Premium Times (Abuja)

19 April 2014

Nigeria: Ghosts of the Past Should Be Lessons of the Future

opinion

Twenty years on and it still haunts me; and so many people around the world. On April 6, 1994, Hutus began slaughtering the Tutsis in Rwanda. As the ferocious slayings continued, people and governments all around the world stood indolently by and watched in shock as the murders continued. By the time it was over, 100 days had gone by and the Rwanda genocide left approximately 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers dead.

As the world observes the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, there has been so much analysis and talk about the atrocities that happened at that time. Although blame seems to have been apportioned many analysts and the general public at large, once the history of Rwanda is observed, one finds that there is not much fault one way or another.

The history and evolution as a country that let Rwanda to spontaneously combust on April 6, 1994, is not so different to the history of so many countries in Africa; different tribes and ethnicities being lumbered together by the colonialists.

In the first instance, when Rwanda was first settled, the people who lived there raised cattle. Soon, the people who owned the most cattle were called "Tutsi" leaving the rest to be referred to as "Hutu." These tribes co-existed peacefully for the most part and it wasn't till the Europeans came onto the scene that the terms "Tutsi" and "Hutu" took on a racial role.

In 1894, when the Germans colonized the area, they embraced the Tutsi more than the Hutus simply because the Tutsi had more European features, such as lighter skin and longer hair. By virtue of this, the Germans gave the Tutsis more roles of responsibility.

After the Germans lost their colonial rule to the Belgians in Rwanda, they made it mandatory for every Rwandan to have an identity card that labeled them Tutsi, Hutu, or Twa.

Despite the fact that the Tutsi constituted only about ten percent of Rwanda's population and the Hutu nearly 90 percent, just like the Germans, the Belgians favored the Tutsi by giving them almost all the leadership positions.

During the struggle for Independence in Rwanda, the Belgians switched the status of the two tribes by giving the Hutus most of the leadership positions in the new government.

It was the culmination of this history that led up to the dichotomy and animosity between the two tribes. As decades went on and generations were born, the hatred between the two tribes ferociously festered.

All these feelings and emotions came to a head in April 1994 when the plane of President Juvénal Habyarimana of Rwanda was shot out of the sky, killing all on board. For decades, President Habyarimana, a Hutu, had run a totalitarian regime, which excluded the Tutsis. However, the president signed the Arusha Accords, which weakened the Hutu's hold on Rwanda and allowed Tutsis to participate in the government.

The flame had been ignited and for over 100 days, people began to be slaughtered and killed in the capital. Over the next several weeks, the violence spread and men, women, and children were tortured and murdered with guns, machete and clubs. Women were systematically raped before being killed and others were kept as sex slaves.

Even the thousands who tried to escape the slaughter by hiding in churches, hospitals, schools, and government offices were not saved from their ghastly fate. To further degrade the Tutsi, Hutu extremists would not allow the Tutsi dead to be buried. Their bodies were left where they were slaughtered, exposed to the elements, eaten by rats and dogs. Many Tutsi bodies were thrown into rivers, lakes, and streams in order to send the Tutsis "back to Ethiopia" - a reference to the myth that the Tutsi were foreigners and originally came from Ethiopia.

There is no doubt that what happened in Rwanda exhibited the worst of man. As humans, sometimes we don't see ourselves as stooping to levels lower than that of raging animals. But when I reflect on incidents such as the holocaust and the torture and murder of the ALUU 4, the barbarism that we are capable of as humans once given the right nudge petrifies me.

As we look back on one of the darkest periods of man's existence and reflect on the evil that man is capable of, one would have thought that at the very least, if we learnt anything from that particular incident, it is not to take for granted the issues of tribe, ethnicity and regionalism in Africa.

Whether we like it or not, we must embrace the lessons learned during that genocide 20 years ago. As we move towards a petrifying 2015, and one clearly sees the sensitivities of tribe, religion, ethnicity and regionalism being manipulated to score cheap points, a feeling of dark premonition comes over one. There is no doubt that we are playing with fire.

Much like Rwanda, in Nigeria, ethnicity has largely stunted development. During the colonial era, the boundaries of the English colony were drawn to serve commercial interests, largely without regard for the territorial claims of the indigenous peoples. Nigeria thus became a forced marriage, which did not receive the approval of the couples involved.

As a result, about 250 ethnic groups comprise the population of Nigeria, and the country's unity has been consistently under siege.

Several talks about secession have threatened national unity since the origination of Nigeria; the Biafra War being the last large-scale attempt of secessionist movements.

Sadly, thus far, it is very disturbing that majority of Nigerians have become slaves to their ethnic origins, instead of exploiting these diversities towards national development. Unapologetically, most Nigerians are fanatics when it comes to ethnicity. Hitherto, most things done in Nigeria usually have ethnic undertones and connotations, be it in politics, employment or in the provision of social amenities. Ethnic/tribal affiliations are always very strong and visible, and since independence there have been cases of ethnic violence resulting from allegiance to one's ethnic group, which has invariably not worked well for the development of the country.

Also, particularly in the political sphere, when politicians lose elections or are in one political crisis or the other, they tend to devise strategies which will appeal tribal sentiments, such as making unguarded statements which infuriates a segment of the society, causing unnecessary tension.

Contextually however, no one is born a racist or bigot. During childhood, children are pure, innocent and unspoiled with regards to their perception about life. They relate very well with everyone irrespective of your ethnicity, with a genuine cheery innocent look and smile. This is certainly cogent evidence that human beings are generally without any sensitivities or prejudice from infancy, until they begin to associate and relate with the people around.

Parents, guardians and the society play a vital and enormous role in the lives of every human being. As none is born a bigot from childhood, it's their parents, guardians, and society that shape their perception about other tribes and races.

Growing up from tolerant or liberal parents, guardians and society goes a long way to produce tolerant adults that would blend well with the rest of society.

The two-major Abrahamic religions in which majority of Nigerians subscribe to, believes that Almighty God created the universe, with clarity in both religious books that he created human beings in his own image and in his infinite wisdom, and we are all here to stay together despite ethnic, racial or gender differences. However, there still exist people who are still not prepared to dispense with their hostile upbringings and their negative perception about how they intend to live with others who differ from them. Hence, these types of people need an imperative, consistent and vigorous

Education or sensitization to prune the negative perceptions of their inimical and parochial view of other peoples, race and ethnic affinity.

Regrettably though, in Nigeria, we keep on retrogressing socially due to our inability to cogitate about our lives appropriately to live in peace and harmony amongst ourselves and as civilized human beings. So far, we are still crawling as acculturation/socialization with our fellow human being is concerned. Thus, ethnocentrism in our nation is continually making it very difficult for some ignorant people to fully accept, cherish and tolerate their fellow Nigerians as colleagues, friends, or to be in courtship, just simply because of their differing tribes. I find that very sad.

With recent happenings across the country, Nigeria should indeed be wary of the grave and detrimental effect of ethnocentric tendencies vis-à-vis the atrocity and barbarity that occurred 20-years ago in Rwanda due to ethnic prejudice. Nigeria must learn from the history of such countries like Rwanda, and learn how to live in peace with one another.

Ethnocentrism has driven many a country to its demise - Nazi Germany met its demise partly because of its hatred and annihilation policy of the Jews, the recent Malian Crisis with the Tuareg rebellion, the two-Sudanese civil wars fought between the Arab-dominated north and the black African south, which resulted in autonomy and later the independence of South Sudan in 2011, Albanians and Serbs have been hitherto been plagued and ravaged by ethnic conflict, et cetera - and if in Nigeria there is the need for disintegration, we should carry it out in a peaceful consensus manner rather than via conflicts or war.

Pertinently though, ethnicity is not the problem in Nigeria but Nigerians themselves who choose to abuse or utilize ethnicity for their own selfish interest. They tap into sentiments of bigoted members of a particular tribe to cause havoc. There is nothing wrong with ethnicity as it can make and create avenues for healthy competitions, especially in terms of economic development. For instance, the period after independence saw a healthy competition between the major tribes in Nigeria, whereby the South-West led in cocoa production, groundnuts and cereals in the North, while palm products and root crops dominated the economy of the South-East.

Importantly however, a citizen's attachment first to his/her ethnic group before the country is bad for the nation's unity. If Nigerians learn to value nationalism more than ethnicity, there will indeed be an increase in economic and political development and Nigeria will reclaim its rightful position in the comity of nations.

Whichever direction Nigerian goes in the next couple of years, I implore every Nigerian to be a good student of history and remember the ghosts that were created by the hatred that gave birth to one of the darkest periods of human history. May we not let the deaths and sacrifices of the thousands and millions of people who lost their lives purely for the accident of birth that made them who they were to be in vain. Let's cull back some of the ethnic hatred many of us seem to nurture in order to avoid a similar fate. May the ghosts of those who passed always be a great lesson for the future.

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