2A, Lateef Jakande Road, Agidingbi, Lagos, is an address that holds great childhood significance for me. Between 1995 and 1999, my after-school routine consisted of reading Enid Blyton books and playing with imaginary friends, surrounded by hundreds of cooking gas cylinders at my mom’s gas business which occupied the entire premises. Every afternoon, Dad would pick me up from school in Gbagada and drop me off at mom’s office after a quick stop at Mr Biggs, which was our little secret.
He was not supposed to eat the meat pies and Coke we both enjoyed so much on account of his diabetes, and mom was the ultimate “there-is-rice-at-home” African parent, so our daily trips to Mr Biggs at Gbagada Phase II were our long-running father-son conspiracy. The only thing I enjoyed as much as our daily Mr Biggs ‘dates,’ was getting to mom’s office and running to the back office window so I could see her.
I never knew her name, and we never even exchanged words. All we used to do was stare at each other through the window, smile and wave for hours. She was one of four children born to a couple who lived in the tiny security house inside the compound. Every time I asked my mom where Mr Idris and his wife came from, what “Hausa” people are, and why I never saw their children go to school, I got a curt answer and an irritated expression that told me in no uncertain terms to drop the topic. I only knew that they had a really strong perfume and that she – whatever her name was – was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in my life.
One day, mom caught me waving at Unnamed Childhood Sweetheart through the window, and I received a beating that I still remember clearly, 21 years later. She stormed out to have a word with Mr Idris and soon, the shrieks and wails coming from the small house told me that my little “girlfriend” was also getting a seeing-to from her mom. For a while, she stopped showing up at the window, but soon we resumed our little distance love affair after taking a few precautions.
Then one day I came back from school and she was nowhere to be found. I found a way to slide in a question about her innocently, and I was informed that following a series of Yoruba-Hausa riots in the area, it was no longer safe for Mr Idris and his family to be there. They had gone back to “the North,” wherever that was. I was full of questions, “Why are they not safe here? But they didn’t do anything to anyone! Where is the North? What is going to happen to them?” Each question met increasingly frenzied eye rolling until I was instructed to drop it. I cried for days when I realised that I would never see her again.
Soon after, mom shut down the business due to being undercut by a nearby church-backed gas shop (again, my questions about this only met with silence). My parents eventually sold the property at Agidingbi during a rough period in the early 2000’s to fund my older sister’s Engineering degree program in London, and I never found out what happened to the girl or her family.
These days, 2A, Lateef Jakande Road houses Top Radio 90.9 FM and a boutique, and I drive past it on my way to work every morning. Waiting at the traffic light outside the building, I sometimes wonder what happened to the little Hausa girl I once shared a painfully innocent puppy love affair with. What became of her life up north? Did she go to school and become somebody? Did she get married off at 13 and develop VVF due to underage childbirth? Did she become a displaced person in a camp somewhere? Is she even still alive? In all honesty, I would rather not imagine.
People’s Stories Matter – Especially The Uncomfortable Ones
“Anonymous Hausa Childhood Flame” is just one of millions of Nigerians whose stories are completely ignored or actively suppressed in Nigeria’s cruel hierarchy of human life. The world gets to hear my story because I won the birth lottery and I have the ability to articulate myself well, but my story is not more or less important than hers. Africa’s most populous country has a major problem with acknowledging the stories of its inhabitants, especially the plethora of unpleasant stories that many of us do not want to hear.
Nothing illustrates this more than our attitude toward the Nigerian Civil War. Throughout my education in Nigeria, I was never taught Nigerian history to any sort of depth. After six years of primary school and six years of secondary school, all I knew about Nigerian history was a few random facts about Herbert Macaulay, Olusegun Obasanjo, October 1, 1960, and “the three major tribes.” The adults around me would occasionally reference the war, and then very quickly change the topic when I asked what it was like. I grew up believing a version of history where “Igbos attacked Nigeria,” and then Yakubu Gowon apparently managed to pacify them magnanimously, while singing “Nigeria must be one,” and throwing rose petal confetti to adoring crowds of smiling people.
It wasn’t until I met people who shared their stories that my wall of ignorance began to break, starting in 2011. Among the many people I met was an accountant who survived the Asaba massacre as a 10 year-old boy by pretending to be dead, while his father and three uncles were not so lucky. In 2014, my mum casually mentioned to my shock, that during the war, she witnessed an anti-Igbo pogrom in Itire, Surulere where she grew up. This incident has been, for all intents and purposes, thoroughly scrubbed from every mainstream historical account of the war I have seen. The following year, I then met someone who showed me a photo of his sister who died during the war after eating baby food from a batch of aid rations that was deliberately laced with rat poison allegedly by the Nigerian Army.
I do not want to see any Red Cross, and Caritas, any World Council of Churches, any Poe, any Mission, or any United Nations Delegation. I want to prevent even one Ibo having even one piece to eat before their capitulation. Major Benjamin Adekunle. The Economist(London) August 14, 1968
Apart from the emotional potency of these stories, it must be noted that they took place within living memory – 1970 is not that long ago. Despite how successfully they have been silenced and removed from mainstream political discourse, the fact is that the existence of millions of survivors has real implications for the continued corporate existence of Nigeria. To my mind, the existential threat to Nigeria’s unified existence is not the fact that demagogues like Nnamdi Kanu exist. The real threat is that the conspiracy of silence surrounding the Nigerian situation and the millions of important stories that have been silenced end up giving power and legitimacy to the likes of Kanu – because nobody else is willing to break the wicked, suffocating silence.
What is more, the lack of regard for people’s stories, and state use of silence as an official policy have led to a situation where Muritala Mohammed – by all accounts, an actual, real-life war criminal – has his face immortalised on our money and has Nigeria’s busiest airport named after him. To understand how a person that lost relatives to Mohammed’s genocide in Asaba must feel about this, perhaps we should imagine a parallel universe where Tel Aviv airport is called “Josef Mengele International,” or the Congolese 20 Franc banknote has a picture of King Leopold on it.
Silence As A Tool Of Ethnic and Societal Erasure
This is the same disdainful lack of respect for people’s stories that leads to the nonsenical assumption that “Nigeria is made up of three ethnic groups.” In reality, ethnic identities like “Igbo” and “Yoruba” are very recent, colonial-era creations – even the word “Yoruba” is not native to the culture. According to Nigeria’s conspiracy of silence however, despite having a distinct culture with its own distinct language and centuries of independent history, I am to identify as “Yoruba” because my hometown is in southwestern Nigeria. My good friend and former colleague Okechukwu Ofili, who comes from the Olukumi ethnic group in Delta State is to identify himself as “Igbo,” despite being no such thing. As for anyone from Benue, Taraba, Kogi, Nassarawa or Plateau, who cares? Anything from Okene up, is “Hausa-Fulani” anyway…
Anyone who points out that this mischaracterisation of Nigeria’s ethnic diversity is neither historically accurate nor suitable for a 21st century democracy is shouted down by a wall of pointed, deliberate silence. Every four years, the conspiracy of silence is temporarily broken by an election squabble where some openly celebrate dodgy vote figures from “Kardashian States” and joyfully promote ethnically divisive hashtags on social media. After the election however, everything goes dark again and we are right back to the silent, passive-aggressive status quo.
The silence even finds its way into our bedrooms where we insist we are the most straight-laced, heterosexual, missionary-only-for-procreation people in the world. Despite our broadly popular anti-gay laws and widely promoted homophobic religious teachings however, Nigeria consistently ranks third in the world for viewership of gay porn, far ahead of countries like Canada, Australia and the U.S. Clearly, either the porn sites are fudging the statistics to make us look bad, or we are not as heterosexual as we make ourselves out to be. I think we all know which it is, but shhhhh! Don’t say anything! Awkward silence is the Nigerian answer to difficult questions.
Your Silence Will Not Help You
While societal hypocrisy, historical grievances and passive-aggressive ethnic warfare may breed a somewhat understandable type of silence, a different kind of silence is becoming commonplace nowadays – silence in the face of oppression and government malfeasance. This type of silence is particularly harmful because unlike other types of silence that offer convenience and the comfort of the status quo, it does not help anyone even in the short term.
As Nigeria flirts with the spectre of reversing the gains of the longest unbroken of democracy in our history, the very worst thing we can do is keep a stiff upper lip and go about our everyday business silently, hoping and praying that the wannabe military dictatorship that is testing the waters will timeout or simply stop and go away of its own volition. That is not how power works.
A few weeks ago, I was hanging out with my former colleagues at Channels Television and I wanted to know why The Other News – a political satire show I used to work on – did not skewer the Umar Ganduje bribe videos. “Have you guys gone soft? The jokes practically write themselves! You disappointed me!” To my astonishment, I was informed that the NBC expressly forbade media houses in Nigeria from broadcasting any of the videos in whole or in part, so the show simply could not touch it. I consider myself a heavily engaged Nigerian citizen with close links to the media, and yet I had never heard about this.
This illustrates the danger of silence. We have become so accustomed to keeping quiet that a government regulator can now effectively declare a fatwa on investigative journalism, knowing that there will be no push-back. Of course, if the NBC is robustly challenged in court and the issue makes it into widespread public discourse, it will very quickly back away from this ridiculous and unjustifiable position. Those in power however, count on our habitual silence and our cultural conservatism which reflexively seeks to protect the status quo – even when it does not favour us at all.
If we insist on silence, the disease will spread and worsen because that is the nature of power – it takes whatever it can, and does not bother itself with questions of whether it should. If your strategy is to wait in silence until a change of government in 2023 – assuming that a constitutional amendment for a third term is not pushed through – the new government will simply carry on where the old one one left off. When you give your power away, nobody ever hands it back.
Democracy does not merely mean queuing up every four years to vote. It also means keeping power diffused and in the hands of ordinary citizens in the open, instead of concentrated in tiny, opaque circles. The easiest way to prevent power hungry individuals from stealing our democracy is to constantly and intentionally speak out. If we want a Nigeria that is in any way better than the trash fire we are currently engulfed in, silence is our worst enemy. In the long run, it does not save anybody. There is no amount of silence for example, that will stop police from turning themselves into state-sanctioned kidnappers and extrajudicial executioners when they stop your car at night. For our own sake, we have to speak up while we can.
What is more, a time is coming when even running away from the effects of our silence will become impossible. Driven by right wing populism, the U.S. is toughening visa restrictions and making immigration harder – we don’t need two guesses to know who will always be at the front of the line to suffer it. Similar populist movements are also building up in Canada, Australia, and across Europe. At some point, we will no longer be welcome in these places, regardless of how highly skilled and educated we are. What will we do then? Start emigrating to Cambodia and Vietnam?
Silence Kills – Literally
On a personal level, silence did not help me. After becoming estranged from my dad because of his membership of a religious cult as I described previously, we briefly reestablished contact in 2016. He would literally sneak out of his house once or twice a week to meet me at that Mr Biggs in Gbagada Phase II – our little secret just like old times. We would sit and talk for hours and enjoy each other’s company until he would have to go home, and then he would pretend to his wife and his church that we were not speaking.
During one of these secret meetings in 2016, he confided in me that he did not believe that God wanted him to be estranged from his children. He told me “My children don’t have to be perfect before I can enjoy my life.” For a while, it seemed as if reconciliation might be on the cards. Unfortunately, when the time came to make a stand in public, he found silence more convenient. After dedicating more than 40 years of his life to the organisation, was he supposed to go public with his lost faith? Where would he start from? What would everybody say? So he kept quiet and let us drift apart again. I kept quiet too, because I didn’t want to jeopardise his reputation within the JW church which was so important to him. In any case I figured that there would always be time to fix things later.
As it turned out, I was wrong about that – there was no time. Just a few months later in June 2017, he died a painful, avoidable death. I found myself burying him, burdened with a million regrets that will probably never really go away. Maybe if one of us had been strong enough to speak out and damn the consequences, things might have turned out differently, but we both kept silent because it was the convenient thing to do. Now we will never know.
The Mr Biggs branch also shut down soon after, a fitting metaphor for loss stemming from unwillingness to challenge the status quo. Silence did not help me. It certainly did not help him. In all likelihood, it will not help you either.
You need to kill silence before it kills you.