The mindless xenophobic violence against Nigerians and other African immigrants in South Africa is igniting social media conversation about what one might call global Naijaphobia, that is, the mass resentment of Nigerians in many parts of the world. We are now increasingly stereotyped worldwide as rude, boisterous, tastelessly showy, domineering, and criminally inclined.
From Euro-America to Asia, from Southern Africa to East Africa, and even in other West African countries, many people judge Nigerians by the attitudinal excesses and moral indiscretions of a minority of us. Nevertheless, amid the righteous indignation that this admittedly unfair reality provokes in us, we need to realize that we are also culprits of internal xenophobia within our national space.
In Nigeria, moral transgressions are habitually territorialized and ethnicized. Northern Muslims are routinely stereotyped as terrorists. Nigerians from the East are pigeonholed as inescapably prone to fraudulent schemes like 419 and drug trafficking. Nigerians from the West are typecast as a cowardly, traitorous lot who are given to ritual murders and credit card frauds. Northern Christians and southern ethnic minorities are branded as lazy, good-for-nothing drunkards. And so on.
To be sure, unkind stereotypical generalizations about people are conventional parts of the human perceptual process. They are not necessarily always activated by premeditated ill will. They are just a part of our visceral, unschooled perceptual guidelines that psychologists call our schemata. The untutored human mind has a cognitive need for what is called chronically accessible constructs, which help us make snap, effortless judgments about people. Nevertheless, the body of stereotypes we build about people through our chronically accessible constructs can be—in fact often are—faulty, over-generalized, and primary reasons for the distortion of reality.
Negative, inaccurate cognitive schemata become particularly problematic if they formally inform public policy. For instance, about the same time that Nigerians were justifiably hyperventilating on social media over xenophobic fury on their compatriots in South Africa, the Lagos State government arrested 123 Nigerians from Jigawa State who relocated to Lagos in a truck with their motorcycles in search of better economic opportunities.
The Lagos State government accused them of the non-existent crime of “illegal mass movement”! In an August 31 tweet, the Lagos State government announced the “Arrest of illegal mass movement of Okada riders to Lagos from the North jointly coordinated by the State Commissioner for The Environment and Water Resources, Mr Tunji Bello and his Transportation counterpart, Dr. Abimbola Oladehinde.”
Ignore the monstrous grammar for a moment. What law of the land justifies what the Lagost State Government did? Chapter4, Section 41 of the Nigerian Constitution states that, “Every citizen of Nigeria is entitled to move freely throughout Nigeria and to reside in any part thereof, and no citizen of Nigeria shall be expelled from Nigeria or refused entry thereby or exit therefrom.”
So what was the legal basis for the Lagos State government’s initial arrest of the Okada riders from Jigawa? A newspaper editor from the South who supported the unconstitutional arrest and detention of the 123 Jigawa Okada riders argued that the action was justified in light of the rampant terrorism in the Muslim North and the crippling anxieties in the South about the creeping incursion of this virus into their region. There are three fundamental problems with this reasoning.
One, that assumption rests on the notion that the South is an unblemished, crime-free El Dorado. It’s not. Criminals from the South also go to the North. Some crimes are more prevalent in the South than they are in the North. The fact that one region has one sort of crime and not the other is no reason to engage in invidious stereotypical generalization of one or the other. No crime is more acceptable than the other is.
Two, if state governments in parts of Nigeria can invoke the crimes prevalent in other parts of the country as justification to violate the constitutionally guaranteed right to movement of some Nigerians, what moral right do we have to resent being negatively stereotyped and violated abroad on account of the crimes of a minority of our compatriots? It’s the same logic.
Three, the 123 people the Lagos State government illegally arrested (and later released) putatively on suspicion of being terrorists are from Jigawa State. Since the Boko Haram insurgency started in 2009, there are scarcely, if any, terrorist attacks in Jigawa. The North is not one monolithic, undifferentiated region. The fact that there is terrorism in the northeast is no reason to assume that every Northern Muslim, including one from outside the Northeast, is a terrorist. That’s ethnic profiling.
Incidentally, the Lagos State Government appeared to have inadvertently admitted that it indeed “profiled” the Okada riders from Jigawa. Gbenga Omotoso, Lagos State’s Commissioner for Information & Strategy, in a press statement designed to dispel the impression that the 123 Hausa travelers who were arrested by the Lagos State government were targeted because of their ethnic identity, said, “The arrested suspects have been moved to the State Police Command where they are being profiled.”
When law enforcement officers “profile” people, it means they are judging the people because of their ethnicity, race, religion, etc. instead of their actual conduct. I’m not sure that was the meaning Omotoso intended to convey because it contradicts the core claim of his press release. Was it a Freudian slip or just plain ignorance? Or both?
Well, a friend from the South who is close to Lagos State government officials confided in me that the arrest of the 123 men from Jigawa was just political theatre carefully calculated to purchase and win back lost political capital for the Bola Tinubu political camp in the southwest. This was necessitated, he said, by Tinubu’s insensitive and impolitic “where are the cows?” remark in the aftermath of the brutal murder of Afenifere leader Rueben Fasoranti’s daughter, which has caused Tinubu to be seen in the Southwest as a shamelessly thoughtless lackey of the Fulani.
If this is true—and I have no reason to doubt that it’s true— how is this different from South African politicians playing up negative stereotypes of Nigerians to stir up xenophobic violence against Nigerian immigrants in South Africa?
Interestingly, the Naijaphobic hysteria in South Africa and the Hausaphobic profiling of poor Okada drivers in Lagos are fairly coextensive with another enduring strand of Nigeria’s many bigotries: religious intolerance. Inaccurate reports that alleged that Rivers State governor Nyesom Wike had destroyed a mosque in Port Harcourt also helped to magnify the Muslim North’s own hypocrisy and unflattering record of religious intolerance.
Tearing down of churches and refusal to grant permits to build churches is a persistent problem in the North’s so-called Sharia states. Ironically, it’s precisely the people who have destroyed churches, who have refused to grant permission for churches to be built, or who have cheered the persecution of Christians that are taking umbrage at the unusual news of the demolition of a mosque in Port Harcourt.
A Kano-based Facebooker by the name of Ibrahim Sanyi-Sanyi captured the hypocrisy and duplicity of the arrowheads of the Northern Muslim anger brigade against the “demolition” of a mosque in Port Harcourt when he wrote: “When Shekarau was the Governor from 2003 – 2011, billboards warning visitors ‘Kano garin Sharia ne’ [Kano is Islamic Sharia state] were erected at strategic locations leading to Kano Metropolitan City. Furthermore, churches were razed down including Christ the King Church (CKC) in Naibawa, Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA) in Giginyu and HEKAN (Combined Churches of Christ) Church in Rogo Local Government Area (LGA).
“Now, Malam Shekarau, out of political expediency and with obvious intention to ride on general sentiments, has lashed out on Governor Wike for saying ‘Rivers is a Christian State’ and for ‘demolishing of mosque’ which are similar divisive stuff that happened under him as a Governor.”
Similarly, even when predominantly Christian universities like the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, have had spaces for mosques on their campuses almost since their founding, federal universities in Kano, Sokoto, etc. that are funded by oil wealth from the Christian South have no churches. That’s unacceptable Christophobia. So while we condemn Naijaphobia abroad, let’s also reflect on our own local phobias at home.