Sadiq Daba, the actor, ran into some serious health issues recently. He cried out for financial help to undergo foreign treatment. Pronto, Nigerians reacted overwhelmingly. But wait. I did not hear anybody talk about Daba’s religion or ethnic group. The people who tweeted and retweeted his appeal for help, and those who contributed money, were certainly not from his village. I was so so so so so happy. It confirmed, yet again, my pet theory about Nigeria — that we do not hate each other. We are just victims of the unending political manipulation of ethnic and religious identities for selfish gain. Evidently, ordinary Nigerians have the “Nigerian spirit” in their DNA.
My grandmother, God rest her sweet soul, shaped my worldview when I was a little boy growing under her care. She had this amazing ability to be so proud of her Yoruba heritage and at the same time celebrating the best in people of other tongues. In the days of Operation Feed the Nation, launched by the military government of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo in the late 1970s, we planted tomato, maize and spinach in our garden. One day, when the tomatoes were ripe, Mama told me: “Have you noticed that when the tomato in the north is out of season, our own is due for harvest? That shows you God wants us to live together, to complement each other.”
I did not understand much of modernised agricultural practices then — I would have argued with her that you could have both tomato species all-season! But, forget my mischief, she was so broadminded. It must have rubbed off on her offspring. When my father’s younger sister wanted to marry a Muslim, she maybe thought Mama would not like it. As I was told, my aunty introduced her fiancé as “Moses”. It was only when their children (that is, my cousins) were being named Hakeem, Sherifat and Ibrahim that the family realised “Moses” was actually “Mustapha”! Mama, I was told, laughed off the trick with a rhetorical question: “Were we not all created by the same God?”
Indeed. I have met extremists and chauvinists from across religions and races. I am yet to hear anyone declare that we were not created by the same God. One of the most astonishing things about life, to me, is the fact that although we can choose to be Muslims or Christians, and so on, nobody can choose to be Hausa, Fulani, Igbo, Yoruba or whatever. We just woke up one day to find ourselves as members of one ethnic group or the other. It was not our making. So why should you discriminate against me, and hate me, on the basis of an ethnic identity that is beyond my control? Is it my fault that I was born into a family that was clearly not my choice?
In this “mindsets” series, my goal is to challenge the way we think about Nigeria. I am fully persuaded that since we have been doing things the same way for ages and we have been getting essentially the same results, the time has come for us to challenge our fundamental assumptions and thinking — and begin to consciously do things differently. As many commentators, analysts and public speakers have been pointing out over time, we need to reform our mindsets. As a man thinks in his heart, so is he. A mind moulded with hate, prejudice, greed and inordinate ambition will produce nothing but hate, prejudice, greed and inordinate ambition.
In the first part of this series, I wrote on “The President Nigeria Badly Needs” (January 7, 2018). I challenged our obsession with seasonal political calculations and permutations. We build our hopes on false dawns and heat-of-the-moment excitements every four years — and end up with more of the same. Something has to change. In the second instalment, “The Spirit of Lagos That Nigeria Needs” (January 28, 2018), I revisited the now rested “Spirit of Lagos”, a reorientation campaign by the TBWA Consortium, in partnership with the Lagos state government. I said Nigerian leaders and the citizens need to cultivate new mindsets to be able to build a new Nigeria.
Today, I am going a little bit practical on how we can renew our minds. There is a saying that Rome was not built in a day, a proverb originated by the 19th century English playwright, John Heywood, who also gave us immortal expressions such as “out of sight out of mind”, “better late than never”, and “the more the merrier”. He said Rome wasn’t built in a day “but they were laying bricks every hour”. This, in some sense, tells us the value of consistent hard work, perseverance and conscious efforts at construction. If Nigeria is going to change, therefore, we must alienate those who see themselves, first and foremost, as ethno-religious champions. It all starts in the mind.
But, pardon me, Rome was not destroyed in a day either. It took ages to build the city but took a much shorter time to destroy it. Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 AD. In three days, they looted, burnt and wrecked the beautiful city. That hastened the collapse of the Roman Empire. Same thing applies here: the destruction of Nigeria by ethnic champions and religious bigots will not happen in one day — it is a gradual, steady process. That is why we the people must guard our hearts jealously before we are recruited into the hate brigade under different guises. Those already recruited can decide to desert straightaway. We need to build, not destroy.
My suggestions. To start with, do not participate in the sharing of messages and materials that are clearly intended to preach hate and prejudice. Saying “shared as received” is pure hypocrisy. You can be critical of leadership without attacking or disparaging their religions and ethnic origins. As a matter of principle, I do not share messages that are clearly meant to spread hate. It is a duty I owe my conscience. We all have terrible things to say about other people. If we do not allow love to guard our hearts, we will keep adding fuel to fire. Therefore, before you press the “send” or “forward” button, ask yourself: what is my motive? Unto thyself, be honest.
Also, do not feed your children with hate and prejudice. Fill their hearts with edifying things. A senior colleague of mine, a Muslim, married a Christian, who then converted to Islam. He told me he once engaged the services of a cleric to teach his children the Qur’an every Sunday. One day, he overheard the cleric telling the children not to drink from the same cup or eat from the same plate with their aunts, who were living with them, because they were “infidels”. My colleague fired the “afa” on the spot. He remains a devout Muslim, sure, but he saw danger and immediately quenched it. This kind of hate messaging certainly fuelled the mindset that birthed Boko Haram.
This is how hate works: it focuses on what divides us rather than what unites us. If there are Qur’anic verses that say Muslims should love and care for Christians, the hate merchants will focus on where Christians are called “infidels”. If there are verses in the Bible that say “love your neighbour as yourself”, the messengers of hate will focus on “what fellowship does light have with darkness?” There is nothing you want to justify with the scriptures that you won’t find. If you truly have love in your heart, you will focus on the verses of love. The God that forbade eating four-footed creatures is the same God that ordered Apostle Peter, in a trance, to kill and eat! To the pure all things are pure.
And this is how prejudice works: because Chief Obafami Awolowo did not declare Oduduwa Republic in solidarity with Biafra in 1967, every Yoruba is a traitor — including the one that was born early this morning. Because an Igbo chap was arrested for 419, every Igbo person — dead, living or unborn — is a fraudster. Because Barkin Zuwo struggled with speaking English, every northerner is an illiterate; in fact, no northerner has a brain. Because of the insane activities of ISIS and Boko Haram, every Muslim is a terrorist, including your friend. Tragically, there are people that the only thing they can see in you is your language or religion, not the content of your character.
Let me quickly say this before I shut down my laptop and take a stroll: it is very difficult to resist the message of hate and prejudice in a society already polluted by manipulative politicians, their overpaid sidekicks and our inept leaders. I know. When everybody is saying there is casting down, it is very difficult to go against the grain and say there is lifting up. You just go with the flow. But maybe the “casting down” gang is not as big as the “lifting up” brigade — just that the latter has been intimidated into silence. They must begin to speak out. Rome was not destroyed in a day. Those working to destroy Nigeria neither sleep nor slumber.
As for me and my house, we resolved long ago that we would never feed our children with hate, prejudices and biases. These things are usually passed on from generation to generation. I resolved to follow the example of my grandmother by celebrating the best in others rather than focusing on their worst. I would rather talk about the dignity in labour you find among the Hausa, the creativity among the Igbo and the industry among the Yoruba. Accuse me of living in denial and I will accuse you of living in bitterness. Accuse me of being politically correct and I will accuse you of being self-righteous . Accuse me of being naïve and I will accuse you of being jaundiced. It’s all in the mind.