Why Is Internal Xenophobia Rising in Lagos?

Why Is Internal Xenophobia Rising in Lagos?
By Azuka Onwuka

Lagos Island

Even though there have been violent ethnic clashes between the Yoruba and some other ethnic groups in Lagos and some Southwest states in the last 20 years, there has never been such a violent ethnic clash between the Igbo and the Yoruba in the Southwest or in the Southeast within the same period or before then. Interestingly, outside the indigenous Yoruba ethnic group, the Igbo are the most populous ethnic group in Lagos and the Southwest.

Why have the Yoruba and the Igbo not been engaging in perennial bloody ethnic clashes? One could find the answer in the respect the two peoples have for the sanctity of the human life as well as their tolerance and love for conflict resolution. At different occasions, some Yoruba and Igbo have had altercations at the individual level within their markets or residential quarters. Some of these altercations even resulted in the death of someone. However, none of these quarrels have been allowed to degenerate into ethnic clashes and killings. The issues are quickly resolved by the two peoples and the hatchet is buried. No reprisals take place and no battle lines are drawn.

However, in recent times, ethnic hate between the Igbo and the Yoruba has been recurring, especially in Lagos State. The first occurred after the “deportation” of some Igbo from Lagos to Anambra State by the Lagos State Government during the tenure of Mr Babatunde Raji Fashola in 2013. Many Igbo felt bad about it. Verbal exchanges were made by Igbo and Yoruba, including prominent politicians. Unprintable words were said about the other ethnic group. Fashola later apologised over it, noting that he meant no harm against the Igbo, and that he received the highest number of cows from Igbo people during his father’s funeral.

In 2015, a similar issue occurred. The traditional ruler of Lagos Island, Oba Rilwanu Akiolu, was quoted as threatening some Igbo leaders that if the Igbo did not vote for Mr Akinwunmi Ambode of the All Progressives Congress as the governor of Lagos State, they would drown in the Lagos lagoon. That utterance was condemned by many Nigerians, including Yoruba people. It was made clear by all people of conscience that all Nigerians had the right and freedom to vote for any candidate of their choice, irrespective of their state of origin. However, shortly after, the issue that caused the uproar was forgotten, and ethnic bigots took over with accusations of Igbo calling Lagos a no man’s land and not respecting their “accommodating hosts”, while the Yoruba were accused of overstepping their bounds by trying to force others to vote against their wish in the name of showing respect to their hosts.

When the 2015 elections results were announced, even though Ambode won the Lagos gubernatorial seat and Major General Muhammdu Buhari (retd) of the APC also beat the incumbent, Dr Goodluck Jonathan of the Peoples Democratic Party, to become the President, the PDP won some House of Representatives seats and Lagos State House of Assembly seats in four local government areas in Lagos State: Amuwo Odofin, Ajeromi/Ifelodun, Oshodi/Isolo and Ojo. The ethnic origins of the winners were Yoruba, Igbo and Urhobo. It was seen as the handiwork of Igbo residents of these LGAs because of their large numbers there. It should be noted that many Yoruba people and people from the South-South and North-Central regions resident in Lagos also voted for the PDP.

For some Yoruba, this emergence of non-indigenes in Lagos election was simply a result of the cosmopolitan nature of Lagos, just as is obtainable in great cities like London, New York, Paris, and others. It was a sign of potential greatness. But to others, it was an affront and a sign that the Igbo wanted to dominate the Yoruba in their own land, grab their land and colonise them. Threats and taunts started flying around again.

No major issue arose again since 2015 until February 23, 2019, which was the date for the presidential election and National Assembly election. Before the election, the prevailing argument across the nation was whether it was better to vote for the incumbent, President Muhammadu Buhari, or former Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party. Even though Buhari and Abubakar are from the North, they tactically chose a Yoruba (Prof Yemi Osinbajo) and an Igbo (Mr Peter Obi) as running-mates respectively. Yoruba and Igbo voters were wooed separately to vote Buhari or Abubakar to ensure that a Yoruba or an Igbo becomes the president of Nigeria in 2023. Beyond this issue of supporting Buhari or Abubakar, there was no crisis between the Igbo and the Yoruba before February 23.

However, while votes were being cast on February 23, there were reports with pictures and videos that some thugs stormed some polling units in the Okota and Aguda areas of Lagos State, which have a high population of Igbo, beat voters up, scared voters away, destroyed the ballot boxes and already cast ballots, setting some on fire in some cases, and telling the voters to go back to their state of origin to vote. One of the thugs was caught and beaten. Initially it was thought that he was killed and burnt, but it became obvious later that it was a motorcycle that was set ablaze by those who protested against the destruction of their votes. The thug that was beaten up was later taken to the hospital by some Igbo people who did not want him to die and he was treated and he recovered.

Even though this action of the thugs was condemned by some Yoruba, it was justified by some Yoruba. Soon afterwards, a war of words ensued between the Yoruba and the Igbo, with the issue viewed by many as an ethnic one, instead of a political issue that was tainted with ethnicity. Sadly, some of the educated and exposed ones, who were expected to look at the issue from exalted perspectives, got mired in the ethnic cesspool. One of them was Mr Femi Kusa, former editor of The Guardian newspaper, who wrote an article with the title “Okota: The Igbo Question, Jimi Agbaje, Afenifere and the Rest of Us.” In the article, he argued that by choosing to vote for candidates and political party of their choice which contrasted with the political preferences of the mainstream Yoruba people of Lagos, the Igbo were on an expansionist, jihadist mission. He added: “The major problem, in my opinion, is the Igbo penchant to wish to take over another person’s land.” He summarised his anger in these words: “So, we should be careful when you come to settle on my land and say you must represent me in the Nigerian Senate or the House of Representatives, or the Lagos State House of Assembly, taking away from me my aboriginal right to have my kith, kindred and blood represent me, while back home you are being represented in the Senate and House of Reps; when you insist on becoming a commissioner in my state or a deputy governor, or a local government chairman; when you try to govern me in my own land….”

If this had sprung from someone in the lower class (with little or no education, travel experience and exposure to the world), it would have been dismissed as typical and borne out of ignorance. But that this came out from an educated and urbane person and was put down in writing was worrisome. It showed growing ethnic intolerance and xenophobia in Lagos and the Southwest. It is dangerous because it is this type of write-ups that seep into people and create the fire in them to execute a genocidal attack on another ethnic group in the name of defending their land against expansionists and colonialists.

The irony in this whole thing is that Nigerians celebrate anytime they hear that their compatriots, who emigrated to other countries or were born there, have been elected or appointed into political office. In fact, in Peckham in the London Borough of Southwark, the Yoruba are so much in the majority that they decide who hold which post there. And it is portrayed as a thing of pride.

This current crisis is all about political power, concealed in ethnic garb. It is nothing but power tussle between APC and PDP. It is all about who controls Lagos State. Unfortunately, many people who are not politically and intellectually savvy get carried away into believing that it is an ethnic tussle. After the election, it will fizzle out, only to be resurrected in fiercer dimension in 2023, when there will be a contest of not just who will rule Lagos but also which ethnic group will rule Nigeria, when Buhari’s tenure is over.

There is something unique about Lagos that other states of Nigeria do not have. Ibadan was the capital of Western Nigeria even before Nigeria’s independence but does not have that which Lagos has. Enugu and Kaduna were the respective capitals of Eastern Nigeria and Northern Nigeria but cannot compare to Lagos. Lagos was the capital of Nigeria for 77 years (between 1914 and 1991). No doubt, Lagos is in the Southwest and Yoruba land, but being the capital of Nigeria for such a long time, Lagos acquired a unique image as the melting point of all Nigerians. Naturally it attracted government presence and investment. It also attracted foreign missions, international bodies and businesses. Nigerians continued to troop into it to settle or transact businesses because of the limitless opportunities in it. Even after the capital was relocated to Abuja, Lagos did not feel it, because by that time it had attracted a surfeit of human beings and businesses. That was the capacity that made Lagos stay afloat when Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, as Nigeria’s president, refused to release the allocations of Lagos State following the creation of local government areas by the then governor of Lagos, Bola Ahmed Tinubu. The businesses and individuals in Lagos kept the state afloat with their taxes. In comparison, many states in Nigeria have been unable to pay salaries just because of a drop in their monthly allocations.

The greatness of Lagos is in its diversity. Take that away and it becomes like any other city in Nigeria. And the more a city grows, the more it becomes more cosmopolitan. That is why it is possible for London to have the son of an immigrant and a Muslim, Sadiq Khan, as mayor. That may not happen in other remote cities in the United Kingdom.

Nobody can take away Lagos from its location. Anybody who calls Lagos a “no man’s land” is either ignorant or mischievous. But nobody should hide under that as a pretext to tell Nigerians that they are not welcome to vote in Lagos or any part of Nigeria. Anybody who harasses citizens and prevents them from exercising their franchise is breaking the Constitution and courting trouble.

Insecurity is the greatest enmity to great cities. Lagos has benefited from a feeling of security and safety. Those who love Lagos must not create a sense of insecurity in it. Some decades ago, Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, was the commercial hub of the Middle East. Warlords destroyed the place with strife. UAE took advantage of that by projecting Dubai and welcoming people. Nobody hears of Beirut today. Dubai is the new tourist kid on the block. The leaders of UAE will resist any attempt to create ethnic or religious tension in Dubai, because they know its implication. Those who love Lagos should drop the ethnic threats and think of how to make Lagos comparable to other great cities of the world.

Eko o ni baje!

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