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Politics and Society

Self-esteem and race in Nigeria

Why do some Nigerians put white people on a pedestal, while others criticise the idea that having paler skin makes you more intelligent, beautiful and successful?



On the surface there does not seem to be much to talk about when it comes to the subject of race in Nigeria. To clarify, ‘race’ in this post does not refer to the different ethnic groups that reside within in Nigeria, but rather to the global classification system that categorises mankind based on phenotype, geography and physical appearance. Out of curiosity, I typed ‘race in Nigeria’ into Google, the first ten pages of results were links to articles on Nigeria’s presidential race, Nigeria’s ‘race’ to the Olympic games, another ‘race’ to save Nigeria’s last lions. Most amusing was a link to a question on Yahoo Answers; ‘What race does Nigeria belong?’, to which the answer chosen was ‘Africans or Blacks’. The results after a quick search for “racism in Nigeria” are closer to the theme of this post. However here, I focus on how race and racism work in Nigeria as opposed to the anti-black racism Nigerians face outside the country.

Are Nigerians racist against white people?
In 2009, a group of Commonwealth MPs were refused carriage by a boat company operating in the Niger Delta. The four white South Africans and a mixed-race person from Namibia who were barred from a boat trip to Bonny Island cried racism. Outraged, the black MPs decided not to use the boat company’s services in solidarity. Their cries reached the governor of Rivers State who apologised and promised to use his power to force the boat company to change their policy. This experience was cited as proof that racism against white people exists in Nigeria.

The so-called maltreatment of the MPs based on their race overshadowed the boat company’s claims that they were only looking out for the security of their passengers. The Niger Delta remains a tense region where people, both Nigerians and foreigners, can be kidnapped by militants. In a region where people with light skin are targeted for kidnapping, a boat company says that it cannot take white people on board for security reasons, apparently this is racism.

A few white travellers in Nigeria have complained about the racism they face as they are targeted by the police for bribes, or by criminals just on the basis on their skin tone. This apparently is evidence of racism, even though it fails to recognise that Nigerians are also, perhaps more so, targeted when it comes to bribery, kidnapping and other crimes in the country. It also ignores the fact that in Nigeria, as well as in other countries around the world, the West and white skin in particular is associated with wealth.


Or do Nigerians love white people?
Indeed, it may be due to this association of pale skin with wealth that some Nigerians will say that ours is a country that loves foreigners, the whiter the better. It seems that the only Nigerians who openly resent foreigners are those who have spent time abroad and lived through anti-black racism. To elucidate in an anecdote, I know of a family who won a visa lottery and were very keen to travel and live in the United States.

A few years after having experienced racism for the first time in the States, they felt betrayed, and said anytime they saw white people having it easy in Nigeria, they wanted to tell them to leave. Another friend of mine who lived in England for about six years once said while we were in Abuja that, “When we are in their countries we hustle and “suffer” but white people in Nigeria get first-class treatment”.

Most Nigerians who have spent most of their lives in Nigeria grow up revering white people and seem eager to defer. Mixed race children are praised for their beauty, wealth and intelligence. Nigerians abroad believe that Nigerians at home are overly accommodating to foreigners usually at the expense of their own people.

Nigeria is a country where foreign employers can be openly racist to their Nigerian employees and get away with it. We currently hear a lot about racist Chinese people in Africa, this seems to have taken the shine off racist white people in Africa.


The “real” definition of racism
Blogger Zuky recently came up with this ‘real’ definition of racism in response to the generic dictionary definition;

Racism (i.e. white supremacism) is an interlocking set of economic, political, social, and cultural institutions, structures, attitudes, beliefs, and actions which systematically advantage one racial group at the expense of all others. Racism is measured not merely by interpersonal hostilities, but by the racial inequality of societal outcomes.

Considering the global racial hierarchy that places white at the top and Black at the bottom, and following the above definition, black Africans generally do not have the power or privilege to be racist, even in their own countries. White people and light-skinned foreigners in general are not limited from getting jobs or finding homes in Nigeria. Nigerians experience anti-Black racism when they visit a store and are told to wait in a corner so that all the white customers are served first.

In South Africa, a black child, Sello Pete was shot and killed because a white farmer mistook him for a dog. In Nigeria, businesses feel the need to pay a white British or Indian man to be the face of their company so that they can move ahead (for a humorous take on this subject, see this video ‘How to Get a Contract in Nigeria’:


There are schools that are only for ‘foreigners’, where Nigerian children need not apply as they are not included in the students admitted. An apartment building in Lagos can advertise as ‘expats only‘ and the company behind the advert can assure those who lodged complaints that they provide other apartment buildings for Nigerians who are interested in their services.

Job advertisements in Lagos can openly call for Indians, I have personally come across adverts that specifically called for those that held qualifications from the UK or USA, perhaps more vague to reduce any possible offense. I have worked in a company in Abuja that wasted funds on getting the services of one IT specialist from France when there were several even more capable and talented Nigerian IT specialists already employed. The bosses just could not accept that their Nigerian staff had the abilities to do a better job.

‘The white man’s magic’
Nigerians generally seem to trust white people, or light skinned foreigners, over our own. This is what blogger Solomon Sydelle of Nigerian Curiosity, refers to as ‘the white man’s magic‘, as Nigerians tend to believe everything good comes from a white person. In Nigeria, you can expect that you as a Nigerian will not always be guaranteed excellent treatment if a white person in is the vicinity. The people who witness it complain but nothing is done to combat such treatment.



That anti-black racism should take place in the most populous black nation in the world is confounding and ironic. Nonetheless, when one considers the vestiges of colonisation on the African continent, it becomes less surprising that Africa is not a safe haven for blackness. However, rather than solely blaming colonialism, the Nigerians suffering from low self-esteem and an inferiority complex who see no problem in putting anyone who does not have black skin on a pedestal should be confronted. When anti-black racism is not just limited to treatment in public spaces, but extends to how businesses operate, such a mentality can affect Nigeria’s growth and development.

The Pan-Africanism that encourages the cooperation and unity of African people first and foremost seems to be largely forgotten. It is frustrating that there are Nigerian businesses that cannot attract a market base because Nigerians are not interested in supporting local enterprises. What does paying an Indian or Lebanese person to front your Nigerian company do to the pride of other Nigerians? Such self-denigrating attitudes stand in the way of Nigeria moving forward because we do not trust the abilities of other Nigerians, Africans and black people.

Nigerians are yet to come up with local definitions of racism or to enforce ways of dealing with it. While discussing ethnic discrimination within the border topic of racism is great, it remains alarming that the other kinds of racism that happen in Nigeria are left untouched. In 2010, Gabon was cheered for deporting several European nationals due to their racist behaviour, a decision that surprised many Africans because we all know it does not happen often. Nigeria is yet to make a similar move.