By Feyi Fawehinmi
An abiding memory of Nigerian elections that I have is from 2011. I flew to Nigeria to vote that year — I had planned to vote in the Presidential elections and booked my ticket accordingly but the last minute cancellation, per usual, meant I ended up voting in the gubernatorial elections.
At my polling unit, the ACN (one of the parties that formed APC) party agent turned up, his pocket bulging with cash to buy some votes. But then an amazing thing happened — people turned down his cash and said they were going to vote for Fashola (they seemed to be suspicious that he wanted to bribe them to vote for someone else). The results were later tallied and Fashola won that polling unit by a crushing landslide, in the same way he won the state with more than 80% of the votes cast. He was a genuinely popular governor and had managed an above average first term (due to a number of factors including being flush with funds withheld by Obasanjo and released by Yar’Adua at the start of his term in 2007). The ACN agent later pleaded with the voters to allow him to at least buy them drinks after the votes had been counted. They obliged him and he commandeered several bottles of big Fanta for anyone who wanted one.
Looking back now, that was the last time APC — or whatever you might call Bola Tinubu’s political machine — won an election cleanly in Lagos. And it is not hard to see why. Fashola himself had a lacklustre second term and it cost a lot to impose a lacklustre Ambode on the state in 2015. Getting rid of Ambode in 2019 also cost a lot as was replacing him with an equally lacklustre Sanwo-Olu. As the quality of governance has deteriorated, the nastiness and divisiveness required to keep hold of the state has increased.
It was in the service of trying to impose the lacklustre Ambode in 2015 that we can mark what was the opening shot of what was to come — the Oba of Lagos telling Igbos in Lagos to vote for Ambode or perish in the Lagos Lagoon. To put it mildly, things have only gotten worse since then. Given that this is Nigeria we are talking about, I don’t want to say we have reached the apotheosis of this ugliness — but what we have seen in the campaign to return Sanwo-Olu as Lagos Governor has been nothing short of shocking. These are things that can never be put back in the bottle, even with the best will in the world and certainly not overnight.
I want to confess something. Being Yoruba has allowed me a kind of humble brag. This is not something any self-respecting Yoruba person will shout with a megaphone or stand on a rooftop to yell about, but it is there. It is that in the Ethnic Byzantium that is Nigeria, we were a bit better. That in the often dangerous intolerance that flares up any and everywhere across Nigeria every five market days, we were a bit better. We generally just want to throw a nice party, dance, go to university to study law and mostly live at peace with our neighbours. And the biggest evidence for this humble brag has always been Lagos. It was a place that could be held up as evidence of Nigerians of all hues and ethnicities living in tension with each other but getting by, somehow. Some problems cannot be solved — such as deep rooted feelings of identi
fy — but they can be managed. Civilisation, afterall, is often no more than a wafer covering a volcano. And Lagos was managing, somehow.
The foolishness of this humble brag has been to mistake things held together by nothing other than norms as some kind of natural law like gravity. You cannot make a law for everything, you have to rely on people simply doing the right thing or behaving to a certain standard. And operating a democracy makes this more, not less, so — politicians simply have to choose not to do certain things otherwise the law will always be one step behind them. They have to choose to try to win over voters and not rely on cheating in elections, otherwise no electoral act will be good enough to keep them in line. They have to choose to serve people and not to enrich themselves from the public purse, otherwise no anticorruption law will be good enough to stop them.
And in a multiethnic boiling pot like Nigeria, and Lagos in particular, they have to choose not to go there. They have to choose not to start a fire that can burn out of control with no one knowing how to put it out, in the service of their short term interests. We may pass laws on hate speech or other such things but that will usually be at the cost of lives already lost and distrust deeply sown.
What we have seen in Lagos, and will soon see in Abuja, is what it looks like when people who will absolutely go there are threatened with a loss of their privileges. They will say anything. They will stoke any sentiments. They will threaten and use violence. They will press traditional religions into the service of their personal ambition.
Absolutely nothing is off limits to Bola Tinubu and his gang. The point for them is power for the sake of having it and ensuring no one else has it. It is a money making enterprise and if even after 24 years, people dare to ask for something else…well, they are not allowed to have that.
I try not to have any regrets in life but there is one I can never quite shake off. It is that, despite living in Kaduna for eight years when growing up, I cannot speak Hausa. I have some standard excuses when I’m asked to explain this oddity but the truth is that we lived in fear in our time there. We were safe inside the military base we lived in but venturing outside of that base carried an incredible amount of risk. Those were the days of incessant religious riots in Kaduna (some might say those days have hardly gone away) and we were double minorities — Yoruba and Christian. We did not have a single Hausa neighbour inside the base with whom we could speak Hausa — the only chance we had to do this was in school and there Hausa was more or less banned.
Many times, from the safety of inside the base, we would see dark plumes of smoke from somewhere in town. Something, somewhere had stoked some tension and a building or two had been burnt.
In my life, this has been my only experience of living in fear due to being some kind of minority. I can say it was absolutely not fun. I definitely do not recall enjoying the religious baiting that was par for the course at the time. And it goes without saying I am not a fan of living in fear for my physical safety because of who I am.
Now to be clear, the mere fact of being a minority does not automatically confer innocence on anyone. Nigeria is a bewilderingly diverse place and some tribalism is often just a matter of self preservation. Minorities can often give as good as they get. There is also space for ethnic pride even in a country of ethnic nationalities — the line to draw being that you can be proud of your ethnic group insofar as you do not link the pride you feel to the inferiority of other groups.
But Lagos crossed whatever lines there were in this campaign. Immediately after the Presidential campaign, there was only one angle considered — baiting Igbos. All the frontline APC politicians in Lagos, including Bola Tinubu himself, are not originally from Lagos. This should ordinarily be part of the humble brag I spoke about earlier but you will not hear them ever say it because of the fear that it might legitimise other people’s claims about the state. And so we saw an unbelievable campaign where the guy who is as Lagos as they come was branded as Igbo and there was no bottom to this ugliness, including the use of physical violence. Bigotry is always a low information exercise and so we saw even Yorubas branded as Igbos in the absence of facial markings that might make their ethnicity clear.
In 1999, I felt something as a Yoruba Nigerian. The whole country stepped aside for Yorubas to have a free run at the presidency. It’s not as if a Yoruba man could not win the presidency without that free run at it — afterall Abiola had done just that six years before and it has happened again since — but it was a grand gesture by the rest of Nigeria to compensate Yorubas for what Abiola had suffered. As we have seen with the breakdown of various zoning ‘agreements’, it was not a given that everyone else would agree to this ceding of the highest office in the land to the Yorubas. But they did and it was a fine thing to do.
To see how easily the Yorubas have been conned by Bola Tinubu’s personal ambition this campaign has shocked me. 1999 is not some ancient memory. It is fresh in many minds. It turns out that all that was needed was someone willing to go there and the Yorubas could be easily herded into a petulant and entitled Awa l’okan campaign. The Yoruba button was there to be pressed all the while. It was not hidden or a different kind of button. It just needed someone willing to press it.
And all this for what?
You are not suspending logic for one of your finest sons. You are not putting your heart over your head for someone who summons emotions of pride in you. You are doing it for Bola Tinubu. Bola Tinubu. Because, make no mistake about it, this is hardly about Sanwo-Olu returning as governor of Lagos. It is about ensuring the survival of the patronage network, the layers of thuggery, the political ‘structure’ and the troughs from which the various snouts feed from in Lagos and which all combine to ensure that any kind of transformative development of Lagos is simply impossible.
Years of delicately balanced ethnic relations. Years of intermarriage and friendships. Years of trading and doing business together. Years of building up Lagos into an economic juggernaut with the help of friends from all across the country, beyond what the state might hope to be running on its own strength alone. Years of raising capital from Igbos and so many other ‘non-Lagosians’.
You sold all this childishly and so very cheaply. You were willing to throw all this away and burn it all down for Bola Tinubu. Bola Tinubu. Igbos are not some random outsiders or nobodies. They are deeply embedded in the fabric of Nigeria and punch far above their economic weight in Lagos. You turned their identity into a slur and in doing so there was no line you were not willing to cross. For Bola Tinubu.
Even going as far as to downgrade the status of Lagos as an economic powerhouse and declare that it’s just like any other state in Nigeria with none of its advantages or the things that make it a magnet for people from across Nigeria. For Bola Tinubu. What manner of victory have you won?The ability to use Lagos as some kind of example for Nigeria, this you threw away for the man who, more than any other, has debased Yoruba traditions without a care in the world?
You have signed up to a train ride that you cannot get off. In your quest for honey, you have carried the honey tree on your head.
You will find what you are looking for. Sooner or later.
Feyi Fawehinmi is an accountant, photographer and published author.