The Young and Disenchanted

Posts Tagged ‘Politics

This entry has actually been a year or so in the making… Recently I’ve been thinking a lot more about my relationship with religion. I was raised Catholic and although I believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I’m not so sure about little-boy-rapists, thieves and hypocrites. I’m not saying that any religion is perfect, but rather that one should strive for matter over content – that is, to seek spirituality rather than to constantly apply rules and labels to what some call “faith.” With that said, allow me to ruminate.

A year ago I went to a discussion on my campus about Islamophobia. While listening to the other people present (all of whom had grown up in the West), it became clear to me that the word Islamophobia can have very different connotations depending on the geographical and cultural perspective of the person talking. Most people think of the words “jihad” and “terrorist” in this post-9/11 world when the topic of Islam comes up, which makes perfect sense sitting in a brownstone on New York’s Upper West Side. However, as the conversation went on and the participants were asked to give specific examples of Islamophobia that they had witnessed, I realised that as a Nigerian my experience of this phenomenon was considerably unlike that of those who weren’t from my part of the world.

I was living in England at the time the September 11th attacks took place. I was there when the London bombings of 2005 happened. I had seen the television reports and heard the hostile comments that painted a picture of the average Muslim as a rabid fanatic hell-bent on destroying the values of democracy that make “Western civilisation” the best of all human societies. Although I could go further into the problems of this level of stereotyping, I think I may save that for another entry. The discussion actually made me think for the first time about the ways in which Islamophobia works where I come from. Because Nigeria wasn’t directly affected by 9/11, the whole “terrorist” discussion didn’t initially come up with regards to Islam (again, thanks, panty-bomber). What does seem to be a problematic issue back home is the relationship between Muslims and Christians. Nigeria is split roughly 50/50 in terms of religion between these two groups. The Muslims live predominantly in the northern part of the country, whilst Christians occupy the south. My city, Lagos, is probably the most diverse in the country because of its status as the commercial centre, and for the most part Muslims and Christians happily coexist side by side there. In other parts of the country, however, this isn’t necessarily the case.

The news has been filled recently with stories of “deadly religious clashes” in Plateau state, which is in the “Middle Belt” of Nigeria (the dividing line between the “Muslim North” and “Christian South.” The violence was horrific – burnt babies, men mutilated by machetes, women wounded in indescribable ways. Although this violence is labelled as religiously-motivated, other factors such as scarce resources, a lack of education and the consistent failure of the Nigerian government to build a cohesive national identity over the past 50 years are probably more central to the issue. Many people on both sides of the religion line see each other as so fundamentally alien, despite the fact that we are all citizens of the same country and the many intersections in our history, cultures and languages. I’ve heard Christians I’m close to call Muslims “uneducated,” “polygamous” and “close-minded” like these are terms exclusive to Islam. My cousin has told me stories of being called an “infidel” by her Muslim classmates as a child, classmates who just a day earlier had sat next to her and called her a friend. And when you’re struggling to scrape by as a farmer and water gets scarce, it’s probably easier to take your frustrations out on the person from a different tribe and village than on the gun-protected officials who don’t perform the tasks they were “elected” to do.

I was just reading an article by David Goodhart for a political science class in which he argues that the more diverse a society, the harder it is for it to be cohesive. This may be true, but I find it impossible to accept that Nigerians are so dissimilar from one another that they cannot possibly find a common ground. Islam and Christianity are no more radically different from one another than a Yoruba is from an Itsekiri. A friend invited me to Friday prayers on campus last week and listening to the lecture, I heard nothing that I hadn’t heard in a homily at a Sunday mass. I can’t speak for other places but in the context of my country, I think that these supposed “differences” between us – whether distinctions of religion, ethnicity or class – are being exploited and exaggerated by leaders seeking support for their kleptomaniac ways and bullshit “ideologies.” Of course, this is only politics as usual but seeing a man sob after his wife was buried in a mass grave with his children nowhere to be found, one may have to start rethinking some things. Nothing will ever change in the country if its people don’t have a sense of community with one another, regardless of whatever superficial differences we perceive among ourselves.

P.S. This Jill jawn right here is beautiful… even though it really doesn’t have much to do with this post, that line always stands out for me. Sura 31:18, by the way, reads: “And swell not thy cheek/(For pride) at men/Nor walk in insolence/Through the earth/For Allah loveth not/Any arrogant boaster.” Good advice to live by.

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Nigeria, my Nigeria…

Anyone who knows me is probably sick and tired of the amount of times I’ve said “I cannot WAIT to go home” in the past month alone. But I can’t help it – it’s been almost ten months since I was last in Nigeria. Ten long months since that red earth/hot sun/blue sky/sea breeze/palm trees/roast corn/go-slow/fast talk that signifies home for me. If you haven’t been to Lagos, start saving your money for a plane ticket right now. Seriously. There is nowhere else on this planet that is the same combination of cool/crazy/dangerous/beautiful/intense as my home city. Not only that, but going home means that I’ll be reunited with my family again. I haven’t seen my mother since April, nor have I met my adorable new niece, Amina, who was born in August. We’ve also moved into a new house in a different part of the city and have acquired a new dog (who’s butt ugly, but still). In just over two weeks I’ll be eating beans and plantain, watching MNET and indulging in the feel of the scorching sun on my back, a welcome break from the miserable cold of New York City in December.

But as much as I am looking forward to going home, I am also very sceptical about returning. Reading 234Next, a Lagos-based newspaper, has made me very concerned about the current state of political affairs in Nigeria – and by “concerned” I mean furious. For those who aren’t up on Nigerian Politics 101, let me explain: my country’s current president is Umaru Yar’Adua, a former chemistry professor who is a member of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The PDP has been in charge of Nigeria for the past ten years of “democracy” following the death of the military dictator General Sani Abacha. President Yar’Adua has been ill for most of his presidency. He has been making regular trips out of the country for “medical check-ups,” is rarely seen in public and has been neglecting some of his presidential duties. When he ran for the presidency in 2007, there were persistent rumours that he was suffering from a kidney ailment, and his doctors have recently revealed that he has a “heart condition.” Many Nigerians are worried that he’s going to die before his term is over in 2011, and as a result there have been calls for his resignation. In any other country, this would seem perfectly logical, right? Not my people. This weekend, six of the politicians who had led calls for his resignation were threatened by members of the PDP who showed up at their homes with thugs, ready to assault them. And it will only get worse. You see, the PDP is not so much a political party as a crew of old army friends who have ruled Nigeria in some form – whether democratically or in authoritarian fashion – since the 1970s and who have no intention of letting go of power. They are drunk on the country’s oil and the money that it keeps flowing into official coffers, and which they believe they have free rein to siphon off for their multi-million dollar mansions in London and fleets of cars. And President Yar’Adua is their personal puppet – despite his probably good intentions, the power of the PDP is so deeply entrenched that efforts to prosecute the corrupt have been severely hindered by political wrangling. One example is the treatment of Nuhu Ribadu, the head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, who was dismissed from his position by the Inspector-General of Police for actually doing his job rather than stealing. The president was powerless to do anything to stop this move, a sign of his political weakness that his physical ailments are doing little to help.

So why doesn’t it make sense for him to step down and the vice-president to take over? Again, my dear people: politics. The current vice-president, Jonathan Goodluck, is from the oil-rich South-South region of Nigeria (the part of the country from which I also hail). The PDP, which is dominated by Northerners, instituted a “rotational policy” of sorts regarding the presidency: they unilaterally divided the country up into six zones between the north and south, which the president is to be elected from in turn. However, the ethnic group that dominates the North (the Hausa-Fulani) benefit from this arrangement the most: in 24 years they would hold the presidency for 12 years in total (their exclusion of smaller ethnic groups in the same geographic region make it unlikely that they would allow someone from a minority tribe to be nominated for president), while the other two large ethnic groups (the Yoruba and Igbo) and the mix of Itsekiri, Ijaw and others in the South-South would only rule for 4 years each. Not only is this a problematic power fixation, but it also does nothing to dismantle the artificial ethnic divides put in place by the British during colonial rule which split Nigeria between North and South.

A further complication is the current constitution and how it defines the role of the Vice-President. Goodluck’s powers, now that Yar’Adua is technically incapacitated, are fairly limited: he can only act as president if Yar’Adua writes a letter informing the Senate and House of Representatives that says he can – which Yar’Adua has not done.  This isn’t surprising – I highly doubt that the people that actually run Nigeria would let Yar’Adua cede his “power” to someone who may, quite possibly, want to do the job of president properly and prevent them from taking advantage of the political system for their own benefit. What frustrates me is the way that the game of politics in Nigeria is played out within the confines of such a small circle. There is zero political transparency and no true representation in government – our supposed leaders make no effort in hiding the fact that they seek power for their own benefit, not for the benefit of their constituents. No popular movement or revolution can take place if people aren’t aware of the political process and the ways that they are being excluded from it.

Or are they? The Western media has increasingly picked up on one particular anti-government group in Nigeria: the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). This is a group of “militants” (for lack of a better word) who are seeking greater resources for the people of the South-South, one of the most woefully under-developed areas of Nigeria. Their main tactics have involved kidnapping and disrupting the oil production process – not the most savoury methods, but nonetheless highly effective at putting the divide between the people of Nigeria and their government on the national stage. The government couldn’t just ignore or shut down the militants when the oil money was being threatened – they had to negotiate with the fighters and are now finally channelling money into the region (and bypassing the corrupt state governors in that area by giving it directly to local governments). There are still tensions in the region and the self-interest of many of the militants who feel hard done by the recent ceasefire (read: they didn’t get the money they were expecting) could lead to more violence at the expense of the ordinary people in the area. There is, of course, far more to the current political situation than my knowledge allows for, but from my perspective these are among the most crucial because of their potential to destabilise the country.

I remember reading the Odyssey my freshman year of college and discussing with my professor the inevitably bittersweet nature of returning home. Sitting in this miserable library with a ton of homework awaiting me, the thought of warm, sunny Lagos, good food and the love of my family seem so incredibly perfect. But then I read the news that leaves me increasingly fearful that my country could potentially plunge back into civil war and wonder about the place that I want to go back to so much. Despite the problems hanging over Nigeria, I know that being home will be good for me on some level, at least as I am right now. What exactly the future holds for me and my country… I suppose I’ll have to wait and see. Right now, everything seems as devoid of answers as the paper I have due tomorrow is of words =/

P.S. Had to bring back the main man Fela for the title.

I was in the Met a couple months ago and got into a conversation about Africa with an 8 year-old girl whilst looking at an exhibition of fabrics from my part of the continent. It went a little like this:

Me:      Oh my goodness, I love looking at these fabrics ‘cos they remind me of home.

Girl:     Wait… so you’re from Africa?

Me:      Yes…

Girl:     Oh, I didn’t… so they have like, towns and cities in Africa?

Me:      Yes, I grew up in a big city a lot like New York.

Girl:     Oh… so do your parents live in Africa?

Me:      Yes, they do.

Girl:     Well… what do they do there?

Me:      Um… they work? And live…?

Girl:     Oh… okay. I thought everyone lived in little villages in the forest there.

Me:      *Dying to cuss her out but remembering in time that she’s only 8*

Thankfully, this conversation got cut short as we moved on to another section of the Met. But it illustrated for me the surprising level of ignorance about Africa that exists in this country. I wouldn’t have thought that anyone – elementary school kid or not – in the world’s most advanced country would actually believe that there were no cities in Africa. But this is just one example of a pattern that I have noticed since moving to the States.

I got asked recently by the op/ed editor of my school’s newspaper to write a piece about what brought me to New York City. In the email she sent me, she slid in a little sentence that let me know what direction this essay was meant to take: “As an African student at Columbia, I am most interested in your experiences in your home continent. Now, no disrespect meant to this chick, but sometimes I get a little tired of being asked to talk about Africa. Eager blonde-haired sophomores approach me all wide-eyed and bushy-tailed after learning that I’m from the motherland to complement me on my English and express surprise upon learning that yes, I do live in a real city and no, my house is not made of mud. This routine gets old very quickly.

This isn’t the only reason I get tired of talking about Africa. See, I have days where all I want to do is talk about home. Maybe because I’m freezing my arse off in my under-heated room (thanks, Housing Services) and all I can think about is the sexy humid heat of the equator that I’m missing. Or after my third day in a row of eating nothing but sandwiches, all I want is a big ass bowl of jollof rice with plantain, or beans freshly fried in palm oil, or some correct pounded yam balanced with banga soup on the side. But more often than not, it’s because something about my home continent has crossed into my world of classes, meetings and friends and taken me out of New York City and back to the streets of Lagos – some photograph or song or football score that has me believing for just one second when I close my eyes that I’m not here, but back home.

But there’s a flip side: almost every time I read the news off the BBC website, it’s always some kind of misery being reported about Africa. It bothers me that most of the time when Africa is mentioned in the mainstream media, it’s an extremely stereotypical view: genocide, AIDS, corrupt rulers – y’all know the drill. For someone born and raised (mainly) on the continent, it is frustrating to see my home presented as a primitive place. And this is why I do get tired: because when I try to challenge people’s stereotypes, I tend to be met with blank faces, at best. It’s almost as if no one in the West that I’ve encountered wants to see my home continent as anything but what the media depicts. Which leads me to ask the question: why do you ask me about Africa if you don’t want to know about the “real” place, the one that I have lived and breathed for the past 21 years?

This isn’t a topic that I can cover entirely in one blog post, and I’ll definitely return to it because it’s one that has shaped my world view. When I don’t have a ton of reading due, I’m going to expand on the article I wrote for the paper. All the things I couldn’t fit into the 900 words I wrote talking about how much New York reminds me of Lagos: from the massive pockets of wealth in Manhattan and Victoria Island respectively to the feeling of calm I get looking at the Hudson because it reminds me of the Lagos Lagoon. And not because anyone asked me to write, but because writing these things makes me happy. Or mad, or sad, depending on what I’m talking about. But most importantly, because they keep me connected to the one place that matters the most to me, even when I’m 3000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean: home.

For right now I’ll say this: being an African outside of your home country is an interesting experience. For me, it has meant having to struggle to disprove certain assumptions that people make about my continent. But it has also involved me having to face certain hard truths about the reality at home – the corruption, the ignorance that keeps people in poverty, the ways in which our leaders failed to live up to the dreams of independence. Maybe I’m realising these things because I’ve grown up and no longer see things through the eyes of a child. I know that, ironically, classes that I have taken at my college and books that I have read helped me understand the dynamics of Africa much better than simply living there ever could. And I can’t call myself an expert, but I hope that more people will ask me questions and actually listen when I talk about Africa, not just come to me with pre-held notions and blank out when I say there’s no safari in Nigeria. Because I know there is definitely a whole lot to be said.   

P.S. Kanye West and Chris Martin’s “Homecoming” was one of my favourite tracks off the Graduation LP. And even if I can’t co-sign Kanye’s “singing,” he always does have some fly ass videos, this one included.  Hype Williams is most definitely a visual genius.