January 1st, 2014, will mark the 100th anniversary of the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates which formed what is present-day Nigeria. Yet, what exactly does this mean to young Nigerians? What does this mean to people like me: de-facto “Nigerians” who hold foreign passports but have Nigerian mannerisms, ideas and identities? Let me explain.I am 32 years old and have spent 31 of those years in Nigeria. I have gone to school in Nigeria, made Nigerian friends, married a Nigerian husband and now have Nigerian children. My speech and outlook are uniquely shaped to fit the Nigerian puzzle. But my parents are non-Nigerian nor is my passport or my citizenship.
It can be a trapeze act of sorts. I feel strongly attached to Nigeria most times – cheering the green and white uniform on the football pitch, smiling smugly when I hear of yet another accolade given to a Nigerian for an achievement and talk “Naija” when I’m with “my people”. But then, there are the times when I cringe at the news of Nigerian cyber criminals, roar in anger at the ineptitude of Nigerian leadership and sigh in relief when going for visa interviews with a blue passport rather than a green one.
And I am not alone; there are many like me.
I grew up in Bauchi, in the northern part of Nigeria. By all accounts, it is a ‘Muslim’, ‘Hausa’ state, but I didn’t actually understand that until 1991, during the religious riots which broke out there. That’s when I understood that there were different tribes in Bauchi and that’s how I started to realise one facet of Nigerian identity which I did not share – the ethno-religious one.
I spent 4 years in Jos in a missionary-run boarding school infused with a hybrid American quality so it wasn’t until 1995, when I was transferred to a federal secondary school, that I was able to see true “Nigerian-ness” at play. I understood then that being Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba and everything in between was what really mattered, more than just being a Nigerian.
The years 2000-2002 brought about a polarization in the world that also seeped into Nigeria. The Sharia riots of 2000 in Kaduna, the September 2001 riot in Jos, as well as the 9/11 attack on New York City in the United States, further deepened the divisions in the already fragile ethno-religious relations of the nation. I stood by, the pseudo-Nigerian, the “oyibo”, as tensions in Zaria mounted and eventually culminated in the bloody FCE unrest in 2002. Violence which ended with the brutal murder and rape of many students – many of them Christian. Even the Student Union Elections of 2002 (my memory of the date isn’t too clear) in ABU were marred by such tensions. It became “us” versus “them”.
In those days, I hardly heard anyone extol the virtues of Nigeria as a nation. Most choose to hold on to tribal sentiments. When I was asked what I thought, I shrugged and gave the usual “Oh, but I’m not Nigerian” cop-out. Inwardly though, I identified with some people by religious and even ethnic inclination; I just preferred to remain politically correct.
Fast forward to 2013 and some things have changed. I still have my foreign passport, but I find myself absorbing more of the character of the part of Nigeria I live in: Plateau State.
Living through several riots and bombings since then, as well as hearing sirens intermittently has made me more solid in my appreciation of the delicate balance of being Nigerian in a nation where identity is, at its very best, skewed. When I go to places like Lagos and Abuja, I feel ‘Plateau’- whatever that means.
The strange thing is when we – pseudo and real Nigerians alike – are out of the country, we tend to seek out each other by instinct. We can tell ourselves in a crowded mall. And we identify with each other – as Nigerians only.
But when we return to the country, we slip back into our comfortable ethno-religious shells. And I wonder when that will change. Or if it ever will.
Sifa Asani Gowon is a writer, baker and mum who spends her time trying to juggle her small baking business, thinking up new stories, ‘handling’ her family and being a woman of faith. She enjoys music, dessert and good conversation. She lives in Jos, Plateau State, with her husband and children.