty and rude, and the Ijaw say Itshekiri must die today, and Ezza tells Ezillo, there is no other way. If Yoruba declare it is Awo or nothing, and we use Federal character to share everything, that, before you can even smile and tell me welcome, you must first ask me where my father is from, these walls and the bridge we build are all in the heart.

So, it’s high time we understood that uniformity is not unity, then, we would realize that in the other, there is always something sufficient to be of admiration, something odd to be of attention and something unique to be of interest. With this, we can learn to build bridges that connect, rails that bind and roads that unite. It is high time we connect the bridges.

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