By Dipo Salimonu
The story has been told often enough and is now old: A response from Chief Orji Uzor Kalu to the recent forced removal of some Nigerians from one part of their country to another vexed and caused Chief Femi Fani Kayode to write a series of essays, one of which he termed, ‘The Bitter Truth about the Igbos’.
That the response was from his ‘friend and brother’ and was merely to aver that Lagos belonged to no one would appear to warrant nothing more than a private telephone call between the two men. Instead we got a tribal fire-fight after Fani Kayode’s essays squared ‘the Yorubas’ off against ‘the Igbos’.
I am reluctant to enter a conversation uninvited especially one I feel has exceeded certain boundaries of propriety. But I simply cannot remain silent at this treatment meted out to what FK repeatedly as ‘the Igbos. With that term, oft repeated in his essay he has taken millions of his compatriots and mine, millions of people from every imaginable walk of life, wherever in the world they may live, or whatever relationship or association they may have with the statements and assumptions made in the essay, irrespective of whatever else may define them as human beings, and collecting them together as a unit, tongue-lashed them, as though with a ‘koboko.’
Estimates are that there are now 171 million Nigerians. About a fifth of these are Igbo. Thus, Fani Kayode’s essay and its ‘the Igbos’ can have as its ambition no less than to encompass the entire 30 million or so of them alive in Nigeria and across the world. And with the historical ambit described therein he seems to have included their forebears also. This is a violation, of stupendous and unacceptable proportions, of the uniqueness and individuality of each human being and the dignity inherent thereof. That dignity, the according of which to each, is the first law of humanity, after only which justice now becomes relevant or necessary.
I will seek to speak here more about ideas than about people or events. Not for Eleanor Roosevelt’s maxim “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” I have read and heard great minds hold forth and I am quite comfortable with the realization that I am not one. Rather, it is because I have innumerable times in my life arrived at and held firm conclusions about people and events that I subsequently found out were wrong or severely limited. Anyone can read a history book, or write one, even, and I want to be careful with things about which I do not have perfect or complete knowledge. As the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart once said, “the hand that will write the true thing must first learn to erase”.
But first to some points from the essay: If even they were substantiated, comments made by one man representing Enugu at some council or the other in 1945 cannot be held as evidence that a “they” (the Igbos’) were “the ones that FIRST (emphasis his) introduced tribalism into southern politics”. The verbal lathe that turns a ‘they’ out of the actions of one man is a dehumanizing one and deserves to be abandoned. It robs the humanity of every Igbo person other than the supposed speaker of those words to pay for the convenience of a point.
And in the same vein, the ‘Igbo people’ never carried out a failed coup, as is asserted in the essay, referring to the first coup of January, 1966. The coup plotters were not delegated to do so by the wider community. And an ‘Igbo Coup’ as Fani Kayode refers, would have required millions of more participants’ names than the 25 names listed in the essay.
There are many more generalizations and scapegoating in the essay but my purpose here is not to debate Fani Kayode’s essay. It is simply to condemn the widespread practice of taking a community of Nigerians and excoriating or insulting them as a group for actions which they are not to a person culpable of. Or the practice in which behaviour or traits of one sort or another are ascribed to entire communities or groups. That it is convenient to do so does not make it right.
All societies are unique but I submit that the nature and degree of diversity and plurality that exists in our Nigerian society is without precedent or equal: Nigeria is the biggest society in the world and in the history of mankind that has an equal number of Moslems and Christians. Papua New Guinea ’s 830 languages make that country arguably the most diverse on earth, but they are spoken by just 7 million people. India , with its teeming cultural diversity and its more than 1 billion people speak 438 languages. Nigerians, with our 515 languages spoken by 171 million citizens easily ranks our society the highest in the world on a plurality- diversity matrix. No country in the world with more people speaks as many languages.
With this complexity and diversity come a great requirement of care and reasonableness in the way we talk to, relate with and refer to one another, especially in public spaces. A care and discipline greater even than practised in other countries. Rather than being a reason for strife, our diversity is a greater imperative to work harder to stay aligned. Along with wisdom, we have to acquire and evince not only the unity with which to manage our diversity, but the maturity also.
We feel we know one another’s history and have seen each other in our houses and kitchens. We have learned to sneer at one another because we have peered into each other’s backyards and bedrooms. Familiarity breeds contempt, after all.
But need it be so? That the truth is said to be bitter does not mean everything bitter is the truth. The recklessness with which many of our commentators and leaders speak about and act towards other Nigerians is irresponsible and has been at the heart of our issues as a nation. The most important lesson we can learn from history is how to prevent it from becoming destiny. Our history tells us that it is easier to destroy bridges than to build them. But that it costs inestimably more to wage war than to sustain peace.
The New Testament’s ‘Parable of the Faithful Servant’ cautions that to whom much is given, much is required. And the Quran’s Surah al-Hujurat says “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other)”. I believe there lies the great challenge of our society, and the greatest contribution that we can make to the world, in showing all how the most diverse country on this continent of diversity can live together in amity.
I am drawn back to Fani Kayode’s essay in which I read these words with dismay: “It does not come so easily to those who never had any history at all and who never even had monarchs or structured, properly-organised hierachial societies that placed value on tradition and culture”. This is a most painful statement. How can it reasonably be said that the Igbos (or any group of people in this world) are without a history or that their society do not place value on tradition and culture.
“The Fulanis are uneducated and the Hausas are violent”. “The Yorubas cannot be trusted or are loud”. “The Igbos love money and are crude”. We take individual human traits and tar entire groups and communities amongst us with them. Yet, many American leaders use principles such as ‘decency’, ‘justice’ and ‘hard work’ in their rhetoric, appropriating universal values and presenting them as ‘American’ to unite and inspire their society. It is wrong to ascribe traits or behaviours to a group that the speaker must know are not individually held by all in that group. That is prejudice and the evidence against it is stark and unassailable. Even children do not automatically take on characteristics of their parents. “The acorn does not fall far from the oak”, the old chestnut holds, but it falls.
Last week marked the 50th year anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech, the title of which is taken from a simple sentence of enduring profundity: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”. Half a century on, his country has made great strides in that regard not even at all by electing Barack Obama, but by promulgating and enshrining the Civil Rights Act, and vigorously dispensing censure to those who violate it in either spirit or letter.
Fifty years on in our experience as an independent nation, human beings are still tarred and feathered for no other reason than ‘crimes’ of ethnicity and provenance. The stereotypes with which we straitjacket one another have an insidious effect on our society and the way in which we communicate with another.
There is little point listening to another when all that is needed to know about them is to know that they are Idoma, Bini or Igala or from Kafanchan or Modakeke.
Overly negative images conjured up and reinforced easily produce stereotypes which become tinder for hatred and violence. At a Kukah Centre Roundtable in July, Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah spoke about how genocide and explosions of violence are preceded by a shift in nomenclature. About how Hitler described the Jews as ‘vermin’ and in Rwanda, the Tutsis were called ‘cockroaches’, just as the Ogoni Four were described as ‘vultures’. According to him, once these perceptions are internalized and the violence begins, you are not killing human beings, but vermin, cockroaches and vultures. The Kukah Centre, his new initiative, has resolved to take on the issue of hate speech in our society and this could not be more topical.
I am a Yoruba man and a Nigerian. The former denotes my tribe and the latter my country. Both are important to me. The Yoruba language is my most treasured possession however my citizenship of Nigeria is of more primacy to me than my being Yoruba. That I cannot renounce being Yoruba but can my Nigerian citizenship mean to me that the latter requires more of a commitment from me. Just as couples enter into marriages that acquire more immediacy to them than the families into which they were born, we come together as a nation so that we can be and achieve more than we otherwise would. I have not given up my ‘kin’ but simply expanded the notion of that word and the ambit it describes to a tribe called Nigeria .
Still, Yoruba and Nigerian confer personal identities, not definitions. I am a human being and my mind is mine and it defines me. It is not a Yoruba mind, nor a Nigerian mind, and my ambition, my desires and my abilities and actions are neither Yoruba nor Nigerian- they are Dipo Salimonu’s. I am the aggregate of my experiences and the unique formative factors which have influenced me beyond my ability to know or define. Factors which no one alive or dead could ever replicate and which make me unique.
I have two siblings and though we lived together and grew up in the same house we are completely different people. Different so that I cannot imagine one word or trait that could successfully describe all three of us. Yet, in our society today we seem easily to find behaviours and traits to describe all in groups comprising thousands or millions of human beings. And to easily hold these stereotypes and prejudices to be sacrosanct even as we are confronted every day by the logic that they cannot be true and evidence that they are not true, We don’t see or register this evidence, sadly, not because we are blind, but because our eyes are closed. And it as wrong to tar a ‘tribe’ as it is to laud one. I chuckle at how many people delight in accepting positive stereotypes, while rejecting any negative ones, as though the sweet alone, and never the bitter, can be true. All blanket ‘tribal’, ‘religious or ‘regional’ identities are flimsy and porous ones, and display intellectual laziness.
I have long marvelled at the preciseness with which mathematicians apply the term ‘at least one’. It applies to situations where existence can be established but it is not known how to determine the total number of solutions. There is an enlightening joke about it in ‘Men of Mathematics’ the E.T Bell classic. The story goes that there are three men on a train leaving England for Scotland . One, an economist, another, a logician and the third is a mathematician. As they cross the border into Scotland they see a brown cow in a field standing parallel to the train and the window that is their vantage point. Says the economist, ‘Look, the cows in Scotland are brown.’ The logician replies, ‘No. There are cows in Scotland of which at least one is brown.’ Then, the mathematician: ‘No. There is at least one cow in Scotland , of which one side appears to be brown.’
To me the promise and beauty of Nigeria is best illustrated by a simple point. The aforementioned Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah is the Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, and an Ikulu from Southern Kaduna . Yet this man has done more for me and been a better friend to me than virtually every Yoruba alive. He is a mentor, an older brother and a friend and one I have done little to deserve. And I see him do the same to countless others from across the country. This is a gift Nigeria has given to me, personally, a gift enhanced by the promise that amongst more of its citizens lie the potential for relationships as enriching. And my gratitude to Nigeria in return is the decision that I have made to extend to all its citizens the ties that would seem to bind me only to other Yoruba. Not out of magnanimity but because I have learned that in times of need the man that comes and proves that he is your ‘brother’ has done little, but that the one who proves that he is your ‘friend’ has done a lot. Birth certificates proffered do not provide succour. But solidarity does.
Walt Rostow’s book, ‘Five Stages of Economic Growth’ contains an interesting idea having little to do with economics. He says that when a child is born, the cot is its entire universe but within months it ventures out of it and the room becomes its universe. And then the house, the street, and then the neigbourhood in steady progression. Gradually, with time and new experiences its idea of the world expands but that this process stops in different people at different times. In my view there is a psychological curb in many of us that stops the expansion of our world at those that speak our language and eat our food and know our taboos and our ways. It is a natural phenomenon but that a thing is natural does not mean it is right.
I believe that we can achieve a modern and prosperous society only when we participate in the economic and political affairs of our country as individuals and not as tribal blocs or Efiks, Junkun, Yoruba or Hausas. Citizens, not tribes, are the unit of Democracy. Apart from being a lie and unsustainable (no tribe in Nigeria is a monolithic) to assume we think, act and die as one, eliminating tribal activism removes the inbuilt inequities which members of the more populous tribes enjoy at the expense of members of smaller ones. And it would reduce drastically the noise and effectiveness of our ethnic merchants and entrepreneurs.
To be termed a ‘leader’ in Nigeria today, I need little qualification other than to be able to tell ‘my people’ that it is our ‘turn’ and that we have been ‘marginalised’. We see and hear voices such as these in the newspapers and on television every day and little wonder that they push no actual ideas outside of resenting some other tribe or community or strident ethnic chauvinism.
Enough is enough. There can be no more asinine pastime today than debate over members of which tribe were the first or are the most to go to school. Men and women achieve deeds of distinctions because of the application of their minds and determination, not because they are of this or that tribe. And claiming the efforts of individuals as ‘tribal glory’ is drawing a false solace. Soyinka’s Nobel Prize is his, and evidence of his talent, not that of ‘the Yoruba’s’ or mine, just as Dangote’s wealth is his, and evidence of his industry, not that of the Fulanis.
Other than a national conversation about who was the first to read medicine or about who owns what percentage of Lagos maybe we should discuss instead the fact that that we are the country in the world with the highest number of children out of school. According to UNESCO findings, we have 20 per cent of the world’s total of 57 million, and twice as many as Pakistan , the country with the second highest number. I also suggest we debate more innovative ways in which to manage diversity than by the rotation of positions and offices between zones and tribes as though playing a game of musical chairs. There are good and understandable reasons for the practice but maybe we ought to discuss whether these outweigh the benefits of a meritocracy.
It is not a coincidence that I have taken for this title the name of an organization/movement convened by young Nigerians, including Chude Jideonwo. He and his friends decided that they had enough of the practises and poison that have been fed us as national pap. The public space in the Nigeria they have been bequeathed is one marked and marred by rank suspicion and hostility. One in which national and inter-communal discourse is conducted largely through invective, vitriol and epithets. Even former Heads of State are not exempted, engaging in public spats or hurling abuse at one another. Headlines in the national newspapers scream daily with personal abuse for the government from opposition politicians. And in a dispiriting cycle, the President’s spokespersons reply with further personal insults and abuse. I do not need to cite names, simply read the headlines of tomorrow’s newspapers.
And then this war that just will not die: A certain aspect of our history as a nation is that decades ago a war between Nigerians ensued after matters had been decided by leaders at the time. In the lead-up to the war and in its aftermath, many of our leaders said despicable and incendiary things about other communities. It does not mean that they were right then or right forever. The purpose and evidence of progress is the extent to which we exchange former totems and assumptions and practices for more evolved and enduring ones.
Last month’s Ethiopian Airlines flight to Enugu was the first international flight to the South East region of Nigeria since the war ended. Reasonable minds can agree or disagree on whether this interlude was part of a continuing war of attrition against those held to be legatees of Biafra for waging a war that was lost, or whether another example of how we are sometimes slow to do the right things. What cannot be gainsaid is that Igbos are a necessary, valued and integral part of our country, as are all communities that constitute it. We are a society of human beings all with each possessing attendant human strengths and frailties and idiosyncrasies. And we are a collection of communities however we define them. Though these communities cannot leave without declaring secession, we are not together to be insulted or scapegoated, or to have our material and existential well- being threatened, either as citizens, families or communities or groups. That is not why we are together as a country.
Chief Fani Kayode, you owe the Igbo people an apology. If we persist in speaking to one another as you did in your essay no power on earth can keep us together as a country. You dragged more into the mud than had caused you offense. In doing that you were as wrong as those you recently wrote have threatened and abused members of your family members over this issue for words you authored, and not they.
At this point as a nation, we need substantive debate about the fundamental and existential issues to our collective well-being and prosperity, conducted with civility, and not words and actions that divide and reduce us. You do not have a measure to determine which has been the most hospitable tribe to whom. The idea and ideal of Nigeria has best been sustained not by the carrot of crude oil proceeds or the stick of Nigerian Army weaponry but by the countless acts of material and moral kindness extended and reciprocated across our great nation by neighbours, colleagues and strangers.
“The Igbos are the least close, the most distant and the least familiar with our customs and our ways”, you wrote. This was the unkindest cut of all. On behalf of all the Igbos who belie these words, Igbos I personally know and have worked with in my life, or that I have as great friends; or those that I know have entered into marriages and/or lifelong and great friendships with Yorubas; or simply the countless that I have heard chatting away comfortably or haltingly in Yoruba, cracking proverbs with ease or demolishing them, or that I have seen resplendent in ‘geles’, or tossing ‘agbada’ sleeves over shoulders, I ask that God forgive you for this cruel statement. It is for this alone that I wrote this overlong piece, Chief Fani Kayode. I could not remain silent at them, lest that be consent. There can be no ‘least close’ and ‘more distant’ and ‘least familiar’ communities in any country that deserves to remain as one.
Chief Fani Kayode, the tone and words of your essay were hateful. They constituted hate speech as is defined: hate speech (noun) “speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation”. Your words have spurred attacks not only on yourself and your family, but those you sought to defend. You cannot defend the Yoruba or Lagos . You have neither the equipment nor the authority to do so. And you cannot defend what is not under threat. An apology would not reduce you if even you deserve such, for reducing millions of human beings to epithets of scorn. You cannot know the ‘truth’ about the Igbo people, simply because it is not given to any one human being to know the ‘truth’ about millions of other human beings.
One last word: Along with the Yoruba and Nigerian tribes I seek membership of yet another tribe. A tribe of people that seek to see past the limit of concepts such as Yoruba, or Itsekiri and Nigeria or Muslim and Christian and recognize instead that we are all human beings and the children of the One that has no limit. A tribe of people who seek to be inspired and not to denigrated and want to believe that our lives and the society we have formed have a meaning and purpose beyond and far greater than the prerogatives of the wealthy and the grab for power by politicians and their god-children. But not to alienate, this tribe includes certain members of the elite, and politicians also.
It is not a political party or a movement. It does not have a name, or even yet a cause and still less a means. But it has a language, Nigeria ’s 516th. It is the language and tolerance and temperance. The language that speaks with restraint and respect for all others. The language of ‘giving the benefit of the doubt’ and the mathematician’s ‘at least one’. A tribe of Nigerians who, as Jideonwo described in an essay earlier this year, evince ‘the courage to be reasonable’.
This tribe is probably more numerous than any other in Nigeria . The irony is that there are indications that Messrs Fashola and Obi are members. But I do not know either of them and it is not for me to select members. I seek to be a member, not a leader or spokesman. As the Gospel according to Mathew says, “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
Chief Fani Kayode, more than being directed at you or to take you on, the thrust of this essay is to provide an alternate view-point to matters broached in yours. I do not know you and though you spoke as a bigot this may have been more the quick rush of anger than the slow burn of hatred. But this is not for me to judge. My views are my own and I have expressed them here not to make converts or enemies. It is your fulsome right to disagree with me. If you do I cannot help but find apt the Quran’s simple instruction to those that disagree with its message, “To you be your Way, and to me mine”.
*Dipo Salimonu is an Abuja-based Entrepreneur.