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Governor Sanwo-Olu, talk is cheap

March 24, 2023

In retrospect, one should have expected that the ethnic attacks that blow up in Lagos State around election seasons would be intense this time round. First, this election was the first time since 1999 that another party came close to blowing the lid off the All Progressives Congress’ much-vaunted “structure.” From the traditional rulers to thugs, the Lagos ruling class went all out to protect their sources of privilege. Second, it could not have been hard to recruit foot soldiers for this cause. People have been so ethically and systematically diminished by the dysfunctionality of the present regime that punching down on their neighbours could not but give some meaning to their emptied lives.

United States President Lyndon B. Johnson once observed, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best coloured man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Nigerians are no different in this respect. Just set Igbo and Yoruba—or Muslims and Christians—against each other, and people will fight to protect the leaders who eat their children’s destiny.

While the bitter exchanges raged, one barely heard from our leaders who should have used their moral authority to douse the tensions. So, it was surprising that Lagos governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu’s victory speech condemned the “hateful and hurtful ethnic profiling,” and claimed such was “totally out of place for us as Lagosians, the proud residents of West Africa’s pre-eminent melting pot.” If Sanwo-Olu  truly believed that, he should have demonstrated it by condemning the ethnic baiting and profiling before his victory, not after he profited from its proceeds.

Where was he when some traditional rulers decided to stage Oro to intimidate people? Why did he not ask them to defer their rites until after the election since their intentions were suspect? Where was he when thugs made the people bold enough to go to the polls declare whether they were Yoruba or not just so they could be allowed to vote in their own country? How many of the aides that publicly participated in the hate campaign have Sanwo-Olu (or the APC) publicly cautioned? Have they disengaged their services? At the end of the day, some thugs will be arrested and paraded as Sanwo-Olu promised, but the hands that rock the cradle of fear and hate will stay on to launch the same campaign in 2027 (and possibly 2031).

Sanwo-Olu is probably a good guy at heart, but he is also a practical politician. To speak up on the issues of ethnic tension that roiled Lagos at the moment it raged was to risk attenuating the enthusiasm of his supporters who imagined they were fighting in service of some higher Yoruba nationalist cause. Now that the victory is safely in his hands, Sanwo-Olu thinks ethnic profiling is condemnable.

For those who still miss the point, here is it: the issues that went down in Lagos are not simply about whether people of a certain ethnic stock—whether Yoruba or Igbo or any other tribe—were going to vote like a herd for their respective choice candidates. Virtually any election anywhere ultimately boils down to the politics of identity. What was at stake in the case of Lagos—and yes, add every other location where violence erupted—was that some commandeered official power and bureaucratic resources to deny others the similar privilege of choosing their own candidate too. Every other thing that followed—from the ethnic slurring, the bitter exchanges on social media, to the physical violence their thugs visited on some people—was an inevitable consequence of the machinations of our leaders. If the leadership had acted differently, it would have gone a long way in changing the texture of relations during the elections.

Let me also point out that, Sanwo-Olu’s belated condemnation of what transpired on his behalf is no different from the man elected president, Bola Tinubu. On Tuesday, he also issued a statement that said, “I am particularly pained by cases of ethnic slurs, which are capable of creating needless mis-characterisation reported in some locations. My appeal is for us to rise above our differences, which, in reality, are fewer than the valued strings that bind us together as a people irrespective of the circumstances of our births.” There are some other finely-stated sentiments in Tinubu’s press release if you can stomach reading it. But words are cheap, especially when they are written by a salaried speech writer.

If there was anyone who should have intervened in the campaign of bigotry that characterised the Lagos election, it was Tinubu himself. He could have used himself as a personal example of a Nigerian possibility: that people can be leaders in any part of the country irrespective of their origin. Though not a Lagos indigene, he has held the state by the jugular for 23 unbroken years. Even his wife, Remi, served as a senator in Lagos for 12 years. This woman, who did not even qualify to be a Lagos senator either by state of origin or marriage, went as far as announcing that she would choose her successor. You would think the couple who enjoyed such munificence would want it for others, but hardly. They watched as their errand boys and various media propaganda outlets dished out some terrible vitriol to stir people’s worst impulses against each other.

Until even the US government had to issue a statement condemning the bigotry that attended the Lagos election, these people did not react. They let the hounds they had unleashed on the city run their course satisfactorily.  Now, over the smoldering ashes of a war fought for his sake, Tinubu reads a prepared speech that says, “We must champion the healing process…” If he needs healing, he should consider tuning in to the NSPPD tomorrow morning. What God cannot do does not exist.

No thanks to the wiles of the leaders and alleged elders who want to milk the gains of the state’s population diversity without sharing the means to access those resources, primordial politics have become standard fare for Lagos politicians. The people who typify the cosmopolitanism of Lagos and who have managed to calibrate many differences to live together every day suddenly started saying the worst things to each other. Those who share business and personal relationships, whose lungs endure the fumes of the many pollutants that waft through the city’s air, who jointly agonise through the derelict infrastructure of the place, and who—despite all the shortcomings—give the city its throbbing essence, buried rational judgment and resorted to venomous attacks.

Even though you have not heard any Igbo person (of consequence, at least) declare Lagos as “no man’s land,” in recallable memory, some Yoruba are stuck on that narrative like the last song the deaf heard before losing the use of their auditory nerves. People keep dredging up the statement just to justify needless antagonism. Ask them for evidence of anyone still insisting that Lagos is a no man’s land, and they have no definitive answer. There should be a better way to convince yourself that the people who have been eating you out of house and home for the past 23 years will also be the ones to protect you from those you have branded as rampaging invaders.

Going forward, Sanwo-Olu should ask himself what the diversity of Lagos truly means to him. Does he see the people as mere numbers to exploit for economic and political gains or as a composition of living breathing humans whose dignity must be assured? Hopefully, it is not too late for him to rise above the murky ethos inaugurated by the political bandits and the jagudas who made him what he is today. (Abimbola Adelakun)

The Punch


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