Return of the tribesmen, By Chidi Amuta

In a bid to retain power beyond 2015, former President Goodluck Jonathan ran a campaign with a somewhat foolish and simplistic slogan: “Neighbour to Neighbour.” I believe the aim of it all was to emphasize the sense of communal good neighbourliness that had been the kernel of national unity among Nigerians of all hues over the decades. With the benefit of hindsight, that tepid and colorless slogan served a useful purpose even if it did not deliver a continuation of the Jonathan presidency. It served to underline the essential sense of community and commonality of destiny that prevailed while Jonathan was at the villa. In every sense, the Jonathan presidency was a national gesture of goodwill in aid of fairness, equity and justice towards our Niger Delta kith and kin. President Jonathan reciprocated that good gesture by handing to his successor a nation that was in tact and in which ”Neighbour to Neighbour” was an article of faith. Sadly, Mr. Buhari who inherited that united nation from Jonathan is about to hand his successor a more imperfect union.


For all his unrelenting political adventurism and rascality, former President Olusegun Obasanjo must be commended for engineering the political leadership selection process of his party to deliver that morally beneficial outcome of the Jonathan presidency. That outcome was strategically in the service of a nation troubled by selective injustice. Even if Jonathan recorded no earth shaking breakthroughs as president, he at least remained faithful to the unity of a nation that gave him so much without caring about his humble and remote Ijaw beginnings.


Against this backdrop, the just concluded 2023 presidential election has beamed our best hopes and worst prospects. Take the good part first. Against a concrete wall of skepticism and cynicism, we will by next Saturday have gone through yet another series of elections, marking 24 unbroken years of democratic succession. With all the imperfections and anxieties, we can safely say that democracy has found a home and a future here.


However, the 2023 presidential contest has also revealed something ugly about us which many thought had diminished. The unfolding outcome of the election process has exposed the return of rabid ethnocentrism in some parts of the nation. We are still, sadly, a deeply tribalistic society. In the media influential South-west, national discourse is currently bleeding profusely with all manner of ethnic myth making and unnecessary revisionist effusions. The outcome of a rather important presidential election is being reduced to spirited arguments about ethnicity and the ownership of parcels and portions of the Nigerian real estate. In fact, a new wave of toxic identity politics has signaled the return of a resistant strain of tribalism among many Nigerians including ,unfortunately, the highly educated and widely travelled elite.


It was foreseen and intrinsic in the very picture of this season’s contest for presidential ascendancy. The three front running candidates were an unconscious resurgence of Nigeria’s tripodal politics of ethnic pre- eminence. With a Yoruba Bola Tinubu, a Fulani Atiku Abubakar and an Igbo Peter Obi, the subterranean impulses that would drive the election and condition its outcome were very much predictable. At best, loyalty to party would trump primordial sentiments. At worst, partisan endorsements of each candidate would assume a regional ethnic appeal that could grow into a national appeal.


Since Obi and Tinubu are southerners, the familiar computation was that both of them would at best match up to an Atiku northern demographic predominance. The race would then become a north-south confrontation which would again be perfectly manageable and predictable. On the other hand, an outcome that pitted Peter Obi against Bola Tinubu as co-equal contenders would be a nasty political replay of the familiar contest of cultural superiority between Yorubas and Igbos. A modified Awolowo versus Azikiwe contest was a foreseeable scenario while an Ahmadu Bello/Balewa duo of superior contestants look on.


In spite of his statistical second place score in the election result so far, the Atiku threat was more muted than Peter Obi’s disruptive presence. Atiku was important in this election mostly because the PDP as a party has a long standing footprint on the political landscape.


On the contrary, the Tinubu versus Obi contest though separated by nearly two million votes has turned out to be the more dominant and consequential contest of this last presidential election. By putting up such a valiant show of political clout, Mr. Peter Obi has come from a political nowhere to literally annoy the Gods of the Nigerian political status quo. His winning streak blazed a trajectory through unfamiliar territory to redefine the national political landscape. Peter Obi, in one breadth, unified the Igbos of the south east by sweeping all the five states of the zone. He has politically reconciled the Igbos and their immediate neighbours in the South-south states of Edo, Delta, Akwa Ibom, Cross River and Rivers states. His winning trajectory shot up northwards by taking the core middle belt states of Plateau, Nasarawa, and arguably Benue with significant inroads into Kaduna and Taraba states and parts of Adamawa. To add to his national appeal, Mr. Obi swept the polls in the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja. Overall, the man won the election in 12 states, the same number as both Tinubu and Atiku.


By far the more troublesome and perhaps consequential outcome is Obi’s defeat of Bola Tinubu in Lagos state of all places. That outcome has turned out to be something of an act of political iconoclasm. For the Yoruba and Mr. Tinubu’s devotees, this would seem to be the most consequential outcome of the election. It does not matter wherever else Peter Obi and his disruptive Obidients won, the Lagos win is like an arrow in the heart of Hercules. On the positive side, it does confirm the cosmopolitan and truly national character of the demographics of Lagos as the nation’s melting pot and heartbeat. It is to the pan-Nigerian demographics such as the one in Lagos that Obi’s message of a new Nigeria was targeted. Lagos heard him loud and clear.


The explanations are obvious. Lagos has a very national and cosmopolitan population. As the economic nerve centre of the nation, Lagos is the centre of youth unemployment and ferment. It is the place where the most diverse population of youth and young at heart are gathered. As the home of multinational corporations and international business activity, the messaging of the Obidients resonates most loudly in Lagos. More importantly, the message of the Labour Party and the Obidients appeals more to a detribalized Nigerian audience who are hungry for a better nation with a level playing field for economic competition and socio political equity.


Consequently, Igbos as Nigeria’s most economically mobile ethnic nationality though everywhere in the country are more abundant in Lagos which is to them a bursting market. With an affinity to trade, commerce and general enterprise, they have a sizeable population in Lagos and other urban and semi urban centres of economic activity both in Nigeria and along the West African coast.


What unites capitalism and democracy is that both thrive on a certain spatial expansiveness. They both emphasize the freedom of citizens to live and thrive anywhere in a given nation space. Both democracy and capitalism are underpinned by an inherent mobility of capital, labour, resources and persons in quest of an enabling environment. For profitability. Wherever an enterprising people settle in pursuit of their enterprise, they feel a sense of belonging hence they establish factories, shops, schools, and build homes, raise their children and induct their families. Over time, the settler business communities begin to overwhelm their host environments and therefore alter the demographic profile of their new home. In every place where the business environment encourages diversity, there is always a demographic consequence. The settlers increase and multiply often at a rate faster than the indigenous population with obvious political consequences. The United States population has altered along these lines in the last thirty years with political consequences. Nonetheless, the settlers remain culturally distinct and pursue their political and economic interests through the political alignments they feel will enhance their interests.


Obi’s victory in the presidential election of February 25th in Lagos state is the product of first the appeal of his message to the youth and youthful majority of the state who cut across ethnic and religious divides. The single most visible other majority in his support base are the Igbo traders and urban youth. The rest are other Nigerians of diverse nationalities and faiths who are attracted to his message of an alternative to politics as usual.


Unfortunately, a devious political narrative has been floated in Lagos and parts of the south west that the Igbos are about to take over Lagos. It is further said that given their overwhelming vote for the Labour Party in the presidential election, the Igbos may be plotting a takeover of Lagos from its Yoruba owners. In the course of this unhelpful narrative, ethnic sentiments have flared up between the Yorubas and the Igbo population in high density neighbourhoods of Lagos. Some acts of arson targeted at markets dominated by Igbo traders have been alleged. In general, there have been subtle threats to lives and property on both sides even by the elite. A climate of unspoken fear of something no one dares name currently hangs over Lagos in the run up to the governorship election next Saturday.


In the process, a whole needless debate about who “owns” Lagos has germinated once again. A great deal of this debate is being sponsored by mischievous political interests who are inspiring misguided traditional rulers. A governorship candidate of one of the parties has been compelled to go about Lagos proving that he is not of some non -Yoruba origin! All this is in spite of a constitutional guarantee of the right of every Nigerian and law abiding foreigner to live and invest anywhere in Nigeria without fear of discrimination or negative branding.


From point of view of indigenous proprietary and cultural ownership, everyone knows who “owns” Lagos. There can be no argument or disputation about the right of the people in Isale Eko to assert their ownership rights over a substantial portion of the real estate called Lagos. This is perhaps in the same sense that American Indians of the United States or the Aboriginals or Australia have a right to claim ownership of both countries. It is through legislation that the rights of all indigenous peoples to their ancestral lands can be credibly protected in perpetuity. I am not aware that Nigeria or Lagos state has any such laws in place at the current time.


Because Lagos is growing at such a fast rate, a time will come soon when it will be difficult to identify who really is an original Lagosian. Because of that imminent reality, it may become necessary to begin contemplating creating special reserves for indigenes of Lagos. This may involve carving out protected lands in Lagos state where original Lagosians could be settled and where their values, institutions and norms may be preserved in perpetuity. In the absence of any such provision, what will obtain would be existing state and federal laws guided by the constitution.


Outside the existence of any such special legislation, the applicable law remains the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. That constitution grants to every Nigerian wherever they may be the right to reside in any part of the federation and assert the full rights of citizenship. And because Lagos is a cosmopolitan metropolis which is a home to persons of all nationalities both Nigerians and foreigners, the meaning of “ownership” is no longer governed by traditional cultural rights. In Lagos or New York or London or Brisbane or any other modern metropolis, individuals partake in the ownership of the city through the normal process of property acquisition or occupancy. You buy, lease or rent a piece of real estate in the city where you choose to live and that title deed or deed of lease confers on you a right of ownership to that part of the city. To that extent, every legitimate property owner, leasee or tenant in a city is to that extent part of the ownership of the city in question. For as long as such persons are in full compliance with the range of obligations and rights of citizenship, they become legitimate owners of the city or state of which it is part. As things stand, the owners of Eko Atlantic City now own the entire Atlantic beach of Lagos in perpetuity as far as the eye can see into the Atlantic shoreline.


Therefore, the near xenophobic reactions to the Obi electoral win in Lagos are wrong headed and mischievous. That win is not an ethnic affront on the proprietary and ancestral rights of the Yorubas as the indigenous population of Lagos. It is instead a political outcome which testifies to the growth of Nigerian democracy from an essentially ethnic driven expression to a reflection of the preferences of Nigerians wherever they may live.



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