Ethnicization of elections in Nigeria

I am not the least surprised that the 2023 election has descended into ethnic bickering with each major ethnic group parading a frontline candidate for the presidential election. The voting pattern, the bickering, the mobilisation across ethnic lines point to the saliency of ethnicity in elections in Nigeria. All the talk about policies, the economy, inflation, human rights abuses, and holding those who facilitated or looked the other way as protesting youth were being massacred at the Lekki toll gate have now been forgotten.

The surprising defeat of Bola Tinubu in Lagos has raised the stakes as the ethnic dog whistle is being sounded and politicians and their foot soldiers are desperately trying to instigate ethnic conflicts and wars to hold on to their prized asset in Lagos. It does not matter whether all the contests are all among people of the same ethnic group. The moment their electoral chances are threatened, they immediately deploy ethnicity and ‘otherisation’ of their opponents to gain an advantage.

So much has been written about ethnicity in Africa and the pathologies it engenders. I do not intend to go over the arguments again. The only comment I have to make is that ultimately, it is the failure of African states to build a capable state around which the different ethnic groups could unite around that is exacerbating the centrifugal tendencies and forcing people, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, to identify more with their ethnic groups than the state. That is why, for instance, in Nigeria and Kenya, elections still remain ethnic censuses, especially for the main candidates and their ethnic groups.

Even for the ordinary man and woman on the street who has not much to gain politically and regardless of their level of education, s/he finds it extremely hard to resist the ethnic dog whistle because even though they profess allegiance to the state (as is globally popular and encouraged), in reality, and in their minds, their real loyalty lies with the ethnic group because the state is weak, dysfunctional and even antagonistic towards its citizens. This appeal to ethnic politics has stifled all social movements towards change and continues to make popular protests/agitations/uprisings difficult in sub-Saharan African countries with multi-ethnic nationalities.

Whereas popular protests have broken out in North Africa and Middle Eastern countries that resulted in the overthrow of entrenched dictators, such a protest in sub-Saharan Africa quickly descends into ethnic battles

Whereas popular protests have broken out in North Africa and Middle Eastern countries that resulted in the overthrow of entrenched dictators, such a protest in sub-Saharan Africa quickly descends into ethnic battles. For all the sophistication and unwillingness of the Yorubas to vote for Obasanjo in 1999 (they were spoilt for choice then as the two presidential candidates were Yorubas anyway), the moment the House of Representatives under Ghali Umar Na’Abba took steps to introduce articles of impeachment against President Obasanjo for his repeated breaches of the constitution and abuse of power, the Yoruba opposition party – Alliance for Democracy (AD) – quickly abandoned all pretences to policy disagreements and began rallying to save their kin.

Prominent members of the party who claimed to be viscerally opposed to Obasanjo and all he stands for and whom one would think would support the impeachment bid to curb Obasanjo’s penchant for abuse of power, shamefully descended into the ethnic arena, calling the impeachment “a ploy to take power away from the southwest” and threatening an ethnic war were the impeachment to go along.

Virtually the same thing happened in 2012 during the Occupy Nigeria protests. Whereas the protests and strikes were successful in the country’s southwest, northcentral, northeast, and northwest regions, the president’s south-south and neighbouring southeast regions were mere bystanders initially. But as the protests gathered strength and began threatening Jonathan’s hold on power, his ethnic kith and kin began to grumble loudly and threaten Nigeria’s oil stability were he to be forced out of office.

In fact, in an interview I had with Peter Esele, former president of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), in 2013, he admitted the labour unions ultimately pulled the plug on the strikes and protests when it became clear the protesters had moved beyond the removal of petroleum subsidy (which was the initial reason for the protests and strike) and were now focused on regime change.

Of course, we witnessed the #EndSARS protests against police brutality in October 2020 and how politicians tried to ethnicise the protests. While it was quite popular in the south, president Buhari’s north stayed quiet and when the protests began gathering steam, they began to accuse the protesters of wanting to overthrow the government of Buhari. Even the APC wing in the Southwest was accused of supporting the protesters.

Read also: Implications of Nigeria’s flawed presidential election

And since the APC southwest wing was desperately waiting to inherit power in 2023 and any act of disloyalty may cost it, its leading representatives in the Buhari administration – including the vice president, a professor of law, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, and a pastor to boot, and infrastructure minister, also a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, remained unusually mute when soldiers were sent in to massacre peaceful protesters on October 20, 2020. Instead, ethnic foot soldiers were sent to work to accuse other ethnic groups of destroying Lagos.

The ethnic war became even more pronounced when protesters rejected the Lagos state government’s decision, carefully choreographed as the decision of the panel investigating the Lekki killings and police brutality, to allow the Lekki Construction Company (LCC) – owned by the Lagos state government –take control of the Lekki toll gate and begin tolling again.

Immediately the protesters signaled they would resume protest at the toll gate in February 2022 the Southwest ethnic champions flooded social media accusing another ethnic group of trying to destroy their region and issuing threats of violence against any protester.

A day before the protests, the number one trending topic in Nigeria was #DemNoBornYourPapaWell – a popular threat in Pidgin English daring anyone to protest. Police brutality, extortion, and wanton killings – the reasons that gave rise to the protests in the first place – and all the victims of the massacre on October 20, 2020, have been forgotten in the ethnic melee!

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