GUEST COLUMNIST BY OLUMIDE AKPATA
On Saturday 18 March 2023, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) conducted the gubernatorial and State Assembly elections to mark the second and concluding round of the 2023 elections. On that day, INEC, the law enforcement agencies and the Nigerian populace were presented with a golden opportunity to demonstrate to the rest of the world that, the below par showing on 25 February 2023 notwithstanding, Nigeria’s democracy had come of age. At the end of the day, not only did we fail spectacularly in this regard, but more dangerously, the fragile unity of the Nigerian State suffered a massive set back.
For a country recently described by Farooq Kperoghi as, “a frail, imperfect patchwork of disparate nations, that is perpetually on the brink of implosion on account of political and identitarian stressors,” what transpired on 18 March 2023, particularly in Lagos State, was all very predictable and therefore preventable. All hands should have been on deck to avoid the bizzare debacle that we all witnessed. Regrettably, the critical stakeholders, whether by their acts and or omissions, conspired to do the exact opposite and in the process set a precedent that might take a generation to reverse.
The first sign that all was not well on the day came from Frank, my driver, who hails from Onicha-Olona in Delta State, who called to tell me in an emotion-laden voice that clearly, he was not a Nigerian, having been prevented, in his Badore area of Lagos State, from exercising his franchise because “he was Igbo”. Another call that came was from Bernard, a Lawyer and mentee of mine, who is from Gakem in Cross-River State and who also resides in the Lekki- Ajah axis. He too was unable to vote at his Polling Unit where a Police Officer pointedly asked him to go home as his safety could not be guaranteed! Unfortunately, these two were not the exception but were representative of the experience of a significant number of Nigerians, especially from the South-East and South-South geopolitical zones, who were outrightly disenfranchised on account of their ethnic origin.
What made the situation worse was that we should have seen it coming. In the days following the announcement of the Presidential Election results in Lagos State, where the President-elect, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu suffered a shocking defeat at the hands of the presidential candidate of the Labour Party, Mr. Peter Obi, it first started as a rumour that there was an institutional strategy to disenfranchise non-indigenes during the gubernatorial election in the State. Predictably, the Igbos were once again the scapegoats, eight years after they were asked to “jump into the Lagos lagoon”.
Things soon assumed a dangerous dimension when a few days to the election, Mr. Musiliu Akinsanya (more widely known by his moniker, MC Oluomo), the Chairman of the Lagos State Parks Management Committee was caught, in a now viral video clip, issuing threats to one “Iya Chukwudi” and other Igbo residents in Lagos State not to bother coming to the polls if they were not voting for the candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the current Governor of Lagos State, His Excellency, Babajide Sanwo-Olu. Incredulously, when asked on Channels TV to comment on this unwholesome development, the Nigerian Police Spokesman Muyiwa Adejobi urged Nigerians to view the comments of MC Oluomo as a joke.
It was under this atmosphere that neutrals found it difficult to believe that the timing of, and the wide publicity accorded to the dreaded traditional Oro festival, which was held a couple of days before the election and was concluded on the morning of the election, was a mere coincidence. Little wonder, the election in Lagos State was characterised by voter intimidation and suppression, ethnic profiling and ethnic related violence targeted in the main against Igbos. Ethnic champions were seen boldly parading the streets of Lagos warning people who intended to vote against the APC to stay away from the Polling Units and all of this, in the full glare of officers of the Nigerian Police.
The various new media platforms were awash with videos of election related conflicts, some resulting in fatalities, that were triggered in the main by the implementation of what I have already described as an institutional strategy to disenfranchise non-Yoruba residents of Lagos which said strategy was comprehensively executed with voters being profiled based on warped criteria, such as skin colour, and those who “looked Igbo” (including, ironically, some Yorubas and indigenous Lagosians) were denied the right to vote for the candidate(s) of their choice.
Indeed, the US Embassy in Nigeria, in a post-election publication, noted as follows: “[t]he use of ethnically charged rhetoric before, during, and after the gubernatorial election in Lagos was particularly concerning.”
For at least 48 hours after the elections, I remained traumatized by the experience as it dawned on me that we, the non-Yorubas living in Lagos, are all Igbo. Indeed, all through the period, social media was awash with posts and videos from not a few Yorubas who repeatedly asked why non-indigenes of Lagos State, especially Igbos, were getting involved in the political affairs of the State, wondering what our “stake” in the electoral process in Lagos was – with little or no regard for our constitutionally guaranteed right to move about freely in Nigeria and to vote for candidates of our choice AND our contributions to the economic development of Lagos State in particular and Nigeria in general.
In truth, I was not entirely disappointed by the roles played by MC Oluomo and his ilk. I was also not disheartened by the attitude of Iya Basira, frying Akara in front of the Iyana Oba Shopping Complex, who has been brainwashed into believing that the Igbo man or woman is her worst enemy. Even former Minister of the Federal Republic, Femi Fani-Kayode did not surprise me when, as usual, he began to spew forth his ethnically laced vitriol against the Igbos.
I must however confess that I was slightly taken aback by the utterances of the Spokesman of the Bola Tinubu Presidential Campaign Council, Bayo Onanuga, who only a few years ago, visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda and, while suing for humanity to live together in peace and love, recommended the Museum, as a bucket-list item for ethnic champions in Nigeria. His sudden volte-face and resort to incendiary ethnic rhetoric during the elections really did take the cake and when he was called out for the ethnic slurs he employed against the Igbos, he doubled down stating that he owed no one any apologies. To date, we do not know that the Bola Tinubu Presidential Campaign Council or indeed the President-elect has done anything to distance themselves from this individual.
But really, I was neither surprised nor was I disappointed by the likes of MC Oluomo, Iya Basira, FFK and Bayo Onanuga as my expectations, where they and their ilk are concerned, were understandably quite low. What aggravated matters for me however, was that I did not see the expected indignation and widespread condemnation from enough of my friends from the South-West, some of whom I have known for more than four decades, or from the dozens of WhatsApp Groups that I belong to, including lawyers’ groups. Instead, my well educated, well exposed and widely travelled friends, who are often quick to condemn instances of racism and other forms of discrimination abroad, resorted to false equivalence and other flimsy excuses to justify this travesty…this tragedy.
It is now obvious to all and sundry that the phrase, “Omo Igbo” is definitely not a term of endearment but an ethnic slur with diverse connotations, most of which are negative. The frightening realisation from the fiasco of 18 March 2023 is that many amongst us are in a race to the bottom to determine who can be the best bigot. What happened last weekend has done incalculable and perhaps irreversible damage to the fabric of our society. What is even more tragic is that this venom is now transgenerational as this ignominious baton has been passed on to an even more rabid generation of tribal irridentists.
It is instructive that some have started to call for true healing in the wake of the election. While that is important, it should not come at the expense of the quest for justice. If those who superintended over the show of shame are under the delusion that life as we know it will go back to normal, then they are obviously not as smart as they would want us to believe they are.
If what transpired during the election in Lagos is not investigated and the perpetrators brought to book, the Igbos and other non-indigenes in Lagos will very soon find it necessary to live in their own enclaves and or areas where they feel safe. It will also become the norm for them to go to their Polling Units on election days, with dogs, guns or other weapons. Worse still, we will begin to witness the resurgence of election migration, whereby people are forced to travel to their States of origin or regions in order to exercise their franchise. We do not need a crystal ball to tell us that this is an ill wind that will blow no one any good.
If the law enforcement agencies are serious about bringing the perpetrators of these dastardly acts to book, they do not require the services of Sherlock Holmes to do this. As the Yoruba adage goes: “Àjẹ́ ké l’ánàá, ọmọ kú l’ónìí. Tani ò mọ̀ pé àjẹ́ àná ló pa ọmọ jẹ?” which roughly translates as, “if a witch cries in the night and a child dies in the morning, we do not go to the soothsayer to ask what killed the child.”
Before I end this piece, it is pertinent to state for the avoidance of doubt, that the crude resort to ethnically charged rhetoric before, during, and after the gubernatorial elections was not restricted to Lagos State neither was it exclusive to supporters of the APC. For instance, one Fred Ajudua whose mysterious release from the Correctional Centre where he was, until very recently, incarcerated, has continued to be viewed by many with incredulity, was also reported to have warned voters in Ibusa, Delta State who were not planning to vote for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) to stay indoors and not to bother coming to vote. This and the other instances of voter intimidation and suppression experienced in different parts of the country during the last elections stand condemned.
Having said that, the point must also be made that Lagos State, the subject of the present intervention, is too important to Nigeria to be stunted and stymied by the ethnic squabbles of the type we experienced during the elections. As the Lagos State Government itself stated in October 2020 at the height of the ENDSARS agitations, “Lagos State is the melting point of various cultures, tribes and religions across Nigeria. We have co-existed harmoniously for ages and will continue to live together peacefully.” It is necessary for the Government of Lagos State to be seen to always walk this talk. The seeming silence of the Government gives room for conspiracy theories including the one to the effect that it had accorded the ethnic irridentists a tacit endorsement.
In this regard, His Excellency, Babajide Sanwo-Olu has his work cut out to convince the populace that he did not sanction the nastiness and divisiveness employed by his supporters to ensure his emergence. The best way to start is to acknowledge that lives have been lost and that people have been deeply hurt, not just physically but also emotionally, and as such some form of reparation is required. More importantly, His Excellency must go the extra mile to ensure that he runs an all-inclusive government that does not pay lip-service to the yearnings, hopes and aspirations of ALL residents of Lagos. This is the only way Frank, my driver, and all of us non-indigenes in Lagos can be reassured that we are indeed Nigerians and that we are truly welcome in Lagos. Only then can true healing take place.
OLUMIDE AKPATA, the immediate past President of the Nigerian Bar Association, writes from Lagos