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Uche Okorie: Why are we all such ethnic bigots? (Y! FrontPage)

by Uche Okorie

Most people have this rubicund opinion of themselves of being fair and unbiased in their approach to issues. Of course this is at best idealistic, bias is an intrinsic part of human nature. We are the sum total of our experiences-good and bad. Experience especially when it is unsavoury can create and amplify existing biases, so in reality it would be far-fetched to assert that there is such a thing as complete impartiality untainted by bias. Not that it is completely bad to have some sort of bias. But when bias is allowed to go unchecked and unexamined it creates a lot of harmful distortions and distractions. This is why all organised societies have rules and laws that limit bias. The rules of natural justice, presumption of innocence and many fundamental rights procedures are geared towards reducing the distortionary effect of bias

Political conversations are not immune from bias. In fact they are a breeding ground for bias considering the stakes involved.

Since the dawn of our present democratic dispensation, political conversation in Nigeria has had on overriding if not vicious ethnic colouration. It has been the overriding political thematic preoccupation of even the most enlightened of Nigerians in analysing any political issue with political or public figures being guilty or innocent, altruistic or selfish dependant on their ethnicity and the ethnicity of the person expressing the viewpoint in our national political conversations.

For how long must our public debates be littered with such partisan and scarcely concealed ethnic bias? Must we view national issues through the enervating prism of odious primeval cleavages?

Take a look at the major political conversations of the day and you will come to this conclusion.

These are two major reasons why our public conversations are so seriously tainted with ethnic bias.

1. The absence of nationalism or Patriotic apathy: Successive years of broken promises and non-promises by corrupt and inept governments; blatant injustices; perennially fostered alienation of citizens by agents of the state; nepotism; favouritism; marginalization; the militarization of our democratic space; the scars of the civil war and other inter-ethnic skirmishes has fostered a situation where there is practically no national spirit or ‘volksgeist’ outside the unifying space of football or the sleazy sharing of the national cake. We thus see ourselves first as Edo, Ijaw, Nupe, Yoruba, Igbo, Efik, Kanuri, Idoma, Hausa, first before seeing ourselves as Nigerians.

2. The struggle for power and the practise of a flawed system of federalism: Another major reason we tend to be guided by our ethnic biases rather than what is just and right in our public conversations is due to the over centralization of our federal system of government; the winner takes all reality of our politics; and it’s complete lack of probity and transparency. Our system is one that inordinately rewards political office holders and public servants. With politics the stakes are very high and the spoils of office too ginormous to aspire to any form of impartial analysis that does not favour our individual ethnic groups.

We all subconsciously mirror these actualities in our analysis of public issues and get a vicarious thrill from having our ethnic stock in key positions, even when we know next to nothing about their persons. That is why even educated folks and intellectuals would unabashedly champion flagrant oddities emanating from public figures with whom they share the same ethnicity and cloak such figures with hysterical infallibility.

For how long must our public debates be littered with such partisan and scarcely concealed ethnic bias? Must we view national issues through the enervating prism of odious primeval cleavages? The Ethnic dust is one clump of sand most politicians have found convenient to kick at our faces to suit their selfish agendas. It is mostly diversionary being totally irrelevant to the real issues of good governance and national well being. It does not take any clairvoyant powers to see this. It is also plain stupid. Public figures and politicians know this. They raise the dust of ethnicity and while we are blinded with deceit fighting imagined battles on their behalf, they hobnob across ethnic lines sharing the national largesse with gusto. Is that not sheer foolhardiness?

In most cases other than sharing ethnicity with these public figures what else binds us to them? You are more likely to have more in common with your neighbours of a different ethnic stock than you will ever have with these public figures of your own ethnic group. So why do we persist in this perfidy?

Until we begin to make a conscious effort to rise above petty ethnic considerations in our political thought process, we are likely going to remain in a bind.

A sure two pronged way to rise above such sentiments in our thinking is to first and foremost see every public figure as a human being that is perfectly imperfect; and secondly to view their actions or inactions, through the upright lens of the immensely useful Four-Way Test made popular by Rotarians and displayed in most court buildings in Ghana, namely:
1. Is it the truth?
2. Is it fair to all concerned?
3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?


Uche Okorie is a lawyer and poet. He holds an LLM in Global Business Law from New York University and an LL.M in Maritime Law from the National University of Singapore. He is currently a PhD candidate in Maritime and Logistics at the Australian Maritime College, a specialist Institute of the University of Tasmania, Australia where he was awarded a Tasmanian Graduate Research Scholarship. He tweets from @uchekorie

Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija