When Will the Tom-and-Jerry Affair between Igbo and Yoruba End?

Tom and Jerry

When Will the Tom-and-Jerry Affair between the Igbo and Yoruba End?

By Azuka Onwuka

It is difficult to say if the Igbo and Yoruba are friends or enemies or merely tolerating each other. On the surface, they seem to be friends, because you rarely hear of any clashes or killings between the two in over 100 years. People from the two ethnic groups work together, live together, laugh together, worship together, and play together. Everything seems all right. Nobody wants to be seen as publicly making any comment seen as tribalistic or intolerant.

But if you look deeper, there seems to be something you cannot truly place a finger on. It’s like a volcano waiting for the least provocation to erupt. It only needs an excerpt from Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country to be made public, or for Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos to “deport” some Igbo to Onitsha for hell to be let loose. Commentators immediately line up behind their ethnic groups, releasing venom against the other side. Luckily, such altercations usually end without any violent acts.

But on Nigerian online sites like the punchng.com, nairaland.com and others, where commentators can use anonymous names, such fights are a daily affair, and they always get embarrassingly nasty. At such times, combatants throw caution to the wind and rake up gut-wrenching jibes dripping of hate and bordering on insanity. You wonder if the purveyors of such vitriol would feel at ease afterwards interacting with someone from the ethnic group they have maligned so viciously. Some see it as fun, but many don’t. They see it as a war that must be won at all costs.

Regrettably, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, whose direct and indirect action and inaction sowed the seed of hate and distrust between the Igbo and the Yoruba, have died without uprooting that dangerous plant or even denying it water and nutrients. Therefore, till this day, the Igbo and Yoruba still enjoy shooting at each other with accusations of betrayal, expansionism, hate, ingratitude, greed, as well as trying to prove that each ethnic group is superior to the other.

And it seems the contest for superiority is at the root of that frosty relationship. The Igbo and Yoruba are unarguably the most competitive in Nigeria. They are the ethnic groups that easily and forcefully ask for the removal of quota system in all national life. They believe that if things are done on merit, they will excel. The Igbo think that the Yoruba are the major competitors they have in Nigeria, while the Yoruba think that the Igbo are the key competitors they have in Nigeria.

This shows in almost all spheres of life. Being closer to the sea, the Yoruba had a head-start in western education because the British colonialists and missionaries arrived on their land first. The Igbo, who resisted and rejected the British initially, eventually accepted them and thereby began a sprint to catch up with the Yoruba. And they succeeded.

Whatever the Igbo achieve, the Yoruba have an answer to it, and whatever the Yoruba achieve the Igbo have a response. So, if you have a Wole Soyinka from the Southwest winning the first Nobel Prize for Literature in Africa, you have a Chinua Achebe from the Southeast holding the record of the most popular and most-selling literary writer in Africa. If you have a Rangers International Football Club of Enugu shaking the Nigerian football scene in the 1970s and early 80s, you have the Shooting Stars Football Club of Ibadan shining brightly at the same period.

If Rashidi Yekini is noted for scoring Nigeria’s first World Cup goal and being Nigeria’s all-time highest goal scorer, then Nwankwo Kanu boasts of being Nigeria’s most decorated footballer, while Austin Jay-Jay Okocha flaunts his status as Nigeria’s most glamorous and mesmerising footballer. If Genevieve Nnaji boasts of being named by Oprah Winfrey in 2009 among the most popular people in the world, Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde will show off her name in TIME magazine’s most influential people of 2013. If P-Square and Flavour think they rock the music scene, D’Banj and Davido smash the charts.

So, in all areas of life, the Igbo and the Yoruba are competing, and, in the process, boosting the nation’s economy and bringing glory to the nation. Yet, some inferiority-complex-afflicted people who feel threatened within each of the ethnic groups look for every excuse to spread hate among the two peoples.

My close study of the Igbo and the Yoruba makes me see them as the Germans and the French of Nigeria respectively. Even the Igbo language is like the German language in many respects. In German and Igbo, there are no silent letters. Excluding a few letters in Germans which are sounded differently from the way the English sound theirs (like “j” which is pronounced like “y,” “w” which is pronounced as “v,” etc), whatever you say in both languages is what you write. For example, the “g” is always pronounced /g/ in Igbo and German and never as “j”: “Angela” (the first name of the German Chancellor) is pronounced as spelt, and not as it is pronounced in English; “danke” and “obante” are pronounced as written in German and Igbo respectively, with all the letters sounded.

But in French and Yoruba, what you say may be different from how you write it. Some letters are either silent or semi-silent. For example, the Yoruba and the French would pronounce “san” as if it were “saw” or “son,” but the Igbo and Germans would pronounce it /san/: exactly the way it is spelt. Also, the “h” is usually silent or glossed over in French and Yoruba: Hollande (the surname of the French President) or Kehinde (the name of one of Yoruba twins).

The Igbo and the Germans are bullish and technology-minded. They have fought and lost wars but staged successful comebacks in a short time. Conversely, the Yoruba and the French are subtle and supercilious, with good administrative skills, regaling in their years of history and culture.

A country that has such two success-driven ethnic groups should be at a great advantage.  The Yoruba have been great hosts to the Igbo; and the Igbo have reciprocated by contributing immensely to the development of Yoruba land, especially Lagos State, including buying swamps at a high price and turning such places to residential or commercial estates. The Igbo don’t believe in coming to Yoruba land to make money and taking such money away without adding value to Yoruba land. Also the sleepiness of Lagos during the Christmas-New Year period, when the Igbo usually travel home en masse, bears testimony to their contribution to making Lagos lively.

Just like the French always wish they could cut the Germans to size, so do the Yoruba to the Igbo, but it will never work. And just as the Germans always try to flaunt their success at the French, so do the Igbo do to the Yoruba, but it is completely pointless. The Yoruba can never be like the Igbo, and the Igbo can never be like the Yoruba. There is nothing the Yoruba can do to suppress the Igbo, neither is there anything the Igbo can do to suppress the Yoruba. Both of them can actually succeed without the other, but working closely together will be very beneficial to each of them as well as the nation.

The younger generations are forging greater ties, despite the baggage of enmity the older generations handed over to them. Working together, attending church together and living together seem to have increased the rate of marriage between the two people. Most Sundays when I look at the church bulletin, I see increasing higher number of banns of marriage between Yoruba and Igbo people. These days, it is common to see women whose names are Temilade Amadi or Ngozi Adesanya because of marriage. The ethnic barriers are being broken, even though ethnic jingoists continue to spread hate. Such hate speech and thoughts need to be stopped, for ethnic bloodshed or xenophobia does not burst out in one day.

Since the older generations are passing away without bringing these two great ethnic groups together, the onus is on those born after the Civil War to consciously take steps to bring the two ethnic groups together for their own good and for the good of the nation. It is high time this Tom-and-Jerry relationship between the two ethnic groups ended, for the good of both of them and the nation at large.

First published April 22, 2014


  1. Nnamdi Daniel July 30, 2016 Reply
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  2. Obinna Ezeobi July 30, 2016 Reply
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  3. Rotimi akinyemi Mr. July 30, 2016 Reply
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  4. OLAYIWOLA OLUSINA July 30, 2016 Reply
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