Opinion: Boko Haram and a woman born in Zaria

by Patience Akpan-Obong


If you are non-white or have a ‘foreign’ name, you’re constantly encountering people who dismiss the fact that you might have been born in a hospital down the road and ask, “Really, where are you from?”

I had known this friend for several years before I ‘discovered’ her Zaria roots. Okay, I didn’t quite ‘discover’ it, or perhaps the discovery was similar to Mr. Mungo Park’s ‘discovery’ of River Niger (after the locals had led him there). Our history books still credit him with that ‘discovery’. Forgive me then to claim my own discovery even though it was my friend who told me about her birth in Zaria and how it was being used against her by an immigration bureaucrat in her host country.

The revelation about her Zaria origins was surprising. While she has the slim, tall and regal bearing of the ‘typical’ Hausa woman, she bears a ‘typical’ Igbo name. Well, as it turned out, her parents lived in Zaria circa 1962 when she was born. It must not have been long after her birth that her family returned to the East. She had forgotten all about her Zaria roots until an immigration person looked at her birth certificate and confronted her with, “But you were born in Zaria …”

One can’t blame an ‘oyinbo’ woman who comes from a country where place of birth is more important than ‘state of origin’. There is always an exception though. If you are non-white or have a ‘foreign’ name, you’re constantly encountering people who dismiss the fact that you might have been born in a hospital down the road and ask, “Really, where are you from?” My nine-year-old son, born in a hospital down the road is always asked where he comes from. He used to say, ‘Africa’ (though he’s never left the United States) until he realized that there is power in claiming his American-ness. Now he says, “I was born in Good Sam, Phoenix.” (“Good Sam” is shorthand for Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center.)

My son transferred to a new school last week. He spent the first day teaching his new classmates how to pronounce his name. He told me that some of the kids made an effort but one child kept laughing and twisting his name. It was so irritating that at one point he said to the kid: “Because it is African doesn’t mean you should make fun of my name!” I high-fived him when he told me this!

My Zaria-born friend must have said something similar to the immigration officer: that she was born in Zaria doesn’t mean she is Hausa (and perhaps a potential Boko Haram?). She explained the particular politics of Nigeria where one must come from a ‘local government area of origin’, regardless of where one was born or raised. After a long, long red tape and delay in the process, my friend finally got what she wanted. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Or not, given that the trouble in Northern Nigeria might make her wish there was a way she could delete Zaria from her birth certificate. In these days of War on Terror, a Zaria-born western-based academic might be considered a ‘person of interest’. This is one of the unfortunate legacies of Boko Haram. This group of discontents has stamped Nigeria irrevocably on the international terrorist map.

The immigration inconveniences of a Zaria-born woman, or any other Diaspora Nigerian, are nothing compared to the killing and general regime of terror inflicted on Nigerians and the Nigerian psyche by an amorphous band of terrorists, who should have been squashed two years ago after the bombing of the Police Headquarters in Abuja. The Boston Marathon treatment (a door-to-door hunt) should have been applied right after that first bombing. That would have prevented the blast at the United Nations building two months later. And more importantly, Boko Haram would not have had the opportunity to mushroom and acquire superior weaponry and confidence. If they had been nipped as soon as they reared their head, the group would have been history already. They have become so entrenched my spell checker doesn’t underscore the phrase in red anymore!

In Nigeria, when something happens, we fast and pray and ‘leave it’ to the will of God, Insha Allah or uduak-Abasi. As a Christian (of the BA grade, no less), I’m all for praying and fasting. But afterwards, we must shake off the sack clothes, wash the ashes off our faces and take action. We shouldn’t wait until matters get out of hand only to take a knee-jerk action that does nothing to fix the fundamental problems.

There is relief that President Goodluck Jonathan has finally done something. However, a state of emergency is not the ‘thing’ to rid the country of Boko Haram. Rather, it’s like trying to fight the flood after we had watched helplessly as the storm gathered momentum and the rain poured down for two years. While the presence of armed forces in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa may bring temporary respite, folks will soon find themselves wedged between the rock and a hard place.

If the armed forces personnel operate in typical Nigerian style, they are likely to cause as much terror and destruction as Boko Haram in their enthusiasm to deal with the fanatics.  It may turn out that for every card-carrying Boko Haram picked up (or worse, killed), hundreds of innocent people, mostly women and children, will be arrested (or worse, killed). Very few of the people pulled into the dragnet will be Boko Haram.

There is also the difficulty in identifying the insurgents … at least that has been the explanation for why Boko Haram has festered for this long. This increases the chances that innocent people will get caught in the crossfires. Besides, what are the guarantees that these terrorists and killers will not migrate to other parts of northern Nigeria? This concern may explain the call by folks in Southern Kaduna for their own state of emergency, which they obviously understand as the presence of more armed personnel—as if that has ever stopped Boko Haram.

Well, let’s hope that one, there is no migration southward; and two, if it happens, a state of emergency in Kaduna will extend to Zaria. That would be reassuring in case the immigration officials in my friend’s host country decide to ship her to her “place of birth.” A non-Hausa-speaking, non-Muslim, Western-educated, female university professor like her would be too ‘Boko’ for Boko Haram’s temperament.


Read this article in the Punch Newspapers

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

One comment

  1. Very rambling and roundabout way to get into the Boko Haram discourse. I am very sure that your Zaria born friend was not harrassed by immigration, more likely it was a comment born of curiosity which we Nigerians still express when faced with folks who are born outside their sate of origin but not in the “bigger” and more popular cities. The same guy would ask the same question of a hausa lady born in Ikot Ekpene. We still go wow when we see a yoruba guy who was born in Nnewi. Its just a curiosity as to the circumstances that took the parents there. There’s no bias there.

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