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State of the nation: Impunity got us here (3)

The “EndSARS” protests in Lagos, southwestern Nigeria, in October 2020, which spread to other parts of the country, were underpinned by frustrations at the impunity of police officers, who arrested young people for simply looking good, having nice smartphones and driving flashy cars on the unfounded suspicion that they were fruits of crime. The protests appeared sudden. But in fact, the impunity the young bloods were angry about was quite entrenched. As with such things, there is always a line, a point, beyond which one simply stops worrying about the consequences. A point, where it may serve one better to protest than succumb. Still, these protests against police brutality in that now dark October in 2020 were not necessarily a southwestern affair. There was an expectation, however, that the region’s historic disposition towards democratic ideals would be preserved. This is partly what motivated the enthusiasm across all classes, tribes and religions to participate in what had hitherto been peaceful protests in Lagos. Unfortunately, the protests turned ugly and violent, providing an excuse for soldiers to intervene, with violent results. The real tragedy is perhaps the demystification of southwestern Nigeria as a bastion of democratic ideals and non-violent approach to politics.

Contemporary southwestern Nigeria does not have a history of organised violent insurgency or interest in secession. And its leaders who rose to national prominence have something in common: imprisonment. Whether rightly or wrongly accused, there is a self-interested recognition by the Yoruba political elite of the wisdom in obeying the courts.Former premier of Western Nigeria, Obafemi Awolowo, was convicted and imprisoned for treason, so was Moshood Abiola, the widely acknowledged winner of the annulled 1993 presidential election, years later. Former Nigerian president and Yoruba native, Olusegun Obasanjo, had a stint in prison too. And each time, there would be protests and resistance, but never beyond the original purpose of securing the release of the prisoners. That is not to say that southwestern Nigeria has not had its belligerent phase as well.But its deep-seated intra-tribal fragmentation has always proven to be an effective bulwark against a region-wide violence-based organisation towards the attainment of political power by force.

Read Also: #EndSARS Protests: Buhari gets reports of damaged Lagos assets from Sanwo-Olu

The idea of a “Yoruba Nation” is a relatively recent political construct, in fact. There had to be a non-violent thesis to bring agreement between the region’s many distrustful elements for Obafemi Awolowo’s vision of a Yoruba political system to manifest; such as it is. University of Oxford academic Wale Adebanwi provides a most useful exposition of what underpinned the politics of the southwest that brought this about in his 2014 book “Yoruba Elites and Ethnic Politics in Nigeria: Obafemi Awolowo and Corporate Agency.” In fact, “prior to the 20th century, the whole of Yorubaland was not a single socio-political unit (Falola, 2005, 151), despite contacts and mutual rivalries between the subgroups that identified themselves as having descended from Oduduwa (Adebanwi, 2014).” “It was only from the 19th century that the name ‘Yoruba’ was used to refer to all Yoruba subgroups (Adebanwi, 2014).” “Before then, names such as Aku, Nagum, Anago, Olukumi and Yoruba were used by their neighbours and Europeans to describe the various subgroups (Falola, 2005, as cited in Adebanwi, 2014).”This brief background is important to know, as political opportunists in the region try to mobilise ethnic sentiment towards a self-acclaimed “Yoruba Nation” for their own selfish ends.

A fair contrast between the three major regions in Nigeria is difficult. Still, it is simply the case that one region has managed to avoid region-wide violence and chaos along the lines of a civil war, religious insurgency and criminal banditry that have prevailed elsewhere. So why has there been relative peace in the southwest? I have pondered this question for a while. In its most simplest form, my tentative resolution is viz. Yoruba political solidarity, such as it is, was negotiated. Fulani-Hausa and Igbo solidarity were each forced by necessity and underpinned by violence, with the former a victor in its quest and hence acquiring a communal psyche of glory and conquest and the latter a victim psyche owing to defeat.

Before Uthman Dan Fodio’s militant Islamism, there was no such thing as “the Muslim North.”The fragility of a supposed Igbo solidarity was exposed during the Biafran War. For instance, “many Ijaw and Efik people in Rivers and the South-Eastern State” saw Igbos “as interlopers in local politics, agents of colonialism, or ‘compradors’” and considered Biafran troops to be an “unwelcome occupying force (Daly, 2020).” Also, Nigeria’s first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo native, was a nationalist politician who operated from Lagos in southwestern Nigeria, and only moved east after what he reportedly considered a betrayal by his southwestern friends.

The veneer of peace and political sophistication in southwestern Nigeria can be deceptive, however.A complex underbelly of institutionalised impunity, girded by a culture of secrecy and cultism underpins it. Adebanwi (2014) documents “the appeal of secrecy and secret societies, such as the Reformed Ogboni Fraternity (ROF), the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC), also called the Rosicrucian Order, and others, for Yoruba politicians.” This is in part due to “the tradition in the Yoruba past in which every person who holds an important position in the [society] must belong to one or more secret cult(s) (Adebanwi, 2014).”

Awolowo was a member of the Rosicrucian Order, for instance, and was believed to have lived a celibate lifefor reasons of spirituality and sacralization from the age of 50, practicing a life of asceticism and stoicism, based on findings by Adebanwi (2014). Bola Ige, the slain former attorney-general of Nigeria – the real masterminds of his murder are widely believed to be basking in their impunity with furtive glee – “allegedly belonged to sixteen secret cults, apart from being a Rosicrucian like Awo and other members of the caucus” according to Adebanwi’s (2014) research.

The two examples represent the typical proclivities of the Yoruba political elite, with the contrasting lives and ends of these two notables providing a glimpse into how the region’s politics is played. (Interestingly, Soyinka, who was one of the founders of what later metamaphorsed into a violent secret cult in Nigeria’s universities, only touches the subject sparingly – albeit effectively – in his “Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth.”) More importantly, this southwestern organised minority is so diffused and competing that it must always negotiate within itself before it could effectively prevail over the disorganized majority; the people, that is. And ever so marginally, at best.

As I pondered this column on October 20th, 2021, a newspaper headline hit me with such resonance that it begs no explanation: “Anambra guber: Candidates move campaigns to Lagos.” Why would the candidates for the governorship of the subnational Anambra state in southeastern Nigeria prefer to “move” their campaigns to Lagos in southwestern Nigeria? Why not another southeastern state? The campaigns had turned violent, you see. In fact, these questions may be more for the Yoruba political elite to ponder than they are for their Igbo counterparts. Because most would agree that despite its culture of subterfuge, deceit and secrecy, the Yoruba political elite makes a show of being seen as democrats. And in that culture, perception takes greater store over substance. Still, there are huge dividends from seeming to protect democratic expression and human rights. This is an advantage that must not be trifled with.

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