“The Problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
In 2023 Malaysia is often described as a successful nation. By every index it is successful, but before these successes were recorded the country, like other countries, faced several challenges. The most prominent of those challenges were “Racial Tensions.” A multi-cultural society with a total population of ~ 33 million people, (63% Malays, 20% Chinese and 6.2 Indians) as at July 2022. On the surface it’s logical to conclude that this was a “tower of babel” (the biblical metaphor for confusion). These confusions were what led to the deadliest racial tensions recorded in the country’s history “the 13th May 1969” incident. This incident was between the three races that dominate Malaysia: Malays, Chinese and Indians. But after the incident the country went on a deep soul-searching. They decided that the only way forward was if all the various races came together to foster societal development. The Malaysian success today is because of that soul searching.
Nigeria on the other hand hasn’t done any soul searching since its civil war which ended in the 70s. There are still quite a few violent ethnic and religious conflicts since then. It’s not a stretch to assert that Nigeria is the way it is today because it still holds firm to the idea of disunity. Since its independence in the early 60s from the British, Nigeria has remained a developing nation. With more than half of its ~ 220 million population living below poverty the Nigerian ruling elites hold power through ethnical and religious dog-whistling.
Although many Nigerians claim to be educated and enlightened this has done very little to curb the ever-growing hatred and xenophobia among its different ethnicities. Putting into perspective, Nigeria has between 250–400 ethnic groups. Which makes it like Malaysia as a cultural melting point. It’s obvious why such ethnic tensions exist. It’s not unnatural. These tensions are often spread through stereotypes. Although, these stereotypes have long existed even before many of us were born they had been majorly passed down from generation to generation. It’s so ingrained in the psyche of the average Nigerian that no matter the level of personal education or enlightenment they might attain, it remains, by no fault of theirs.
Lagos state, Nigeria’s most populous city and its economic capital is at the centre of this dog whistling. Located in South-west Nigeria, it’s often seen as a “no man’s land” as the case might seem for other cosmopolitan states all around the world. Lagosians are often from different ethnic groups or backgrounds, Lagos doesn’t care, it opens her arms for anyone and everybody. But that too with every election cycle has turned out to become a farce. There’s a constant tussle which springs up magically once every four years about what Nigerian ethnic group truly owns the real estate/land. Geographically and culturally, the Yoruba ethnic group lays claim to the state. But this remains heavily contested by the Edoid ethnic group which claims that the place “Lagos” historically was part of the great Benin Empire. Also, the Igbo ethnic group who have been part of making Lagos a commercial success claim Lagos to be theirs. Thus, all of this culminates into the fact that Lagos belongs to nobody. This is quite a controversial topic because it is heavily contested and could influence election decisions in Nigeria. In other words, Lagos state is like a successful person who everyone claims is theirs.
This recently concluded presidential election brought out the arguments again. The president-elect Bola Ahmed Tinubu a Yoruba man running under APC a two-time governor of Lagos state ran a fierce presidential campaign against an Igbo man Peter Obi running under L.P also a former governor of Anambra state (Southeast Nigeria) and others. The campaign of Bola Tinubu was known to use some anti-Igbo rhetoric which led to several online attacks between the supporters of both candidates. Eventually the election became more of a Yoruba Vs Igbo affair on the surface. However, many of the youths in the country weren’t going to fall for the usual ethnic baiting. With sharp unemployment, insecurity, poverty and many other issues, Nigerian youths weren’t ready to face another four years of APC which might likely result into another wasted eight years. To many of the young people Peter Obi was the right man for the job, so for the Yoruba youths his ethnicity wasn’t a problem. After-all this was the 21st century and the world had gone beyond that. Eventually Peter Obi would go ahead to win Lagos state slightly ahead of Bola Tinubu who eventually won the entire race in an election that was marred with voter intimidation and irregularities. But the results in Lagos sent shock waves around the country, the words on the lips of every Nigerian were “is this the end of the Tinubu dynasty in Lagos?” Although some “APC political strategists” claim that Tinubu paid a small price in losing Lagos to win the election overall. I’m not too inclined to believe that.
In a February 25th 2023 edition of Foreign Policy Journal titled “What would it mean for Nigeria to elect an Igbo president?” The author wonders if Nigerians are ready to accept an Igbo president. But from where I’m standing, I don’t think so. According to The Nigerian Constitution, every Nigerian regardless of ethnicity or gender should be able to contest for the presidency. However, whenever the Igbos come out for any national political position the question of their ethnicity always arises. They’re always supposed to ask for permission or prove themselves worthy of ruling. Why should they be treated differently because they’re Igbos? Why should a Hausa/Fulani or Yoruba be considered a natural choice whereas an Igbo person must have to go through an emotionally gruelling process before being considered eligible? As a libertarian I do not consider this fair. If Igbos are Nigerians, then they should also be given a fair chance to contest and win elections. Although Peter Obi tried to remove himself from the ethnical politics it still found ways to haunt him. With so many stereotypically fallacies coming out to suggest he’s going to be an Igbo president rather than a Nigerian president. He’s not alone.
The current candidate for the Lagos state governorship elections under the Labour Party banner Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour has been attacked consistently for not being “Yoruba enough” even after he has extensively proven his family’s lineage in Lagos for over 400 years. His Igbo wife has also been a subject of these attacks. With many Yorubas claiming his candidacy is a ploy by the Igbos to take Lagos state from the Yorubas. All his merits, knowledge and experience has been reduced to “ethnicity.” So, we might have a chance to elect a genuine governor to the state but that might be lost since he’s not Yoruba enough. None of his critics could possibly come up with anything reasonable other than his lineage. This gives you a glimpse on the sort of ideals Nigerians look for when electing leaders.
The gubernatorial elections of Lagos state were eventually conducted and the ruling party candidate, governor Babajide Sanwoolu retained his seat. Notwithstanding the election was defined by controversies which included physical violence and voter intimidation mostly directed at those who intended to vote for the Labour Party candidate, Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour. Many of whom were Lagosians of Igbo origin. This show of divisive politics was shameful and retrogressive.
Democracy in Nigeria is fragile, this is because of the several coups and counter coups initiated since 1966. Eventually, Nigeria returned to full democratic rule in 1999. And has been an uninterrupted democracy since, 1999. Thus, suggesting that our democracy is still in its infancy stage. However, the undemocratic activities of power-hungry politicians have consistently ushered us towards the path of fascism.
Daily, it seems as though the sun is setting on the democracy of Nigeria. Protests and dissenting politics are seen as treasonous and unpatriotic felonies. And the secret police ever active, prowling constantly in search of those who can be arrested gestapo style. A major example of this was how protestors were treated in the aftermath of the October 2020 End Sars Protests.
Undoubtedly a new dawn is on the horizon for Nigeria and Nigerians. But with the way the recently concluded elections were conducted many Nigerians are beginning to lose hope in the democratic process. Many Igbos or minorities in Nigeria are beginning to feel disenfranchised and intentionally left out of the ruling and democratic processes. This has led to a growing amount of mistrust and suspicion in the Nigerian society. The secondary effects of these mistrusts being anger and apathy in an already extremely divide country.
Looking forward the basic question would be: how do we Nigerians move from, degrading ethnic politics to sustainable politics? Now it’s not going to be such an easy task, because rooting out century long xenophobia and bias can’t be wished away. This would take years and systemic intentional efforts to achieve.
Firstly, the government must be serious about the definition of who Nigerians are. It is from my understanding that many Nigerians, including the educated or otherwise do not simply understand both their personal rights and privileges but also that of other Nigerians. With national orientation aimed at promoting unity, Nigerians should be made aware that every part of Nigeria is a shared commonwealth deserving of every Nigerian, irrespective of age, gender, financial status, tribe, or religion.
Secondly, inter-religious and inter-tribal marriages should be promoted. This has been done in many countries around the world to promote societal unity. It is always much easier for a country to develop when all its citizens are on the same page. This will also help eliminate any existing bias or stereotypes.
Thirdly, strict laws should be enacted to prevent divisive commentaries and actions. While freedom of speech is universal and fundamental. Many unscrupulous individuals tend to workaround the vagueness and ambiguity that exists concerning what is defined and protected under the current freedom of speech and expression laws. It is important to draw a line to make everyone aware that divisiveness based on tribe and religion, etc., will not be tolerated.
Personally, I feel that we ought to have moved past the age where we allow stereotypes to affect the way we perceive people and choose leaders. This is 2023, countries have moved beyond stereotypes. Societies around the world are doing wonderful things together. But here we are, creating new stereotypes that further divides us. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to be like Malaysia and other successful countries to come together in the promotion of national unity regardless of religion and ethnicity, yet we’re still stuck in our old ways.
It is my understanding that we may never be a successful nation unless we move past this sort of xenophobia and tribalistic politics. Every Nigerian should be judged based on their merits alone. Nothing else should matter except that which they can offer.
Note: This essay represents the thoughts and personal opinions of the author alone. The author bears no responsibility of how the essay is interpreted by any individual(s). Any indication of misinterpretation of the words, sentences and paragraphs from this essay will not be tolerated by the author.