18 February 2019
Phrases such “the interests of the Yoruba nation” or “Igbo interest” are common in Nigerian political commentary. Last week Afenifere, described as the “Pan-Yoruba socio-political group”, said in a statement that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo “is working against the interest of the Yoruba”. The statement was signed by Reuben Fasoranti, Ayo Adebanjo, Olu Falae and Femi Okurounmi.
The alleged Yoruba “interest” that Osinbajo was working against according to Afenifere was “the restructuring of the country and that he never spoke against the killing of Yoruba people in their farms by Fulani herdsmen”. But the issue of “restructuring” is one that has support among many Nigerians across the ethnic divide. Fulani herdsmen-related violence has affected communities all over Nigeria. So why is this being used to peddle something called “interest of the Yoruba”? Additionally, the four signatories to the above statement have not indicated where they asked the Yoruba for their opinion. They just appointed themselves spokesmen for their people and couldn’t be bothered with the niceties of asking the people what they think. This is quite instructive about the little regard they have for the people they claim to speak for.
Many other so-called ethnicity-based socio-political groups operate in the same manner of telling their people what is good for them. Ohanaeze claims to speak for Igbos, aims to “protect Igbo interests” and loftily declared in 2017 that they would only support a presidential candidate that “has the interests of Igbos at heart”. The separatist group, the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, have criticised Ohanaeze for the “betrayal of Igbo interests”. But very few have a coherent definition of what “Igbo interests” are.
When pushed, some Igbos on social media have described “Igbo interest” as infrastructure in southeast Nigeria such as the Second Niger Bridge, dredging of the River Niger to allow vessels transport goods over the water, improved facilities at Enugu Airport to allow more international airlines to use that route, and so on. While such infrastructure would benefit local people in terms of economic development, it is not sensible to give it an ethnic colouration. It is in every Nigerian’s interest to have infrastructure that spurs economic growth in every corner of the country. The Nigerian constitution in Chapter 2, section 16(2) states that: “The State shall direct its policy towards ensuring: the promotion of a planned and balanced economic development”.
“Planned and balanced economic development” means not concentrating critical infrastructure in any section of the country to the exclusion of others. It means that if travellers can use airports such as Enugu to fly out of the country or a port at Onitsha from a dredged River Niger to move their goods to Onitsha Market, congestion and overpopulation would be reduced in Lagos, making the lives of Lagosians a whole lot better. The multiplier effect of critical infrastructure in any part of the country has a wider impact on Nigeria’s GDP and affects Nigerians beyond the location where that project is sited. So it is inaccurate to describe investment such as a Second Niger Bridge “Igbo interest”.
There are other groups such as the Northern Elders Forum and Arewa Consultative Forum that claim to speak for the “north”, usually without much consultation with northerners.
The late history professor Yusufu Bala Usman once wrote: “Right now, in Nigeria, the freedom of political association and the exercise of the democratic right to choose freely in all elections is being denied to tens of millions by ethnic, sub-ethnic, regional, and sectarian religious organisations. They are loudly insisting that Nigeria is made up of ethnic, regional and religious groups which are monolithic and all those who belong to them have a common interest and have to act politically together, making all those who do not agree with this type fascist politics, traitors, who are liable to be ostracised and violently dealt with.
“This politics is built on the dissemination of ignorance about how Nigeria and its people have come into being. It is the Yoruba Race, the Ijaw Nation, the Igbo Nation, the Urhobo Nation, the Hausa-Fulani Nation, etc, etc, who are said to be the original building blocks which are said to have agreed to come together to form Nigeria.
“But all this is only politically potent because it is based on ignorance and the entrenchment of hostility to knowledge, which has come to riddle Nigerian politics and allow racist and fascist politics, deeply hostile to democracy, to flourish.”
A little bit of knowledge about Nigerian history and politics should tell anyone that looting of the public treasury has been carried out by individuals from all ethnic groups. It was not in Igbo, Yoruba, Edo, or northern interest for public money meant for improving the lives of the people to end up in private pockets. Historian Mark Curtis argued that: “Elites throughout history have presented their policies as in the natural order of things, which helps to obscure the pursuit of their own interests”. So you have several Nigerians from different ethnic groups, who have benefited since independence from the grand larceny called “public office”, using what seems a “natural order of things” such as “Igbo interest” or “Yoruba interest” as a fig leaf to pursue an agenda of self-enrichment for themselves.
In reality, an Igbo fox and an Igbo hen have different interests. The fox wants to eat the hen. The hen is better off forming alliances with other hens, regardless of origin, in order to protect themselves from being the fox’s next dinner. The ordinary Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa or whatever person does not have the same interests as a looter of public funds that he/she just shares the same ethnicity or region with. That ordinary person’s poverty, lack of access to decent infrastructure, decent healthcare, a decent education and so on are directly-related to the rapacity of elites from their own ethnic group. As Michael Parenti said, “the dirty truth is that the rich are the great cause of poverty”. Reggae legend Gregory Isaacs captured this notion when he sang “a rich man’s heaven is a poor man’s hell”. Their interests are just not the same even when they come from the same ethnic group.