15 December 2012

Nigeria: The Pain of 'Where Do You Come From?'

One of the afflictions of a colonially-created nation-state is that many nationalities, ethnic groups and tribes were jumbled up together without the consent, or even prior knowledge, of the affected peoples. Since the Berlin Conference of the 1880s, Africa has found itself in this situation, where birds NOT of the same feather are forced by circumstances to flock together. Sadly, we have NOT been able to shed those different feathers and grow into 'nations'. It must be admitted however that some few nation-states (such as neighbouring Niger Republic during military rule and Rwanda since the 1994 genocide) have managed to push ethnicity below the radar. But here in Nigeria, the phenomenon of "Where Do You Come From" is hot on every agenda, be it political, social or economic. We are so 'advanced' in that that it is the first thing that comes to the mind of a fellow citizen whenever he or she meets another at home or abroad. Indeed, The Pain of "Where Do You Come From" has been agitating the mind of a young woman, Amira Dikko (

Growing up in my hometown in Katsina State, I would usually hear my father calling names that sounded strange to me, and that he was working happily and harmoniously with those people that had strange names. I then started school, and there in the school were people that spoke different languages from mine, and had different ways of praying, and even had a different holy book. Gradually my teachers made me understand that there are people of different races, religions and ethnic backgrounds, but that it didn't make us any different; rather we should learn from each other and appreciate one another.

With that mind-set, that the world was made of different people, I proceeded to secondary school. I can clearly remember that the first person that made me feel welcome and at home was not Hausa-Fulani or Muslim like me, but a Christian. She treated me like her little sister up till the time she graduated. From then on, I always thought that what mattered when choosing friends, associates and leaders in the walk of life should have nothing to do with one's religion, ethnic background or colour of the skin. It should be about a person's character, dedication, competence, ability, honesty, compassion, etc.

So during secondary school, it never bothered me that the majority of our prefects were not Hausa-Fulani, because I believed that the girls so appointed deserved to be there, and through it all we were all friends. It did not matter that I was (and still am) Amira, a Hausa girl, and that other girl was Bola, a Yoruba girl, and the other was Augusta, an Igbo girl. It was so great and interesting that at that time, Hausa girls like me would join Igbo or Yoruba School Clubs, and they ours, and we all graduated as best of friends. We all still keep in touch through phone, mail and social networks like Facebook.

I then proceeded to university. On my first day in class, I got the shock of my life. What most of the class members were asking me was: what state are you from? Are you Hausa-Fulani, Igbirra or Kanuri? I was taken aback! I asked my friend, why all these questions about my state and ethnicity? My friend told me not to worry, that I would understand in a couple of weeks or so. And I did. I came to understand that, as one grew up, everything would start to revolve around your religion, your tribe and the likes, and I felt bad. Very bad.

At university, whenever you were walking by noticeboards, you would see all sorts of bills posted; this meeting of people of this tribe, and that meeting of people of that tribe. The funniest part was that some of these groups had less than 10 members each! Things were to get worse during departmental and Student Union Government (SUG) elections, when executive committee ('exco') members of different groups and tribes would tell you to vote for someone from your state or your tribe because s/he will be in a position to take care of your interests. I wondered which interest and whose? And I was sadder still.

Similarly, in Muslim Students' Society (MSS) meetings and also at the meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Students (FCS), they would say 'vote for this guy or this girl because she is Christian or Muslim like you, we cannot let anyone from the other religion win,' etc etc. They would say all sorts of things, notwithstanding how incompetent the candidate could be; it didn't matter even if there was a better and more competent person out there. And that was the saddest part for me.

Looking at this present issue of zoning political offices it all reminds me of the above situation. It is all the same to me; to vote for a candidate just because s/he is from the South-South or North-West sounds lame to me. That was not what I was taught by my father; that was not what I was taught by my primary school teachers; that was not what I was taught by secondary school teachers; I met this at university. What my father and lower teachers taught me was that there is goodness in every tribe, in every human. Whatever, then, happened to merit, dedication, competence, honesty, compassion and other attributes that a leader requires? Is it good saying that a good honest man capable of leading and doing the job should not contest because it is not the turn of his geo-political zone?

Surely there should better ways to maintain peace and equal participation between the geo-political zones. The thing is, like it happened in 2011 and may again happen in 2015, if and when this zoning formula we created is not adhered to, the situation could escalate into something bigger and more terrible, perhaps beyond our comprehension. I know some people might think I am naive and gullible to think we are one people and we can work together harmoniously without losing our identity and ethnicity, but I still think it is a possibility and it can materialise with the right attitude and trust among our people.

I for one believe we can all work together as a people to make our nation better, without this zoning and this ethnicity bondage, but sadly with the way things are going and the kind of leaders we have, leaders who feed fat from the talk of zoning and dissension among the people, it is going to be a very long, long time in coming. And I am very, very sad!

So there! As an apparently acute observer of Nigeria's political ins and outs, Amira has said her mind. But where does the problem lie? Is it, first, our religious leaders before our politicians, or vice versa? We hear and read today that the attitude of Rwandans is being so re-oriented that their children are gradually forgetting they are either Hutu of Tutsi, just Rwandans. For they have said 'Never Again' to genocide. What are we teaching in our social studies and civics? When will our children start growing Nigerian, feeling Nigerian, answering Nigerian? Or perhaps this nation-state can never be a nation? Perhaps you know the answer. Amira waits.

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