By Dare Akinwale
It is commonly agreed that the greatest sense of national pride and unity among Nigerians is felt during international football matches, when Nigeria is playing against another country. During those tense ninety minutes, all the footballers, the fans in the stadium and millions others watching are united in their anticipation for the winning goal. And even after the match, victorious or not, we are still united in our wild jubilation or complaints. There is no other event that creates this strong oneness and brotherhood among Nigerians like football; that makes us forget that we are so diverse and different among ourselves. However, I think during this season as we prepare for the elections, another sense of unity should pervade our national consciousness but without the reckless euphoria of football.
I use the expression “national consciousness” because many times, our strongest feelings of affinity are expressed at tribal levels. We are conscious of our states of origin, our tribes and languages, not just as things of cultural pride, but mostly for the security it provides us. The word indigene is used to describe those who come from a particular state, town or local government and I have observed that it is used with a lot of passion in the south. Those who do not come from a particular state remain strangers to the bona fide indigenes, even if they have lived there for thirty years. The implication of this classification is that the stranger has no claim to the benefits of that state in form of jobs, scholarships, community services and so on. I do not think this is fair, neither is it justified by the reason that things have always been done that way. A resident of a state who has contributed to the state’s economy and peace for many years is no longer a stranger and should not be treated as such. This has always been my position on this issue and during the voters’ registration; I had more reasons to think that way.
On the day I went to register, while awaiting my turn, an argument arose at the centre between two people. A woman was shouting at a man outside and hurling abuses from an impressive repertoire of the most caustic invectives, which the abashed fellow was unable to match in his stuttering rebuttals. Silence prevailed for a moment, and then the man uttered something in the Ikwerre language that infuriated the woman and she began to curse him in English and Ikwerre until we succeeded in calming her down. Even then, she still had more words to say, she explained that the man was deriding her because he was an indigene and he thought she was a stranger. With her left hand pointing west she declared that she came from Rumuomoi, a small community in Port Harcourt about ten minutes drive from Rumuagholu where we were. I winced in my seat as I heard her speak, wondering if I could refer to my own Ibadan hometown over 500 kilometers away in defense of such an accusation. Some of those who were seated empathized with the woman and agreed that she had the right to claim indigene status, that the man was an irresponsible indigene.
While the registration continued, the topic of discussion centered on the indigene issue; with many people claiming that nobody could harass them, as they were full-blooded indigenes. I mused about what the man’s opinion would be about me; if he would consider me an indigene because I had been lived in Port Harcourt for over eighteen years. Would he accept me because our family house was now in his hometown? What if I married a girl from there, would I have at least a partial claim to the land? One of my neighbours in a prophetic turn of mind had predicted that I would marry from among the Ikwerres, because I already looked like them. I found the prospect attractive, and told my neighbour it was not impossible, considering all the beautiful girls the community is blessed with. But I don’t think I would be regarded as anything other than a stranger, even if I married the daughter of the chief. These are sentiments we have to deal with in Nigeria in every state, and in some places like Ibadan and Abeokuta, where insular feelings run very high, the stranger is always reminded of his place even if this reminder is wrapped in a joke.
In spite of this general situation, it is interesting to observe that the elections indirectly provide a unifying platform on which people of all tribes are empowered to decide the kind of government they want, not only at the national level, but most importantly at state and local government levels. The Igbo man in Kano can vote for the governor, state representative and senator in a place that is not his home state, because he wants the better life the candidates have promised to deliver to him and his family. All strangers living outside their states of origin are not strangers when it comes to choosing their representatives in that state. So why should a government deny certain benefits to non-indigenous residents of a state because they do not hail from there, even though they played a crucial role in bringing that government to office? I don’t think it is proper. If I voted for a government that promised me good things, why should I not be eligible to apply for state scholarships or state jobs because I bear a different name? We need to change this situation from the norm. Every state in Nigeria owes its progress – however little – to all its inhabitants, including the multitudes of non-indigenes making their living and home in the state, and so they all deserve to eat of the good of the land they have tilled. The true indigene of any state is the Nigerian indigene, who is hardworking, industrious and peace-loving building the country from his/her state of residence. Incoming governments need to bear this in mind for the sake of the development of their constituencies.
The voters’ registration exercise has yielded different kinds of reactions among those who have registered and those who still wish to register. Some are pleased with the exercise, many are frustrated with the inefficiency of the registration and many others just want to get registered before the final day. In general, however, a lot of people are registering every day, collecting their voter’s cards and waiting for the elections when they will cast their vote. As this process is going on, we are expressing our collective desire for a new government that will truly serve us. Like football, this election has brought us together in our efforts for a common goal. We must realize how important this is and let the benefits last even after the elections. By April, all over the country, we will be voting for a new president, governors, senators and representatives, many of us will vote for people outside our tribe and religion because we believe in them. Another bold statement we will be making in the loud voices of our votes is that it is possible for us to succeed as nation and we accept everybody, irrespective of our tribal and religious differences.
And we pray that in the aftermath of the elections, when the new government begins its tenure of service, we would have moved closer to our promised land of an ideal Nigeria.