Connect with us


Uche Anichebe: The Trouble with Ethnicity



I am writing this piece from my apartment in Lagos State. Two months ago, I did not live here. I was one of those hundreds or thousands of newcomers in Lagos State, who had to grapple with accommodation issues. At first, I had to put up in a rather overcrowded and regimented corpers lodge, which was miles away from my place of primary assignment, so that as soon as the year commenced, I started a very desperate search for an accommodation relatively closer to my place of work.

The houses showed up and so did the troubles that came with them. There were the rather expensive, rather small, rather unventilated and other undesirable options that came my way.

At that time, two things struck me. The first is the gulf of difference between the written law and the law in practice. As a student of law, I came across several reformative laws which were enacted to provide remedy to societal issues. Of particular relevance is the Tenancy Law of Lagos State, which contains copious provisions aimed at making houses in Lagos available to all and sundry. The law forbids landlords from demanding rents in excess of one year. The applicable practice is a sharp contrast from the intendment of the law. Surely, if the draftsman were to take a stroll around most parts of Lagos State, he would be shocked at how the law is flagrantly disregarded and would certainly feel sorry for the efforts he put into drafting the fine provisions of that law. Whatever the size of the building, the quality of its structure or the level of its completeness and readiness for habitation, most landlords request for at least two years rent upfront. Some others are even bold enough to ask for three years rent advance!

One day, I and my agent came upon a building which was undergoing steady construction and the landlord insisted that we were to pay two years rent advance. Surprisingly, when I hinted Mr. Landlord of the Lagos law, he did not make any attempt to feign ignorance of its existence. He merely screwed up his face, and retorted sarcastically, ‘Fashola is a very funny man! Go and tell him that I said that just as he is the oga of the government house and treats it as he pleases, me, I am the oga of my house and whatever I like, I will do with it. Even if I want fifty years rent in advance, I will collect it and pocket it, and nothing will happen. Absolutely nothing!’

The second and more significant thing that struck me is the discriminatory considerations of agent and landowners in renting houses to willing tenants from other tribes. Weeks into my search for a house, I received a call from my agent.

According to him, there was a vacant apartment in a part of Yaba. I was elated by the news, but upon full disclosure of the actual location and condition of the house in question, I developed cold feet towards it. He gave me two days to make up my mind and conduct the customary inspection. But before the expiry of the agreed time, my agent called again. the landlady had changed her mind. Upon being told that I was Igbo, she had instantly expressed her disapproval. The information both mortified and amused me. I was mortified because but for that incident, I would never have believed that such tribalistic people existed; and never in my life had I been a victim of ethnic discrimination. My amusement stemmed from the fact that I was being denied that which I truly never wanted and for which I had displayed all the reluctance there are in the world. So with the wave of a hand, I decided to ignore the old bigoted woman and her rather unsuitable apartment.

My search continued and thanks to my agent, in a couple of weeks, another vacant apartment surfaced. It was undergoing steady renovation, and was prospected to be completed in a matter of weeks. The structure on ground held fantastic promises and the terms of tenancy were good. Since there were a couple of other interested persons, I decided to evince seriousness by depositing a large fraction of the agreed rent. Upon the completion of the house, I gave the Landlord a call, and informed him that I was coming that weekend with the balance of the rent and some of my baggage. He raised no objection, so I acted accordingly. Unlike the landlord, he did not pick my calls that morning. But because it was Saturday, I had all the time in the world to wait for him to surface. At noon he returned with a blank face and cellophane bag, which I would later find out contained the earlier paid deposit. He informed me that he had innocently assumed that just as my agent, I was Yoruba, but that upon enquiry, he had found otherwise. He said he had a policy that no non-yoruba, (especially Igbo) would reside in his house. I was helpless and tried to reason with him but he remained unmoved. As the time passed, my pleas and that of my agent metamorphosed into threats, but the man’s decision was firm like the rocks of Gibraltar. He threw the cellophane bag into my hands, asked me to count the cash therein, and no sooner was I done than he walked away with that gait of a man who thinks himself a god. My helplessness obviously bloated him! I was conscious of the fact that I had a large amount of money with me. Not wanting one bad tale to lead to another, I picked up my luggage and departed for good.

That situation did not amuse me. I was greatly pained and disappointed. Till date, I still struggle to come to terms with the happenings of that day. At the time, I felt the overwhelming urge to ventilate my right to non-discrimination in the Court of Law. Someone had to be sued and thought a lesson. Unfortunately, the Courts were in lock and key due to the strike action of the judicial staff and from my experience in law, I knew that it would be foolhardy to presume that the I would get justice as soon as I desired.
The Nigerian court process is slow, painfully slow. So, rather than chase shadows, I decided to attend to the more urgent need- my housing issue, after which I will go in pursuit of justice.

Some weeks later, my agent called. According to him, he had found a vacant house, but had had a tough time convincing the landlady to rent same to me. Just like the other landowners, she also had rather odd policies which bordered on ethnicity. However, owing to their long-standing relationship, he had successfully vouched for me, and she had given in to his persuasions. The negotiation process went through with success and that week, I moved in without any event. At first, I noticed that the landlady regarded me with scepticism, and acted as if she felt she had acted under duress when she agreed to rent her house to me.

At the time, upon the slightest misunderstanding, she would waste no time in reminding me of how she never wanted an Igbo person as tenant at the outset. But those days are over. Only few days ago, I overheard her telling a visitor of hers that though I am Igbo, I am one of the few tenants in the compound who do not give her any ‘wahala’. She must have thought that I was away, and so, was not cautious enough to assume that the walls may also have ears.

More often than not, Nigerians who venture to the Western world, come back with a tale or two of their encounter with racial discrimination. Presently, the ugly tentacles of xenophobia has a grip on South Africa and from the manner Nigerians lament, a foreign bye-stander would actually assume that Nigeria is bereft of all forms of ethnic discrimination. But that assumption would be far from reality. Beyond the prevalent discrimination on the basis of tribe and origin, we are very ,much inclined to hasty generalization and stereotype along the path of ethnicity. So bad it is, it has become some sort of national culture. There is a widespread fallacious insistence that all Hausas are humble but incurably primitive, all Igbos are industrious but inordinately greedy, while all Yorubas are confident, but egoistic and cunning in many respects. These are notions which I became acquainted with while growing up, but which I have never permitted to becloud my first impression of the people from these tribes.

On my way home from work one certain day, I sat behind a man and woman who spoke in tones as loud as megaphones. Their conversation turned to politics. Before the bus got to my destination, both parties had admitted that one of the candidates for the presidential election was more qualified, nevertheless, they unanimously agreed to vote for the other presidential candidate on the sole ground that that other was their ‘nearer brother’. The preferred candidate was neither from their state nor geographical region, but they hastily concluded that it was his ancestral roots that had greater proximity to their, and them, that was all that really mattered.

The above scenario gives an idea of the prevailing culture of ethnicity in Nigeria. It is a venomous seed which breeds hatred, envy and antagonism and of course, we reap whatsoever we sow. I am convinced that if Nigeria were free from discrimination, I would not go through the needless pain I went through getting an accommodation in the Lagos state; the landlord would have noticed that I was weary and kitted in my NYSC gear and would have presumed in my favour (especially as I had my luggage with me) that I was a new-comer who was in dire need of shelter and protection. Certainly, if my face were etched with any semblance of tribal marks, I wouldn’t have been a victim of the seeming conspiracy of the landowners I encountered; if this country were free of ethnicity, my Igbo colleagues at work would not have been unsurprised at my harsh experience, for they too had had their fair share of ethnic discrimination when housing was an issue for them; if I had been accepted as a Nigerian, without primary regard given to my ethic origin, I would certainly not have spent these long hours, writing this piece.

Photo Credit: Dreamstime | Daniel Sroga

Uche is a practicing lawyer who is enamored with literature. She is the co-author of the book, Whispers from the Desert and has written a good number of short stories.

Star Features