It was in back in 1999 when I was getting ready to travel overseas on a military assignment. While doing my medical/physical examination, I met a white military doctor that would conduct my physical. He smiled when he saw my name. “You are from Nigeria and you must be Ibo.” I said “yes”.
He continued, “From your name, you must be from Anambra State”. Still amazed by his knowledge of my origin, I said, “that’s correct, sir. But how do you know, have you been to Nigeria before?” He smiled again and said: “Part of my history was buried in the eastern part of Nigeria”. Still curious about what he meant, I probed further. The amiable white man told me that his father, a fighter pilot and a mercenary for the Nigerian government, was on a combat mission and his fighter plane was shot down at the Bight of Biafra during the Nigerian Civil war. At the time, the gentleman was about seven years old, and could not understand why his father would go to a strange land to fight for a strange government. He went further to tell me that he harbored that desire to go to Nigeria and research for the truth about what happened to his father. So after his medical school, he decided to go on a fact finding mission to Nigeria in the 80s. He had lived in Port Harcourt, Lagos and Enugu. He continued: “ Nigeria is a beautiful place with beautiful people. Have lots of smart and highly intelligent people, oh God”. He mentioned Professors Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Thambo and others that I have never heard their names before and many of them he met while in university and medical school. He stated that Nigeria is a country that if well managed cannot be stopped by any country in the world in anything and he stressed “anything”. He concluded by saying, “you know Nigeria’s problem? Bad leadership and also what you people call ‘tribalism’ which an equivalent to our racism here in the United States” He advised me that the younger generation including me should find a way of changing Nigeria’s fortune by first bringing in new generation of leaders that would change the trajectory of Nigeria. As if he was prophesying, he said that that day, would come in the forthcoming 21st century.
I was sitting there for more than fifteen minutes being medically examined by him and listening to his postulations and even forgetting that I was in fact on a medical examination. It was not a new thing for me to hear from fellow Nigerians complaining about the state of affairs in our home country, but coming from a foreigner and a total stranger was utterly amazing to me. After my physicals, I thanked him for the lively lecture about my country.
Since my encounter with the man, I have got a new insight about my country and about how other people view our country. Despite all we hear about the bad things Nigerians do, like 419 and drug peddling, there are good things many Nigerians do all over the world that the media do not see or highlight. I have been privileged to meet many people say good things about Nigerians. A former room-mate of mine described to me a Nigerian friend he had while in the University, he told me how with 2 jobs and lots of commitments his Nigerian room-mate had, he still come out tops in the class every time. He told me that his friend most times come to class very tired after working long hours to make ends meet, but would still make A+ in all his courses. He told me Nigerians are wonderful people.
It is same thing about good qualities that Nigerians have that made a certain man from Trinidad and Tobago to change his name to Omowale Ogbonna. He stated that he adopted the names of his two best friends because they are the best human beings he had ever had.
The above instances are the other view about Nigerians. It is sad that some people want to believe that an average Nigerian is capable of being a drug dealer or fraudulent person. We have lots of tremendous talents across the globe. But our destiny lies in our own hands. Many Nigerians scattered all over the globe work hard and bring changes to their adopted countries, and some never believe that Nigeria can change its ways. They are correct, only that it is when we fold our hands or sit on our hands and expect the same recycled cabals and their enablers who played to our ethnic or tribal fears and stereotypes, and have ruined the country in the process to continue to hold the country to ransom. As Barack Obama, the president-elect of the United States would say, “you cannot do the same thing over and over again and somehow expect a different result”
With the wind of change blowing, barriers being broken and records being shattered all over the world, I believe that Nigeria is not to be left out. Nigeria has to seize this moment to shine.
Many things have been said about Barack Obama unprecedented rise to be the first black president of a country that racism is a canker worm, but none is said about Nigeria’s and in fact Africa’s tribalism and ethnicism. United States has its own share of racism back in the days and even now.
However, nothing is said about ethnic cleansing in Burundi and Rwanda where the Tutsis, Hutus and Twas are always on each other’s throats. How about in Somali and Sudan? All these are cases of tribalism and are much violent and devastating that the racism that people parrot about. Africans always discuss race in America as if we are all clean of tribalism. How can we leave our own impediment to development and inquire about others with similar or even lighter problems than us. As the bible say in “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye...hypocrite, first remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye”.
America’s racial discrimination is a little more subtle and goes with code words but racial issues are very caustic. For a public figure or a politician to be accused of being racist in America is like being accused of mass murder. People treat you like a leper even though they have their own racist tendencies only that they don’t show it. There are some that are closeted racists, but they are careful not to show it. In the United States, people do not blatantly behave in ways that show their racial biases in public. For instance, a white man cannot call a black person “negro”, or “niggar” without drawing an outrage from people around, how much more if it is captured on camera. If the culprit happens to be a politician, that’s a political storms that would finally consume him. A case is point was when a US Senator, a republican from the Commonwealth of Virginia, Senator George Allen, was captured on camera referring to a supporter of his political opponent “macaca”. Senator Allen never recovered from that slip of the tongue as the comment fueled media frenzy. His political career was ruined as his opponent defeated him in that highly contested election. Conversely, a black person cannot call a white person “whigger” (a term that suggests that a white person acts black) or call him a “red neck” and so on without drawing same condemnation.
However in Nigeria, people get away with lots of behaviors that suggest ethnic and tribal biases. In Nigeria people get away with comments like “aboki nama” “nyamiri” “okoro” “ofe mmanu” “iyaji” and other epithets suggesting tribal biases and prejudices. In fact, it has come to be a way of life or a manner of expression.
Apart from the above tribal clichés, tribalism go a long way in deciding how a person gets a federal employment, university admission, sports and in every aspect of human endeavors. Nigeria is blessed with abundant human resources that if properly managed, can propel our country to a formidable nation in all spheres. I do not support federal character or quota system since they slow down excellence. Moreover, it does not work or aid development as was intended. You cannot force a he-goat to mate. People should be allowed to develop at their own pace or speed. Many people will disagree with me about federal character but I believe that it is used in such a way as to hold down the other sections of the country. We cannot sacrifice excellence at the altar of the so-called even development. I see federal character as an institutionalized discrimination, but that is a topic for another day.
Coming to the issue of tribalism, our country has been slowed down and lagged behind despite its potentials. We have lots of self-seeking people in government who rather practice cronyism, tribalism or ethnicism than seek out the best brains we have both at home and abroad and entice them to come and serve their country. It bleeds my heart to see Nigerian professionals and other talents scattered all over the world when their expertise could be tapped into for the massive development of the country. Name every career or profession and I will name about 10 Nigerians abroad that are among the cream of the crop in the world. But their expertise and skills are not utilized by Nigeria. The Nigerian government knows them but chose to turn a blind eye. I guess maybe because thy do not meet certain profiles or because they are not come from the favorable part of the country, or maybe because they have not campaigned for the job or for whatever primordial sentiment that came to bear.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo and even current President Shehu Musa Yaradua only pay a lip service to inviting Nigerian professionals home. However, what people fail to understand is that the Nigerian professionals are not about money. Many of them are really committed to serve their fatherland in a heart-beat. What they are asking for is for the government to create an enabling environment in the country. By this they mean that the government should do its primary duty which includes providing the necessary security of life and property, providing the basic things of life like steady power supply, health care, water, good road network, good aviation system and other social amenities that they are used to while in foreign lands.
There is this professor of medicine I spoke to few weeks ago about Nigeria issues. He told me that he is ready to pack his bags if the Nigeria can provide just the basic things of life and that he is ready to take just a quarter of what he currently earns here in the United States; which is an equivalent of working for charity.
However, for all Obasanjo’s bad deeds (and they are lots of them) I will give him some credits for at least experimenting with excellence over cronyism, tribalism or ethnicism. He deserves some credits for inviting the best brains who has vision and new ideas about how to manage the economy into his government. People like Professor Chukwuma Soludo or Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to mention a few; put their stamp in the economy. There are other examples of certain appointments that brought instant reforms in the government.
Nigerians have lots of people like them. In the health care sector, it is on record that out of foreigners that work in the health sector in United States, Nigerians accounts for more than 40% of them. We have many medical doctors, nurses and allied health care workers that rank among the best in the business. According to the Houston Area Survey, the newcomers from Nigeria have higher levels of education and professional skills than any other immigrant community interviewed in the surveys, including any and all of the Asians. Only 5% of the African immigrants now residing in Harris County have no more than high school diplomas; 62% have college degrees, and 35% have post-graduate credentials beyond college. Same study carried out by Oprah Winfrey showed that Nigerian has the highest number of people with graduate degree than any other group in the United States. We need to harness our potentials to the fullest. We should give the best people the job irrespective of where they come from. The best person for any job could be from anywhere in the country, as no section has the monopoly of wisdom or stupidity. We should reward excellence and hard work and not mediocrity.
Nigeria celebrated the fact that Yaradua is the first president of Nigeria with a university degree; it is in fact a sad fact though a milestone. But I believe that Nigeria is gradually coming out of the woods. However, to rejoice and beat our chest as if Yar’Adua is the best we can produce is ridiculous. It amount to celebrating mediocrity.
Nigeria must jettison the scorge of tribalism, must dig deep to see what we have suffered because of tribalism. The former presidents and their cohorts that practice tribalism had never advanced the cause of their constituents and tribesmen as most of their people are still mainly uneducated and could hardly compete in the new global economy. They can only depend on handouts from their benefactors.
Nigeria should jump into the change bandwagon and mend its ways. We cannot fold our hands and let the agents of division to keep us from achieving our full potentials.
Chukwudi Nwokoye writes from Maryland USA.