By Dipo Salimonu
The story has been told often enough and is now old: A response from Chief Orji Kalu to the recent forced removal of some Nigerians from one part of their country to another vexed and caused Chief 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.’