On Ochereome Nnanna’s gaffe


Ikeogu Oke

No one, I think, would disagree that Ochereome Nnanna’s reference to Yorubas as “sophisticated morons” was inappropriate and deserves the criticism it has drawn, and that it calls for the “unreserved apology” he has tendered. I would call it an unfortunate oxymoron with no intention of punning.Yet, some people think he shouldn’t apologize. To justify their objection, they cite precedents of “hate speech” against the Igbo like the one by the Oba of Lagos, Rilwan Akiolu, for which “he never apologised.”

Such people strike me as ethnic hardliners. I wish they could wear what must be Ochereome’s uncomfortable shoes at the moment and know where it pinches before objecting to his apology. And since Ochereome did not say he acted in retaliation for the Oba’s obviously objectionable threat to throw Igbos living in his domain into the Lagos lagoon if they voted against his preferred candidate in an election, I think such objectors are wrong to link his apology to the Oba having not tendered an apology.

For those who think we must reciprocate every such incendiary utterance, I think we also have the option of acting in accordance with Michelle Obama’s slogan, “If they go lower, we go higher,” without seeming cowardly or too idealistic, while realising that the endless cycle of an-eye-for-an-eye and a-tooth-for-a-tooth vengeance is turning our people into blind and toothless ogres.The result is that they can no longer see let alone walk the path to progress; and most positive plans they make end in failure because, thanks to their almost toothless gums, they lack the necessary bite. As champions of ethnic bigotry, many of us have become victims of incapacitation by our mutually corroding hatred for one another.

When I first read of Ochereome’s gaffe, I recalled our first meeting several years ago, in the company of a mutual acquaintance. I had gone to the Vanguard on a job hunt and the acquaintance who then wrote a column for the newspaper introduced us in what turned out to be an ad-hoc bibulous evening filled with warm banter. I briefly met Gbenga Adefaye, then the editor of Vanguard, the same day, for the first and only time so far. Since then I have never needed to see him to be reminded that his eyes look so nicely different from any others I have seen on a man’s face. As for Ochereome, he struck me as a highly cultured public intellectual, a passionate and resourceful journalist, and a genuine patriot. I did not see him as someone capable of exhibiting the “ethnic hatred” some have deduced from his “sophisticated morons” gaffe.

And I must add that those who linked the Vanguard with his remark were wrong since he did not make it in his capacity as its employee, even though Vanguard was right to issue a disclaimer to the remark in a world where personal prejudice, as the remark suggests, can influence official decisions.I also recalled my other encounter with Ochereome on social media in the heat of the IPOB campaigns which I opposed, and which included a call by the pro-Biafran group led by Nnamdi Kanu for Igbos across Nigeria to return to Igbo land even without a road map for their survival if they were to comply with the bizarre order. Added to this were open threats of violence, death and exile against those who disagreed with the group, which I saw as a mark of radioactive intolerance, a genuine cause for worry for anyone who likes me believes in the right to healthy dissent.

So while I recognised the genuineness of some of IPOB’s grouse, I was opposed to its methods, particularly its intemperate, if violent, language, and refused overtures from some of its members to draft me into its army of vitriol. I also wondered why its chieftains and their children would rather not stand in the frontline of rallies they practically egged on others, mainly ignorant youths, to lead from the front, resulting in their coming to fatal harm sometimes.

I thought they or their children should be in the forefront of such rallies if they truly believed in the “struggle” and asked some of them why they would rather not be and got no response.  Besides, some of those fueling the campaign lived abroad, safe from the expected conflagration they called for in their home country in the name of a quest for “liberation” apparently tainted by a mix of self-interest and tribal politics.

I disagreed with Ochereome on the propriety of IPOB’s methods and the worthiness of some of its objectives. I believe his “sophisticated morons” gaffe erupted from the residue of ethnic bigotry inspired by the IPOB campaigns, and that such bigotry is alien to his nature. And looking at how things have evolved since our disagreement, in the light of the complexity of human experience, I am not surprised that an IPOB dragon can spit humility, faced with the prospect of suffering serious personal loss and being plunged into a precarious life.

This sentiment stands out from Ochereome’s apology: “I have enjoyed mutually beneficial relationships with people of Yoruba ethnic stock as with a cross-section of other Nigerians, both high and low.” To me, it signifies his continued belief in Nigeria despite its many challenges. And coupled with his refusal to resign his exalted and well-deserved post in a Nigerian institution located outside his native Igbo land, and perhaps return to Igbo land as the IPOB leaders directed all Igbos living and working outside Igbo land to do, it repudiates that misguided directive and underscores its impracticability. It may also be because other Nigerians including Igbos have enjoyed “mutually beneficial relations” with their compatriots as he has done that that they would rather keep the country united while working to improve it.

Perhaps we all need to experience similar clashes of that IPOB directive with reality in ways that can directly and fundamentally hurt us to realize its absurdity and the wrongness of having expected others to comply with it? That said, there is an acceptable place for insult in human communication. I once read a book entitled The Book of Insults and found it so entertaining that I was saddened by the owner’s refusal to resell it to me. It contained all manner of insults exchanged by such great historical figures as Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi.

However, the ethic of insult is that it must be deployed intentionally with the understanding of the target that it was deliberate, and so the one who insults the other would not need to express regret for his or her action.That Ochereomea has apologised for his gaffe, signifying his regret and recognising the “uncommon understanding” the Yorubas he directly offended and their “generosity of heart” to forgive him, indicates that he did not mean what he said as an insult. I agree with his description of it as “an off-hand remark.”

In all, I cannot see why he should not be forgiven and given a second chance not only by the Yorubas but everyone else in a country where we have collectively and serially forgiven various governments and leaders for aborting our hope for good governance, and repeatedly tolerated military coups or gone to the polls to reaffirm that hope and give them another chance.Imagine us insisting on not forgiving one of us for making an off-hand remark about one of our ethnic groups while still putting up with those responsible for the annulment of something as momentous as the June 12 election!



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