Friday, 29 September 2017

I am first of all a Nigerian

The human being at birth can be likened to a computer. We were all born quite unfilled. However, we all came to this world with the innate capacity to care for each other. Even as babies, we recognised other human beings as analogous to us and discerned them from the animals we found around us. As we grew older into toddlers, we stopped selecting who we allowed to carry us as long as someone we recognised was around. We were attracted to other Children we came across and played we with them more freely. Sometimes, too freely. We enjoyed human gatherings because they provided us with opportunities to further explore possible relationships with more and more people, and to play some more. No wonder I cherished the “end of year” parties my parents took me to so much.
As I was growing up in Area E quarters of Ahmadu Bello University Samaru Zaria, I never selected a friend based on which part of the country he or she came from or the religion they practised. As a child, I saw no difference between me and the other Children I played with. In fact, I did not know the last names of most of them. Looking back however, I now realised most of my friends were from the southwest and northern area of Nigeria. A good number also came from the Southeast. I knew a few people from my state who lived around us and would visit from time to time. We also visited them from time to time. Never at any point did the feeling of warming up to anyone because of where they were from arose. The innocence of a Child is priceless. As we grew older, we began to follow the advice paths our parents laid for us. Even though we still craved for adventure, what we heard from our parents began to sit somewhere in our minds. Later on, these advices competed with peer influence and our own personal desires for adventure. Never did we forget these foundational advices. The advices I speak of are the simple statements about the good and bad. My parents never told me to avoid anyone because of their origin or religion. They however always warned against bad influences. I first heard about religious conflicts when I was around five or six years. There were religious riots in Zaria and two Aunties who lived with us talked about it. When I asked about it, I was schooled on it. That day I also got to know that I was going to die sometime in life and go to either heaven or hell depending on the kind of life I lived. I remember I was so disappointed that life had an end, and I laid on my face on the couch in our living room and thought about life and heaven. Since that day, I became more conscious about things that were of good and evil and subconsciously began to evaluate life as such. My first encounters with discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnicity happened without my knowledge. But looking back now, I remember that as I was growing up, I was never allowed into the homes of some friends I visited. Some parents would ensure we stayed outside to play and sometimes I was simply told to go back home. This never happened when they visited me. I also remember as a teenager, the chronic speaking of vernacular whenever I was around some group of friends. How come I didn’t get the message back then? I was simply an innocent Child who saw everyone as part of a large family. I gained full knowledge about religious conflicts towards the end of primary education and in early secondary school. I remember on two occasions in the late 1980s, my family had to temporarily travel to visit my grandparents in Orokam in order to avoid religious conflicts. On another occasion, I was on my way to secondary school one morning, and the Ahmadu Bello University north gate was closed. Soldiers were guarding the gates and no one was allowed into the Campus. What happened? Christian and Muslim students had a fight. I stood by the gate with other students, both Christians and Muslims, and watched the proceedings at the gate. Students streamed out of the campus in numbers. When it was over, the Catholic Church I usually attended in Campus close to the Sick Bay Clinic was burnt and destroyed in that riot. Since then, I almost got used to the news of religious conflicts because occurrences became more frequent. It was mainly because of religious conflicts that my parents decided to leave Zaria in 1992. We were not alone. Many other families left too. Today, everyone knows the true cost of these conflicts. After moving to Benue from Zaria, I was confronted with another kind of discrimination. I began to hear the terms ‘majority tribe’ and ‘minority tribe’ more frequently. I began to learn about the political implications of the struggle between the majority and minority tribes in Benue state. A struggle which has ensured among other things that, my tribe the Idomas, have never produced an elected governor since the state was created in 1976. This is prevalent not only in my state but in most states in Nigeria. The majority and minority dichotomy transcends ethnicity as power mainly resides with the religion with the greater numbers in most states in Nigeria. So, our nascent democracy is predicated on an interplay of religion and ethnicity. How can this philosophy be erased effectively to disabuse our minds from acting on convictions based on religion and ethnicity? Is politics in Nigeria without ethnic and religious sentiments only a myth? I think we must look at our laws which promote the prominence of ethnicity and religion. After all, we are a secular state. Simple documents like a Curriculum Vitae carry our religion, state of origin, and local government area. This applies to many other Application Forms that require our information. Any document that has to do with a selection process should not query for information that can lead to categorisation, segregation, and encourage nepotism and favouritism. I think it is worrisome and unfair for instance, that I was born and lived in Zaria for more than twelve years and yet did not quality for any educational scholarship from Kaduna state. I also cannot claim Kaduna as an additional state of origin or Zaria as my Local Government Area. Issues of discrimination based on religion or ethnicity happen surreptitiously and result in conflict when marginalisation heightens. As a result of these issues, we have witnessed several fatal conflicts, political unrests, acts of sabotage against government, and public display of contrariness. I am sure we all have our own stories and experiences to reflect on. The truth is simple. These issues will continue to exist unless we make conscious efforts to provide an enabling environment, to educate and mentor a generation to grow in love, tolerance, and innocence, just like innocent Children playing in a park. It will surprise you how many articles have started with the phrase “I am first of all a Nigerian.” Google it!