Over the past few weeks, a reading and video of a poem I AM A NIGERIAN has been circulating on social media without attribution. It has been sent to me several times, both in video and in text form as Author Unknown. I think it is important first to identify myself publicly as the author of said poem and to talk about why I believe this poem resonates now more than ever.
I wrote the poem I AM A NIGERIAN back in 2006 spurred by three key influences – first, the then Federal Government’s Heart of Africa rebranding campaign; second, the video of Thabo Mbeki ‘s 1996 speech I am an African; third and above all, my late father Ukpabi Asika, an unflinching nationalist, whose decision to accept the seemingly suicidal role of Administrator of East Central State at the height of the Civil War in 1967, was summed up in his words: “I am a Nigerian. I was born a Nigerian…and I hope to die a Nigerian.”
Despite the current cacophony of ethnic jingoism and secessionism, I believe that the vast majority of people in this country consider themselves to be first and foremost Nigerians. The tired refrain that Nigeria is an artificial construct foisted on us by the British is clichéd and frankly, not helpful. We cannot wind back the hands of time and simply realign along tribal lines. Nor can we undo the commingling that has gone on for generations and that has enriched us socially, economically, culturally and politically. I take my own family as an example.
My father was an Onitsha indigene, who was born and spent his formative years in Barkin Ladi, Jos, attended secondary school in Benin and university in Ibadan. His mother Rebecca, also from Onitsha, grew up largely in Fulani-land and spoke fluent Fufulde. His “second mother” was his step-grandmother Aishetu from Yola who his grandfather met and married in Kano and brought to Onitsha. When my father went to pursue a Master’s Degree in the US, he met and married my mother, a fellow post-graduate student who hailed from Owerri but had spent her teenage years in Uyo and Lagos. In their marital home, their close friends came from all across Igboland as well as from Yola, Taraba, Jos, Ijebu, Warri, Abeokuta, Benin and beyond. Today, my children are Yoruba, my sister’s children are Kalabari and my brother’s wife claims roots in both Lagos and Katsina. I do not believe this diversity in our family is so unique.
The historical performance record of our political leaders has been stunningly sub-par, but we the people should not now abdicate our own duty of responsible citizenship. We must not allow rogue politicians and power-hungry demagogues to appeal to our basest emotions or to convince us that people of another tribe or another religion are the source of all our problems. This is lowest common denominator programming at its worst. If we choose to buy into such messages, we do so at our peril.
Nevertheless, our Government must also have the courage and sensitivity to recognize that the Nigerian polity has not been as inclusive to some ethnic groups as to others, and that there are real political grievances and socio-economic discrepancies. I believe wholeheartedly in Nigeria. But I believe that Nigeria will be better served with a structure based on true federalism, devolution of power, resource control and responsible and compassionate leadership.
I wrote the poem I AM A NIGERIAN to celebrate what is unique about us – our diversity, our culture, our national identity. We are known the world over – not as Igbos or Hausas, Yorubas or Fulanis – but as Nigerians. Internationally, we are simultaneously respected and vilified, envied and criticized. We are not some no-name people from some no-name nation. For better and for worse, we have made our presence felt. And in an age where every country struggles to become more globally competitive, we cannot afford to embark on a trajectory of reductionism.
I AM A NIGERIAN is a call for us not only to love Nigeria but to cherish her. I hope that this poem inspires pride in our country and reminds us of the brotherhood and community we share with the other 180 million individuals born under the Nigerian flag. Above all, I hope that this poem helps to counter the hateful rhetoric of those who seek to divide us. We cannot let them change the narrative of who we have been, who we are and who we hope to be. God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Nkiru Asika writes from Lagos. She is a Nigerian.