For Us By Us: Nigeria’s 2023 Election Serve As A Reminder of Our Oppressive Past

an oppressive and discriminatory part of our social and political fabric.

You must have seen the videos and heard the accounts. In the days after Nigeria’s gubernatorial elections, conversations around tribalism has been the most dominant to have emerged—tribalism, particularly against Igbo people, the ethnic group of which I’m proud to be part of. While there’s long been acts of violence and subjugation carried out against Igbo people, the most recent was set alight through comments made by the chairman of Lagos State Parks Management Committee, Musiliu Akinsanya, popularly known as MC Oluomo. In a meeting by the All Progressives Party (APC), Oluomo could be heard instructing the room packed with party loyalists. “Please tell them, we’ve begged them,” he says, referring to Igbo people, “If they won’t vote for us, it’s not a fight. Tell them that ‘Chukwudi’s mom, please, if you don’t want to vote for us, sit down at home!’” 

The Nigerian Police Force (NPF) has not deemed this an immediate threat but Olumo’s words speak volumes about the current climate around Igbo people in Nigeria. Speaking to Channels TV a night before the elections, the spokesman of the NPF, Olumuyiwa Adejobi shared, “Let us take it as a joke, like he has said. He has come out to debunk that it is not true. Let us leave it that way that it is not true. It is a joke between two persons in that area at that particular point in time.”

Lagos is Nigeria’s commercial epicentre and a fixture in our booming cultural scene. Aside from being a former capital, it currently has one of the biggest economies in Africa, a position that has been generated through a mutual effort from each citizen resident in the state. For centuries, people within the geographical area known as Nigeria have moved around the country, going where their varied sensibilities find mutual acceptance despite their tribe.

History indeed proves that there are few places in the world where its original inhabitants still reside today. Pertaining to arts, it’s been imperative that creators move across borders to share their work and learn new techniques, which has led to the multifaceted nature of Nigerian artwork. The particular invocation of the Igbo people is quite dangerous because, against the better instances of shared cultures, we’re returning to our oppressive and discriminatory past of the sixties. As anyone who knows what those years contained would tell you, it was the most gruesome period in our history. 

In the several accounts of people who were denied their right to vote in the gubernatorial election because they “looked Igbo,” this twisted ideology of preserving Yoruba dominance in Lagos was the common chant. As we’ve seen in the videos, people were attacked and killed, all in the presence of armed policemen and security officers who swore to protect lives. For several people who were forced to witness the ugliness of tribalism for the first time, it’s a crucial introduction to the most enduring of Nigeria’s loopholes as a country. And for Igbo people who were more or less born into this struggle, it’s another reminder of how easily seeds of hatred and discord can be sown into people, all for gaining political power. 

One thing must be clear: tribalism, like poverty and illiteracy, has always been a favoured tool in the hands of Nigerian politicians. This goes back to the 1960s when the regions of the country—then the East, North and West—were divided on how best to approach independence. Among the leading politicians, there were agendas passed down to the people rejecting a central government, positioning eventual domination by other tribes as the major factor. For tribes who have evolved different religious and social lifestyles, this excuse of domination fed into already-existing tensions. 

Led by Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Kaduna Nzeogwu, the military coup of January 1966, which brought an end to Nigeria’s First Republic, was hastily called an “Igbo coup.” The coup plotters had planned to apprehend the major occupants in federal government positions although, according to Max Siollun’s ‘Oil, Politics and Violence,’ they didn’t unanimously agree on whether to arrest or kill them. That resulted in important Igbo personalities such as the county’s president Nnamdi Azikiwe and Premier of the Eastern region Michael Okpara escaping with their lives, which soldiers of northern extraction saw as complicit, especially as the most ranked northern politicians Tafawa Balewa and Ahmadu Bello had been murdered. 

In supposed retaliation, six months later a counter-coup was carried out, this time killing over 250 Igbo and Eastern army officers, including the highest-ranking army officer Major General Aguiyi Ironsi. The following year saw the pogrom carried out against Igbos in all parts of the country, most notably in the north by soldiers. A scene in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2006 novel ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ describes the bone-chilling nature of the killings and how even pregnant mothers and children weren’t spared. In his acclaimed book ‘In Africa Biafra Died,’ Emefiena Ezeani relates how, in comparison to the other coups Nigeria would witness, “none has been associated with the ethnic origin of their principal plotters.” 

These coups set the backdrop for tribalism against Igbos in Nigeria. Considering that over 40,000 Igbo lives were grotesquely claimed throughout 1967 in several parts of the country, the realisation is that Igbo people are more or less second-class citizens within Nigeria – it is frankly the least secured life in the country, and stoking this peculiar fire is ugly to say the least. We also must consider the various minority tribes (Nigeria has over 350 ethnic groups after all) being lumped into the Igbo group, a destructive proof that injustice is everyone’s concern. The barely-veiled scapegoatism thrives on a dangerous precedent without a proper deconstruction, putting off discussions and demonstrations of self-determination proves to be shortchanging history. 

As an Igbo person born and raised in Lagos, it’s been surprising but not shocking to see the anti-Igbo hatred being spewed from all angles and it actually takes the shape of an organised attack. Right from writing off the candidacy of Labour Party’s Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour on the account of his mother being Igbo (and referring to him in a derogatory way as Chinedu) to the comments of MC Oluomo and several other party members who’ve referred to allowing Yorubas to be in “control” of Lagos, there’s been progressive coordination of these attacks, most recently culminating in the gaslighting we’ve seen from people who confine what’s been happening to a political strategy. 

For over ten years I lived in Ajegunle, an area in Lagos State that suffered ethno-religious crises in the early 2000s, and among the everyday people, such tribalism was almost non-existent. Being one of the most ethnically-diverse neighbourhoods in Nigeria, it was obvious that we could live together if some people weren’t fanning the embers of hatred. Some of my closest friends in secondary school were from other tribes, and it didn’t matter much to us. The events of this election have been a brutal reminder that the ethnic-spurred storylines in Old Nollywood (“over my dead body would you marry an Igbo man”) among other signifiers has deep-running ties in the Nigerian socio-political space, and it’s a conversation that must be had. 

“It has to do with the role Igbo people play in the economic landscape of Nigeria and then it has to do with their numbers.” – Chukwudera Chiedoziem, a journalist and writer based in Awka, southeastern Nigeria.

For Favour, a young graduate who voted in Lagos, it was jarring to be referred to as “Omo Igbo” for the first time in her life. She was asked to vote “for us” by street dwellers she met on her way to the polling booth. She also narrated to the NATIVE how sad it was to see people picking their ballot papers from the gutter, after thugs had arrived on a motorcycle to scatter the booth which was close to her house. “’All these Igbo people,’” she said, quoting their exact words, “’Una wan occupy Lagos, una wan pursue us.’ These people were with guns.” Chigozirim, who is presently an Architecture undergrad, spoke to us about witnessing “people who he grew up and played football with” openly disenfranchising others and instigating violence. 

According to Chiedoziem, the potency of utilising Igbo hatred as a means of asserting political power can be traced to history. “The 1966 coup was tagged an ‘Igbo coup’ and Igbo people were killed and it led to the Biafra War,” he said. “These things have not been properly addressed on a national stage. We’ve not talked about it; there has been no consensus on the national stage that Igbo people were wronged. And the ‘restructuring, rehabilitation and reconciliation’ that the Gowon government recommended has not been carried out. It’s more like running away from trauma and the trauma keeps resurfacing.”

Featured Image Credits/The NATIVE