By Tunji Ajibade
A ruling party chieftain in Lagos State, Joe Igbokwe, had a meeting with people of Igbo extraction in the state recently. It was in the process of mobilising residents to register as members of his party. He said a few things worth nothing. There was that issue he raised about the need to maintain peaceful coexistence among our peoples. He didn’t only say Ndigbo in Lagos State should register as members of his party, he said they should go about it in a peaceful manner, and they shouldn’t be provocative in their conduct and utterance. To me, that’s the highlight of the meeting, and I’ll explain.
My movement around the country affirms one thing: Residents or those popularly referred to as indigenes don’t have problems with you, if you conduct yourself in a peaceful manner and relate well with them irrespective of differences in religion or ethnicity. In fact, you benefit when you do, since, when you make yourself likeable the hosts are likely to assist you navigate your way successfully in the new environment. They look out for your wellbeing, and make suggestions regarding what will be beneficial to you. The reader may have their diverse experiences with regard to this, but the assertion largely holds true. It’s been my experience. I know one can gain much by treating the hosts with respect rather than disdain. One can, if one is ready to learn from the hosts rather than hold oneself aloof as many do. I suppose such individuals have the erroneous belief that they know it all, and they have nothing to learn from those they’ve learnt to look at through a prism of biases.
There are a few things I notice concerning many who reside outside their home states. One is their made-up mindset; they know who members of the other tribe are, and there’s nothing new for them to learn. The other is the manner they conduct themselves. It’s often very much the opposite of what conditions in the host community require, and definitely what they wouldn’t accept from any outsider in the locality they themselves come from, a phenomenon that I find curious. I start with the latter. Now, conducting oneself largely in conformity with local cultural practices of the host community doesn’t take anything away from the person who does. It doesn’t change your ethnicity or religious belief. What it means is that you show love and respect to the hosts. They would notice it, and they would draw closer to you as a result. I don’t know of any religion that doesn’t preach love. I don’t know any tribe that doesn’t regard showing respect to others as a virtue. If you show yourself ready to be drawn closer, the hosts perceive it and they respond appropriately.
This takes me to the made-up mindset of many of us when we are in communities other than ours. The locals are this, they are like that. Often, most of these are misconceptions, pushed by those who see their ethnic group as the only best thing ever to happen to mankind. At the time I left the South-West and went for the NYSC programme, I didn’t allow what I had heard to constrain me and make me shut my mind to the hosts in the new environment. I mixed freely with the locals, engaged in sporting activities with those who were so disposed, and I visited them in their offices, as well as in their homes.
In the process, I realised that humans are the same everywhere. You conduct yourself well, show respect to the hosts, as well as show yourself friendly, they’ll respond in kind. I took note that many of my fellow youth corps members from the South in those days would gather and relate with one another more. I related with them as much as I could, but I also invested time in knowing the hosts in whose community I was. The outcome is that, of the set of youth corps members in the state where I served, I’m probably the only person who still maintains any form of active contact with the friends I made at the time. And it’s one contact that is growing stronger. Making friends in new environments doesn’t hurt, rather it adds value to one’s life. It adds to mine. Most Nigerians miss out on this though, being stuck as many are with the mindset that there’s nothing good about ethnic groups other than theirs.
What tangible benefits does it confer on anyone when we go into new localities and we conduct ourselves as though we’re from some exotic planet, and the hosts are some dreg from a cesspool? (Even new knowledge that could prove useful, one won’t gain.) I’ve seen this kind of attitude and I find it off-putting. The locals we look down upon might just be the link we need to the key that can open those doors we seek to open. Sometimes, I’ve been surprised at the kind of vast knowledge, as well as relevant people that some seemingly unimportant-looking locals know. Just one word from them, and doors that you cannot open even in your native town is open for you in the new environment where you find yourself. But many Nigerians miss out on this too because we raise our noses up, rather than open our eyes and minds and treat locals as fellow humans, albeit with their own little faults just as we have ours.
When I think of it, I’m still surprised at the kind of things that have happened to some in their host communities. There was that case of a woman who was killed after she spoke to a person who was preparing to say his prayers. (I don’t justify taking the law into one’s own hands. I don’t approve of violent acts.) But I ask the question: how did this woman talk such that those she addressed got so infuriated that what happened did happen? This point is similar to one observation someone once made on TV: As a road user, you face an obviously angry policeman who holds a gun and you engage in exchanging heated words with him. Of course, the damage might have been done before the policeman would be arrested for murder. We know there’re a few basic rules guiding human relations. They are indigenous to us as Africans, and we know that we need to observe these rules if we must live in peace with other people. So, I ask: how does it benefit us when we conduct ourselves contrary to these rules, especially when we are in communities other than ours?
I suppose the disdainful manner many of us address people from tribes other than ours in public spaces indicates the kind of mindset we have. Meanwhile, what makes us do this is often the angst we have regarding the elites from those other tribes. Ordinary folks don’t do us any harm. They relate fine with all who relates fine with them. Mostly, it’s the elites who lure, directly or indirectly, ordinary folks into acts that are sometimes condemnable. But the elites in our own tribes too aren’t angels. They generally cooperate with other elites across ethnic and religious lines to harm the nation, only for them to return home and incite their people to believe that other tribes are the ones doing all the harm.
The advice Igbokwe gives Ndigbo compatriots indicates he wants them to live in peace with others who regard themselves as locals. I think it’s an appropriate advice wherever any Nigerian lives. There’s nothing to be gained when any Nigerian engages in activities, or makes comments that make them lose the goodwill of their neighbours. Brash, provocative comment upsets relationships, and it also causes tension and makes people harden their positions. Considering a few past examples that included rather indelicate inter-tribal exchanges in Lagos, I believe Igbokwe had sound basis for making the call he did. But as it applies in Lagos that many Ndigbo call home, so it does anywhere one resides across the nation. As already stated, showing respect to others is a basic ingredient in maintaining peaceful coexistence. So, it’s ancient wisdom Igbokwe uttered that time, and all of us ought to take mental note of it.
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