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Arit Okpo: Divided We Fall

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I was on Twitter recently and started to follow a conversation thread; some people were chatting about their experiences in the North and for some reason, it alarmed me; partially because all the experiences were bad, all also because more and more, I notice a “Those people” tone in conversations about the North.

For a long time we’ve mocked the international press for their insistence on dividing Nigeria into a “Muslim North” and a “Christian South”. We mock because it is a very simplistic approach to the situation and shows a lack of understanding of Nigeria’s complexity, but somehow I worry that perhaps more of us are absorbing this mindset than we probably realise.

I served in the North – Zamfara to be precise. My experience was on the whole, positive. I started to speak passable Hausa, mostly because when I carried my guidebook to the market, the traders were so happy to see a non-Northerner speaking their language that they would correct me happily as I tried to ask how much tomatoes were or if this was today’s meat.

I used to chat with some deaf people who hung out by the market place. Unknown to me, they went to the State Directorate for Special Education to tell them about the corper who knew sign language. I was offered a job, with the department for Special Education in Gusau, sight unseen for that reason.

We interacted a little with the people around us, the corpers lodges were we stayed were in the school themselves and I learned to make accommodations for the culture I was in. I rarely went out head uncovered and my skirts were rarely above the knees. I wasn’t the only one.

When I started service, an older corper gave me some “advice”. “These students; you must flog them well or they won’t listen”. I approached my class with trepidation; 70 boys who were almost all much taller than I was. How would I cope? I expected sullenness and silence. I met bright young minds who would regularly divert my Chemistry class with questions like “Mallama what is winter?’ “Mallama what does Abuja look like?” I asked questions of them too, like “Why don’t you come to school regularly?” The answer, from a quiet young man; he was married, with his cows and a farm, what did he need school for? And I realised that I had no answer. Why should he come when no one had explained to him that education would help his farm yield more, help him nurture his cows, help him ensure that his wife gave birth in safety and his children grew up healthy. Chemistry lessons had no relevance to him; why had no one thought to structure the education system so that it would be relevant to him?

In Zamfara, the NCCF house in Gusau was a gift to NCCF by the State Government. It’s a huge expanse of land – enough land for an estate, on the outskirts of town. The Governor who gave them the land told the corpers that he wanted them to feel at home in the state and not to worry about the fact that it was a Muslim State.

I’m not painting an overly rosy picture – there were taxis that wouldn’t carry me because I was female, people who would not speak to me. But to be honest, I have also gotten the same reaction from Southerners – distrust, suspicion, closed minds.

One of the reasons why I mourn what Federal schools have become is because we learned early that these differences were not the things that defined us. When I was in school, an overzealous prefect decided that some Northern students should be punished for lining their eyes in what she thought was defiance of the no makeup rule. The Northern girls protested; lining their eyes was a part of their culture and wasn’t considered makeup. The punishment was quashed and the rest of us briefly considered claiming Northern ancestry so that we could line our eyes too.

It’s a silly example but this is my point – we were learning about one another.

My friend Fatima taught me about ablution and its significance for a Muslim. If I went to her house when she was about to pray, she would settle me in her room with a movie and a drink and then go into her corner to pray. On Christmas day, my first message would likely come from her. During Sallah, I would send her prayers and best wishes. She introduced me to Borno cuisine. I learned about her ways, she learned about mine.

When my family moved to Abuja, our landlord’s wife who we became quite friendly with would explain certain parts of her culture to us, contrasting them with ours and explaining why it was so.

When I had a church fast, another Muslim friend of mine would make meals for me each day to break my fast. She used the opportunity to teach me a little about Ramadan and we compared our different reasons and rules for fasting.

If there is any point I am trying to make with this piece, it is this – that we seem to have stopped learning about one another, and have changed our viewpoint to one of suspicion and collective mistrust, that we have lumped the good with the bad and have condemned all together. The systems that were designed to teach us unity have failed us; how can we learn about other parts of Nigeria when we are all working our service to Abuja to work in NNPC? Our Unity schools have lost the essence of the name. Our Universities, designed to be regional centres of excellence are becoming a shadow of themselves.

If we should be angry at anything, let us get angry at the fact that these structures have not been maintained or allowed to evolve. They have become a sad shadow of what they were created to be and in the process, have ensured that the cords that were supposed to knit us together have become a tangled mess.

We have common threads, the ways in which we are similar are – believe it or not  – more than the ways in which we are different. We love, we bleed, we cry, we die, we are hungry, we pray, we live. No matter which part of Nigeria we come from…no matter how many bombs explode…this is my plea –  let us not let go of the fact that we are one.

Photo Credit: Dreamstime.com/AmericanSpirit
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Arit is a Producer and Presenter on EbonyLife TV. She puts together EL Reports – a daily news show on the channel that celebrates Africa. She loves to write and is constantly inspired by the stories in people’s everyday lives. She daily challenges herself to live a life of gratitude. She tweets complete randomness @menoword

34 Comments

  1. Nuna

    June 9, 2014 at 10:43 am

    I COMPLETELY AGREE!!!!!. This is the message I always try to preach especially on Nairaland where its always one tribe against the other. Its nauseating! I went to a Unity school and we were completely shielded from this whole tribalism thing. We had Muslims and people from all over the country and we never for one day thought we were all different. We all knew one thing- that we are Nigerians. And I feel that is what it should be. Tribalism and hate only serves one purpose- to destroy the legacy we are going to leave for future generations. I know we are all from different tribes and all but our differences should unite us, not destroy us. That should be the message we all preach.

    Thank you for this piece.

  2. sisi

    June 9, 2014 at 10:48 am

    TBH, it is until you live with ‘these people’ that you will truly understand the diversity in our culture. i served in zamfara and stayed in NCCF family house. whenever there is a riot in town, police men r sent to samaru as soon as possible. visiting the hills and climbing the mountains and seeing and relating with the cattlemen was very interesting. regardless of our tribe, let us learn from our diversities and invest in our education also.

  3. Love

    June 9, 2014 at 10:57 am

    I totally disagree with this article- Its difficult for Nigerians to come together, there are just too many differences among groups for people to come together. Breaking up might actually be more beneficial to Nigeria. The phrase “Divided We Fall” does not apply to Nigeria- it is more like “together we fall” Nigeria has been falling since inception. We need a new approach.

    The discovery of oil has also added a lot of pain to Nigeria (greediness/corruption). If oil wasn’t there maybe the country will be more peaceful

    • Confuzzled

      June 9, 2014 at 11:58 am

      I shake my head at people who think dividing the country will solve problems. A border will only work when the countries on either side have cordial relationships. Look at India/Pakistan, look at Sudan/South Sudan… the immediate resort of divided nations with shared animosity is more civil unrest and war. Do you think we will magically reach peace if we draw some borders? Do you think poor relations between tribes will magically turn to love if new borders are created? Do you think we won’t have to deal with each other if we create new borders? Use history as a precedent before making an argument.

      Aside from that, lack of regional integration is a severe drawback to development in Africa, and Nigeria is affected severely. Getting goods from Nigeria to Cameroon is harder and more expensive than getting goods from Nigeria to Dubai/London. Who do you think loses in this scenario? Its definitely not the British or the Emiratis. There is very little freedom of movement, and doing business is made more complex than it needs to be. Do you think that people in a newly divided Nigeria will have an easier time doing business and growing their economies? After decades of people intermarrying, setting up businesses, etc in regions other than theirs, do you think it is so easy to divide a nation? Do you think that dividing a country involves using marker to draw a line in the sand? We need to think of the practicality of things before making such terrifying statements.

      We need to do the hard work of getting to know and understand each other as Nigerians. We don’t have to like each other, just a little bit of empathy is what we need. That’s the only way to survive. The world is becoming increasingly integrated, we would be going against the grain and putting ourselves on the losing side of history if we keep refusing to face reality and insist on breaking further apart. We are not as different as we think we are, and we need to be more open to each other. I really hope more of us realize this.

      OK. That’s my sermon for the day. I have been hearing all these divide Nigeria talks, and no one has succeeded in providing real, practical reasons for why that’s a good idea. Would love to hear them if anyone has examples. I mean, the best way to solve a problem is to face it, not draw a border around it right? Thanks for a great article Arit, we need more of this.

    • BA

      June 9, 2014 at 4:44 pm

      I totally agree with you Confuzzled and Nigerians please listen – “The world is becoming increasingly integrated, we would be going against the grain and putting ourselves on the losing side of history if we keep refusing to face reality and insist on breaking further apart”.

    • Reason

      June 9, 2014 at 11:59 am

      Love, I’ll like to tell you a story. A few years back (8 years to be precise) I was in a taxi in Abeokuta, Ogun state. An elderly woman got into the taxi and tried to negotiate a cheaper fare by speaking in what I suppose was a local dialect of a particular area in the town. The driver very quickly laid down the marker angrily that he wasnt from that area, he was from a different part of town. What am I trying to say? Here is a town of approximately 500,000 people who not only speak the same language but have a generally recognised dialect (Egba). Yet, this one man could still draw distinctions and use the term “those people” in relations to that woman. If Nigeria were to break into 5 or 6 different countries, I can bet my last dollar on the fact that these individual Nations will quickly revert back to the status quo. The Ekitis, Ijebus, Egbas, Oyos etc would quickly forget they speak one Language and focus on their differences. In my opinion, the black man is wired to focus on what divides him from the other black man than what they share in common. Its not a Nigerian problem. We must celebrate our differences but accept that those differences come second to Nigeria. I hope it’s not too late to hope and pray that our country remains one.

    • Tincan

      June 9, 2014 at 12:26 pm

      I couldn’t have stated this any better. This is what I always tell people, unless you want to break Nigeria into countries of individual tribes, the problems will still remain. And er, how about the governors that mistreat their own states people? How does dividing the country solve that?

    • Nina

      June 9, 2014 at 4:53 pm

      So how many countries will we break into? People always forget that Nigeria isn’t just Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. We have over 200 different tribes.

  4. Iyke

    June 9, 2014 at 11:00 am

    Brilliant piece.
    The day we start fighting against one another is the day we loose our humanity!

  5. Tosin

    June 9, 2014 at 11:05 am

    I applaud your patience in explaining what should be obvious.
    Something about the North. I think it’s freedom. But folks always want to draw lines and say some people are better than others.

  6. reverse

    June 9, 2014 at 11:05 am

    I largely agree with your article, I share the same views. However to say people work their nysc to Abuja to work at nnpc is quite careless. Have you forgotten the post election violence which claimed the lives of countless corpers in the north? So parents should keep sacrificing their children for the one Nigeria project? Inasmuch as we’d rather act like it’s all well and good, truth is that it’s not. While we pray for us to return to our former glory, we can’t wish away the pain and suffering that some have experienced in the north for being from the wrong ethnic group or religion.

    • mrs chidukane

      June 9, 2014 at 11:40 am

      Exactly. This was what went through my mind as I read the article.

    • Bobosteke & Lara Bian

      June 9, 2014 at 11:49 am

      I think she meant that if these differences DID NOT exist, people would not have to employ calculated means of securing their NYSC in particular states or businesses.

    • reverse

      June 9, 2014 at 2:56 pm

      “The systems that were designed to teach us unity have failed us; how can we learn about other parts of Nigeria when we are all working our service to Abuja to work in NNPC?” I have read it again, and still do not understand your interpretation

    • Menoword

      June 9, 2014 at 3:48 pm

      Hi Reverse, that statement didn’t mean that everyone should go to the North; it’s not a northern thing at all. It highlighted the fact that now many corpers work their way to urban centres that they feel will better suit them instead of waiting to see where they are sent and running the risk that they will be sent to some village somewhere. It didn’t in any way imply that corpers should risk their lives. Thank you

  7. Damsel says

    June 9, 2014 at 11:14 am

    This is the truth dat needs to be preached continously. I was born and raised in the north and believe me when I say I am a northerner by birth. The hausa lang is my 2nd lang and my native lang is 3rd. I spent 28yrs from birth in the north and it will interest you to knw that I got my first job in Lagos as a Customer Care rep all becos I can speak Hausa. So I sure agree with this article that let us all learnand benefit from our diversities

  8. 5'5

    June 9, 2014 at 11:29 am

    I agree with this post, only it might be a little too late. Our mistrust of eachother or largely the north has also led them to mistrust us. So i wouldnt think that the picture painted above still holds. WIth individuals, yes, within the community, no.

    I am northeren just incase you were wondering.

    What we need to do, is rise above the ‘fear’ or mistrust by first removing all forms of negative stereotypes from our actions and our words. that way, very soon, the distrust will be a thing a of the past and we can go back to the picture painted above.

    • Menoword

      June 9, 2014 at 3:59 pm

      I’d like to think we aren’t too late 5″5…I think we can work our way back from this

  9. Bobosteke & Lara Bian

    June 9, 2014 at 11:44 am

    I may be wrong, but I believe the import of the article is that we should relate to each other as human beings first; every other dictate should be secondary. If we cannot do that, even if the country were to be divided, the warring tribes may become warring countries. If the separation fails, each would continually blame the other for its woes- and you know the thing about passing the buck: you are so busy assigning blames, you forget to take responsibility for your actions as well.

  10. TheresaO

    June 9, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    Thanks Arit, I truly believe like you, that our similarities as Nigerians far outweigh our differences. Unfortunately the few people who are threatened by the strength of our unity will always use the “Divide and conquer” strategy to continue plundering us. I pray we realise on time that our enemies are not the average people who might be from a different tribe or religion, but the leaders who use our differences as a weapon.

    About structuring education to fit with the North, I have always wondered the same thing. Since the Ministry of Education knows the peculiar customs of the people in the North, why don’t they teach them relevant skills? For instance many girls leave school to get married, wouldn’t it be better to teach them Home Economics, Infant and Mother health related knowledge? What’s the point of teaching them Physics when they will not use it at? What’s the point of teaching a cattle rearer Chemistry? What’s the point of education if it’s not relevant?

    I hope someone who knows someone, will tell the people at the Ministry of Education to do the needful. 🙂

    • rudolfine

      June 9, 2014 at 2:23 pm

      Home Economics, Physical and Health Education, Agriculture are already subjects in the curriculum.

    • Menoword

      June 9, 2014 at 3:52 pm

      Hi Theresa, I do agree that our educational systems, across the board, need to be made more relevant to both the times we live in, and for many groups of citizens whose educational needs might be different

  11. NNENNE

    June 9, 2014 at 1:00 pm

    Nice article . We all know that there is power in diversity, population and unity. The question is why the intermittent killing in Nigeria? Why should people not feel happy and safe to live in any part of a country they call their own? Because the killings and destruction of properties have not stopped, that is why you hear muslim north and Christian south. In the USA, there is a lot of diversity but people tolerate each other. This is where I love Yoruba people most…there approach to religion. We all have to learn to live together. The reason why people are still talking about division is because of the in between massacres and destruction of properties. Our generation know nothing about the civil war. Let’s build a fair country that encourages hard work, healthy competition and merit.

  12. oh

    June 9, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    Hmm.Do you remember the female teacher who was burnt alive for throwing a cheating student’s Quran away. She was burnt by students! What if it was your precious daughter or your husband or you yourself? One Nigeria with murderers abi? I am not sure they were brought to account since Northerners are ‘untouchable’ and can cause JIhad? Arit what if it was you? Will this article still be yours? Feel free to consider all angles. Thanks.

    • Menoword

      June 9, 2014 at 3:50 pm

      Hi Oh, I do feel your angle, but the Aluu 4 were not killed by Northerners. Mob justice is a problem across all our geo-zones. I still think teaching tolerance is a better option

  13. pipi

    June 9, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    I think the unholy marriage was the worst mistake made by Lord luggard, we werent meant to be a nation. There is nothing as painful as the quota system, cut off mark for example for a state like delta and Imo 250 while zamfara is 50 or 30. Then you enter a place like NNPC northerns every where. Anyway the country can not be divided because of the vested interest in various parts, Northerns oil wells in the south and etc.

  14. Miss Anonymous

    June 9, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    Nice piece Arit. Echoed a lot of my thoughts as well.

  15. chinco

    June 9, 2014 at 6:16 pm

    I ‘like’ this article…

  16. christiana james

    June 10, 2014 at 11:32 am

    Reading this article just brought tears to my eyes. I remember with nostalgia what our country used to be like. One was free to roam, stroll without fear of the unknown but now reverse is the case. I grew up in the north, schooled, served and still working in the north. I am from the North central and I love the North. Recently a lot of water has passed under the bridge, there is lack of trust,hatred,violence and tribalism drowning what we used to have as a unified nation. There are so many good things to say about the North and also bad things which is also replicated in other regions of the country. When did we grow apart. Its really saddening. We need to go back to the very start when it was surprising to see someone speak your language and you warm up to that person, when we were willing to lend a helping hand to someone who is in need, when it was not all about I and my family but all about the community. I know things can never be the way it was in the past but we can help make our future a better place to live in. My thought. Shalom!! Long live Nigeria!!!

  17. Dorcas

    June 10, 2014 at 12:59 pm

    Thank you Arit. Am from the north. I recently lost an aunt in America. Her funeral was over whelming. Christians and Muslims from Nigeria were there to support. Igbo,yoruba, hausa came together to celebrate this iconic woman. We truely are one. Growing up there wereno barriers of ethnicity and religion and we can all recall peaceful and amazing childhoods. I remember during sallah the muslim neighbours would send so much food to my grandmother’s house, it was always a moment to share we did the same during every christian festivity. All these is gone with bitterness and strive amongst us. The truth is i worry so much for us now as Nigerians but most importantly i worry for my children’s generation. If we continue at this pace where will our children really call home? No matter what part of the world we go to we all yearn to come back home. Nigeria is home! We need to try despite the odds to unite for ourselves, for our children.

  18. TemiTayo

    June 10, 2014 at 5:55 pm

    I personally think the path our nation is plying now is not sustainable when viewed from different angels (like the future, ethnic unity, religious tolerance and path for every Nigerian to step out of poverty), I’d like to have a ”we are one world- one nation” dream, unfortunately that’s not the case, sometimes, we survive and escape unnecessary violence by staying divided, may God divide us from danger o.

  19. Toyin

    June 10, 2014 at 7:25 pm

    “pro unitate”
    Always so simply put and strikes a cord. Thank you Arit

  20. Save Naija!

    June 11, 2014 at 12:47 am

    Our political leaders have failed our country severely! They use us as pawns for their selfish aims. All their fault! Can you imagine if any of our president can speak fluent hausa, igbo, yoruba or any other Nigerian languages? Also imagine him in an Obama-like speaking engagement to a large crowd in the North, West, East, South, speaking in English and regional language, whipping the crowd into a frenzy of togetherness and ONE Nigeria? I wish we a had a political leader or leaders that have lived in different parts of the country and also understands that our differences is also our strength! We need an Obama-like president for Nigeria now more than ever! A UNIFYING force………. Don’t underestimate the power of emotional words like Barack Obama did in the his early days of campaigning for president of the United States, his words and emotions were very powerful in unifying many more people, the young, the old, whites, blacks, hispanic, rural America, urban America. It was a sight to behold! We need such in Nigeria right now!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Can anyone step up to the plate?

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