I read that it takes at least 25 years for the human brain to fully develop. Exactly when and where I picked up this information has become unclear. All through my secondary and tertiary education, I had always thought of myself as having a good perception of the world around me. Some of my cousins still lived in houses built with red clay, I knew that. Everyday I saw the families that lived in batcher houses down streets with small kiosks filled with provisions that they used to feed families of four-five children. Poverty was all around me and I lived in a cocoon. I lived in a house built with the salaries of two civil servants. My parents had saved up enough money to provide more than adequate shelter, to buy a generator for the nights that NEPA left us in darkness and many other things I have always taken for granted. I never lacked food and I had proper education. Things today that I am deeply grateful for.
All these privileges were the norm to me growing up. Those that lacked it, lacked it for some reason that could be blamed on their own lack of self responsibility in their lives. I could never be like them. I was going to be an author. I was going to have a successful career. I call this the “folly of my youth” because I never really understood what self responsibility was. How it changes from person to person, country to country, ghetto to city. What is self responsibility to a child born in a war-torn nation? What is self responsibility to a child born in the village to a poor farmer? What is self responsibility to the son of a rich man born with access to the best the world can offer? What is self responsibility to the unemployed youth with no proper connections to link them to well paying jobs? What is self responsibility when there are no opportunities? No Nigerian youth is a stranger to the mantra, “read your books, study hard and pass your exams, so you can be a doctor, lawyer or engineer”. Outdated tools given by ill-equipped and underpaid teachers that only prepared us for an economic environment that existed in Nigeria decades ago. I am 23 years old when I realise that I was born in chaos, when the realities of my world hit me like a cold bath on a harmattan morning. Nothing separates the rich from the poor, me from my cousins in the village, but opportunity and luck. Our forebears of the Nigerian economy, those that prepared the stage for our arrival on this earth, have shrunk our opportunities to almost nothing. What we have forgotten is the true meaning of community responsibility and that is how you begin to fail the children of tomorrow.
Growing up, I was conditioned to accept the limitations of my world. When I was 6 or 7, my older brother borrowed a copy of the first Spiderman film on VCD from our neighbours. I remember the scene where MaryJane slips and her lunch tray goes flying in the air, Tobey Maguire as Spiderman zips in and before he’s about to catch her, her lunch tray and all her food perfectly on it, the electricity goes out in my house. It goes out all over my town. It does not return for a full year afterwards. My neighbour’s Spiderman is stuck in our VCD player for over 365 days. Our neighbours weren’t even upset about it, if it hadn’t gotten stuck in our player, it would have been stuck in theirs. I quickly understood that power was a privilege for African children like me. To be enjoyed in small and fleeting doses.
Quite recently I began to ponder the dangerous predicament in which I exist. A country where a man can walk into my home, shoot me and get away with it because the term “law enforcement” is a farce. A country where one medical emergency can leave me and my entire family in financial ruin, that is if I’m even able to get proper medical care from our dilapidated medical institutions. A country where travelling from one state to another can be a death sentence whether it’s from our crumbling road networks or from the bandits that kidnap travellers for ransom. I’ve begun to question my own freedom. How free am I really when there are so many life threatening oddities I have to delicately sidestep like I’m an escape artist in the private performance that is my life. What is my value as a human being on the surface of this earth when the institutions that are supposed to protect that value are almost non-existent? When death is as close as one unfortunate medical emergency or one unfortunate encounter with police whose very job is supposed to be to protect lives they take with reckless abandon. Things I had never questioned before because of my implicit trust in my elders, my trust in the systems they had built.
It scares me today, the extent to which I did not understand the world around me. I had been a child brainwashed with flimsy ideas of principles upon which the world ran. One of those principles. “Respect your elders”. All Nigerian children know this. It’s drilled into our brains. Respect your elders. No matter how foolish their opinions are or how much they degrade you with insults. Respect your elders. I should respect these police officers that extort me and threaten my life because I dare to own an iPhone. I should respect these politicians that loot public funds meant to make my life easier. I should respect this President that acknowledges on live TV the pain and plight of the youths’ EndSars protests, condemns the use of excessive force on civilians and yet under the cover of darkness and away from the cameras of the press, his military shoots live rounds into crowds of peaceful protesters. At what point exactly do we stop to contemplate our respect for these elders that threaten us with violence and kill us in the night so the world can’t hear our screams? Why must we respect evil old men?
I am 23 today and I sit in silence, freezing in the front seat of my boss’ air-conditioned sedan. He is the Clerk of the committee on petroleum resources in the lower house (House of Representatives) in the National Assembly, I am a member of the National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) posted to his office and when we have to work at his office late, he usually drives me part of the way home. He is a Hausa man (a Northerner), large and dark skinned. I am Ijaw (a Southerner). The silence is always heavy with tension but that could just be me. I am a quiet person and wait for him to start any conversation for me to reply to. He doesn’t and the silence hangs. In it, my mind begins to wander to places perhaps it shouldn’t. It wanders to the deep tribalism that has divided my nation into four Cardinals (North, South-South, South East and South West) with major tribes dominating each region while the needs of hundreds of minorities are forgotten and the North trying to dominate all. It wanders to a history so bloody that our current animosity towards each other begins to seem dangerously ripe.
Established on the 22nd of May 1973 by the Military Head of State Yakubo Gowon, the National Youth Service Corp was founded on the principle of promotion of national unity following the conclusion of the civil war (Biafran war). Against this backdrop, Gowon’s administration fostered the idea of sending Nigerian youths to work for one year on another side of the country. I imagine how tough this idea was to swallow for my parents' generation. A Northern Head of State sending youths from the South to the North after the Anti-Igbo Massacres of around 30,000 Igbos and other people of Southern origin that led to millions of easterners and southerners fleeing the North. Events that would eventually culminate in the Nigeria-Biafra Civil war. A genocidal war which the Biafrans (Igbos) lost and were then given 20 pounds to assimilate back into Nigeria irrespective of the amount of money they had beforehand, instantly thrusting millions of middle class citizens into poverty. I think of this as I think of my mother telling me as a child to learn how to speak my native tongue, Izon. “You never know when war will break out,” she would say, “and you will need to be able to identify yourself by speaking your language”. As a child this sounded like a joke to me, I shake my head today at the green eyes I used to see the world. I never knew how close to the realities of war I lived, the battle lines drawn by the division of tribes long before I was born into this world. Battle lines already drawn for my children and my children’s children.
Now, nearly 5 decades later I rub my hands for warmth in my boss’ car and wonder what has changed. The Northern Elite still dominate us. Them and the same old men from the major tribes that have struck power sharing deals whose only aim is to siphon the countries resources for themselves and brutally suppress all opposition. We’ve successfully traded white masters for black ones. The Fulani herdsmen and Boko Haram massacre Nigerians in droves while the bureaucracy of our National Assembly debates on what brand of cars to award themselves with public funds. I sit across from this Hausa man and wonder what he sees when he looks at me. Does he see family in me or rivalry? Does he see a son to take under his wing or does he see a foreigner? Have we really become one family under this geographical demarcation some white men drew almost a century ago? If we have, why do I still feel like a foreigner in his land?
America tells me of the hate perpetrated by white men, here we are all one colour and we hate each other still. Racism, tribalism. Different names for the same thing. Hatred and fear in the human heart. Why should I hate a man because he speaks a different language? Why should I hate him because he calls God a different name? Why should he hate me? What is that thing in our hearts that makes us fear that which is different from us? I remember going to the market to buy some clothes with an Aunt, the owner of the shed was an Igbo man. After he and my Aunt had a heated exchange while bargaining, my aunt yelled at him, “Abeg abeg I no dey for this your Biafra rubbish” and walked off. I had a lot of close friends who were Ibo which prompted me to wonder what tribe and the nation of Biafra had to do with bargaining. Today I wonder if I had no friends to use as a template to dissect this incident, if that was an interaction I would have just absorbed as normal, stereotype and all. “Na so Hausa people dey do, try insult Quran whether dem no go cut your hand”. “Igbo people like money too much, dem fit even sell you take”. In modern day Nigeria, you can find these generalisations for almost any tribe, the Ijaw with fish and kai-kai, the Yorubas with parties and excessive use of pepper in food. Prejudices and stereotypes calcified into what passes as knowledge and codes of conduct and then handed down from one generation to the other.
I was 19 when I returned home from the University one May. I’d been down with malaria for a few days and even with the drugs I’d taken, it hadn’t abated. My mother urged me to come home so I did. When she first glanced at me at the gate, it’s not the smile that I expected that I saw on her face. She frowned and said “Why are you keeping all this hair? Why won’t you be falling sick when you look so unkempt?” I’m not a stranger to this kind of belittling. I find myself at odds with my parents' vision of who I need to be, sacrificing pieces of me to please them. Who decided that black hair in volume was automatically dirty and improper? It is these same rules that the police used to molest me and peers on the street. Why is it a crime if I let my hair grow out or if I want to braid it? Why is it a crime if I wear ripped or skinny jeans? Why is it a crime if I’m not good enough at school? What if I want to make music unlike anything you’ve ever heard? What if I want to make art that makes you weep? Who made these rules about who we are allowed to be? Who is the architect of this cage that I must force myself into? How do we break free?
We are not free when droves of youth emerge from universities and have nowhere to work. We are not free when the police harass, rob, rape, jail and kill the youth based on nothing but how long our hair is or the clothes that we wear or our brand of phones. When our parents tell us “Oh only if you had cut your hair, only if you didn’t dress like that, only if you behaved yourself and didn’t go out so much you wouldn’t be bothered by the police”. Why do you harm us so? Don’t you see the trap in this design? The politicians and rich one percent get richer, while the youths and the masses starve. And yet it has been decided somehow that the problem with society is the youth’s freedom of expression. Why do you decide for us to be sheep led to the slaughter without commotion? Sometimes I wonder where the fault lies, when one generation harms another and a cycle is set in motion. Who fights then when you have all fit us into your tiny ideological box of who you think we should be, what you think we are? Who fights for our future and our children’s future? Who fights for our rights to be unabashedly who we are? To be free?
I am 23 when I become certain that there’s nothing wrong with how long my hair gets, or the type of jeans I want to wear. I am 23 in October of 2020 when I see the youths of all 36 states of the Nigerian republic protest for a new Nigeria. A protest forged from the pain and death that has become our experience as Nigerian youths. I am 23 when I proudly call myself a Nigerian for the first time, when I see Nigerians as a united people for the first time and not just the remnants of a colonial business arrangement. Maybe the pipe dream that is our republic is beginning to become a reality. Lately I find new meaning in what it means to be Nigerian. To see green-white-green dance in the sky and know that it is a symbol for me, to feel the soil beneath my feet and call it my home. I am Nigerian and this is beginning to be important. I understand now that I am part of a generation that sees themselves as the children of the nation and not just the children of a particular tribe. Maybe it’s due to the increasing globalisation of the world, the worldwide interconnectedness that has branded us as one in the international eye. Maybe it’s global migration policies that have made it more difficult for us to flee this burning home. Maybe it is all of these things put together.
Regardless, today I believe in this dream of Nigeria as one nation. That these multitude of people can come together in love as one family of many tribes. I believe that the President, the members and senators of the National Assembly, the Justices of the courts of Nigeria, the Inspector General of the police and every single law enforcement agent, all the individuals that have directly contributed to the death, corruption, suffering and have indirectly perpetuated and profited of these systems of injustices, they are all our parents. That SARS officer that extorts and exploits the youth, that kills and hides our bodies in the bush is somebody’s father. And I want to ask them, what do you want the future to look like? Why do you want to shape us to be like you? Do you want our future to be like the past that we still suffer from today? Where we live in a nation that hates itself because of how different we all are within it? I want to ask them if they still have the vision to see the future through the haze of all these differences that cling to their eyes like cataracts. Because I can. And it looks so beautiful. It’s my job to make it so. Please don’t kill me before I can.
It stops us. It stands in front of the taxi and shakes its raffia attire. I’m seated at the backseat, left-side window of the taxi, and I put my head out the window and see an endless number of masquerades stretched down the road, all of them donning wooden white masks punctured with holes
First of all, they are Nigerians. Who wouldn’t be happy to be Nigerian? I am totally enthralled to be a privileged citizen of a country that works perfectly well.
I am leaving Nigeria for the first time and Lagos is that last rehearsal before my final departure. Lagos does not pretend to be anything else or care that I have been journeying since morning on a slow moving bus from Nsukka. Even at 9 pm, it bristles with sizzling energy in the twinkling dark.
I read that it takes at least 25 years for the human brain to fully develop. Exactly when and where I picked up this information has become unclear. All through my secondary and tertiary education, I had always thought of myself as having a good perception of the world around me.
Students became detectives. They were assigned by senior prefects to catch anyone whose mother tongue rolled out of her mouth like a broken secret. Names were secretly written.