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.