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Chukwuma Okonkwo: Can we put this prejudice behind us?

By Chukwuma Okonkwo

Prior to the 2015 Presidential election in Nigeria, majority of the people in the south east had expressed their support for Goodluck Ebele Jonathan (GEJ), the former President, to run for a second term, and dissatisfactions with the All Progressive Congress (APC) and President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB). The support of the people of south east for GEJ under the platform of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was reflected in the outstanding votes that GEJ recorded against PMB. The Presidential election results revealed that in each of the five states that make up the south east the PDP won by over 75% of the total votes cast. The same results revealed that apart from Imo state where APC scored about 18.2% of the total votes cast, the then opposition party scored a maximum of 5% of the total votes cast in each of the south east states.

While the outstanding victory of PDP in the south east revealed loudly the sound of support that majority of Igbos blew in favour of GEJ, the meager votes that APC scored revealed, on one hand, the dissatisfying loud voices of the people of south east against APC (which was described by many as a northern party with a northern agenda), and, on the other hand, the echo of chronic prejudice that the people of south east have for PMB (who was portrayed as a religious bigot).

The dissatisfactions of the majority of the people of south east with APC and PMB were trumpeted loudly during the Presidential election campaigns across the five eastern states, but many political analysts thought they were nothing to write home about.

No doubt, the victory of PMB in the March 2015 Presidential election was a bitter pill for the majority of the people of south east. Given the litany of flowery and watery promises that GEJ and PDP had enticed the Igbos with, it was difficult for anyone in the south east to doubt the victory of GEJ. But politics is a game of numbers; hence elections are won by electoral numbers and not by visceral reaction. On the eve of the 2015 elections there was a popular view among the people of south east that PMB would turn Nigeria into an Islamic state given the narratives from his regime as a military dictator. That view was propagated across the south east states and was soft-sold to the gullible ears that cared to listen. The south east states sacrificed their electoral numbers on the altar of prejudice, hatred and fear. As a result, majority of south easterners became alarmists.

The first political appointments made by PMB were greeted with strong reactions, particularly from the south east. While alarmists saw it as a trumpeted warning that PMB and APC were out for a northern agenda, hence spread the myth like blockbusters, majority of naïve Igbos bought the myth. Thus the subsequent appointments, even the ministerial appointments that have the south east states represented, made by PMB were not given a friendly handshake; rather they were viewed from tribal idiosyncratic lenses. As a result, the belief of the majority of south easterners in PMB’s administration became identical to the belief of an atheist in the salvation of God Almighty. This is evident in public discussion forums, like social media, which have been beclouded by visceral reactions, rather than nourished with logical reasoning. Thus the logic that a newly formed government should be given time to find its feet is silenced with the overbearing view that the ruling APC government is already dead in the water. However, PMB-led APC government, like a lion seems not to concern itself with the opinion of sheep, which makes all the critiques roll off like water off a duck’s back.

When the water is polluted with blood, sharks will definitely come to feast. With the prejudice already formed in the minds of the majority of Igbos against PMB’s ability to lead a united Nigeria, prior to the general elections, it is not unconvincing to pursue an argument that there is a link between the preconceived prejudice of the majority of the Igbos and the current clamour for an independent state of Biafra by some groups in Igbo land. As late Maya Angelou once said, “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.” I am persuaded to argue that the agitation we see today across various Igbo lands strongly illustrates the direct costs of prejudice on a nation.

No human being was born with prejudice. Prejudice is something we humans created for ourselves. The evil thing about prejudice is that it satiates our minds with doubts about others and puts us on a pedestal where we think that others are not good for us. But the good thing is that the prejudice has exposed us to the need to think deeply about our collective responsibilities as citizens of Nigeria and how we can confront our ramified indifferences and inactions.

Though opinions may divide across the lines of arguments as to what triggered the current secession call by a group called the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), it is not a myth that before now this group and its promoter, Nnamdi Kanu, were inconnu. While popular opinions have heaped piles of blame on PMB-led APC government for mal-handling the arrest and detention of Nnamdi Kanu, which have been suggested to be the main explanatory variable in the equation of the ongoing secession saga, it will be hard not to doubt the validity of this logic, more especially in the context of the role of a state (Nigeria) in ensuring peace and stability within its territory. It is one thing (commendable) for a group in a state to pursue genuinely enforcement of fundamental human rights of its member, and it is another thing (lamentable) for a group to force the hands of a state through agitation for secession to release its member who has not fulfilled the conditions of his bail. It is frightening to see admonitions that Nnamdi Kanu should be released and put on security radar. In all good conscience, I cannot recommend that the federal government release Nnamdi Kanu without him fulfilling the conditions on which he has been granted bail. For me, if the federal government pursues (which I strongly doubt) the call of the people on the streets it will be setting a bad and untenable precedent.

It is a well-known fact that the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) has been on the front burner of the struggles to establish the state of Biafra. Despite the dogged stewardship of Ralph Uwazuruike to secure the resurgence of the state of Biafra from the previous administrations, his cracks were not strong enough to leave a fragment. MASSOB was emasculated during GEJ’s administration. In 2013, GEJ branded MASSOB as one of the three extremist groups threatening the security of Nigeria; hence outlawed the groups. Few months after PMB took oath of office IPOB reared its ugly head and people are dancing around the truth to call it prejudice.

Each time I see the pictures of the protesters- the youths in huge numbers across the south east states and even Rivers state- holding placards with all sorts of inscriptions that describe, on one hand, their inflated determination to their cause, and, on the other hand, the magnitude of their hatred for the country called Nigeria, I see faces of confused youths who have become hostages to prejudice because they have refused to learn from history. Whenever I watch the videos of young people- the so called future generations- enchanting war songs that best describe them as grandstanders, I see faces of desperate young people who have been tied to the chains of prejudice. Every time I read the threads on social media, particularly from those disciples of IPOB abroad, with the pictures and videos of them demonstrating in foreign lands, I see faces of weaklings who are hungry to propagate profusely all kinds of rhetoric to pass off their pieces of charlatanry of ambitions, like they are giving a hard sell to reluctant buyers.

We have kept this prejudice for so long; it has not taken us anywhere. Like I have said before, the good thing is that the prejudice has exposed us to the need to think deeply about our collective responsibilities as citizens of Nigeria and how we can confront our ramified indifferences and inactions. Here, I recall Sir Salman Rushdie’s quote: “If my child had prejudice in his head, I’d be ashamed. I would see it as my failure as a parent.”

  • Okonkwo, a member of the prestigious (Young) Institute of Public Administration Australia, writes from Australia.

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