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During lunch with a Fulani friend some weeks ago, he sounded so relieved that power was shifting to the south with the election of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu as the next president. “It is now the turn of Yoruba people to be profiled and stigmatised. The captions would soon change to ‘Yoruba terrorists’ and ‘Yoruba jihadists’, at least on Twitter,” he said, with a wry smile. He said that in the last eight years, Fulanis have seen hell with the ethnic profiling of northerners “because of President Muhammadu Buhari” and that criminals of northern origin are routinely described as “Fulani herders” even if they are neither Fulani nor herders. “The bigots even called us cows,” he lamented.

It is somewhat depressing that instead of discussing the GDP, we are always having to quench ethnic and religious fire in Nigeria. A war of words has already broken out between Yorubas and Igbos in Lagos over the 2023 elections. To be sure, the tension is always there, just that it is, in the main, latent. At regular intervals, things erupt — predominantly because of politics — but eventually simmer, waiting for the next season. While I am the least surprised at the frequent outbreaks of yelling between the two largest ethnic groups in southern Nigeria, I must now confess I am no longer enjoying the drama. I am genuinely worried about the consequences of these hate-filled exchanges.

The presidential battle in Lagos state is one of those things we should love about democracy. Tinubu, the godfather of Lagos politics and candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), lost at home to Mr Peter Obi, candidate of the Labour Party. It was unheard of. To the neutral, though, an Igbo trouncing a Yoruba in Lagos is music to the ears, with the hope that such against-the-odds results would become commonplace across Nigeria in the spirit of national integration. Of course, it was not just Igbos that voted for Obi — a vast number of Yorubas, young and old, and other non-Igbos also backed him. But the ethnic subtext was not lost in the celebration and remonstration that followed.

Many of my Igbo friends have been complaining since 2019 that there is an active campaign of voter suppression in parts of Lagos state dominated by Igbos. This is very sad and sickening. If we want to practise democracy, we must be democrats. That means allowing people to make their choice without let or hinderance. That is why we say an election is “free” and “fair”. There is “freedom” of choice and there is “fairness” in the process. These two characteristics make an election “transparent” and “credible”. Voter suppression is not just reprehensible and unacceptable, it is criminal. Perpetrators should be fished out, prosecuted and punished — lest it becomes a norm.

On the other side, Yorubas often accuse Igbos of stoking ethnic fire only to turn around and play the victim. They accuse Igbos of “hubris” and “lack of respect” for their hosts. The accusation that Igbos claim Lagos is “no man’s land” is always in the fray. A Yorubaman, who said his sons voted for Obi, commented thus on Facebook: “As soon as the result was announced, the gloating and the boasting began. You need to see the virulence of it on Twitter. It was no longer about the intended shift or making a point against establishment. It suddenly became an ethnic thing, a victory for the power and influence of Ndigbo in Lagos.” This obviously riled Yorubas, judging by the readers’ comments.

While I am inclined to believe that this resentment subsequently impacted the governorship poll, the truth is that election times have historically soured Yoruba-Igbo relations. There is always the larger rivalry between Igbo and Yoruba at the national level since 1960: every time one group gets a major slot, the other has to settle for less. And politics could be a zero-sum game: my gain is your loss. I can understand this, and I can live with it. But the Lagos leg of the rivalry is becoming too poisonous. Hurtful and hateful words are being said. There is no way bitterness and resentment will not creep in. We are sowing, or have sown, a dangerous seed and the harvest time does not promise to be pretty.

Still, anyone who is familiar with the history of Lagos knows that there is really nothing new about what is happening today. The battle over Lagos is as old as Lagos itself. At various times, the struggle was between the indigenous people and slave returnees, or between Lagos indigenes and Yorubas from other cities. It was in the 1920s and 1930s when Igbos started settling in Lagos and growing in numbers that the battle graduated from intra-ethnic to inter-ethnic contestations. In fact, in the late 1940s, a sustained media exchange between Yoruba and Igbo intellectuals almost ended in a bloodbath, with the protagonists and antagonists stockpiling machetes to take things further.

Basically, Yorubas and Yorubanised Creoles dominated the politics of Lagos until Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe emerged on the scene in 1937 with a massive intellectual reputation, having received a PhD in the US and served as the pioneer editor of a vibrant nationalist newspaper in Ghana. He immediately set up the West African Pilot, which was considered a counterweight to Daily Service, a pro-Yoruba newspaper affiliated to the troubled Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM). While Service was accused of relegating Igbo achievers to the background in its reportage, Pilot was accused of promoting Igbos and downplaying the feats of Yorubas. As you can see, the media is always at the centre of things.

A turning point was the legislative by-election of 1941. In the primary election, Zik backed Chief Samuel Akisanya, an Ijebu Yoruba and founding member of the Lagos Youth Movement (renamed NYM in 1938). Chief Obafemi Awolowo, though himself Ijebu, supported Ernest Ikoli, an Ijaw and the first Nigerian editor of Daily Times. NYM leaders picked Ikoli. Akisanya later ran as an independent but lost to Ikoli. He left NYM along with Zik, who had earlier accused the party of discriminating against Ijebus and Igbos. Zik co-founded the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) with Mr Herbert Macaulay in 1944. When Macaulay died at 81 in 1946, Zik became the NCNC leader.

Awo had left for the UK in 1944 to study law. By the time he returned, the NCNC had become the dominant party in Lagos as well as in the Yoruba-dominated Western Region, even though Zik was biologically from the Eastern Region. Zik also led the Ibo Federal Union (forerunners of Ohanaeze Ndi’gbo), founded in 1944 by the Lagos Ibo Union. And as apparent counterforce, Awo, though schooling in the UK, co-founded the Egbe Omo Oduduwa with other Yoruba leaders in 1945. He returned after his studies. There was no let-up in the Yoruba-Igbo rivalry, but it was healthy and always about who had more education and accomplishments — “my Mercedes is bigger than yours”.

Awo and Zik never really saw face to face. Their paths crossed again in the 1951 Western House of Assembly election. Zik aspired to be premier but some of NCNC’s Yoruba allies dramatically cross-carpeted and teamed up with Awo’s Action Group (AG), an offshoot of Egbe Omo Oduduwa. With NCNC short on numbers, Awo became the premier. Many refer to this event as the beginning of ethnic politics in Nigeria, although there is evidence that politics was played mostly along ethnic and regional lines before then. Left hanging after the cross-carpeting, Zik relocated to the Igbo-dominated Eastern assembly and, in time, became premier by unseating Prof Eyo Ita, an Ibibio.

Clearly, Yorubas moved against Zik for ethnic reasons. They said they were too accommodating, asking why an easterner should lead them when a northerner was leading the north and an easterner was premier of the east. Some said Igbos had an agenda of domination. They referred to Zik’s article in the West African Pilot of July 8, 1949 where he wrote that it “would appear that the God of Africa has created the Igbo nation to lead the children of Africa from the bondage of ages…” Chief Charles Onyeama, an Igbo lawyer, had also reportedly said in 1945 that “Igbo domination of Nigeria is only a matter of time”. Even if they meant no harm, Yorubas did not take it lightly.

The Civil War of 1967 to 1970 only worsened Yoruba-Igbo relations. Igbos accused Awo, who was then federal commissioner of finance, of promoting hunger as a weapon of warfare that led to the death of millions of Biafrans, including children. They also said the post-war indigenisation programme was designed to marginalise Igbos as they were still recovering from the war and could not participate in the economically significant policy. This sense of historical injustice — attributed to Awo and, by extension, Yorubas — surfaces from time to time. Essentially, therefore, the rivalry of today is a continuation of what started in the colonial era and has survived for nearly 100 years.

My first experience of the Yoruba-Igbo “love” story in the modern era was in 1987 when Awo died. While Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, who led the Biafra secession, eulogised him as “the best president Nigeria never had”, Prof Chinua Achebe, literary legend and an ambassador of Biafra during the war, said Awo was just a “tribalist” and never a “nationalist”. Media hostilities broke out immediately. In 2012, Achebe also released his last book, ‘There Was a Country’, and the wounds from previous Yoruba-Igbo battles were reopened. There is also the argument over who deserved the Nobel prize for Literature more between him and Prof Wole Soyinka, who got it in 1986.

The Lagos leg of the Yoruba-Igbo political hostilities appeared to have been re-awakened in 2003 when the late Mr Funso Williams, who had an Igbo daughter-in-law, ran for governorship on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). He got overwhelming support from the Igbo-dominated areas, and PDP went on winning these areas from then till 2019. The areas only shifted to LP in 2023. After Tinubu lost to Obi last month, Mr Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, the LP governorship candidate, whose mother and wife are both Igbos, continued to play up his Igbo name, Chinedu, and the proxy war resumed aggressively. He previously used the name while running for senate in 2019.

This is quite an irony. I would say over the decades, Yoruba-Igbo relations have improved tremendously on many fronts. Be it in inter-ethnic marriages, or the creative industry as represented by Afrobeats and Nollywood, they appeared to have worked out how to get along without tears. Even on the economic front, Yorubas and Igbos own companies together. Igbos control large markets and businesses in Lagos and Yorubas patronise them. Igbos are big-time property owners. These are the things I love to showcase and celebrate about my country. Sadly, politics must divide us, as if we do not have enough trouble in our hands already. We are now playing with fire on another level.

The saving grace is that so far, there are no dead bodies. Praise the Lord. But we must not take anything for granted. A little spark can eradicate a forest, especially in this social media age where hate is amplified by the lunatic fringe. If we don’t end the madness, the madness may end us. This is not the time to point fingers — this is the time to de-escalate the tension. Blame-sharing will not solve any problem. This is the time for statesmen, leaders and intellectuals to help bring the antagonists back to their senses. The combatants must take a deep breath and let reason and peace prevail. If we go on like this and things degenerate to bloodshed, there will be no winners in the end.

Simon Kolawole is publisher, The Cable. 

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