by Sylva Nze Ifedigbo
I was there to see the dentist. One of my molars was due to go, but to satisfy the requirements for seeing the dentist I had to answer a couple of questions from the lady receptionist, amongst which was my state of origin. “What exactly did my state of origin have to do with my taking out a tooth?,” I wondered. Did it mean that the lady on the pew also waiting to see the dentist who I’d heard speaking Yoruba loudly in the phone – an obvious indigene of a different state from me – would obtain a different treatment from me? Was the dentist trained to attend to patients from various states in different ways? If not, what then was the point of the question?
As nauseated as I felt, I was quick to note that it wasn’t the fault of the receptionist or that of the dentist or indeed, that of the clinic. It was a systematic response to the institutionalized demands of the ‘Almighty form’ a situation that replicates itself in virtually every public service we wish to access in this country; from obtaining a drivers license to opening a bank account. You are required to declare, in one breath, your ethnicity, sometimes complete with the name of your village and your tribe as if the tongue you speak bears on your ability to drive a car, or if your state of origin has a way of influencing how you manage a bank account.
The ethnic consciousness and fragmentation of our country into states and tribes remains very high. Charles, my friend, always declares that Nigerians are tribalists because somewhere in our subconscious, we immediately want to fathom where someone we just met is from. In many ways our finding affects the way we relate with the person, he says. This does not necessarily translate to negativity, it’s just that many of us have compartmentalized our brains in such a way that we have a default approach to someone from our tribe, different from how we treat people from other tribes.
The idea of ‘Pan-Nigerianism’ which flourished during the pre and post independence periods remains today only as a scholarly topic discussed in Ivory Towers and not as a viable initiative that could become reality. It’s a sad reminder that as a nation, we have derailed from the path of true unity and are daily finding new ways to buttressing our differences and etch it more boldly into our psyche.
Nothing accomplishes this task more than the ‘Almighty form’ and with it are other similar retrogressive concepts such as ‘federal character’, ‘catchment area’, ‘disadvantaged states’ and more recently ‘zoning’. These concepts represent our failure to overcome our own primordial inadequacies orchestrated by the idea of ‘tribe’. The word is so dangerous that our National anthem had to be recomposed, and a conscious effort made to expunge it. Yet it remains alive in our thought; alive in every form we fill, even if it’s just to have a tooth removed.
It’s clear that we are all of independent ethnic nationalities that were lumped together to satisfy the British aim of owning one of the largest colonies in sub Saharan Africa. Agreed, it is important to protect our identities especially our age old customs and traditions today. In fact, I don’t even begrudge those who hold the opinion that they are first from their tribe before they are Nigerian. All I ask is, must we advertise it on every official document? Must we be compelled to give it away at every turn? Is our being Nigerian not enough to qualify us to access public utilities and services?
One of my professors back in the university would insist that no candidate should write his name on the exam answer script. All he wanted to see was the registration number. This was a conscious effort to be neutral. He as a human being admitted the fact that he had the tendency of being influenced when he saw the name of a candidate. To be fair to all, he asked for just numbers.
In much the same way, the ‘Almighty form’ exposes us to the threat of either being treated differently or influencing the way we treat others. We certainly can do without this trouble. We certainly can save ourselves the embarrassment. It’s time we expunge all criteria that require us to indicate our ethnicity and even religion in forms where this information is of no established official relevance.
National unity does not come about by wishing it. It certainly doesn’t emerge by showing the picture of the Sultan in warm embrace with an Archbishop on national television. It most definitely doesn’t happen by singing it in our national anthem. It comes instead by erasing those things that highlight our differences from our psyche as a nation, and the first place to look is the ‘Almighty form.’