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Race and ethnicity: What is the difference?


There are different phenomena that continually keep humanity apart, race and ethnicity, unfortunately, lead the line. Literature and History are replete with bizarre instances of racism. Wole Soyinka’s poem, Telephone Conversation, Dillibe Onyeama’s novel Nigger at Eton, and Toni Morrison’s novel, Black Boy together with many works of literature recreate the reprehensible effect of racial prejudice. Racism provided the galvanizing impetus for the radical activism of Martin Luther King Jnr. who fought for the rights of blacks in America. Today, his epoch speech, I have a Dream, is studied across the world for its inspiration in the continual struggle for a new world. Also, South Africa for many years was caught in the strangulating grip of racial prejudice which impaired the identity of the black man. Many musicians and writers achieved global acclaim for confronting the monster of racism with their music and creative works.

Lucky Dube, through the instrumentality of his music, Oswald Mtshali, through his poem, Night Fall in Soweto, all paint a gory picture of the life of the black man in apartheid South Africa. When the edifice of racism was partially dislodged in South Africa with the release of Nelson Mandela, the whole world celebrated the event. Today, the names of those who promoted racism are firmly etched on the walls of historical infamy while those who fought the scourge are celebrated as heroes across the world.

Gradually, ethnic prejudice is gaining momentum in Nigeria, consistently eroding the fabric of our oneness. Some people will argue that racial prejudice can’t compare to ethnic prejudice. Such people may be right because they have not been denied their rights, or become victims of hate simply because they come from a particular ethnic group in Nigeria. Ethnic prejudice is subliminally enunciated and tactically propagated by ethnic bigots in Nigeria, those who are soaked in the dew of ethnocentric psychosis. Sam Omatseye’s novel, My name is Okoro recreates the tragic fate that befell those whose names betray their ethnic origin in the build-up to the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. King Odewale, in Ola Rotimi’s The gods are not to Blame, killed a man in the defence of his tribe. Today, within different establishments in Nigeria, government agencies, civil service, and universities, the hammer is unduly brought down on one’s head due to his ethnicity.


It is more disturbing that the embers of ethnic bias are fanned and more pronounced in universities across the country by those who should ordinarily be custodians of knowledge. It is shameful that within universities across Nigeria, one’s ethnicity is one’s crime. Some professors in Nigerian universities are deeply steeped in ethnic prejudice. Some faculties and departments actually adopt ethnic prejudice as an official policy so that some persons from certain ethnic groups are never employed in the university. To a well-meaning mind, this is the lowest level of human degradation and unfortunately, the public is not unaware of this trend. If indeed, Nigerian universities can promote the culture of ethnic segregation, what then is the hope for our country’s aspiration to unity?

Unfortunately, Nigerians are quiet about ethnic prejudice unlike racial prejudice where people spoke out, writers, musicians, and political activists roundly fought against it. Is it that we have decided to accept ethnic prejudice as a fact of our national lives and move on or should we all hands up and pay lip service to one Nigeria in the name of national unity? For blacks who did not experience racism, it didn’t exist until they became victims of the condescending practice. For many Nigerians who have not experienced ethnic prejudice, it may not exist until a time when they are directly or through a close friend, relations or loved ones denied an opportunity due to their ethnic origin.

For a start, the government must abrogate the quota system. Every Nigerian should have equal opportunity to aspire for self-fulfilment in any part of the country irrespective of his ethnic origin. The last general common entrance results for children seeking admission to federal colleges call for a critical query. While a child from a particular state is required to score 65 and above to be considered for admission to a college, his counterpart from another state is required to score 10 to be admitted to the same college. Sadly, the ones with the low scores will go on to occupy various leadership positions while their more brilliant counterparts from other parts of the country will become mere civil servants or struggling business persons. It is this kind of injustice which has defined our claim to unity that has made some people lose faith in our country.

Some people have lost contracts due to their ethnic origin. Some people have lost job opportunities due to their ethnic origin. Some senior military or police officers have been victimized because they disciplined a junior colleague from a different ethnic group. It is hopeless to imagine that some Nigerians have actually altered their identity, changed their names to reflect a different ethnic group generally favoured in the scheme of things. I am immediately reminded of Arthur Fugard’s play, Sziwe Bansi is Dead. Identity alteration is the worst kind of self-denial, it connotes death by instalment. Indeed, some Nigerians, rejected in their fatherland due to ethnic prejudice, have gone abroad to blossom in their chosen career and in this way, our country continues to lose her best hands.

This is the time for the ministry of information to revive or create a vibrant national orientation agency to educate people on the dangers of ethnic prejudice. This is the time for writers, activists, musicians, and columnists to rise with one voice and condemn ethnic prejudice because it continues to saturate our social space in diverse degrees even if we haven’t experienced it. This is the time for the government to criminalize ethnic hate in every stratum of our national lives and promote the spirit of oneness among Nigerians which is fading fast.
•Adiele wrote from University of Lagos, Akoka,


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