A lecture delivered by poet James Eze to mark the second anniversary of I-Witness Media Group on Thursday, November 5, 2020
I’ll begin this conversation by saying that I am human, Igbo and Nigerian. I became a human being at birth. Then my cultural environment made me onye Igbo next and then subsequently Nigerian. In other words, my humanity was first established before my identity. Through my humanity I share a kinship with the human race. I share the emotions, the panic attacks, the thirst for success and the fear of failure that plague mankind. My story is not a unique story. It is similar to your story.
Why then is it difficult to love someone who looks like us? How do we find it within our frame of reference to love ourselves but hate our neighbours? Why is it difficult for us to build a country where justice and fairness will reign? Think about this.
It is heartbreaking to realize that. 60 years after Independence, Nigeria has yet to win the genuine love and affection of her citizens. If there is one thing that Nigerians agree on regardless of tribe or religion, it is the belief that Nigeria has failed us all. I don’t know how that notion sprang up but many Nigerians believe their lives should all have been richer but for Nigeria. We are obviously the only people on the plant whose country chose to stand in the way of their progress. How true is that?
But I think I should say this: Nigeria did not fail us. We failed ourselves. We failed Nigeria!
These are my reasons for coming to this conclusion. The vast geography known today as Nigeria was not a wasteland before the colonial masters came. Iron smelting was going on in Lejja now in Nsukka LGA of Enugu State in 2000 BC. The Nok Culture in today’s north-central Nigeria dates back to 1500 BC. These civilizations predate much of the world’s earliest known civilizations. After them came the great Kingdom of Nri and the legendary empires of Kanem Bornu, Bini and Ife. All these civilizations were flourishing long before the white man came. They had splendor. They had beauty and they had aesthetics. They were clearly ahead of their time.
Now, how can anyone explain that the heirs to these wondrous civilizations do not have what it takes to build Nigeria in the 21st century? How can we explain that with all the advancement in western education and the dismantling of primitive fears and superstitions by science, the people whose ancestors built those great empires have failed to create a functional society for themselves? Once again I say, Nigeria did not fail us. We failed Nigeria!
Quite often, the argument is that Nigeria is a British enterprise created for the interest of Britain. That is a sound argument, isn’t it? The question is: what would our empire-building ancestors have done if they were confronted with this dilemma? I am sure that being practical-minded they would have sat down together and negotiated a peaceful co-existence for all parties. Isn’t it clear that the children of Mai Idris Aloma, the children of Oba Ozolua who won 200 battles, and the children of Ahibi Ugbabe who was the first female king in Igboland have failed their ancestors?
So, what shall we do now? I have heard some folks argue that the best option for young Nigerians is to look for a place where the grass is greener. But the outcome of the US presidential election last night has shown that when the grass turns brown in your garden, you spring up with determination and return it to green. In four years of Donald Trump, America almost made the list of the world’s shit-hole countries. It took the collective resolve of Americans to mount the struggle to give their country another chance. Can we give Nigeria her first chance, please?
I have personally had a tortuous relationship with Nigeria. I have carried out little acts of defiance like refusing to sing the National Anthem. I have felt rightly indignant with the uncaring treatment of fellow citizens. I have felt entitled to a better country without considering what I could do to make the one that God gave me better. But I am tired of waking up every day to complain about Nigeria while feeling too powerless to make it work. Nigerians are about the only people who wish for a better country but feel that it is the responsibility of their political leaders to bring it into existence. But experience the world over has shown that people create the society they dream. No one will fix this country but Nigerians!
Whether we like it or not, the #EndSARS protest has opened a window into the future of Nigeria. It has shown that our age-old differences don’t really count on issues of hunanity and that Nigerians are capable of rising above ethnicity and religion on issues of survival and justice. The historic crowd at Lekki Gate had people from different parts of Nigeria and different religions and persuasions. But they were united by one purpose – to make Nigeria more livable for everyone. That is the purpose that works. That is the future.
So, to young Nigerians I say: Do not inherit the bitterness of your fathers. Do not inherit his enemies, his prejudices and his wars. In due time, you will have enough of your own wars. But when the sound of battle is loudest, always remember that, from Zaria to Zanzibar, the colour of blood is red. We cannot change Nigeria with the mindset of our fathers. We cannot shape the future with the belief that someone lost or won a war.
To my Igbo people who still shed silent tears over the Biafran genocide, I say it’s time to forgive Nigeria. I inherited my father’s bitterness about the Biafran war. I have reflected it in my poems and essays. But nobody travels far in life with the mental horrors of victim-hood. We have lived as victims long enough. We have waited for the apology long enough. We must march forward now and engage Nigeria beyond commerce and trade. If our kinsmen and women can rise above racism and other prejudices in the diaspora to play leading political roles in their adopted countries, we must figure out a way to play more prominent roles in the political life of Nigeria without igniting the usual suspicions about the Igbo.
To my fellow Nigerians, I think it is time to finally live free in our country. Many Nigerians live in mortal fear of the unknown – fear of domination by the Igbo or the Fulani, fear of violence from their host communities, fear of secession and the likely outbreak of another civil war that might be more horrific than the first. Our only banner against fear is love.
The story of Sefiya Alli, the Fulani woman from Sokoto State whom I interviewed last week in Enugu, has shown me that love conquers all. Sefiya admitted in that interview that in her struggle to raise her 11 children, her kind Igbo neighbours remain her greatest support base. She mentioned, specifically, her landlord who in addition to allowing her live rent-free in his property also supports her with little gestures of love. Sefiya’s story is the story of what Nigeria could be if we lift high the banner of love…if we live our lives with the realization that we are human beings first before we became Igbo, Hausa or Yoruba later.
This is the new thinking we need in Nigeria of my time.
Eze is currently the chief press secretary to Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State.