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On tribalism

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Albert Einstein

“It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us, the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”

– Albert Einstein, in his diary, between October 1922 and March 1923.

In other entries in his diary, recently published, he called China “a peculiar herd-like nation,” and “more like automatons than people”, claiming there is “little difference” between Chinese men and women, and saying the men are “incapable of defending themselves” from female “fatal attraction”.

The same Einstein would a quarter of a century later, say that “racism is a disease of white people,” join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), campaign for the civil rights of African Americans and say about racism in America, “I do not intend to be quiet about it.”

It is important to note that about three decades before Einstein’s diary entry, he had chosen to become stateless over serving in the German Wehrmacht because he had been a target of anti-Semitism, and as a result had acquired pacifist, tolerant views on humans, and believed that all humans were equal despite their situation.

So, how do we reconcile the apparent closet racist who wrote trash about the Chinese in early days of the Weimer Republic, to the liberal, who defended black people before the First World War, and after the Second World War?

How does all of this have a bearing in Nigeria?

A few weeks ago, the chairman of the Vanguard’s editorial board, Ochereome Nnanna, an Igbo man, made an ethnic slur directed at the Yoruba people. His statement, which I would not repeat, caused a lot of outrage.

In my view, most of those reacted to Nnanna’s gaffe fell into two broad groups – those who like him, and regardless of their ethnicity, hold bigoted views of other ethnic groups.

Such people immediately went on the offensive, and an ethnic slugfest emerged, as is depressingly usual in Nigeria.

The other set of people were those who are apparently unaware that there is so much hate in Nigeria, and many were distressed by what they saw. There is a third group – cynics, like me, who simply shrugged.

I think the second group, who I am more interested in for this piece, miss the point.

What is tribalism? Simply put tribalism is loyalty to one’s own tribe, party or group.

Which brings the question, what is a tribe? A tribe is a group of people united by either a common ancestor, a community of traditions, adherence to the same beliefs, or followership of the same, often historic leader.

By this definition, Igbo people are a tribe, as are Yoruba people, as are Nigerians, as are Super Eagles fans. As are Buhari supporters.

I am writing this from a hotel room in Moscow, having watched Nigeria play Iceland a few days ago, and preparing to watch Nigeria play Argentina in a few days.

In the game in Volgograd, I saw white skinned Super Eagles supporters, wearing the jersey of the Super Eagles, and jumping for joy when we scored.

Our biggest fan in that game was a Kazakh lady who learned ALL our songs. She and the other “foreigners” belonged to my tribe at that point, and this is something we miss back home in Nigeria.

Tribalism is basic human nature. People will always identify with that with which they are familiar.

There is nothing we can do about that. What we can do something about, is the fallout of how we handle this critical form of self-identification.

A decent example is this – our erstwhile colonial master, the United Kingdom, is essentially a country made up of four great tribes – the English, the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh.

I lived there for a bit, and it was during my time there that I learned that many English look down on the Welsh as “sheep shaggers”.

In fact, the ‘constituent nations’ of the UK have spilt more blood settling their own internal squabbles than we have spilt in Nigeria.

But that did not prevent them from building what was arguably the greatest empire the world has ever seen.

We have been constantly inundated with the gospel that we are an inherently flawed country because of our diversity; that tribalism is the root cause of our national woes; that we are, as one commentator put it, “a cacophony of tribal singers.”

In a country with an estimated 170 million people and up to 500 different ethnic groups, it is near impossible for us to achieve consensus on anything of political, economic or social significance. The reality could not be further from this fantasy.

Nigerians need to understand that we will always have differences, and these differences will on occasion lead to friction and open conflict.

The important lesson to keep close to heart is to form the ability to put these differences aside and build a nation.

What more than a century of amalgamation and nearly sixty years of Independence has shown is that we are so far failing at it.


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