Maybe you’re given an item for which you did not really labor. The value of the item is so apparent it would be madness not to care for it. Sadly, while you understand the worth of the item, you lack the faculty to reasonably care for it. You are ill-prepared for such a responsibility. To make matters worse, this item, valuable as it seems, has little of your appreciation by way of construction. The design, the components, the structure—would be all much different were you candidly consulted. So, this thing, toward which you are supposed to feel some sense of affection, becomes nothing but an alien item in your care. You cannot truly identify with it. As a whole, it doesn’t represent your dreams, your wishes, or your aspirations. It is more or less a contrivance that exists only in name; and maybe some functionality. And seeing your lack of pride of ownership, for you, there’s only one thing to do—abuse the heck out of the darn thing … for all it’s worth.
. . . And so goes the tale of modern Nigeria.
For all the troubles that threaten to violently dismember this state at a moment’s notice, identification with the nation state is primal. Like all other contrivances of colonial masters in Asia and Africa, getting peoples of over 250 ethnicities, speaking over 500 languages, to buy into a single entity has been an Eden that has eluded Nigeria for over 52 years now. It should therefore come as no surprise the demonstrably destructive and unruly offsprings that spring forth from such a loveless and forced union as this. Nepotism, Cronyism, Religious Fanaticism, Hyper-Individualism, Lawlessness, Impunity, and their many brothers and sisters all wine and dine with leisure in public and private life.
From public officials to private citizens, no one deems Nigeria an entity worth dying for or caring for. It is the reason why the President of Nigeria could dip his hand into a state’s Poverty Alleviation Fund, meant to help disadvantaged citizens in Bayelsa, and from there take $1 million to pay Beyoncé to come sing the Nigerian National Anthem in Nigeria—without so much as a mass protest in the streets.
Nigeria is the bastard child no one is giddy to claim.
But wait … What if there was a mystical way to get all these thousand peoples with their thousand languages to mysteriously buy into a singular identity? That is, buy into this “one Nigeria” identity as flawed as it may be.
Well, we need not look to the gods for answers. A rare event in the past few weeks prove what is possible in a land that too many times seems destined for disintegration.
Nigeria won the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).
I would be first to admit that I thought the national team had little chance of making it outside their group stage. I was incredulous as were many Nigerians. But still, that’s the lesser occurrence. What transpired once the final whistle went off—is what is more momentous. A phenomenon I have not seen since childhood.
It was 19 years ago. The Super Eagles, as the national football team is called, had just won this same tournament. It was a euphoric time. As a kid, I remember deifying every member of that team and owning a poster of the squad on my wall. And I wasn’t alone; everywhere I turned, on TV and elsewhere, euphoric Nigerians waxed poetic about the joy of being Nigerian. It was a singular moment of national pride—of pride of ownership of this “Nigerian” identity. Alas, the scope of which I wouldn’t see again until these past few weeks.
Like then, for once, it did not matter what ethnicity dominated this winning national team. And especially now, when the team’s coach is a native son, it has been of little conversation what tribe he hails from. Be it Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo or whatever have you—we are all Nigerians has been the rallying cry. Nigeria won. This bastard child of ours immediately had 162 million giddy parents jostling for ownership.
But unbeknownst to us, we had haphazardly, once again, unlocked a secret as ancient as time itself.
In our world, no two other forces are as capable of bringing together peoples of varied interests and diverging backgrounds as Religion and Sport can. These two forces were potent tools widely employed by leaders of antiquity to forge collectiveness within empires that did stretch from one continent to another.
All across the Roman Empire, amphitheatres (the most popular being the Colosseum), were fixtures of the Roman life. These sport arenas provided a medium for both the poor and the rich to partake in activities all found agreeable. These moments, as innocuous as they might seem, were assistive in defining what it was to be Roman. They were breeding grounds for communality and self identification.
Of course, sports cannot ease all ills in society. It would be idiotic to presume so. It didn’t stop Roman territories from revolting against the Empire or Roman officials from never being condescending toward their subjects. Rather, what it did was provide frequent and sustained moments of agreement that promoted an identity. It mediated a host of societal tensions. It was not uncommon for an emperor to throw games to pacify a belligerent and frustrated population while he attended to their grievances.
In Nigeria, where everything seems rife with ethnic and religious fractures, football is proving to be this relief and a common denominator. Although this latest installment almost didn’t happen because of in-house squabbles within the management ranks, when it did happen, it was a time when all grievances and anti-tribal malice were cast aside for a nation to sing as one. Imagine the possibilities of forging ahead and combating our ills where a threshold of camaraderie exists. But these football moments will need to be more frequent, in lieu of every two decades, to help deposit tokens into any national identity effort.
Nigeria is an item bequeathed to Nigerians by colonial Britain. And, so far, Nigerians have not bought into it. Maybe it forever remains unsellable to Nigerians, and marches fatefully toward an inevitable expiration. But before that fateful date, it should be noted that once upon a few times, we all sang as one—when for a nanosecond we bought into this … before quickly reverting to trashing it.
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