It's been very hard for me to reconcile my self-image as a liberal, female, member of an ethnic minority with what's happening to a country I don't know very well, but consider my "homeland". Over the past three years, an escalation in violence perpetrated by Boko Haram has tainted my (admittedly rose-tinted) memories of a Nigeria I've only ever had a holiday relationship with.
Self-identifying as I do, of course any sort of prejudice is out of the question. Bigotry, injustice and intolerance must be fought at every corner. But I began to feel a rising resentment against Islam. Not Muslims - but those who twist the religion into something used to justify their hateful and monstrous actions. Making the distinction between Islam and Muslims is clear in my head, but hard to articulate without sounding as though I'm betraying a fellow minority group.
I lay the blame firmly at the door of Boko Haram. Look at how callous they are to target churches on Christmas Day (killing more than 40 worshippers in 2011). The killing of school boys in numerous attacks (including ones on the Federal Government College in Yobe State and the Government Comprehensive Senior Science Secondary School in Potiskum, last February and November respectively). The outrageous kidnap of more than 270 girls from a boarding school in Chibok last April that inspired the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Heap on top of that reports that the recent deadly bombings in Maiduguri were carried out by strapping remote-controlled devices to unsuspecting girls as young as 10 years old. Now, it seems not a few days go by without some new atrocity, some new reason for any decent human being to be outraged. But amongst all of this, I have to keep reminding myself that Boko Haram do not represent Muslims as a whole - in their deeds and thoughts, is this terror group even practicing true Islam?
As a first generation immigrant to the UK, actually born in Nigeria (but leaving when I was three months' old), I have spent all of my life living in Western Europe. I consider myself a Londoner, if not "born", certainly "bred". However, ever since my first holiday to Nigeria at the age of 20, I have fallen more and more in love with it every time I've gone back. Yes there's poverty, but I've seen comparable levels on my trips to Brazil and India. Nigeria may not have continuous electricity provided by the grid, but nearly everyone I know has a generator and for visits to those that don't, you find that life's not so bad in the dark or by candlelight. Corruption? I live in Brussels, and I can tell you that just because it's more obvious in Nigeria doesn't mean there aren't pigs with their snouts in the trough in the West. As for the scary stories about kidnappings and falling for "419 fraud", if you didn't take silly risks, you'd be just fine. I learnt that if you had a just a little bit of money and a good group of friends, Nigeria was a lot of fun. Partying in great nightclubs in Lagos, eating suya from one of the many street vendors at night, hearing a host of different languages with all communities bonded together by the sweet and funny melody of pidgin. Even watching cheesy Nigerian movies and my heart swelling with pride at the size and economic force that is 'Nollywood'.
But why didn't the rest of the world see Nigeria in this light? I began negotiating a deal with my former employers (an international news channel) and the Nigerian Ministry of Tourism to produce a show that would show the outside world another side to my homeland. Then, that was all scuppered by Boko Haram ramping up their deadly campaign. How could anything convince visitors to come to Nigeria on holiday when all they saw on the TV were reports of an "Islamist" group acting with ever-growing boldness and a failure by the Nigerian government or armed forces to stop them?
For a while, I was bitter. My family is from the Christian south of Nigeria and I felt that if Nigeria needed to split, with the predominantly Muslim north going their own way, then let them. Surely it would be better than the horrible damage it was causing to Nigeria's already less-than-stellar reputation and the families left broken, weeping and with gaping holes in them the size of what was once a loved one?
It's strange that I never had this type of strong reaction to the magnitude of the attacks on 9/11 or even the London 7/7 bombings, in which one of my friends lost her life. Objectively speaking, it's strange to have such a the deep and spiritual connection to somewhere you spent the first half of your life resenting and only started visiting fairly recently.
But bitterness, hatred, resentment and prejudice are not the answer. And I will not let myself tar a whole group based on the actions of a militant faction, twisting and perverting (what I'm told is) a peaceful religion for their own narrow aims.
For now, I can only hope that the choice of February 14 for Nigeria's presidential election will somehow invoke the spirit of of what St Valentine's Day represents - love, the love most Christians and Muslims alike have for Nigeria and the desire to live peacefully together in Africa's most populous country. And perhaps, if Muslim candidate Muhammadu Buhari beats current Christian President Goodluck Jonathan, he may be able to appeal to Boko Haram with more authority - speaking to the militants about the true essence of Islam.