I’ve heard it said that we Nigerians are the happiest people on earth. We’re also accused of being passive about issues that would stir up revolutions in other countries. For instance, it’s been just over a week since ethno-religious violence left hundreds dead around Jos, a city in central Nigeria, but the slaughtering of our fellow citizens has already largely faded from our headlines and conversations. The general response to announcements by the police that they have apprehended some of the butchers is, “Oh, really?” Few people I know even care to hear what the brutes have to say for themselves.
Amnesia Nigeriana, someone called it: that tendency of Nigerians to blank out national trauma. As it happens, more than anything else, it is the reports that persist on the BBC and CNN that remind us that hundreds of innocent Nigerians, women and children, were slaughtered in their sleep that Sunday night. When I look up at the huge TV screen in the newsroom where I work, there’s usually a foreign reporter with a look of high seriousness, scenes of Jos in the background.
Every time Nigeria experiences an episode of violence, we seem to go quiet while the rest of the world becomes fixated. Perhaps it’s understandable that we begin to resent these foreign journalists and the constant focus on our disasters.
“These people just never carry any positive news about Nigeria,” a colleague says.
“All they ever see is the bad and the ugly.”
“It’s just malice. They have a particular image of Africa that they want to keep portraying to the world.”
My friend Ruona has a theory for why we don’t react more strongly: Nigerians have to stare the carnage in the face all the time — we become jaded about the violence because we’re used to it — while the Western news media see it with fresh eyes.
But even if we decided to make more of a big deal out of our calamities, Jos, terrible as what happened there was, would have to patiently wait its turn. While ethno-religious violence takes place in Jos, people in Ebonyi State, who speak the same language and share the same religion, are massacring one another over natural resources. Disgruntled militants in the Niger Delta are threatening to cripple the economy by vandalizing more petroleum pipelines. Politicians are assassinated regularly in the western states; the elderly fathers and mothers of prosperous children are kidnapped and held for ransom in the east. And we know it’s just a matter of time before riots between Muslims and Christians break out again up north.
Even everyday hazards turn deadly. We have electricity for only a few hours per week, and countless families have been blasted into oblivion or lulled to a permanent sleep when their generators have exploded or discharged fatal fumes. Our country is one of the largest producers of crude oil in the world, yet an excruciating fuel scarcity persists, with fuel queues that people joke stretch all the way to Calcutta.
And with whom do we register our grievances? Despite reports that President Umaru Yar’Adua, who hasn’t been seen in public since he left for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia last November, is brain dead, his devoted wife and a loyal cabal of his tribesmen are quite happy to rule us in his place.
We mourn for those who died in Jos, and for the survivors. We are all dismayed at the series of disasters that have befallen them. But we are careful not to overdose on agony. Even the psychologists agree that amnesia can be a defense mechanism, useful for the preservation of sanity.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, an editor at the Nigerian newspaper NEXT and the author of the novel Do Not Come to You by Chance.