The Yoruba’s Precarious Future in Nigeria (II)


Tunji Olaopa
To say that the Yorùbá have a precarious future in the national entity called Nigeria is not to say anything that uniquely applies to the Yorùbá alone. Almost all the major ethnic groups have one reason or the other to exercise legitimate fears about their future existence in Nigeria. What is however unique about the assertion is that each nationality would have to find its own unique means, usually internal to its cultural dynamism, to deal with the problem of nation-building and the national project in Nigeria. What is called the Nigerian national project is the attempt by any plural state to deal with the multitude of centrifugal forces that often threaten to overwhelm the objective of nation building.

In Nigeria, these forces come in the form of religious fundamentalism and ethnic divisiveness which consistently defeat the centripetal objective of building a civic nationalism that will, all things being equal, give birth to a truly Nigerian nation. Civic nationalism draws on all the ethnic energies channeled toward governments (federal and state) and their capability to deliver on the imperatives of development. In other words, the nation building effort in Nigeria has only a chance to work if the Nigerian government has all the supports and loyalties it requires.

There is however a dimension of political economy to all ethnic maneuvering and agitations within the Nigerian national space. Relationship in the Nigerian space is defined around the allocation of scarce national resources, especially the oil revenue. Within Nigeria’s lopsided political system, Nigeria’s oil resources provide one singular reason for the jostling for the status of the president amongst the various politically heavy ethnic nations. The implication of this is that the status quo of a unitary “federalism” provides enough justification not to reform the system.

But it is exactly the reform of the Nigeria “federal” system that the Yorùbá have dedicated themselves to for far too long. One aspect of Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s national legacy is built around an ardent advocacy for restructuring Nigeria’s constitutional status to reflect a truly federal framework. Federalism operates on the understanding of the parity of autonomy between the federal and the state or regional governments. It was as if Awolowo knew the enormous structural and political impediments that are arrayed against the Yorùbá’s creative deployment of their heritage and capacities within a unitary national space.

Outside of a truly federal system, everything else is a dangerous political game founded on ethnic relevance. Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian writer, understands the essence of this game: “Real politics…has little to do with ideas, values, and imagination…and everything to do with manoeuvres, intrigues, plots, paranoia, betrayals, a great deal of calculation, no little cynicism, and every kind of con game.” Unfortunately, even Awolowo was equally caught within the snare of this real politics which he understood very clearly, and which most of his books and ideas were meant to anticipate and undermine. That underlying dynamics of Nigeria’s politics pitted him against his erstwhile associate, Chief Ladoke Akintola. Both are Yorùbá, and that tragic drama between them constitutes one of the high points of Nigerian political history. It is as if Nigeria itself is so rigged to make a terrible example of the Yorùbá nation.

Those considered to be in good standing for the Yorùbá leadership seems already compromised by real politics. We are all witnesses to the politics of annulment that turned MKO Abiola’s political victory into tragedy that is still all too fresh. Chief Ernest Shonekan propped, ever so briefly, a lackluster government, and then Chief Olusegun Obasanjo surfaced. Even Obasanjo’s energetic presence was compromised by the powerful rumour of a Northern political endorsement which undermines whatsoever lasting restructure Nigeria could have achieved.

The Yorùbá have ventured boldly into the boiling cauldron of the national real politics, and on each occasion, the Yorùbá have been burnt. It seems therefore a very wise move that rather than continuing with a rigged system, a conference of all nationalities becomes the next best thing to rescue a true federal system from being swallowed within the depth of realpolitik. The agitation for the Sovereign National Conference (SNC) has been as vociferous as the Yorùbá have made it. From the MKO Abiola’s June 12 saga through the Abacha dictatorship, there was a gradual convergence of progressives, from NADECO to the Afenifere. At the center of that progressive politics is Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, another Yorùbá. But now, within the very sure unfolding of Nigeria’s realpolitik, the present political travails of Tinubu contrasts with his heroic personality some few months ago before the election of President Buhari.

What does the profile of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu imply for a Yorùbá project of self-determination in Nigeria? There is no doubt that Asiwaju Tinubu is phenomenal. You amy not like his politics but, give it to him, to design and implement the strategy that unseated a sit-in government as witnessed in 2015 is simply ingenious and unparalleled. The heroism of the pro-democracy days couples with recent political struggles to put in place a progressive party coalition that brought in the Buhari administration, together gives him a significant and formidable presence in Nigerian politics. In fact, Tinubu’s political charisma envelopes the Southwest robustly in a manner that holds promises for the Yorùbá agenda.

However, the very name “Tinubu” throws up different and often contradictory political vibes. There is a disenabling albatross of Machiavellian godfatherism around his political neck that constitutes a severely limiting factor. I am not sure even his supposed influence in the Southwest is overwhelming, just like Awo’s never did – a testament to the republican credentials of the Yoruba. Godfatherism is a very touchy issue when inserted rudely within the political economy of the states in Nigeria. For instance, the recent troubles within the APC which seem to pit Tinubu against the Buhari administration put the former in an embattled position. And furthermore, the possibility of another party emerging that would coalesce around his presence definitely does not bode well for Yorùbá unity. While the Ondo state gubernatorial situation is not a good sign for a region whose sociopolitical existence in Nigeria is already precarious.

A credible future for the Yorùbá cannot, as a matter of course, be built around a single individual or even a single issue for that matter. The essence of the Yorùbá political advocacy has been tied around the significance of the sovereign national conference. But that issue faces two serious snags. The first is the growing perception that the SNC is a camouflage for a hidden Yorùbá secession project. The second is the determination of the federal government to reserve Nigeria as is. Nigeria’s has become a “no-go area closed to national discourse. This is one of the things that makes the national question intractable in Nigeria. We want to achieve national integration yet we are unwilling to enter into an open discourse about it.

We seal up the very issue that could serve as the opportunity for a robust national conversation. At the heart of the national question in Nigeria is whether or not the union is a viable one; whether we all want to stay together, and if so how. That ought to be the whole essence of the SNC. But if, according to the government, Nigeria’s unity is non-negotiable, then the Yorùbá cannot continue barking up the futile tree. Thus, after two doomed national conferences, it seems it is now time for the Yorùbá to change the game plan, except if there is a chance opportunity to deploy force with too many inherent risks it portent.

The Yorùbá status in Nigeria is a political issue but its resolution must necessarily go beyond politics. We are all familiar with the political travails of Awolowo, Akintola, Abola and the unfolding troubles of Tinubu. A more significant effort would draw on a pan-Yorùbá spirit to reach far and wide into every aspect of Yorùbá professional endeavour to develop a credible matrix around which the Yorùbá future can be tabled and discoursed. Of course, the matrix would feature such Yorùbá heavyweights like Tinubu and Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, as well as all other Yorùbá elders and leaders of thought. And OBJ really might wish to take this as one of his last patriotic duties given the immense social capital that his newfound non-partisan stance has yielded. It will also feature the full spectrum of the Yorùbá elite across Nigeria. And in discoursing the Yorùbá agenda, there is a necessary synonym between the Yorùbá agenda and the socioeconomic fate of the Southwest in Nigeria.

The Southwest has always been the locus of commendable achievements. The former Western Region was a singular example of a vision of administrative and good governance (that is, if we look beyond the anomalous political violence). For instance, the Awolowo-Adebo administrative model was responsible for the glorious infrastructural dynamics that was the cynosure of West Africa in the 60s and 70s. The Southwest still retains sufficient capitals, in terms of human, material and administrative resources, to become a positive and pioneering example. But for one major obstacle: the inability of the Yorùbá leadership to coalesce around one pan-Yorùbá ideal of good governance. Empowering the Yorùbá people in the Southwest ought to be a sufficiently pan-Yorùbá platform around which the Obas, Southwest governors, Yorùbá thought leaders, Yorùbá social and economic elites would do well to coalesce.

At the end of the day, when posterity is evaluating today’s events, what would matter for the Yorùbá would not be how each Yorùbá leader has survived and achieved political fame. Rather, what would matter is how each generation of Yorùbá leaders deployed their endowments to the furtherance of an agenda that unashamedly led to the empowering of the Yorùbá agenda in Nigeria. That is the sole justification for the existing legacy of Chief Obafemi Awolowo today. He was unstinting in his devotion to the Yorùbá cause without in any way undermining the Nigerian national project. Whether he succeeded or not is a point for historians and social scientists to determine. It is, however, his uncontroversial legacy of good governance that the present crop of Yorùbá leadership should replicate. Their entire reputation and claim to any significant sense of genuine leadership hangs on that.

––Dr. Olaopa is the Executive Vice Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP) [;;