By Churchill Okonkwo
Cultural diversity in Nigeria is not only inescapable but a permanent feature of life. Every day, thousands of Nigerians move (‘migrate’) freely and settle in other parts of the country with different ethnicity, culture, and religion.
Cultural diversity in Nigeria is not only inescapable but a permanent feature of life. Every day, thousands of Nigerians move (‘migrate’) freely and settle in other parts of the country with different ethnicity, culture, and religion. Once there, they join in drinking unclean water; risking their lives on bad roads; paying electricity bills without power; sickening and then dying together. The notion, therefore, that Nigeria of the 21st century is that in which states, cities, and communities will be based on religious and or ethnic homogeneity is outdated and fallacious.
There is no doubt that cultural diversity in Nigeria inevitably comes with both blessings and baggage. But rather than celebrate our blessings, many Nigerians have been seeking to maximize ethnic rivalry, antagonism, and conflicts between different ethnicities. The reality, however, is that irrespective of our ethnicity or religious beliefs, we all share a common humanity, needs, hope, and fears. We, therefore, need to find a way of living with our unresolved philosophical and cultural differences.
The biggest challenge to achieving relative peace in Nigeria is our tendency to unconsciously equate unity to uniformity. Once we make that mistake, we begin to champion unity in a way that excludes and ignores the particularities of the cultural and religious background of the settlers. As such, we expect a greater degree and range of unity than is possible in multicultural communities. That is intellectually and morally dishonest. Multicultural Nigeria can only reconcile unity and diversity if it does not confuse unity with uniformity
Nigerians who seek uniformity are trapped in a dangerous naïve nostalgia. Their quest for uniformity represents the past where there are numerous societal restrictions and absence of dissenting opinion in communities. Their definition of uniformity does not accommodate differences in beliefs, political ideology, and even intercultural or interreligious marriages. Instead, their uniformity seeks to eliminate differences, creating a “one size fits all” society.
In contrast, unity values differences. It emphasizes that even though our tribe and tongue may differ, we can still stand in brotherhood. Unity acknowledges that people have different religions, cultures and political views. It sends the message that although we may be different in many ways, we can work and live together in a way that benefits everyone.
Unity cannot, therefore, be achieved unless we discard our current tendency to seek or enforce uniformity. As we mark the 2018 World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, I ask you to take concrete actions to support diversity and raise awareness in your social media platforms on the importance of intercultural dialogue and inclusion to peaceful coexistence in Nigeria.
Just to be clear, I am not an expert in cultural identity. But I believe that each ethnic group in Nigeria is unique and beautiful. The question we should ask ourselves is what voices or perspectives might we be ignoring or marginalizing in refusing to see the beauty, and what actions do we need to take to change this?
Despite the unique challenges and tensions inherent in our multiethnic and multi-religious context, there is hope. This hope can only be fulfilled if we build communities of individuals committed to supporting diversity with everyday life gestures. We should engage the Nigerian youths, parents, and leaders to celebrate the blessings of the cultural traditions in Nigeria. Let the leaders of various ethnic nationalities competing for attention step out of their comfort zone, engage one another and share their “unity in diversity” stories.
The collaboration between Nigerian artists from different ethnicities as well as the unity among our political office holders in looting the national treasury on our behalf point to the fact that bridging the gap between different culture and religions is possible. For unity to reign, we should stop being suspicious of others doing trade or business in our communities to survive in the present tough economic hardship in Nigeria. It is such suspicion, fueled by unnecessary fear mongering in social media that fosters misunderstanding, hatred, and conflict.
I completely understand that Musa will prefer to bond with Ahmed rather than Obinna. It is also true that Bola will be reluctant to associate or work with Uche. But this could lead to a situation where we are unaware of the tension and deep divisions we are creating. It is tempting to think that if we all have the same values, cultures and ethnic background there will be no conflict. Although true in few cases, the reality is that we cannot ignore the fact that we do not all share the same values, we do not follow a single religion. Our cities, town and even villages are now multicultural with ethnic groups.
Knowing fully well that changing the way we think, behave and interact with others is not an easy undertaking, I am challenging us to question our prejudices. I challenge Nigerians to be brave enough to mingle with unfamiliar groups and explore new areas. Even one little positive action can have a multiplier effect and restore hope to ravaged communities across Nigeria. Take part, encourage your neighbors, family, friends, and coworkers to do one thing to support diversity and inclusion on this World Day for Cultural Diversity.
Finally, Unity Does Not Equal Uniformity. For peace to reign, every Nigerian must first acknowledge that we are not all the same. Through this, we can understand and respect each other’s culture. We should seek to facilitate and advance our common bond and heritage rather than the current promotion of bigotry, ethnocentrism and stereotyping.
To minimize the conflicts between groups across Nigeria, we must combat polarization and stereotypes. That’s the only way to improve understanding and cooperation among people of different cultures. For instance, true unity between farmers and herdsmen can only be attained through dialogue, mutual respect, tolerance, give and take and an understanding of the needs of others. Then, gradually, we will begin to understand the joys, hardships, and grievances of others.
So every day going forward, join the campaign, “Do One Thing” to support unity in diversity in Nigeria. It is my hope that this piece will provoke a healthy debate on unity that does not require uniformity as a precondition.
Together, we can.