By Japheth Omojuwa
Today, it hurts to be Nigerian. That pain hits many in different ways. For graduates, four out of every five of them feel that pain in their lack of jobs. For a pregnant mother, that pain hits her when she realizes that Nigeria is one of the harshest places in the world to birth a child. For a pensioner, the pain stems from the realization that his/her life savings can get lost through the hands of those responsible for its keep.
For a child, the pain comes hitting hard in many ways: first, s/he is burdened by the fact that her country is home to the world’s largest population of out-of-school children; burdened by the possibility of being subjected to child labour; and burdened by the likelihood, if her parents are not as rich as Nigerian Senators, of being bought into marriage by a rich man before she even comes of age.
These are some of the problems Nigeria burdens us with. There is another one, though not as tangible as the aforementioned ones but as telling on why we are where we are as a country: in Nigeria, you cannot have a conversation around any issue without being burdened by religion and ethnicity. It hurts!
No country can move forward without a conversation with itself, and among its elements and constituent units. These conversations take on different forms: they come in structured and unstructured ways; they often happen spontaneously but are sometimes planned. They could take place at such prestigious places as the National Assembly and state houses of assembly; or, of no less importance, in pubs and marketplaces.
One of such conversations this year was the hijab ban the Lagos government was flirting with. One realized that were a Muslim to make an argument against the ban, the average Nigerian would pass it out as the rant of an angry or liberal Muslim.
And if a Christian had argued that, well, s/he would be labeled a typical Christian. Ordinarily, the religion of the person making the argument should not matter, only the spirit, the essence and the logic of the argument should. But not in Nigeria. When you take a stand on an issue, you better ask how they’d interpret your religious or ethnic stance.
The greatest beneficiaries of this national inability to have a robust and healthy debate, devoid of religious and ethnic sentiments, are the politicians. They have perfected the art of even raising the dry bones of ethnicity and religion where you’d have thought there was no life in a debate. If you have an opinion on the Petroleum Industry Bill, the Niger Deltan reminds you about the fact that the oil belongs to his ancestors.
A Yoruba person who has an opinion on Professor Chinua Achebe’s “There Was a Country” has to keep such opinions to himself/herself because raising it would make him/her a hater of the Igbos. Were such a person to be Igbo, the individual could be accused of selling out.
An average Yoruba person would see an Igbo person’s opinion of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, if unpalatable, as being only borne out of the hatred of the Igbos for Awolowo. A Yoruba man had better not see Chief Awolowo as less than a god because then he’d be regarded as a bastard. The opinion of a Nigerian of southern origin on the Boko Haram menace could have such labeled as a hater of the north.
If a Nigerian of northern origin calls for the need to examine the economic and social deprivation that threw up Boko Haram, s/he will be labeled a supporter or sponsor of terrorism.
The issues are unlimited. There is no issue that cannot have religion and ethnicity thrown into its mix in Nigeria. This is a painful reality. If we cannot talk about these things, how can we even begin to talk about them sincerely and when do we begin to move forward as a people without a sincere conversation?
Human rights are universal and are inalienable. Children, especially those from indigent backgrounds must be protected from all forms of abuse. The arguments around Section 29, Subsection 4b of the Nigerian Constitution somehow brought the issue of child marriage into national prominence.
One can argue the issue originated from the Senate as a religious one with Senator Ahmed Yerima having based his argument on religion. Would it have been possible to have the debate without throwing ethnicity and religion into it? Maybe in other climes. But not here.
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