Monday Column By Emmanuel Yawe
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On Tuesday April 20 a guilty verdict was passed on a dismissed police officer Mr Chauvin over the murder of George Floyd. This verdict represents a kind of revolutionary judgment in a way. Not too long ago, even with overwhelming evidence, as it happened in the case of Rodney King, the American judicial system would have delivered a not guilty verdict just because the victim was a black man.
Systemic racism has always been part of the United States history. Try as much as smaller countries, even our own dear native Nigeria has tried to make her destroy her shameful racial records she is not in a hurry to change. In the 1950’s a copy of a Nigerian news magazine was taken to the United States from Nigeria to the USA. In that magazine was a photo of a Nigerian driving a Coca Cola Van. The picture led to an instant scandal.
Whereas in Nigeria, black men could drive Coca Cola vans, in the United States at the time, black men were not allowed. The drink itself was considered too precious by the whites to be left in the hands of black ‘savages.’ When the civil right movements in the US moved into higher gear in the 60s, this case was often referred to as a stimulant to the demands by the blacks for equal rights.
Racism in the US became so endemic since the days of slavery leading up to the American civil war-which was fought over the issue of slavery anyway; it became so rotten that up to the 1960’s any white politician closely associated with black men was written off as a doomed politician. There was this story we were told about in our journalism class in the 70’s on how a white politician got defeated in the race for congress just because his picture appeared in a newspaper shaking hands with a black man. As the candidate himself later took pains to explain, the picture was a perfect act of dirty political blackmail. He said he never knew the black man from Adam. The man was hired and paid handsomely to come and shake hands with him while he was on a campaign tour. A photographer was also hired to record the historic event and then the picture taken was widely distributed to make the point that the candidate was a ‘Nigger lover’ who deserved not to be trusted with white votes. Expectedly he lost all the white votes and the election.
But equality of the human race is the most popular song every country – more so the United States – sings from its rooftop. Unfortunately the line “All men are created equal” articulated in the US Declaration of Independence is difficult to picture as a reality in the US of that time of declaration and even today. The overt lack of respect for black community who deserve to be treated with human dignity finally led to the death of George Floyd. And in a similar fashion after contributing very immodestly to the end of racial discrimination in Africa, Nigeria’s survival today faces the challenges of ethnic discrimination and violence, so common all over Africa.
The death of George Floyd ignited long-simmering anger over racism with national eruption of demonstrators hitting the streets. Protests extended from Minneapolis to dozens of American cities.
Why didn’t the death toll of more than 100,000 from the coronavirus pandemic send shockwaves? Why was it the killing of a single black man that triggered such sweeping protests?
While viruses do not differentiate people (regardless of their rank, race and age), racism and ethnic discrimination does.
In the year 2008, I watched John Jerry Rawlings deliver an emotional lecture at the Trust…in Abuja he said of all countries in Africa, only Nigeria had the potential spirit to tell the white man off. He gave us an example of his experience at Heathrow airport while returning to Ghana after he trained as a young air force officer 1971. There was this Ghanian dressed in a three-piece suit who wanted to return to Ghana too but had overstayed his visa in the UK by six months. The British Immigration was questioning him on why he overstayed and he answered them in the most polite manner offering his explanations in the Queen’s English. They had hardly finished with the Ghanian when a Nigerian came dressed in Nigerian traditional dress. His passport indicated clearly that he had overstayed his visa in the United Kingdom for six years.
Questioned by the British Immigration on why he overstayed in the UK for six years when he should have left, he immediately turned the tables. “Are you not happy that a Nigerian left his wonderful country to come and stay in this your country for six years? In Nigeria we have everything. Here you have nothing. You should be happy that I even stayed in your country for six years. What do you have here? Yeye country”, he yelled at the bemused British immigration officer who had no option but to let him go.
According to Rawlings, he started respecting Nigeria and her citizens after the incidence at Heathrow airport. Nigerians he said were the only people with the right spirit to tell the white men off and let them respect the black man. Jerry Rawlings was the son of a Scotish white man from Scotland and a black woman from Ghana. He went further to tell us that his respect for Nigeria had nothing to do with our fabled wealth. Rather he respected Nigerians because of the “Nigerian spirit”. He kept repeating “Nigerian Spirit” until he choked on it several times during the lecture.
“Africa is looking up to Nigeria and the country with this noble spirit to make Africa and the black race proud is letting her down. Why is Nigeria letting Africa down?” He asked repeatedly, his speech choked in emotion. It was obvious to many of us at the lecture that the former Ghanian President, a man of extraordinary emotional strength was in tears.
Jerry Rawlings is dead now. If he came from alive from the dead to witness what we are doing with our country today – using ethnicity to destroy the Nigerian spirit and Nigeria itself, he will shed tears and more. He may even just drop dead.