‪A Know Nothing Nation

Posted: August 11, 2013 in Uncategorized

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A Know Nothing Nation

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

America gets a bad rap for being a nation of ignorant and self-involved people who know next to nothing about the world around them. But my own experience tells me that Nigerians can also be some of the most ignorant and self-absorbed people you can find. Nigerians are as ignorant of each other as they are of their immediate neighbors.

When I was an undergraduate at Bayero University in Kano an incident occurred that illustrates this point. An international student from Niger Republic who became close to me after she discovered that she and my mom spoke the same Dendi language once came to me looking really distressed because she had just had a passionately contentious verbal exchange with her thin-skinned and ignorant Nigerian roommates. It was about a basic geographic issue: the size of Nigeria in relation to other African countries.

She told her roommates that Niger Republic is bigger than Nigeria based on land area and that at least 13 other African countries are larger than Nigeria. For saying this elementary, undisputed geographic fact, all hell broke loose. Her (Nigerian) roommates insulted her viciously, and said she was an ungrateful wretch who had chosen to “diss” Nigeria even when she was a beneficiary of a Nigerian scholarship for Nigerien students. Her roommates boasted that Nigeria was indeed Africa’s biggest country. Her attempt to explain the difference between “most populous” and “largest in land area” only inflamed nationalist passions.

In my own informal observations, I have also realized that a majority of Nigeria have exaggerated notions of Nigeria’s size. Although Niger Republic is about as populous as Kano, it is larger than Nigeria in physical size.So the first question my Nigerien “sister” asked me when she met me was “do they teach you people geography in primary and secondary schools?” I answered in the affirmative. “How come every Nigerian I have met has no clue that Nigeria is NOT among the top 10 largest countries in Africa based on landmass?” she shot back. Then she related to me the emotional spat she’d just had with her roommates about this issue a while back.

I assuaged her anger and told her most Nigerians have no familiarity with the basic facts about their own country much less about their country’s immediate neighbors. The typical Nigerian, for instance, thinks there are only three ethnic groups in Nigeria and calls to question the “Nigerianness” of anybody whose ethnic identity falls outside of Nigeria’s three major ethnic groups.

A few years ago, I met a Nigerian here in the United States who wanted to know what my ethnic group was. I told her I was Baatonu from Kwara State. She said she had never heard of the ethnic group. I said I wasn’t surprised because it’s a small ethnic group in Nigeria but is one of the major ethnic groups in Benin Republic. All that flew over her head.“So are you Yoruba?” she asked.“I am not. I just told you I am Baatonu. Our Yoruba neighbors to the south call us Bariba, but our languages are not mutually intelligible,” I said.“Oh I see. So you’re Hausa? I forget that Kwara people are Hausa people,” she said.

I was getting frustrated but decided keep my cool. I told her although the Baatonu people have historical and cultural ties with the Hausa people that predate the formation of Nigeria, they are a separate ethnic and linguistic group.“OK. I am confused now. You are not Yoruba. You are not Hausa. And I know a Farooq can’t be an Igbo person. Are you really a Nigerian?” she said.It turned out that she, too, is neither Hausa, nor Yoruba, nor Igbo yet she considers herself a Nigerian. So I turned the heat on her. From her names, I knew she was an ethnic minority from the south. I asked her the same questions that she asked me. My reverse questions made her realize her folly. She later apologized for her ignorance.

But her questions about and attitude toward ethnic identities in Nigeria are just a sample of the enormous ignorance that permeates Nigeria. The typical Nigerian doesn’t know that there are over 400 ethnic and linguistic groups in Nigeria. To give another example, the typical southern Nigerian can’t locate Zamfara State on the map of Nigeria while the typical northern Nigerian can’t locate Ebonyi State on a map. And they don’t care. It sometimes makes you wonder what the point of our nearly 100 years of formal consociation is.As I wrote week, Nigeria’s ethnic and linguistic landscape is a labyrinthine grid of tortuous relationships. The British colonialist response to that complexity was to either elide or oversimplify it by fiat.

More than 50 years after the end of formal colonization, we are not only still trapped in colonial identity categories; we actively internalize and authorize it.President Goodluck Jonathan’s claim to be an Ijaw man when indeed he is from an ethnic and linguistic group called the Ogbia is one prominent instantiation of the internalization and authorization of colonial identity categories. For many years, British colonialists arbitrarily classified the Ogbia people as Ijaw. Their protests were ignored. Now, their most prominent son is still validating this colonial ignorance in the 21st century.This all fits into Nigeria’s national culture of reflexive know-nothingness that was initially instigated by colonial condescension.

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