By Azuka Onwuka
When I was leaving my hometown in Nnewi in Anambra State for Lagos in search of work, my parents and relatives sang it into my ears that I should be wary of the Yoruba. I was told that some of our people who worked in organizations had been eliminated diabolically by their Yoruba colleagues out of jealousy. I was warned not to trust them because they were “double-faced”. But, I have worked with Yoruba, and lived in their houses: none poisoned me, none betrayed me. On the contrary, Yoruba people have played very important roles in my life.
In my last few weeks at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, a friend of mine from Edo told me she was very sad that since she had only a few weeks more to spend at Nsukka, it was certain she would not be able to learn Igbo language anymore. When I asked her why she did not learn the language all the four years she spent at the university, she told me sincerely that before she left home she had heard so many negative stories about the Igbo, and so came into the university with a dislike, distrust and fear of the Igbo. She hated everything about the Igbo, including their language, and never bothered to learn it. It was only late in her final year, after she noticed that her hosts were not as dangerous as she had been made to believe, that she crawled out of her shell, began to make Igbo friends and frantically wanted to learn Igbo.
Two of my friends — one Yoruba, the other Tiv – told me that when they were sent to Igboland for their one-year National Youth Service Corps scheme, their parents were sad that they would be killed and eaten by Igbo people. Months later, when they had wonderful stories to tell about the hospitality of their Igbo hosts, their relatives found such stories hard to believe.
There is deep-seated mistrust among the Nigerian ethnic groups, much of it baseless and unfounded. Each ethnic group has stereotypical conception of the other. But in recent years, rather than abate, such stereotypes have been accentuated by Nigerian comedians.
The comedy industry has seen a boom in recent years. No big event is complete in Lagos or Abuja (or any of the major cities) without a comedian to make the audience laugh. Comedy has provided employment for thousands of Nigerians directly or indirectly.
But while the provision of jobs and entertainment are benefits of comedy, the ethnic jokes that seem to be the major jokes of Nigerian comedians do widen the gulf among the ethnic and religious groups and help to create or sustain stereotypes. Granted, most of the stereotypes were not created by the comedians, but they have been worsened in recent years, no thanks to our comedians.
To the Nigerian comedian, a Yoruba man is always cowardly – he rants and boasts but flees once there is trouble. It doesn’t matter that Yorubaland has been the headquarters of political activism in Nigeria for several decades. It doesn’t matter that whenever there is tyranny in Nigeria, the people that will march through Ikorodu Road (Lagos) and gather in Yaba (Lagos) are Dr. Tai Solarin, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Prof. Wole Soyinka, Chief Abraham Adesanya, Mr. Femi Falana, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Mr. Bamidele Aturu, and others.
In the same vein, to the Nigerian comedian, every Igbo man is an illiterate and a Shylock. To the Nigerian comedian, Prof. Chinua Achebe, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumuegwu-Ojukwu, Prof. Philip Emeagwali, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Mr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) and other professionals are Nigerians, not Igbo men and women. It doesn’t also matter that according to the Joint Admissions Matriculation Board statistics, since 1991 when Nigeria became 30 states, Imo, Anambra and Delta states (in that order) have consistently and persistently come 1st, 2nd and 3rd as the states that produce the highest number of university candidates. It doesn’t matter too that no Igbo man appears in the Forbes richest list.
Also the Nigerian comedian portrays every Hausa/Fulani (including every Northerner) as a daft and dumb “gworo-chewing,” dagger-loving “aboki,” who has only two types of business: cattle-rearing and security work. Every Northerner must speak English upside down with a ridiculous accent. The former Central Bank Governor and Emir of Kano, Alhaji Muhammad Sanusi II, who speaks English better than the English themselves, is not a Hausa/Fulani man, neither is Alhaji Aliko Dangote, who is rated as the richest Nigerian by Forbes. In the same vein, Alhaji Umar Ghali Na’aba, former Speaker of the House of the Representatives, who helped to keep former President Olusegun Obasanjo in check, is not a Hausa man, neither is Col. Abubakar Umar, who sacrificed his career to protest the June 12 election annulment in 1993.
In the same vein, as far as the comedians are concerned the Warri/Benin area is peopled by only thieves and toughies. First-time travellers to that area would actually try to clutch their bags more closely to avoid loss. Parents would think twice these days before naming their children Akpos. It doesn’t matter that it is the same area that has given Nigeria some of her most prominent pastors, media moguls, technocrats, sports men and musicians.
Everybody from Cross River and Akwa Ibom States (described ignorantly as Calabar) must be a house boy or house girl, or a lover of dog meat (404), and must speak with a peculiar accent, pronouncing “J” as “Y”, while every “Calabar” woman must be a sex machine. People like former governor Donald Duke or actress Ini Edo cannot be “Calabar” people. It doesn’t matter that this is a region where virgins are highly regarded, a zone where pregnancy before marriage is frowned upon seriously unlike some other Nigerian cultures where pregnancy before marriage is no big deal.
When these tribal jokes are reeled off on stage, we laugh and regard them as mere jokes. But the danger in them is that unconsciously, they create a wrong picture of other ethnic groups and make us relate with them in the light of these wrong pictures, thereby widening the gulf that exists among the regions, and doing serious harm on the way we relate to one another.
Such jokes and stories against the Jews created a repugnant stereotype of the Jews that culminated in the killing of six million Jews by the Nazis under Adolf Hitler. Centuries before the Holocaust, people like Reformation leader, Martin Luther, had written a treatise in 1543 entitled “On the Jews and Their Lies,” denouncing the Jews and asking that they be persecuted and even killed, while writers like William Shakespeare had created the vile character Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Today, especially in Europe and the United States, any Jewish joke is not regarded as a joke but as an anti-Semitic comment – a hate speech. Jews protest such a joke so vehemently that the joker is made to apologize and resign his position. In the same vein, any joke against Blacks or women is viewed as racist and sexist respectively. Nobody accepts them in Europe and the United States as a mere joke, because they know the harm inherent in it.
As innocuous as our ethnic jokes may sound and appear, it is time we started protesting any time a comedian comes on stage and starts telling such a joke. People can make jokes about professionals: lawyers, accountants, doctors, advertising practitioners, pastors, etc. But all jokes about ethnic regions and religion should be discouraged and rejected. Even though such jokes make people laugh, they are potentially dangerous and counterproductive to national integration and cohesion.