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Abbiba Ivy Princewill: The Ethnic Empathy Gap In Nigeria

by on July 27, 2015
 

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This weekend I was talking to my closest friend,  Nengi. We’ve known ourselves for close to a decade and I told her you know for the bulk of the time we were in Secondary school I was actually living in a war zone. I lived in Port Harcourt at the height of the Niger Delta militancy; there was a huge presence of Nigerian soldiers, curfews at 7 pm. There were often gun battles and for over 5 years my parents and extended family could not visit my ancestral home in Buguma – an Ijaw village because it was a battleground. Now virtually none of my classmates in my boarding school in Lagos knew what was happening in my home state despite the fact that we supposedly live in the same country.

Sadly, my experience is often the norm in Nigeria. Where a zone/region of the country is experiencing a conflict and people in other zones simply cannot be bothered. Rather, we say to ourselves it’s those lazy Ijaws fighting with the Federal Government, I hope they get crushed once and for all. They are holding the entire country to ransom. Then Boko Haram starts its rampage in the North East. Nigerians in other zones say, it is those crazy Northerners again. They can kill themselves for all we care. Let them just remain in the North and not bring ‘this crazy’ down South, especially not Lagos.

Social scientists refer to this process of ‘othering’ the other as separate and distinct, from our own group as the racial empathy gap. It basically means we do not see those that do not come from where we come from, worship the way we worship and speak our language, as part of us. So the poor and helpless people been murdered by Boko Haram are mere statistics to us.  They have no names, no faces and no stories.We in the South do not really care about what they are going through. Their lives hold no value to us except to be used as a tool to extract political capital.

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This ‘othering’ of the other is not peculiar to Nigeria. It is often present in most multicultural societies –  for instance in the US you have the fear of the wild and dangerous black man and the hyper-sexual/angry black woman and we see the consequences of this othering of the other in police brutalizations of black bodies.  But, unfortunately for us in Nigeria we are in a more dire situation because  this  ethnic empathy gap is exacerbated by the sheer size of our diversity – 350 ethnic groups, 2 major faiths, and over 2000 languages combined with the struggle for scarce resources by a predatory elite.

The ethnicity question was something the Nationalists and intellectuals in the 50s and 60s felt that in a generation or two after independence will disappear. Sadly, that did not happen because we haven’t dealt with the fundamental structure of Nigeria that gives privilege to certain groups over others. Let me be clear, when I talk about privilege, am not saying the entire group benefits but there is an undeniable lopsidedness to the privilege that elites from certain groups get over and above others from other groups. This is the fundamental flaw in our nation that prevents us from having a true meritocracy. Where, tribe and religion no longer matter.

However, there is a new form of denialism that tries to glance over the rough edges of our country. This form of denialism is mainly espoused by a small but influential group of social media intellectuals who were born after the civil war who are  armed with their faux patriotism and in effort to be seen as post tribal and post-religious, loudly insist that tribe and religion do not matter in 2015 Nigeria. We want merit. I am often surprised and dismayed by their naivety and idealism. Of course in an ideal world, every Nigerian desires a meritocracy and hopes for the day when tribe and religion no longer matter, but  at the moment we do not live in that Nigeria.  Tribe and religion continue to matter to people. It is  present in the way they see, feel and experience Nigeria. You cannot deny people their experiences. To do that is not only unjust but it is a form of tyranny of the mind. Where you  are serving people a diet of hope and deceit.

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Furthermore, a point that is not often acknowledged by most of this new breed of Social media intellectuals is that many of the ethnic groups in Nigeria are so different that I will argue the only thing we have in common is color – skin color. Nigeria is like a continent with sub-nations in it and we must manage our diversity with care and eternal vigilance. You cannot wish away what people know and feel to be true. We must look our society in the eye, see the issues and deal with it as opposed to projecting our fantasies  and ideals on a society that is structurally flawed and designed poorly.

Finally, for our claim of ‘One Nigeria’ to be real, concrete and true-set in stone. It must move from mere expression to words, deeds and actions. We must go back to the point where we lost our innocence, our human soul and empathy as a nation. We must go back to the point when the rain started beating us. For me, that point was the Civil war. I do not want to go into the rightness or wrongness of the war.

I want to talk about humanity – the scale of the human loss. Other Nigerians sat by and watched 1 million people starved to death by their own government. We used food as a weapon of war and the other parts of Nigeria were quiet including my own group. Our Generation – the millennials – born in freedom – We must go back. We must go back and ask questions – why were we silent? Why was Nigeria silent?

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Until we deal with that issue of our complicity and silence- we will never be able to feel and cry together as a nation. When my house is on fire, I will cry alone and when yours is on fire, you too will cry alone. We must go back and heal that part of us- the first and oldest wound of our Nation. We need to have a national day for those that died during the war and say never again and mean it. It should be called national reconciliation day because if a nation can forget 1 million dead in Biafra. What is 2,500 Ijaws in ODI dead, what is over a 100 dead in Zaki Biam, what is the sectarian violence in the Middle Belt to us, what is 35,000 murdered in the North East by Boko Haram to us as a nation? If our collective souls can sweep out 1million dead people- if we have no scars on our conscience as a people with 1milllion starved to death. When will we ever have a conscience? I ask when will we ever care?

About Abbiba Ivy Princewill:

She has an LLB from King’s College London and is currently studying for an LLM in Securities Regulation at University of California, Los Angeles. She has deep interest in Finance, African Politics and the state of STEM education in Nigeria. Connect with her on Twitter here.

Disclaimer:

As an editorial policy, Breaking Times neither oppose nor endorse any opinion and contribution expressed by our writers and contributors. Contributions are strictly that of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Breaking Times.

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  • Bomo Albert-Oguara
    July 30, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    Brilliant article in its entirety.Just to add that ‘othering’is not peculiar to Nigeria.You could call it ‘small state nationalism’ also afflicting all regions of the world.Scotland just got out its own expression in the last referendum;and Alex Salmond former First minister of Scotland says its not over yet,that a second ballot may be on the cards given the surge of the Scottish National Party’s showing in the last elections in Britain.Othering or what she called racial empathy gap will exist for long as the earth remains.The ‘Tower of Babel’ is not a fable after all.In the final analysis.it is a strategy used to confer advantage on one’s own group in relation to another in the competition for scarce resources.The name is Politics.

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