Wednesday, 29th November 2023

To choose being British is not to slight Nigeria

Last month, after the UK General Elections, Abike Dabiri, the Nigerian Special Assistant for Diaspora Affairs, sent a letter of congratulations to seven newly-elected British Members of Parliament of Nigerian descent.

Abike Dabiri-Erewa

Last month, after the UK General Elections, Abike Dabiri, the Nigerian Special Assistant for Diaspora Affairs, sent a letter of congratulations to seven newly-elected British Members of Parliament of Nigerian descent. “The unique feat is further evidence that Nigerians anywhere in the world will continue to excel and make the country proud,” she wrote.

The letter, which went on to wish the newly-elected MPs well in their new posts, drew some criticism. There were accusations of the Minister (and by virtue the Nigerian government) trying to ‘reap from where they didn’t sow’. Most of the MPs in question, were born and raised in the UK. They all studied there and started their careers there, so why should the Nigerian government attempt to insert themselves inside their stories of success when they haven’t contributed to it? Others were critical of Dabiri’s focus on Nigerians outside Nigeria instead of concentrating on the home front and ensuring that Nigerians in Nigeria are afforded the same access to opportunities as Nigerians in the Diaspora.

Then a few days ago, at a ceremony in London for the 2017 Caine Prize, writer Molara Wood tweeted a response from Chi Onwurah, one of the recipients of Dabiri’s letter and the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central. According to Wood, who was seated next to the MP at the event, Onwurah’s response to the letter was simply: “I’m not Nigerian, I’m British.”

Her remarks were met with agreement by many in the Nigerian Twittersphere who bemoaned the idea of Nigerians ‘claiming’ Onwurah and her success, with Wood herself saying that such behaviour ‘suggests a lack of confidence in us as a nation, a lack of self-worth.’ While others said Onwurah was ‘denying her roots’ and rejecting Nigeria and that one day, if things got tough, she would eventually fall back on it.

I don’t view Onwurah’s comments as rejecting Nigeria, I see it as asserting her Britishness which is hardly surprising given her role as a British MP. But then, in spite of her political position, she has a right to determine her own national identity irrespective of her descent. She doesn’t owe anyone an explanation. Too often, people project their own interpretation of an individual’s identity based on their own criteria: this is usually levelled at people of colour, particularly in the Diaspora, where national identity can be a tricky subject.
For some, it’s as straightforward as ‘where you’re born and raised, is what you are.’ But for others, it’s not. Particularly for people of colour, whose ethnic and cultural identity can sometimes clash with their national one, making things a little more complex.

When I was growing up, the term ‘British-Nigerian’ didn’t exist. When people asked me where I was from (because the national identity of people of colour is often questioned), I would always answer ‘Nigeria,’ as a matter of fact, despite never having lived in the country before. I felt Nigerian. My parents were Nigerian, I ate Nigerian food, I had a lot of Nigerian names, and most importantly when the football came on, I was team Nigeria all the way.

In addition, sometimes I felt like I just didn’t fit in the UK. Having to go to specific grocery shops to get Nigerian food, specific hair shops to buy products for Afro hair, the everyday microaggressions, the elevation of black Britons when they excelled, and the abandonment when they fail; even the sight of the England flag, sadly hijacked by racists long ago, would serve as an acute reminder that in the eyes of society, my Britishness was not a solid bet.

For a long time, I felt I had a strong sense of Nigerian-ness, but that changed when I actually started living in Nigeria. Then, it quickly became apparent that I was not as Nigerian as I thought, in fact, I was pretty British. I was a product of the British education system. I spoke British-English and was told my mannerisms, beliefs and thoughts about life were ‘too British’. As much as I enjoyed living in Nigeria and felt a connection with it, I missed the shared sense of commonality, of Britishness.

For me, identity is not as simple as your heritage or where you were raised. It’s made up of different things, that sometimes shift and evolve. You can be British, Nigerian or both.  It’s for the individual to decide and to define. To choose one is not a slight to the other, it’s simply a matter of what a person connects with in the here and now.