“The only fence against the world is a thorough knowledge of it.” – John Locke, 1693

A couple of weeks ago, I was privy to be a part of a conversation about the present state of security in Nigeria. This conversation burgeoned out of a discussion on travel and tourism in the country, and how much the North stands to lose economically if the current Boko Haram insurgency is not dealt with.

Almost everyone in the room agreed that the extremism of a few terrorists, seemed to be negatively affecting the image and livelihood of all the other devout, well-meaning and open-minded Muslims in the North – which made it harder to promote a cross-cultural dialogue to address the common issues that we all face as Nigerians. After a couple of minutes of everyone in the room emphasizing and reemphasizing the same point without anyone putting forth any solutions to the problem, all of a sudden, one of the individuals in the room – a young artist – declared: “Listen, I believe that all we need to do is take these extremists to one of those old Ramsey Nuoh movies, then treat them to a big cheeseburger at SFC (Southern Fried Chicken). Then, they’ll really understand that not everything that the rest of us do is bad.”

Of course everyone in the room burst out laughing the moment he was done speaking, as the suggestion was absurd and utterly farfetched, even to the speaker. However, a few hours later, when I narrated the incident to a friend – a student of International Affairs – her response was: “If it were only that easy.” Being a student of the “think outside the box” school of thought, I began to wonder whether trying to understand the activities and the mindset of the people behind Boko Haram would yield any positive results like the Jonathan administration seemed to be suggesting as a motive for pushing for a dialogue with the leaders of the extremist sect. In a Monday, August 27th article in the Nigerian Guardian entitled: “Presidency Explains Dialogue with Boko Haram,” Dr. Reuben Abati, the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, described the Boko Haram insurgency as a “multifaceted phenomenon” that must be checked at many levels. What this means is that the Jonathan administration is trying to adopt a holistic approach to solve the security situation in the country, by not only relying on the military and strategic capabilities of the Joint Task Force (JTF) commissioned to curb the group’s activities, but by also by using means such as dialogue and diplomacy – which consists of trying to understand the other side – as a secondary tool.

I began to wonder if President Jonathan’s new problem-solving approach (which we must endeavor to remember is still relatively unproven in the case of the extremist insurgency in Nigeria) could also be used to try to solve some of the other problems the country is currently facing, such as the extreme ethnocentrism and racism that we experience in the country today, which is often expressed across cultural lines as jokes and stereotypes formed from conjecture (See the Monday, August 27th Sahara Reporters commentary: “Ethnicity, Hate Speech And Nation-Building” By Jideofor Adibe).

If you really think about it, as an individual, how much do you really know and understand about the ‘other side?’ Even more importantly, how much time have you taken to actively understand – not agree with, but understand – the perspective(s) of the other side? At this point, in order to avoid any unwarranted contention, before we advance any further, I believe that it is best that I clarify what I mean by “the other side.”
The ‘other side’ as used in this article is merely meant to convey the difference found between individuals (and groups). From the moment we are born, and as we progress through life, we are all endowed with experiences that place us beside, or apart from, all other individuals (or groups) in our species. The people with whom we share commonalities (religion, language etc.), can be said to belong to the same group that we comes from, while those that differ from us automatically become our ‘other side.’ For example, some people believe in God, some do not. Some people believe that the universe is controlled by higher powers – which they believe is not necessarily a God, while others do not care if there is a God, and just want to get on with their lives. All four of the aforementioned beliefs concern the same subject, yet the beliefs are varied. In other words, each of the aforementioned beliefs has another side.

Similarly, Person A might like Tuwo Shinkafa, Person B, Amala, while Person C, without having an aversion to the choices of Person A or B, prefers to stick with what he has eaten all his life: Starch and Banga. Yes, clearly, the preferences of these three individuals are different, and as such they are automatically at dissimilar ends of the same spectrum, but not explicitly at opposing ends – all they are to each other is on another side. So, to Person A, the other people that like Tuwo Shinkafa are on his side; Person B is on the Amala crew with all his other friends with similar tastes and; all Person C and his Starch and Banga soup companions care about is their Starch and Banga soup. Now, let’s throw in a wrench.

Suppose Persons A, B and C were part of a three-person food appreciation society, and they were each asked to reach a consensus about which meal they believed was the best among the three options at play, all without having tasted any other dish than the dish they knew and liked. What do you think that they would each say? Exactly…

Now, let’s try to make this even more complicated. Let us expand the food appreciation society to include one hundred other people who like Tuwo Shinkafa, another hundred that like Amala, and yet another hundred that enjoy only their Starch and Banga soup. With this expansion, imagine asking all the members of this society to come up with a consensus meal – without having tasted any other dish than the one they were used to.  Obviously, without having tasted Amala or Tuwo Shinkafa, the people who prefer Starch and Banga would insist that their meal was the best. Similarly, we can conclude that the Amala people would reject both Starch and Banga, and Tuwo Shinkafa as their preferred choice; while the Starch and Banga people would insist on “only Starch and Banga! Nothing else!” – all the perspectives in question stemming from conclusions drawn from an insufficient understanding of their other sides.

Ladies and gentlemen, it goes without saying, but the appreciation society in question is meant to portray Nigeria. However, instead of having only three distinct groups separated by their favorite foods, we have over 160 million people, from over two hundred ethnic groups, that are spread across thirty six states in six immensely diverse geopolitical zones. For anyone that thought the Tuwo Shinkafa analogy was complicated enough, with each person having only two ‘other sides’, imagine how many ‘other sides’ the average Nigerian has when we factor in language, religion, socio-economics, location, political ideology and/or skin tone/color.

Think about yourself for a second. How many ‘other sides’ do you have? Think about all the aspects that define you. Now try to imagine one hundred and sixty million other possible combinations that are the same, similar or different from yours. Should you constantly have your daggers drawn at the people that do not fall into your various categories – while only seeing those that fall within the same category as friends? What about the people that differ from you in some aspects, yet identify with you in others? Should they also be considered your enemies where they are different? Or should you endeavor to look at them for what they really are: complex individuals like you on another side of the same human coin?

Many people from all ends of our intricate Nigerian spectrum tend to focus solely on how we differ from one another. This (for lack of a better noun) phenomenon, as noted by Jideofor Adibe, in his Monday, August 27th commentary, shows itself constantly whenever Nigerians “congregate” to “discuss the Nigerian condition.” We always tend to not only dress ourselves in our cultural, religious, or geographical identities (“I am Urobo”, “I am Animist”, “I am from North-Central), but to also put down the corresponding identities of our counterparts on the various other sides of our manifold spectrum. Although such a mindset may seem harmless and inconsequential at face value, at a closer inspection we will find that over time it places a stiff roadblock in the way of acquiring unimpaired perspectives, and as such limits our understanding and appreciation of the uniqueness of others in our community – and by being a part of our community – also places a limitation on our understanding of ourselves.  

This week, without necessarily compelling yourself to agree with a perspective that differs from yours, try to take the time out to (at the very least) ‘understand’ its foundation. Try to put yourself in the shoes of a Nigerian that is different from you. Try to understand what drives him or her to make the various decisions that he or she makes. We will find out that once we set aside our preconceived notions about those around us – especially those that we feel are not like us – we will begin to understand what makes them tick. And maybe, just maybe, in time, like President Jonathan who is now trying to begin a dialogue with the leaders of Boko Haram, we can find long lasting solutions to our common problems, equipped with an understanding of the strength and weaknesses of the other side.

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