My father's generation will never relinquish their tribalism, but my generation has thankfully learned to look forward.
When I was 17, a tall, handsome doctor fell in love with me. He left Nigeria, shortly after, for his residency in America, and proceeded to prove how much he was still in love with me by dispatching mushy Hallmark cards every week – to my university during semester, and to my family home during holidays. Eventually, my father could bear it no more. He summoned me for a tête-à-tête. Along with his address, the smitten doctor always scribbled his name on the colourful envelopes, hence, my father could detect his tribe. "You must never get involved with a Yoruba man," my father warned. "They are wicked."
I didn't blame my father for those sentiments. Like most Igbos, he felt bitter and marginalised. And there was nothing much they could do except murmur and rant because they had already fought for secession … and lost. Even though the official verdict after the Nigeria-Biafra civil war was: no victor; no vanquished.
Throughout our childhood, my parents had regaled me and my siblings with a stream of "during the war" tales. Of the endless traffic when every creature in our hometown, Umuahia, was fleeing the imminent arrival of the Nigerian army. After hours of inching along and swallowing his thirst, my father reached for a rusty can lodged in the mud, scooped from a roadside puddle and drank. Of how my mother didn't have much to show for her years of schooling because the soldiers who invaded Oguta ripped her books to shreds. Of when the war ended and the then finance minister, Obafemi Awolowo, declared that each Igbo was to receive £20, irrespective of how much was in their accounts. Awolowo was Yoruba.
But something else happened after the war. Aware that venomous tribal sentiments were behind most of Nigeria's post-independence troubles, our government hatched an idea. Special schools in every state. These would be the best. Fees would be subsidised. They would also have a quota system that ensured as many tribes as possible represented in their enrolment. Therefore, children from the hinterlands of every region would have the opportunity to mix. Lured by the high academic standard on offer, parents rushed to register their wards for the super-competitive exams into the federal government colleges.
At 10, I left home to attend FGGC Owerri. Over the next six years, I shared the same dormitories, ate at the same tables, played pranks with classmates from various ethnic groups. I discovered that not all Hausas concealed daggers with which to stab Igbos, in their underwear; that not all Yorubas were cantankerous traitors. The curriculum also forced me to learn jaw-breaking phrases in strange Nigerian tongues. Outside language classes, speaking "vernacular" was banned. And during morning assembly, all 1,500 students stood erect and belted out our school anthem:
The guns of battle were all silent
The smoke of destruction blown away
The lips of war were sealed
And the scarring almost healed
When our school was born to herald a new day.
Nigeria, we all make thee a promise
To serve thee with strength of heart and brave
To build and not break down
Bury quarrels in the ground
So that those who died may not have gone in vain.
Eventually, the brainwashing was complete. Apart from when my parents referred to Abimbola as "your Yoruba friend", and Rahila as "your Hausa friend", I hardly remembered any differences between us. With this mentality, I applied to the University of Ibadan. Not only was UI widely acknowledged as "the first and the best", but it was far away enough from Umuahia to allow me spread my wings without parental interference.
My father went ballistic. UI was in Yoruba territory.
"They are wicked," he insisted. Plus, the city had a history of turmoil. Even my mother had fled UI, following the election riots of 1965, eventually completing her degree in the Igbo-dominated Nsukka University.
His advice went in my ear and did a U-turn right out. Like most teenagers, I was sure that my father knew nothing about life.
It turned out that he was right; Ibadan was the headquarters of spontaneous civil unrest. And since I was in the midst of many who never got the opportunity to attend a "Unity School" like I did, Ibadan was also my matriculation into the intriguing world of Nigerian tribalism.
I met Igbos convinced that everyone speaking Yoruba in the vicinity was conspiring against them. And Yorubas provoked whenever an Igbo dared to contest a school election. And Igbos deserting Yoruba girlfriends in favour of Igbo brides. And Yorubas horrified when offered an Igbo meal. It was all quite pitiful.
As Nigeria celebrates 50 years of independence from Britain on 1 October, I'm thankful for the privilege of attending a federal government college; of learning that we all are basically the same. I'm also more determined to keep the promise I made to my country all those years ago: to build and not break down.
The smitten doctor has never been back to Nigeria. Last I heard, he was expecting a child from the Yoruba wife he met there in America. Then, in two lavish ceremonies in 2009, my sister got married to a – gasp! – Yoruba man. With my father's approval!
Had the passing of time led him to finally forgive? Of course not. There really isn't much hope for his generation in terms of relinquishing tribal sentiments. Our only hope is our youth. My father was probably just so eager for his daughters to get married that even if either of us had dragged in an orangutan and presented it as our groom-to-be, he would have approved.
*This piece was originally published in the Guardian newspaper, UK