"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
October 29, 2013
Old Bones
by Imo Eshiet

In Nigeria when bones are the subject of a story, old folks become uncomfortable. And so it was recently when a U.S. Senator invoked a rankling stereotype.

In an offhanded moment, Ted Cruz said, “You may have noticed that all the Nigerian email scammers have become a lot less active lately. They all have been hired to run the Obamacare website.”

This sparked an avalanche of protest from Nigerians. Apparently being Nigerian is an uneasy status. It helps me understand in some ways what it meant being a Jew in pre-World War II.

Being Nigerian means being displaced at home and hounded abroad. Since heists seems to be state policy back home and that reputation has become the unmerited misfortune of many hardworking Nigerians in exile, I consciously comport myself in a way that would not make people duck for cover once they knew my true citizenship.

Some Nigerians I know prefer to introduce themselves as West Africans. They manage to get by because many in America think Africa is a country. Some claim to be Jamaicans or any other country that might not warrant undue attention.

I remember running a red light as I hurried to get to a college I taught some forty-five minutes away from home. It was not quite a good day for me. Earlier that morning, I had been harangued by my wife for not reinventing myself after over two decades of mostly unrewarding teaching.

I hate being reminded that my profession is such drudgery. So in the midst of the storm I forgot I had to drive some distance to get to class on time. When I came to my senses, time was running out and so I hit the gas pedal with a vengeance.

It was then that a sheriff pulled me over. Having a brush with the law is what I worked hard to avoid for my six years of exile here. When I saw the blue light flashing in my rear-view mirror, I not only had the traditional sinking feeling in my stomach knowing my insurance would definitely go up, but also panicked for other reasons.

I was Nigerian! My citizenship was a badge of shame and dishonor, and in my situation that was not a plus. I braced for the interrogation that followed.

As I waited for the sheriff to come to me I place my hands on the steering wheel so he could see I had no weapons, at least not in my hands. The sheriff asked for the normal: driving license and insurance. Perhaps because of my accent, he also asked for legal presence and I handed him my green card.

After he checked me out, he returned and asked me why I ran the red light. I told him I was distracted as a result of the storm I had with my wife. A man my age, he nodded knowingly. Seeing a window, I explained that I was not a lawbreaker as he probably would have noticed from my record on his computer.

I added I had tried to remain that way for my duration here. Again he nodded gracefully. He said he would let me off for that reason and advised me to drive more carefully. I drove away thankful that my citizenship had not done me in!

Nigerians are touchy about the way Americans perceive them. The Ted Cruz animus against Nigerians reminded me of a piece of advice that a late uncle once gave me. The uncle had returned home from America after picking up college degrees. Recalling his experiences, he noted that Americans love to chew up their presidents but would never stand an alien joining the fray.

As any visitor to the internet would readily notice, Nigerians have a passion for taking their country to the laundry. The social media is the only free press Nigerians know. There no one asks for bribes and no one refuses to publish any opinion for fear of government clamp down.

Nigerians mostly turn to social media to vent their frustrations at their politicians who have found more brutal ways of cutting their limbs than King Leopold of Belgium did in Congo.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Senator Cruz had touched a raw nerve. His off-the-cuff comment aggravated hardworking Nigerian Americans for many reasons. Not quite long ago, General Colin Powell had written Nigerians off as “natural scammers.” The comment stuck. True, some Nigerians with access to the internet have sold some nonexistent oil wells to many people all over the world.

But one gambler in Casablanca doesn’t make everyone there a gambler. Everyone knows America has some gun problems. The situation is such that even infants take guns to school and blow up classmates and teachers alike. Yet I do not duck each time I see an American kid for fear he might be trigger-happy.

Even though American governments police every corner of the world, yet I know many Americans who are doves or to use a Book of Mormon trope, Nephites who turned their weapons into ploughshares.

When I came to America I remember taking time to explain to friends here that though Nigerian, I was not in the scam business. Having to explain oneself was not a very good way of self-introduction, but something told me I needed to disabuse minds.

Majority of Nigerians desire a cleansing for their country and the ignoble reputation foisted on her by scammers. Here is what Olu Oguibe, a Nigerian intellectual who renounced his Nigerian citizenship recently has to said about the mess especially among Nigerians from his own tribe.

Most so-called Igbo leaders have allowed themselves to be tainted by the dishonorable stain of corruption, theft, and routine betrayal of public trust. A people cannot find their way to greatness if their leaders are women and men who dip themselves in the feces of corruption and public theft.

Even more so, a people whose ancient moral foundation was built on ikwuwa aka oto) impeccable integrity) and ofo-la-ogu (rectitude and clear conscience), cannot find their way back to those fundamental values if they are led or guided by criminals and thieves.

And so, one of our greatest priorities as a nation must be to shun the corrupt and the compromised, to condemn and abhor indecency and malfeasance, and to find among and for ourselves stewards whose hands are unsoiled and whose values are not tainted by greed or graft or betrayal of public trust.

Appropriation of public funds and resources for personal gain is an abominable crime for which any and all culprits should be publicly shamed and duly punished. Graft must have no place at all in the new republic.

Oguibe wrote in reference to Stella Oduah, Nigeria’s aviation secretary recently accused of illegal transfer of state funds to purchase some armored limos for her personal use at the price of $1.6 million!

No sane person can possibly argue against this reasoning so long as shaming and "duly punished" is done with due process. In my culture and I suspect in his as well, shaming a chicken thief for instance involved hanging the chicken or whatever was stolen on the neck of the felon and parading the person naked along the streets of the community while folks rained invectives, spat, beat and threw rubbish on the felon.

Obviously in this day and time such act is nothing short of barbaric. I know that even more barbaric forms of jungle justice are perpetrated in many Nigerian cities where if someone raises a shout of thief, thief, thief or ole, barawo or onyeoshi, a suspect is instantly pounced on, doused with gasoline and an old car tyre hung on the neck and set ablaze.

Is this the kind of shaming we should endorse? Of course dreadful diseases demand an equally extreme treatment, but if we invoke past traditional brutal practices as cure in a modern setting, things will look pretty grim. Let's let Sharia fanatics carry on with their business of stoning and slitting throats. But let's not even remotely think of mimicking them.

I believe stereotyping and labeling an entire nation as scammers is the sort of shaming that is best left for the Taliban. The fury expressed by Nigerians against Ted Cruz was informed by the fear that should he become president one day, he might use scammers as an excuse to rain bombs on Nigeria. This may sound far-fetched, but there is precedence where forged evidence was used to declare war on another nation.

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About Imo Eshiet

Imo Ben Eshiet was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Raised in his village, Uruk Enung, and at several cities in his country including Nsukka, Enugu, Umuahia, Eket and Calabar, Eshiet is a detribalized Nigerian. Although he was extensively exposed to Western education right from childhood in his country where he obtained a PhD in English and Literary Studies from the University of Calabar, he is well nurtured in African history, politics, culture and traditions.

Imo is currently a teacher in the high priests group in the Summit Ward of the Greensboro North Carolina Stake.

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