The Yoruba’s Precarious Future in Nigeria

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Tunji Olaopa
The death has just recently occurred of Sir Olaniwun Ajayi. Pa Ajayi, the late nonagenarian, was one of the few great Yorùbá leaders left with a legacy of Awoist ideology and an unadulterated love for the progress of Yorùbáland. And this very sad event is coming some months after three other significant events. The first, in May, was the celebration of another nonagenarian, Pa Reuben Fasoranti.

The second is the predicament of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu in the unfolding dynamics in the politics of the ruling party, the APC, which is pregnant and threateningly inauspicious. And the third was the programme on “Celebrating Yoruba: Past, Present and Future,” organised by the Yoruba Academy Programme, University of Ibadan in September. There are several insights to deduce from these three events. And these are deductions that could cast some light on the fate of the Yorùbá in contemporary Nigeria on the threshold of some future no one is yet sure of.

Consider one deduction: the very top echelon of the Yorùbá leadership is getting ready for transition. Pa Ajayi is now gone, and Pa Fasoranti has now become a nonagenarian. Yet, the Yorùbá national house is not in order, and there is no visible preparation for a successful succession that will keep that house stable for the challenge ahead. The Yorùbá, like any other culture, put great stock by age and the wisdom it is taken to confer.

In this case, we are concerned with a sense of political wisdom deriving from the elders’ vast knowledge of Yorùbá historical trajectory, Yorùbá cultural dynamics, and Yorùbá political frameworks. Specifically, the elders constitute a significant moderating and directorial influence on the affairs of the nation. Two Yorùbá proverbs both reiterate the imperative of elderly-leadership as well as the probable consequence of its absence. For the Yorùbá, Àgbàki íwà lojà kórí ọmọ titun wo (It is impossible for elders to be in the marketplace and the head of a child will rest askew). The second proverb is more troubling: Àgbà o sí ilú bàje; baálé ilé kú ilé dahoro (Without elders a town is ruined; when the patriarch of a compound dies, the household becomes an empty shell).

Apart from the unfortunate demise of Pa Ajayi (whose death we ought to be celebrating, but we cannot), the two other events are also significant because they were marked by three diagnostic lectures—one dwell on the Yoruba historical past, another was a seminal analysis of what it means to be a Yorùbá in today’s world marked by globalization; the other focused on the future of the Yorùbá. The lectures were significant with respect to how the Yorùbá could commence defining a national future for themselves within the context of Nigeria’s national space. To paraphrase the concerns of the three distinguished lecturers: How can the Yorùbá take responsibility for the future of the Yorùbá?

The Yorùbá nation occupies a precarious position in contemporary Nigeria today. Given the lopsided arrangement of critical political and socioeconomic issues in Nigeria, the Yorùbá, as well as all other ethnic groups, have taken on the shout of marginalization within the political dynamics of governance in Nigeria. Specifically for the Yorùbá, the war cry against marginalization is often ideologically hinged around the need for Yorùbá self-determination as a nation in the context of true federalism. Several commentators and ethnic jingoists have equally raised strong advocacy for an Oduduwa state, as the most logical culmination of the urgency of self-determination for the Yorùbá nation.

Self-determination for any nation happens within the ambit of a larger multinational space that seems to be constricting the socioeconomic and historical development of such a nation. Nigeria is such a multinational space with several nations and ethnic configurations jostling for socioeconomic relevance within Nigeria’s very strange “federal” constitution. Such jostling, for instance, makes many elections a zero-sum game with do-or-die consequences. To achieve national meaning, therefore, the call for self-determination could lead either to secession or a principled and determined stand within a multinational space. It therefore seems logical, as some have argued, that self-determination ought to culminate, for the Yorùbá, in the creation of an Oduduwa state.

The choice between secession and remaining within a multinational space is a very critical one for any nation to make. That choice requires foresight and a huge dose of courage. It also requires an impossible epistemic capacity to determine the future! The choice, I think, is so heavy and solemn that it should be the decisional differential between pragmatism and patriotism. I love the Yorùbá with all my heart. Being a member of this distinct and culturally vibrant nation gave me the essence of my being. As a young chap growing up in Aáwé, I learnt tolerance, empathy, accommodation and other relational values and virtues from my grandmother.

I benefitted from what Mazrui calls the triple heritage in that small corner of Yorùbáland. I am therefore interested in the progress of the Yorùbá. There are therefore two reasons why secession is a No Man’s Land, fraught with unknown dangers. Secession is a choice no pragmatic mind will take, and Chief Obafemi Awolowo was a truly pragmatic leader. He had all the charisma, ideological vibrancy and heroic credentials to lead the Yorùbá out of Nigeria. He refused to take that decision. Odumegwu Ojukwu took the secession track in the midst of extreme provocations. He failed, and many lives were lost in the bargain.

True, there are many stories of successful secessions today—Eritrea, Bangladesh, Pakistan, East Timor, South Sudan. But, we need to be wary of what “success” meant for these new states. At what terrible cost were these “success” stories crafted? Biafra failed in Nigeria for so many reasons. And the tragic horrors of that needless war still resonate today. A pragmatic consideration is checked by an epistemic clause: the future of a seceded state is not certain, in political and economic terms. It is too mind-boggling. We are then left with the value of patriotism.

As a staunch believer in the Nigerian national project, secession is not an option for me, and it should not be for the Yorùbá, for so any reasons. The most fundamental is that Nigeria is a work in progress, and our present national predicament cannot be compared with the glory ahead. An Oduduwa state, if successful, will soon replicate all the troubles being confronted by Nigeria. It cannot be a nation-state in the strict sense of that term. That is the awful lot of all nations aspiring to be states.

The fundamental problem of the Yorùbá in contemporary Nigeria is a problem of leadership. This assertion is both a sociological and a normative observation. Sociologically, the observation speaks to the crisis occasioned by the death of astute Yorùbá leaders—first Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Pa Adekunle Ajasin, Pa Abraham Adesanya, and now Pa Olaniwun Ajayi. There are some other ones, but they are approaching their transition. In the absence of these hoary leaders, we are left with the Yorùbá politicians, and that leads me to the normative observation. In this sense, the leadership issue speaks to a larger governance concern.I suspect that we may not have the moral right to dangle the secession sword over the Yorùbá people and the coming generations if we have failed to exhaust the good governance option that lies before the leadership of all the Southwest Yorùbá states. Chief Obafemi Awolowo achieved the immense infrastructural miracle of the Western region within the Nigerian framework and all its socioeconomic difficulty. So, no one anywhere has an excuse not to transform each of the six Yorùbá states into a miracle of good governance.

Economic recession is not an excuse. The recession, in fact, is a cumulative effect of so many factors of governance, including politics without principles, corruption and prebendalism, ‘resource curse’, deep conceptual deficits and praxis in past policies, the current state of the public service and the bloated cost of governance all states are running. If the clear and present danger of corruption and political greed is taken out of the equation, there are precise blueprint that could be called upon to undermine recession and set each state on the path of infrastructural development. One significant decision would be to make the public service as lean, flexible and professional as global best practices demand. And this requires that the cost of governance issue be surmounted. One straightforward way to do this is to downsize the public service.

I can imagine the fear this word raises immediately, especially the fear of the almighty trade unions. But then, even trade unions are aware of the bloated public service and they are reasonable enough to agree to any worthy scheme, like a post-retirement programme that will duly take care of those who are due to be retired from service. Those in the service are afraid of leaving, and wisely so, because they have known the civil service all their lives, and it would be a sure existential death to retire and have nothing to fall back on. Thus, a blueprint of post-retirement plans incorporating post-retirement employability can be worked on between the government and the trade unions.

Self-determination for the Yorùbá translates into a Southwest governance vision that will be the needed fillip to instigate the rest of the geopolitical zones to snap out of their socioeconomic slumber. The best respect politics can pay to the Yorùbá heritage, and to the memories of those who had struggled all their lives to see the realization of a glorious Southwest, is to translate our cultural wealth and insights into a socioeconomic governance paradise. That is what our progenitors will demand of us. Aabooro la nso f’omoluwabi… (A word is enough for the wise).
–– Dr. Olaopa is Executive Vice Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), [tolaopa2003@gmail.com; tolaopa2003@yahoo.com; tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng]
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