by Osita Abana
Between December 2007, and January 2008, Kenya, a country that had historically been a gold standard for peaceful elections in Africa surprised the world.
A complex series of events preceded the bloody showdown in Kenya, but to a large extent, politicians’ sinister schemes lit the fuse that culminated in the Luo versus Kikuyu bloodshed. In the run up to the election, backers of the two front-runners had tacitly campaigned along ethnic lines – an all-too- familiar tactic in Africa’s combustible socio-political terrain. Voting during elections had also been widely along ethnic lines.
Shortly after the country’s incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki (from the Kikuyu tribe) was declared winner of the presidential election, opposition supporters who backed the loser, Raila Odinga (from the Luo tribe) went on a violent rampage, killing Kikuyus in several parts of the country.
The world watched in disbelief as untold horror unfolded. This violence started with the murder of over 50 unarmed Kikuyu women and children some as young as a month old, by locking them in church and burning them on New Year’s Day. By the time the dust settled, the death toll was at around 1300 and up to 600,000 people have been displaced.
And as you would imagine, the inferno did not consume Kenya’s political elite or the monied class. There’s no price for guessing that the powerful politicians who fanned the flames of ethnic dissonance were ensconced in their gated mansions while the so called ‘common men’ hacked themselves to death.
The post-election crisis in Kenya mirrors the experience in many African countries where citizens are led to believe that by advancing the interests of their tribes, they can create a better future for themselves. History, however, has shown, again and again that this is simply not the case.
Mr. Joe Igbokwe, the vocal publicity secretary of Lagos State’s All Progressives Congress (APC) published an article in The Guardian of Wednesday, August 12, 2015. In his article, titled, Can Igbo Play opposition politics in Nigeria, Igbokwe made a passionate case for Igbos to surprise him and play opposition politics for at least ten years.
He wondered if the Igbo nation can “suffer a little in order to be relevant again in Nigerian politics”. In his view, Igbos should “show other Nigerians for once that they too can go the whole hog of withstanding the pressure of being in opposition for a while”. He scolded the Igbo nation for being quick to warm up to what some have termed “any government in power”.
Igbokwe repeatedly implored Igbos to borrow a leaf from Yorubas who by his reckoning have shown admirable resilience in “playing opposition politics”. He recounted that when two eminent Yoruba sons: Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and Chief Ernest Shonekan led Nigeria, the Yoruba’s disavowed both leaders, and served their full sentence in the “opposition dungeon” until fate smiled on them- they were clothed in royal robes, and ushered to the throne on Saturday, March 28 and April 11, 2015.
I do not intend to moan over Mr. Igbokwe’s curious and flawed analysis. Like every Nigerian, he has the prerogative to air his views. And to be fair to him, his tone wasn’t exactly virulent. In fact, while he administered the bitter portion that he believes will cure the collective malaise of Igbos, he graciously invoked two most of the decorated Igbo delicacies: ugba and okpoloko. But for the inclusion of these twin Igbo culinary idols, my rejoinder might have been a tad more bellicose.
But as soon as I recovered from my ugba and okpoloko trance, I was clear headed enough to notice flagrant failings in Mr Igbokwe’s medicine. The first gaping flaw was that the medicine had no label. I figured that many Nigerians may therefore be oblivious of the manufacturer.
I think it was patently wrong that Mr. Igbokwe didn’t deem it necessary (at any point in the piece) to indicate that he is a spokesman of the All Progressive Congress (APC) and he had worked with the APC led government of Lagos State for 16 years in various capacities. I would have respected him more if he did.
I suspect he took for granted that all Nigeria’s are aware he is the APC’s mouthpiece in Lagos State. If anything, that disclosure might have helped lessen the glaring conflict of interest I’m sure the writer grappled with while he penned his roadmap for “Igbo redemption”.
Igbokwe’s position as an APC spokesperson, draws to question his objectivity and makes it almost impossible for him to render a balanced, dispassionate analysis of the Igbo situation. In any case I have to admit it was courageous of him to gallop down the tricky path, not minding the glaring land mines. Clearly, Igbokwe lacks the moral authority to prescribe solutions to the Igbos.
My second observation: In his piece Mr. Igbokwe kept banging on about what ‘the Yorubas’ did and what ‘the Igbos’ did not do. For instance, he recalled that after the ‘powers that be’ foisted Chief Olusegun Obasanjo on Nigerians contrary to the will of the ‘Yorubas’, “this unique race (the Yorubas) rejected Obasanjo for eight years, while, he was in office from 1999 to 2007”.
It is important to correct this revision of history. Yorubas presented Chief Olu Falae under their ethnic driven platform, the Alliance for Democracy (AD) who ran against Obasanjo of the nationalist People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in 1999. The AD’s message of ethnic promotion failed to resonate with other regions and ethnic groups in the country. The Yorubas voted AD while the rest of Nigeria voted for the PDP and Obasanjo, a Yoruba man won and became President. Igbokwe’s boss, Bola Ahmed Tinubu contested for Lagos Governor under AD and won.
During Obasanjo’s first term as President, the Yorubas warmed up to him, so much that by 2003, the Alliance for Democracy endorsed him as their presidential candidate and the South West (Yorubas) voted for Obasanjo. The Alliance for Democracy was embroiled in in fighting and leadership tussles, eventually, a faction of the party led by Bisi Akande (an APC chieftain) pulled out and became the Action Congress. By 2003, Bola Tinubu was the only AC governor in the country. All other states in the South West had gone to the ruling PDP.
Tinubu effectively took over the AC, rebranded it the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and began to rebuilt the party as the leading Yoruba political platform in the country. The ACN merged with Buhari’s Northern Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), and the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), which is also a Buhari creation to form the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) in 2013.
This political history is necessary so that my readers would not be led astray by Igbokwe’s faulty submission. Nigerians of Yoruba extraction served in Obasanjo’s cabinet and held other positions in his government, even in his first term in office. So when Mr. Igbokwe says “Yorubas” rejected Obasanjo for 8 years, I wonder who these “Yorubas” were.
But, one needs to ask Igbokwe if he backed up his sweeping conclusions with any kind of empirical study? Did he conduct opinion polls that support this assertion? Or by Yorubas he means the tribe’s socio cultural organization –in which case he should have been more explicit.
I, for one, (I’m Igbo by the way) have not been invited to any Igbo Summit where I voted in favour of “shamelessly” joining every “the winning team” for “30 pieces of silver”. But, seriously, saying an entire tribe collectively decides on a certain course of action is rather simplistic. It bothers on dishonesty.
My third point, and in my view, the most important. As a millennial, I find it extremely disappointing that prominent Nigerian leaders like Joe Igbokwe still spend a great deal of time advancing the self-same ethnicity-based arguments that have held this nation back for years. Nigeria is at a crossroads, and to reach our potential, we need to raise the bar on the substance of our public discourse.
Our country’s oil revenue is dwindling, the Naira is wobbling, youth unemployment figures remain stubbornly high, the educational system is falling apart, the health sector is on its knees, life expectancy figures are dreadful, and about 60% of Nigerians still live below the poverty line. Projections are that by 2050, Nigeria will become the third most populous country in the world (after Indian and China), and yet nothing shows that we are laying the right foundation (infrastructure-wise) to sustain the country after we have ”rained babies”. Our government seems to adopt a ”na God dey train pikin” approach to approaching our future.
Dear Mr. Igbokwe, most Nigerian’s have come to realise that what the country needs is sound, people-oriented leadership.
Mancur Olson, an American Economist and Social scientist rightly observed, “Nations begin to decline when their decision structure becomes brittle and interest groups or oligarchies prevent social and economic change.” We need leaders who will loosen the iron grip of Nigeria’s oligarchs, build our institutions and advance shared prosperity. A Fulani man from Katsina will not purchase kerosene at N5 per litre simply because Buhari is president.
Rather than waste time debating the merits of spending a decade in “opposition purgatory”, can we have a conversation about fixing our schools and delivering capital projects that will open up our economy and create jobs?
Sir, if you love the Igbos, please offer genius ideas that will help create jobs in the South East and improve security. An exercise in chronic opposition does not sound like a bright idea to me, neither does a fixation on ethnicity.
The President of the United States, Barack Obama, is a child of an African who emigrated to the United States for education and returned to Kenya where he lives and died. This fact of Obama’s heritage makes him an first generation African-American. But he has been elected twice to lead the world’s most powerful nation. Were there no Caucasians in the race?
But Americans (unlike most Africans) have long realized that great leadership is not the exclusive preserve of any particular tribe and race. They reckon that men should be judged by the content of their character and their competence; not the address of their ancestors.
Sir, like you may already know, many leading American companies (Microsoft, Google and Pepsico) today have CEOs of Asian descent. Tidjane Thiam, the current CEO of Credit Suisse (a leading global bank) is originally from Cote d’Ivoire.
Only a generation ago, countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore had per capita incomes one quarter to one third of those in the wealthiest Latin American countries. But these countries realized that through conscientious effort and an unwavering will to pull together, they could surmount daunting odds, reverse their fortunes, and create a brighter future for their children. So they rallied, they saved large fractions of their national income and channeled their savings into high-return export industries. By the late 1980s these countries overtook every Latin American country.
Granted, our forebears in Africa have squandered enormous time and resources on needless tribal squabbles and endless civil wars. It would however be a monumental shame if we do not learn for their mistakes and end the destructive brand of politics that has hindered Africa’s full resurgence. The Kenyan 2007/08 post-election crisis, the Rwandan genocide, Nigeria’s civil war and many other tribe-induced conflicts of the past are ample proof that when ‘tribe ascendancy’ trumps a collective will to build a nation, very often, there is danger lurks in the corner.
If today, in 2015, Nigerians still cling to the “my tribe’s ascendancy will unlock untold fortunes” mentality (like Mr. Igbokwe’s piece infers by asking Igbos to busy themselves with cultivating a 10-year opposition), then it means we would have learnt nothing from our history. We would have learnt nothing from global affairs and we will remain shackled by our parochial tribal thinking while the rest of the world hurtles into the new age.
Sir, we need a different type of medicine. We need to urgently turn the page on our ugly history. This is the time for cutting-edge ideas; sound planning and brilliant execution; and big thinking and constructive debates. This is not the time for diversionary ‘tribe talk’. A nation cannot rise beyond the level of its thinking.
I leave you with a wise saying, “The best time to plant a tree is 50 years ago; the second best time is now.”
Osita Abana is a development and communications professional. He lives and works in Lagos. He tweets from @OsitaAbana.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.