Ethnicity and Religion: Misperception and Prejudice

by Sabella Ogbobode Abidde

Not too many things bother me. However, among the very few things that do, ethnicity is one of them. Some sociologists and anthropologist and a great many scholars would tell you that ethnic identity is a modern invention, a social construct, and that in the scheme of things, it really shouldn’t matter. But have you ever wondered why, in recent years, a typical Nigerian would rather hire or give contracts to his ethnic brethren than to the most qualified Nigerian from across the River Niger; or why a typical Yoruba would not come to the aid of an Ibibio if there are no impending gratifications? And likewise, a typical Igbo father would not allow his daughter to marry a Fulani man. Ever wondered why an Ijaw man could live in Bauchi State for quarter of a century or more, and still would find it difficult, if not impossible, to find employment with the state civil service?

There are Nigerians, here in the US, when meeting you for first time — assuming your name doesn’t give you away– that would ask “what part of Nigeria are you from?” and some would go as far as asking for ones exact village or hamlet. A few have been disappointed that despite my “almost flawless” understanding of the Yoruba language and culture — that I am not “one of them.” Some Igbos, seeing me for the first time would assume I am “one of them.” So many things matter, i.e. culture, education, institutions and democracy loving, forgiving and benevolent soul and things like that.Sadly, what matters most for a sizeable number of Nigerians is ones ethnic identity.

In today’s Nigeria ethnicity is either at the core or at the ring of our problems; or at the least, ethnicity straddles it. At the core of corruption is ethnicity. At the core of nearly all the military coups we have endured was ethnicity. At the core of who gets what resource is ethnicity. At the core of the national blame-game is ethnicity. At the core of irrational violence is ethnicity. At the core of plum federal appointments is ethnicity. At the core of university admission is ethnicity. We disregard people’s skills, education, training, and work experiences all in favor of tribal affiliation. Therefore, whether one is qualified for certain position or contract is irrelevant — you get it, get in, or get by if you belong to the “right” group. This revolting pact made mediocrity and inefficiency the order of the day.

A few years ago, in my attempt to understand the world’s major religion, I bought a very illuminating book by Huston Smith: “The World’s Religion.” I have since added John Mbiti’s “Introduction to African Religion” to give me a rounded understanding of religion. I feel now the way I felt back then: religion has its purpose; and in some ways, it is good for the overall wellbeing of humans in that it gives direction and purpose to the life and time of the most faithful and healthy adherents. It is a cure-all for most. For the most part however, religion has been the source of many problems. The things humans do in the name of religion and in the name of their deity has been nothing short of stupidity.

The Muslims claim that “there is no God but Allah,” and that Prophet Mohammed is the last true “prophet of God,” yet the Sunnis are butchering the Shiites and vice versa. Consider also that there are several divisions within Islam: Sufism, the Wahhabis, Salafis, the Kharijites, and the Ijtihadists. And within the Christian faith, there are several divisions — divisions too numerous to mention. Christianity, Islam and Judaism all form the Abrahamic faith; yet, one sect is suspicious — if not outright hateful and vengeful of the others. Adherents of all faiths all pray to God. Thieves and rapist and scoundrels all pray to God for guidance and delivery. Mutual enemies all pray to God. Combatants all pray to God. Talented or not, prepared or not — opposing teams on the sporting field all pray to God. But to whom does God listen?

Of the three sects, Islam, at least in recent memory, is the most misunderstood and the least loved in non-practicing areas even though — as Smith puts it –“Of all the non-Western religions, Islam stands closest to the West” in terms of proximity and ideology. In today’s world, when some people think of Islam, they invariably think of terrorism and Osama bin Ladin. They forget that Alqeda is not Islam and that Islam is not Osama. Even those who should know cannot help but link both. In other words, Christians and non-Christians cannot disallow their mind and their intellect from this grave prejudice and insult. They rejoice making fun of Muslims. Islam has become their object of scorn and ridicule. If this is not prejudice, I wonder what is.

On this and other sites, some respondents can not hide their distaste and hatred for fellow Nigerians who belong to other ethnic groups, or to other religion. How many times have we heard of respondents who openly and proudly abuse the Yoruba, the Igbo, the Ijaw and others? How many times have we heard of, or read of respondents who ascribe all sorts of faults and abuses to the Hausa/Fulani. Others, not us, are responsible for all that ills Nigeria. The way some see it, “Nigeria would have been better off without ethnic group A, M, or Z.” Them, and not us, is the reason why Nigeria will disintegrate. The amount of hate and prejudice is just too pervasive and hurtful.

In the Nigeria of the last 3-6 years, most have not been willing to acknowledge the existence of the Ijaw Nation. Shamefully, they are not even willing to acknowledge the fact that collectively, the Nigerian State has done the Niger Delta, and more so the Ijaw, any wrong. Nigerians don’t understand the injustice and the calamity that has been brewing in that part of the world. Some have wondered: “why are the Ijaws always complaining…holding hostages…bombing oil lines and making life difficult for the government.”

One wonders whether most of those who ask such questions are genuinely ignorant or are simply acting out of deep-seated prejudice and primordial hatred; or perhaps they act and speak in such manner because callousness and indifference is embedded in their soul.

Four hundred and fifty billion dollars later, the Ijaw Nation is still wallowing in abject poverty and hopelessness. The North, the West and the East would never have tolerated these injustice, criminality and wanton underdevelopment if the oil was situated deep in their territory. They reaped the social and economic benefit of groundnuts and cocoa and other agricultural resources. Today, they are depriving the Ijaw of any and all social and economic benefit of the gas and oil in their lands and waterways.

But of course this type of large-scale prejudice is not new in Nigeria. Prejudice and psychological hatred of other groups has been part of Nigeria’s polity since the end of the civil war in 1970. Why do you suppose the North and the West and all the groups in between have been “using their jaundiced perception and misreading of history to thwart the Igbo presidential aspiration”? You see, “the North and the West have a deep-seated mistrust of the Igbo and so are bent on restricting, containing, and deny

ing the Igbo their political right. Added to this is their subtle message to other minority groups: the Igbo, as a group, are not to be trusted!” Now, who does not know that “the West doesn’t think much of the North, or that the North have contempt for the West; yet, both regions have found a way to grudgingly do “political business” and engage in “political prostitution” to the detriment of the Igbo nation” Misperception and prejudice, I must submit to you, is a huge part of Nigeria’s diseased makeup.

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Adeyemi Dawotola November 26, 2007 - 12:33 pm

I give kudos to the fore-writers. They are very characteristical in xraying the state of African nations. The leadership of the black nations had been wittingly preoccupied with wanton theivery, looting, social arrogance and all forms of caustic economic abuses. This has no doubt left the continent pauperised, even in the midst of plenty. The 'akotiletas' of our nations, as exhibited by the political class are to be held responsible for our national anomies. Dawotola Adeyemi works in Oceanic Bank Int'l Plc, Ejigbo-Lagos.

Anonymous April 5, 2007 - 10:25 am


Pat June 24, 2006 - 2:21 pm

I don't really have a comment, but more of a quick question on Nigerian culture. A friend of mine was born in Nigeria, but raised in America. He talks American, thinks American for the most part. His parents are Nigerian and they're worked in America and now are retiring back to Nigeria. Anyway, his parents have informed him that if marries any other girl than one straight from Nigeria, he will be disowned from the family. So if he marries a white girl, or an Asian girl, or even a black girl that's not directly from Nigera (doesn't even matter if her ancestors are from there), then he will be disowned. And the amazing thing is, is that he takes it very seriously and he's very worried if he doesn't find a Nigerian girl living in America to fall in love with.

So my question is, is this common? And if so, is this a religous thing, or a cultural thing, or just my friend's particular family? I'm writing a screenplay with this as the main conflict for the character, and I want to know where his parents are coming from when they impose these rules. If anyone out there can give me some clues, I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks.


P.S. – You can send answers to if you'd like. Thanks again.

obi, USA June 22, 2006 - 3:55 pm

Interesting article. It is curious that ethnicity apparently stops being a problem when politicians and their friends sit down to steal our collective wealth. To put an end to the mess, we have to go back to true federalism. All the parts of Nigeria can't develop at the same pace. Let's give Niger Delta more from the oil sale. I suggest 50 percent derivation as the politicians will refer to it. I know the oil thing is a hot topic. And in case anybody is wondering….I am not an Ijaw man. I am 100 percent Igbo. Let's strengthen EFCC and ICPC to fight corruption at a similar scale as FBI. We are over-ripe for state police. We need to re-define citizenship. It's crazy that Yobe state in 2006 wants to stop non-indigenes from owning private schools. It's crazy that children who have never set foot in any other of Nigeria will be made to pay differential school fees in Sokoto/Zamfara State? It doesn't make sense that Kano State prefers to employ Egyptian and Cuban doctors instead of Nigerian doctors who where found good enough to do their NYSC in Kano. Until some of these things are achieved, I will always see myself first as an Igbo man. And I have no apologies.

Yomi Dawotola June 22, 2006 - 9:43 am

It is always interesting to read your articles. The World is deceased with prejudice. Prejudice is inherent in all human beings but it is the level of pretence and denial that varies in us.

I commend your efforts in trying to find a balance in your articles.

Yomi Dawotola

Asuquo K. Ema June 21, 2006 - 1:38 pm

Very brilliant article and well written. I must say that you are one of a few Nigerian writers who analyses issues from an objective point of view regardless of your ethnicity or religious background.

Yes, ethnic and religious bias has been a very big dividing force in Nigeria and other african countries. What surprises me is that we as a Nation claim to be very religious people but still harbor a lot of bias against other ethnic groups. Why? It's very typical growing up in a Nigerian household to hear one's parents bad mouth and sterotype other ethnic groups and as a result you grow up with these sterotypes embedded in you.

I realized that after coming to America and being here for thirteen years now, it's all nothing but sterotypes that one learned as a child. I have come across many Nigerians here in the United States despite living in this great country still feed into this ethnic sterotypes. These are the same Nigerians who will be the first to cry foul when they are being discriminated based on their race, national origin (The sterotype of Nigerians being Fraudsters) or even strong accent which limits them to not getting some customer service jobs which involves a lot of communication.

These same Nigerians will be the ones to look down on their fellow Nigerians and judge them simply because of their ethnic background. Why? Before we being to critize we should first take a look at the way we Nigerians and Africans as a whole treat each other before we point our fingers to others. Ethnic hatred is what led to the horrific genocide in Rwanda that claimed half a million innocent lives. It's going on today in Darfur in Sudan between the so called Arab militas (although I still think they are black) and the negroid sudanese people. It's happening in our country Nigeria where one ethnic group thinks it's their birth right to hold the presidency and disregard other ethnic groups and also in the northern part of the country where one ethnic group is always willing and eager to eliminate another ethnic group whenever they are being provoked.

We should take a close look at this beautiful country America and learn from them even though theirs is still a work in progress. Different races and nationalities of people have come together and have made this country the "melting point" of the world.

By the way Sabella Ogbobode Abidde I always assumed that you are yoruba because of your name. Where are you from? Which ethnic group do you belong to?

Keep up with your informative writing!!!!

Anonymous June 21, 2006 - 4:36 am


Anonymous June 20, 2006 - 5:40 pm

It is just excellent!


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