This evening, I had a very frank debate with a fellow indigene of Borno State on Twitter, a Kanuri Muslim, to be specific, on religious equality or the lack of it in the state. As expected, it was quite heated, hard-hitting and on many issues controversial. Emotions flared and there were many times during the debate, I whispered a prayer of thanks that it was a virtual debate, because I was not sure if it was in person, we would not have come to blows.
While our followers on Twitter held their breaths and followed this debate, many kept tweeting how they were impressed by such a frank debate. On my side, I kept waiting for that private direct message from someone concerned who will ask me to watch my comments.
Personally, I am very vocal about whatever persecution I perceive or experience towards me in my state as much as I can be. However, I also know that whatever persecution (ethnic, religious and/or regional) that plays out in Borno State is not unique to the state alone, but is replicated across Nigeria in different forms. In almost every state, there is one form of discrimination or the other. It may be religious, ethnic or regional or a mix of two or three, but it is there nonetheless.
The result of such discrimination is that it breeds distrust, and then hatred. The actors involved never talk about it in the open to each other, but tensions are always simmering just beneath the surface. Then from time to time, it breaks out in the open, and many times, sadly, as ethno-religious crises.
In the past 15 years, there have been almost a number countless of such crises, ranging from the Sharia riots in Kaduna and religious crises in Jos and Bauchi, or the Ijaw-Itsekiri crisis in Warri and the Yoruba-Ijaw riots among many others. The saner forms of such tensions manifesting are when one region protests the siting of a government project in another, or when an ethnic group insists on their son/daughter being made the vice-chancellor of a university in their area, or when a state expels all ‘non-indigenes’ from their civil service.
In my online and offline conversations and discussions with many Nigerians, almost every one of them has expressed the desire to have such sentimental thinking rid of from our national psyche and systems. But the problem is that too few are willing to challenge it head on by even discussing it with those ‘on the other side of the divide’.
For example, I witnessed at least 4 religious crises since becoming an adult. After every crisis, Christians and Muslims discuss the effects and causes of the crisis only among themselves, but smile to each other as if all is okay. Yet, the distrust grows stronger, and tension builds again until it finds an outlet in the form of another crisis.
I have always said: if we want to build a Nigerian nation that is going to be stronger than our individual religious, ethnic and regional sentiments, we have to start by having a frank and honest discussion on religion, ethnicity and regionalism, and how it has divided us more than brought us together.
This is also because I have always been honest to say that this is not peculiar to any section of the Nigerian peoples, but it is a general Nigerian problem – that of a scarcity mind-set that feeds the belief that the jobs and resources are too few to go round, hence we must hoard it all before ‘the others’ come and take it. We then employ our numerical strength in order to gain an advantage.
This discussion would by no means be easy or fun. A lot of it would hurt our feelings. I know what it feels to be at the receiving end of blames, especially when I encounter Southerners and they accuse the North of having destroyed Nigeria with their ‘born-to-rule mentality’, and it requires objectivity to admit that your people have been in the wrong.
But unless we start having these discussions, in small groups, online, in our schools and workplaces, in every way, formally and informally, we would keep hiding our heads in the sand and keep denying the existence of this problem while all the evidence around us points to the contrary.
Even more so is that if we peace-loving, good-intentioned and educated people do not initiate these discussions, we risk allowing it to be done by the unscrupulous politician or power-monger who will exploit these societal fractures for his own benefit; or to the angry masses who are often used as the foot soldiers in crises, mostly because they neither have the time, patience nor capacity to sit down and have these debates.
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