Uzokwe's Searchlight

When we talk about tribalism, the tendency is for one to think that it is a scourge endemic only amongst Nigerians living in Nigeria. This is far from the truth. In my two decades of sojourn, outside the country, I have had the opportunity of meeting and associating with a cross section of Nigerians from all walks of life. My observation is that inspite of the many years some have spent outside the country, they have not shed the tribal cloak they left the country with.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Alfred Obiora Uzokwe

(PART 2 OF 2)

Continued from Part 1

art 1 of this commentary dwelt on the issue of political glass ceiling for a cross section of Nigerians and fingered tribal preference as the culprit. Part 2 will explore where Nigerians, living in western countries, stand on the issue.

When we talk about tribalism, the tendency is for one to think that it is a scourge endemic only amongst Nigerians living in Nigeria. This is far from the truth. In my two decades of sojourn, outside the country, I have had the opportunity of meeting and associating with a cross section of Nigerians from all walks of life. My observation is that inspite of the many years some have spent outside the country, they have not shed the tribal cloak they left the country with. They still support, at least tacitly, political glass ceiling for Nigerians from certain tribes. Some still see it as a pay back for the Biafra war. If you ever confront them on the issue and remind them that it is destroying Nigeria's chances at a more perfect amalgam, they tell you to "get over it".

I used to believe that for Nigeria to develop to her fullest potential, her citizens living in western nations would play lead roles. This is because they live and work in successful multi-racial societies and must have realized that diversity carries with it a lot of advantages including the ubiquitous presence of diverse talents that spur national development. I had hoped that they would use their experience to help alter the attitude of Nigerians who still exploit tribal differences to dominate and subjugate. It has dawned on me, though, that some will never change. In the western countries where they live, they still preach tribalism for Nigeria, ever so tacitly, and actualize it by only associating in cliques organized along tribal lines. They find it hard to function in organizations established for all Nigerians but would rather retreat into their own small tribal cliques where narrow-mindedness runs amok. Here in the United States, organizations that have dared to open up big tents for all Nigerians to belong to, start well at first but then tribal narcissism and subtle inter-ethnic rivalry set in leading to their eventual demise.

The irony is that Diaspora Nigerians that tend to favor ethnocentricity and political glass ceiling in Nigeria, seem to be the first to shout discrimination when things go sour for them where they live. They passionately hate to have a taste of their own bitter medicines. They always complain about discrimination in the work place, in school, in their professional practice and on and on. Not long ago, I shook my head in disbelief when a Nigerian, living here in the United States, who once professed her belief in tribal separation and perpetual subjugation for those who fought the Biafran war, attributed a problem she had here to discrimination. It was ludicrous and in my mind, I screamed Hypocrisy with capital letters! For how could someone who sees nothing wrong with discrimination in her country of birth accuse others of discriminating against her? Her hypocrisy is so palpable that I am almost certain that on January 20th, she must have been glued to her TV, cheering wildly about Obama's victory and mouthing off about how it "has broken racial barriers in the world". My question for her is: what about the barriers people like her have erected in her country of birth because of petty tribal sentiments? I am sure she is a Christian so it boggles the mind that we profess to be God's children and hope for equal treatment from God and yet work hard to block the paths of fellow humans. Oftentimes, people like this would be the first to quote copiously from the bible and talk about salvation without reference to the biblical admonition love thy neighbor as thyself. One advice I have for people of this nature is that before they can accuse others of racism or talk about the breaking of racial barriers elsewhere, they need to remove the log in their eyes so they can see clearly to point at the perceived speck in the eye of another. If Nigeria and Nigerians must have a superior moral pedestal to talk about the so-called glass ceiling that has been broken elsewhere, we better break down the bigger barriers we have erected in Nigeria.

Ideally, a gathering of Nigerians should be a very fertile ground for the exchange of ideas on how to develop the nation. Why not? After all, the country boasts of some of the best minds on the face of the earth. It was with great optimism that the advent of internet chat rooms was received in Nigerian circles. The thinking was that it was an added opportunity for her intellects to meet virtually and kick around ideas from the comfort of their homes. Unfortunately, they have failed to make good use of that opportunity because our so-called best minds, especially those in the Diaspora, still refused to shed tribal sentiments and pull their God-given talents together. The chat rooms have therefore become avenues for the bellicose exchange of hate. Organized in cliques along tribal lines, participants spew venom on and amongst themselves, using every opportunity to display their tribal leanings by defending or demonizing corrupt politicians depending on their tribe of origin.

When the memo written by Brigadier Oluwole Rotimi to Ojo Maduekwe, boasting about his defeat of the "Biafran rag tag army", became public, one would have expected universal condemnation of the man's insensitivity in the various Nigerian chat rooms. That was not to be. Except in very few cases, it was mostly Yoruba for Rotimi and Igbo against him while the Hausas stoked the fire of the lunacy in gleeful exuberance. The idea that everything in Nigeria has to be looked at through a tribal lens, even by Nigerians in western countries who should know better, is most unfortunate. A reader of my commentaries wrote to me to say that I should not have condemned Rotimi because I did not know what transpired between him and Maduekwe. He was invariably saying that under certain circumstances, Oluwole's insensitivity was acceptable. That type of shallow-mindedness all in an attempt to defend a fellow south westerner baffled me. I tried to explain that the outrage against Rotimi was not about the feud between him and Maduekwe but about Rotimi's attempt to rub salt into an open wound that a whole tribe still bears. For the record and for someone who lost loved ones during that war, if Rotimi's memo did not mention Biafra the way it did, I would have cared less about that feud.

Going back to the reaction of Nigerians in the chat rooms, I was disappointed that the level and type of criticism that Nigerians level against elected officials depend on where they come from. It boils down to the fact that there is no consistency in the way we judge elected officials. What we see as bad today could be adjudged as good tomorrow when the hat is on another head. No wonder why we cannot rid the nation of corruption and corrupt officials. We have different barometers for measuring it's destructive effects on nation depending on where the perpetrators hail from. With this type of biased national outlook, I am sad to observe that Nigeria is going nowhere fast as far as development is concerned.

The Minister of Information, Prof Dora Akunyili, has just embarked on what she calls re-branding of Nigeria. That is all well and good but the term re-branding makes me uncomfortable because it sounds like putting a new cover on an old product. In the midst of his murderous escapades in the 90s, Abacha sent out emissaries to spread propaganda and try to portray Nigeria in good light. He failed woefully. For a lasting change, Nigeria must first embark on an introspective journey, culminating in general attitude adjustment. If we do not do away with tribalism and ethnocentricity, Nigeria will be difficult to re-brand because a lot of her problems revolve around that vice. For example, in government circles, you find people in high places doling out contracts to inept contractors because of tribal affinity instead of to qualified persons. The result is that shoddy roads and infrastructure, needing constant maintenance, are built. This leads to wastefulness. We have read stories of some members of the mainstream media who are so ethnocentric in their mindset and outlook that instead of doing the job of the press, they put out skewed opinions. Tribalism is the culprit in the demise of organizations set up in the Diaspora to address Nigeria's problems. As I write, Nigeria's presidency is "handed down" to people who do not even understand what Nigeria's problems are let alone knowing how to solve them all because they belong to privileged regions or tribes. The result is that ineptitude runs wild. It goes on and on. Dora Akunyili was successful with NAFDAC and if she wants to get anywhere close to that type of success in her re-branding effort, she must first put the issue of tribalism on the table for honest and candid discussion with an aim to developing a way forward. She must help bring about a less tribalistic and ethnocentric Nigeria where a crime is a crime in the eyes of all regardless of who commits it. She should work towards a Nigeria where corruption is corruption in the eyes of all regardless of the perpetrators.

As part of re-branding Nigeria, Akunyili should embark on a nation-wide education tour to talk to ordinary citizens who vote during elections based on tribal sentiments. Get them to understand that voting for someone just because of where they are from rather than what they can do for Nigeria does not help anyone. Part of re-branding should also include making every Nigerian feel like they have a stake in the country. I routinely hear Americans say that they are ready to die for the USA because they love her. I am yet to hear Nigerians say the same except for Obasanjo. The truth is that you can only want to die for a nation you love. To love a nation, you have to have a stake in it. That stake must be complete and unconditional. A Nigerian contemporary of mine once said that every time the American national anthem was played, he would see Americans shedding tears, a sign of their affection for America. Then he said, "When the Nigerian anthem is played I do not feel the same emotion because I still feel like an outsider" There are many that feel that way and it is very unfortunate.

When I was a kid, the worst thing a fellow kid could do to you was to say something bad about your mother. Even the gentlest child would fight for that reason. Why? Because a mother provides succor and protection to her kids and loves them without favoritism. Children return the favor to their mothers, ready to fight and even die for them if necessary. While I am not a believer that government has the solution to all problems, a country should be a lot like a mother to all its citizens. She must not condone tribalism or ethnicity. She must seek to provide a level playing field for all so that those who work hard and play by the rules can be rewarded accordingly. A country should not make some to work extraordinarily hard just to get by while some are virtually given the key to the government coffers to enrich themselves at will. A country that gives all of her citizens a fair sense of belonging and purpose is the kind of country citizens want to die for. That is the country that Akunyili must seek for rather than try to cover up Nigeria's bad sides just to give her a new image.

The greatness of America lies in her diversity. People from all over the world converge in the United States with diverse and unique talents and push the envelope of development everyday. Nigeria is also an amalgamation of various tribes. Inspite of the differences in tribe and tongue, Nigerians of various tribes bring unique talents and gifts to the amalgam or union.

As Nigerians enjoy the moment regarding Obama's victory, they must now determine whether they want to follow the sound example that the United States has set and work towards a country where all children, regardless of tribe, can believe that if they work hard and play by the rules, they can have a decent shot at the presidency or other high national office. A more perfect union will come when the presidency and all elected offices go to people who have the intellect, the experience, the temperament and the skills to lead the nation. At that time, citizens would be proud to have come from Nigeria. Then, even though tribe and tongue will still differ, all Nigerians will stand in brotherhood.