I have finally experienced tribalism – now I’m a full Nigerian

In the few decades of my adult existence, living in Nigeria, I had never experienced discrimination on account of my tribe. I heard other people speak about this, I knew “tribalism” existed, but never experienced it. Until Sunday, June 5, 2016.

I was at the Abuja airport, returning to Lagos, from what had been the most exciting adventure, touring Northern Nigeria. This trip had taken me through Zamfara, Sokoto, Adamawa, Gombe, Bauchi and Kogi. For the past year, I had been actively seeking out reasons and opportunities to travel the North. The primary reason for my trips had been to visit the oft unseen places in the North, and show these to the rest of our country. The North has some of the most beautiful places in Nigeria, and as with every trip I’d since taken, I was excited by the prospect of sharing my adventure.

Baobab Tree, near Gusau, Zamfara
Baobab Tree, near Gusau, Zamfara

On this trip, I was with my older brother, who’d never traveled North, past Abuja, and he had been as excited as I was through this entire trip.

But first, we needed to catch a flight back to Lagos. I’d attempted to book a flight earlier, but Arik conspired with Interswitch to thwart my efforts. So we decided to get the next available fight at the airport, and were lucky enough catch a Dana flight for 2.05pm. Of course the check in was last minute.

As it neared my turn to check in, I asked my brother, who was standing a few feet away, to pass his ID, as I was on the line and he was waiting on the side. We were both on the same itinerary, but I understood how that might look, so I explained to my neighbours on the queue that my brother is indeed my brother, and showed the booking ticket, that we were on the same itinerary.

That’s when an older gentleman wearing a kaftan and hausa cap behind me, started demanding loudly why I would check someone else in. I explained again, calmly, that we were on the same ticket (showing the ticket to him), so it doesn’t really matter. I just needed his ID. That explanation wasn’t good enough. The gentleman asked angrily why I didn’t take permission from him before I tried to check-in my brother.

At this point, I was a little bemused, so I explained, calmly again, that we were on the same itinerary. Then I added, that I didn’t have to take permission from him to take my brother’s ID, for many reasons, especially because he is not my father. The gentleman’s response, this time, filled with a deep, angry disdain, was “I cannot be your father. How can I, a Hausa man, father an Igbo like you”.

My first response was that I’m not Igbo. That was a moment before I realised the import of the man’s message. The disdain with which he spoke was so shocking, I lost my voice momentarily.

A man about my age had been standing next to me, and had seen the entire episode. He disagreed loudly that it doesn’t matter where I came from, this man should not have said what he said, as we were Nigerians. But the man went on to say emphatically, that a great Hausa man like him could have nothing to do with someone less than him.  And that he’s said it, and felt no regret.

In the time I spent trying to get my boarding pass, and when we went to the aircraft, I kept wanting to go over to that gentleman, to tell him how much of a disgrace he is to this nation, but I couldn’t find the words. I was too ashamed for him.

Cattle grazing along Numan - Gombe Road, Gombe
Cattle grazing along Numan – Gombe Road, Gombe

In the last year, since I started traveling the North, I’ve met thousands of people – state governors, emirs and district heads, local farmers, cattle herders, Christians, Muslims and children of all ages. Not one of those people ever resented me, or showed a hint of hostility. Everywhere I have been, from Borno to Zamfara, from farming villages to urban towns, I’ve been met with smiles and open arms. It took a well dressed, educated man to teach me that the mad people in this country aren’t all roaming the streets. Some of them are well dressed, and sometimes, you meet them at airports.

Our flight was delayed for a while to get the late passengers on. One of them was our friend, the “Hausa man”. I don’t know if he had seen us, but he took a seat two rows in front of us. Beside him was a little boy, his son. Through the course of our flight, I kept wondering what kind of father this man was. He seemed a decent father to his son, and shared his headphones with him, which told me they had a good relationship. But the temptation in me just couldn’t go away, to go tell that child “Kid, your dad must be a decent dad, but he’s a bigoted, disgraceful Nigerian. Please don’t grow up to be like him.”

But I could not. I failed.

#FreeEse: Child marriage and the outcomes of cultural disrespect

Yesterday, the Punch published a report about the abduction and forced marriage of 14-year-old Ese Oruru. According to The Punch, “In August 2015, Ese, then 13, was abducted by one Yinusa and taken to Kano, where he converted her to Islam and married her.” The Punch also reports that Ese’s mother, Mrs. Rose Oruru, journeyed to Kano in an effort to get her daughter back, but returned to Bayelsa empty handed.

According to an unnamed source in the Punch report, the primary reason for not releasing the girl is because she voluntarily converted to Islam and had been married to her alleged abductor. I found this marriage excuse for abetting an act of criminality rather repugnant. It stinks! Every member of the community involved in the process should be made to face the law.

Let’s speak about how marriages are contracted across most of the South South of Nigeria.

Marriage is a multi-step process, including first a “knocking of door”, where the groom’s family officially visit the bride’s to indicate their interest in a young lady. This is where the bride’s family gives a yes or no answer to the proposal.

Once a yes vote is received, the family of the bride will have a list of gifts issued to the groom’s family. A second (smaller) meeting is then held, where the bride-price and list is accepted. A gift giving ceremony may be held along with the traditional marriage, or held as a separate ceremony.

These many steps ensure a marriage is contracted between two families, and not between two young people. Most churches would not even conduct a Christian marriage without the couple having first fulfilled the traditional rites.

In the case of Ese Oruru, this established marriage process was grossly ignored. The acceptance of a marriage between Mr Yinusa “Yellow” and Ese, a minor, without due consultation with her family, by the Sharia Council in Kano doesn’t just show a miscarriage of law and justice, but deeper disrespect and possibly disdain for the culture of Ese’s people.

This abduction for marriage case speaks to deeper issues of disregard for other cultures, something the Emir of Kano has recently accused “Southerners” of. I expect there should be respect for the fact that where Ese comes from, they do not consider a girl ready for marriage until much later in life?

In what world is it permissible for a young man to show up with a young woman and marry her without questions asked? Who are the parents of the man, and how could they accept a child brought as a wife from distant lands, without seeking to meet her parents? How is this different from the abduction and forced marriage of the Chibok girls and other unfortunate young women by Boko Haram? It has also been reported by the police that the case may possibly be that of elopement. In which case, the child is a minor, and according to the constitution, her marriage should be null and void, and she should have been immediately returned to her parents. The adult man should also have been arrested and charged for trafficking.

That the guards at the emir’s palce reportedly refused Ese’s mother the right to meet with her daughter also shows a deep disdain. Even where a culture exists, intermarriage is known as the ultimate catalyst for cultural compromise, no?

So far, the Inspector General of Police, Sunday Arase, has said only the Emir has the power to release the girl. The Emir on the other hand has stated he’d already ordered the release of the girl, with a letter to prove it. Is the culture of Kano superior to the Ijaw culture from Bayelsa, so much that a child is taken from the parents without permission – with attempts to get said child back being refused for cultural reasons?

This development leaves deep, complicated questions unanswered. For example, what is the role (and possible complicity) of the police in this matter? Is the culture of Kano superior to the constitution. I say culture because in my understanding of Islam, a woman cannot be married without parental consent, hence even by Islamic interpretations, there was no marriage between Ese and Yinusa.

It’s also important to note that the abduction preceded the alleged conversion. It is also imperative to ask if proselytizing to a minor, with a view to conversion, without parental consent is allowed. (I have deliberately decided to not discuss the suspicion that the girl was taken under the influence of marabout’s charms.)

I’m glad that Ese’s parents are keeping their head up, and seeking a legal resolution, while clearly expressing they don’t want this case to degenerate into a tribal issue. But it probably would be, if the authorities do not act decisively. We cannot build a united Nigeria, if we don’t all respect our diverse cultures and customs.

Unfortunately, even if Ese is released, the emotional trauma may never leave her. Should the marriage be successfully annulled, but her abductor had, God forbid, consummated the marriage, the statutory rape remains. Will justice be done, having seen how the entire community collaborated to protect the abductor and the unholy union? A child would have been defiled on the altar of cultural superiority.