By Odera Okakpu
The first time this question was ever posed to me I assumed I was being asked from whence I came. I was 10 years old and checking into boarding school for the first time. Subsequently, I realized the question was about my state of origin. Initially, it was a usual question coming from anyone older than I, and I could understand — they came from a generation where it was easier to relate with someone they could identify with. And even if you were not from their state, if by chance they had married or had lived there, the conversation would spice up just a bit.
However, in recent times especially after leaving Lagos for university in Yola, Adamawa, and now national youth service in Abuja, I have noticed that even young people now pose the question within seconds of conversation. I dare say some “gentlemen” now use it to decide which girls are worth pursuing with one boy posing the question to me and stating “ah, I can’t date an Igbo girl oh.”
This issue is definitely not a figment of my imagination. In fact it seems more rampant than ever. A friend recently expressed the same exasperation; everything in Abuja particularly, revolves around ethnicity. She even explained in disgust how after writing a job exam for a certain parastatal they asked them to write their states of origin on the front of the exam sheet.
Looking for a job or a place to live anyone assisting you would start off the conversation keen to know what tribe to place you in. If someone were narrating a horrid tale of someone’s bad behaviour someone would chime in “Where are they from?” The uncommon nature of my name causes people to ask me within seconds of introducing myself. Whereas if I come across an unusual name I simply ask, “Oh, where is that from?”
Nigerians are obsessed with ethnicity. The implication of this is that we are innately causing enmity between ourselves based on preconceived notions of tribes and regions. We refuse to allow ourselves open up if we cannot immediately identify. And if by chance a connection happens before states of origins are shared after a laugh you will hear “where are you from?” as if to justify the camaraderie shared.
Once I refused to answer a young gentleman that posed this question to me and his frustration was appalling. “I’m a Nigerian, what does it matter where I’m from?” “It matters oh, you can be my sister.” “I’m an only child and I know my family members. Are you looking for any of yours?” He stared at me in disgust and was obviously uninterested. This is why tribalism still exists. It has seeped down from older generations and we have embraced it blindly. And it never just stops at tribe; it continues to state, local government, village, religion, and all tiny irrelevant details to have more in common with one person. It’s as if exclusivity were to solve anything.
What is happenning in this country is brazenly akin to racism. Ironically, when Nigerians travel abroad, they complain in honest astonishment about how foreigners perceived them to be fraudsters simply because they identified themselves as Nigerians. Some have even complained of being searched thoroughly on suspicion of smuggling drugs. Nigerians that have recently moved abroad will cry woefully on how they are not welcome in certain places because of prejudices against Nigerians. Meanwhile, in our home country, we are readily behaving the same way: Making assumptions about a person or preparing how you would relate with a person based on what part of the country we are from.
The depth of tribalism is bottomless. The tensions and agitations make the country feel like we are in a silent civil war, every tribe against every other tribe. It’s about time we drop our parents’ sentiments and move forward. How do we ever expect to achieve unity with this attitude?
Odera Okakpu via linkedIn