For the first time, Chimamanda struggled unsuccessfully to retell the Igbo story – the story that had strengthened the bond of unity, in that no Nigerian, no region, no state and no voice could run the pageantry show of might alone without the tripod stand of others. Perhaps she ran afoul of what she has consistently fronted as prejudiced colouration – single story. The class with which she erred this time painted her as an half Nigerian or in other nomenclature, an incomplete Nigerian. We may choose to forgive her this time, but one would do a disservice to the Igbo people if Chimamanda’s one-off derailment is not dangled at her nose.
CAVEAT: The Oba of Lagos was wrong with his threat. This case should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Chimamanda’s danger of a single story treatise dispels the masking of positivity that comes with every negative story. The novelist summarily posits that: “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” Then she moves to advocate the crumbling of clichés and stereotypes that have defined our logic in seeing ourselves as a people with collective dreams of divisiveness but not as a bunch of bonded voices, yet with variegated cultural biases.
What then is the novelist’s intention in saying that:
“Sadly, many of the condemnations from non-Igbo people have come with the ugly impatience of expressions like ‘move on,’ and ‘don’t be over-emotional’ and ‘calm down.’ These take away the power, even the sincerity, of the condemnations. It is highhanded and offensive to tell an aggrieved person how to feel, or how quickly to forgive, just as an apology becomes a non-apology when it comes with ‘now get over it’.”
Did the novelist do anything different from what Nigerians have done – condemnation? One wonders if the people condemning Oba Akiolu’s act should have hurled stones at the throne instead. Arguing that it is, in itself an act of disrespect to tell an aggrieved people ‘how to quickly forgive’ and ‘move on’, questions Chimamanda’s personal understanding of forgiveness and the current political reading of her fatherland.
May be I should remind the novelist that when Patience Jonathan advocated stoning of opposition politicians, the aggrieved didn’t respond by fueling embers of hatred or spreading tribal sentiments over it, they, after issuing words of condemnation, approached ICC for investigation. May be I should also remind the respected Orange Prize recipient, that the singular act of ‘quick’ forgiveness by Nelson Mandela saved the entire South Africa from running itself aground through civil war. South Africa was horribly fragile in early 1990s: some parts of the country were very unstable. The air was filled with the stench of conspiracy — much of the country believed that the white security forces were secretly stoking violence. And while nonracialism may have been the ANC’s official doctrine, it was hardly rooted in the experiences of black South Africans. Most black people had suffered daily humiliations at the hands of whites. Most had stalked their own cities like outlaws in fear of the police. Forgiveness had to be won, quickly, and had to be embodied by somebody who could perform it, and Nelson Mandela did put on the armour. He showed that a humiliated people might recoup its self-respect by forgiving, that forgiveness is a route to genuine power.
If Chimamanda is so aggrieved on behalf of Nigerians (not only Igbo), she should seek the right redress.
The novelist did more harm when she wrote that the condemnations of the Oba’s threat are diversionary tactics:
“They dismiss the specific act, diminish its importance, and ultimately aim at silencing the legitimate fears of people.” This submission in itself is prejudiced, swollen by venom, filled with black holes where the hope of solution goes to drown in blood. Perhaps she is saying to her subjects that there is no room for dialogue or counter-narrative since they have been scapegoated, that finding solution to the threat is like finding water within sand.
I agree, and Nigerians too have agreed, that the Oba’s threat should not be dismissed on its face value or just waved away. But it is questionable to say that an attempt to prevent the words from fuelling grand tribal hatred is a deceitful act in suppressing the fears Igbo people should nurse. Why should Igbo people nurse fears of co-existence in the land that belongs to all and sundry? Why should they not be told that their mutual existence with other tribes is guaranteed under the law? Why should they be encouraged to water their tribal fears on the basis of the civil war experience? Why should they be told that their existence in a part of Nigeria is fraught on the basis of their tongues or business acumen? Why should they be exposed to the stench of dead stereotypes that we have all laboured to bury?
So it is a waste of words to bring back the echoes of the 1960s in an attempt to justify nonexistent fears.
Chimamanda killed the sincerity in her advocacy for plural story when she wrote that:
“To be Igbo in Nigeria is constantly to be suspect; your national patriotism is never taken as the norm, you are continually expected to prove it.”
If this is her personal stigmatization, then she should address it as such. But to be generic about it is what calls for some caution. It is more precarious when you make your people see themselves the way you see yourself. While we all struggle for common identity, we all still ride on our inclination to survival based on our individual identity. In the end, what binds our common struggle is what forms the basis of our individual survival. If Chimamanda is constantly a suspect, I have Chuks Obano who runs a N200b sales business in Lagos on behalf Chief Majekodunmi, a title holder from Oyo town. Chuks has never been seen as a suspect. I have Victor Agbagu who runs a female football academy for under-15 in Abeokuta. All his students are Yorubas. He has never been seen by parents as a suspected Igbo rapist, extortionist or a suspected kidnapper.
I agree with the novelist that no law-abiding Nigerian should be expected to show gratitude for living peacefully in any part of Nigeria, but inventing instances that Landlords in Lagos often refuse to rent their property to Igbo people is damaging and in some sense, shallow, lacks logic in every sense of it. It is a wrong analogy. I assume Chimamanda invented that to lend credence to her campaign of self-inflicted prejudices. Landlords have right to their property so far it is within the ambience of the law – leasing, issuing quit notices, selling etc. If anybody feels cheated that a Landlord refuses to rent out property to him or her for whatever reasons, and if the person feels that the law doesn’t permit it, then such person should seek redress in the appropriate quarters. Using that to fuel messages of tribal hatred, especially when such is coming from a supposed thought leader breeds unnecessary national distrust.
For instance, I have an old father. I am not comfortable with where he is staying in Lagos. I want to change his apartment. I have been on it for months; the only reason two Landlords have given for refusing to rent out their apartment to me is that they cannot cope with the nuances of an old man in spite of the fact that I am the client. The question is that, is this enough for me to generalize that Lagos Landlords are unkind to old men? No!
What also calls for some concerns is Chimamanda’s attempt to push that post presidential election political rhetoric puts question to Igbo’s full citizenship as Nigerians. Here, there is a fault line of hasty conclusions. In any democratic space, even the one Chimamanda is enjoying in the US, political opinions and associations differ. The beauty of democracy is that you can express such differences within the provision of the laws and within the purview of civility. No one forces anybody. No associations or political opinions emasculate the full citizenship of anybody, except if the person is already brewed with personal prejudices and personal social class limitations. Shits happen in politics, so also good. Neither should be taken as enough evidence to fuel tribal barriers on behalf of a people.
In the words of the novelist, “only by feeling a collective sense of ownership of Nigeria can we start to forge a nation. A nation is an idea. Nigeria is still in progress. To make this a nation, we must collectively agree on what citizenship means: all Nigerians must matter equally.” The least I expect from her is to live up to her words.
To reshape wrong perception, counter-narratives are necessary. Such narratives should be devoid of direct venom of vengeance, calling for unnecessary extreme actions or ideas. Nigeria is a work-in-progress democratic society, we must see reasons to outgrow our past dark years, rather than holding on full throttle to what kills our collective dreams.
It’s me, @Obajeun