There is no way one can write on the Igbo — Yoruba mistrust without opening some healed wounds. Sadly, this is what the essay will do. In the end, however, the writer provides enough collagen to help the wounds heal and then help to avoid the sustenance of more wounds.
Highlighted in this essay is the role of principal actors (between the Igbo and Yoruba) in the civil war, and how previous working agreements and the attempts to have a ‘handshake’ between the two tribes collapsed. The essay also explores how ethnicity was used in the 2023 general elections in Lagos to widen the growing mistrust between the Igbo and Yoruba.
There is always a complicated blame game between the Igbo and Yoruba, and one that is as old as pre-independence. History witnessed the intrigues and drama. This blame game has inadvertently led to a level of mistrust that has continued to alienate the Igbo and Yoruba, making the prospect of any beautiful political marriage a mirage.
The fallout of Biafra — Nigeria civil war meant that the Igbos are always in a hurry to describe their southern brothers, the Yoruba as betrayers. There is the allegation that the Yoruba failed to secede from Nigeria as purportedly agreed during a meeting between Obafemi Awolowo and Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. These two arguably were the symbolism of the Yoruba tribe and the Igbo tribe.
That allegation held that instead, Awolowo joined forces with General Yakubu Gowon the then Head of state to fight Biafra, as he (Awolowo) was the brain behind the use of starvation as a weapon to destroy Ndigbo during the war that occurred from 1967 to 1970. This is one side of the coin.
Another side of the coin maintained that during the meeting between Awolowo and Ojukwu, what the premier of the Western region said was that “if the Igbo were ‘driven’ out of Nigeria, the Yoruba would take it seriously and reassess their own position.” With this, the Yoruba would absolve themselves of any accusation of betrayal. Yet, what is certain was that Awolowo came to Enugu, after which Ojukwu declared Biafra, which later led to the civil war.
The Yoruba would also turn around and accuse the Igbo of first betraying them, laying pointers to the 1965 elections of the first republic. In that election, the Yoruba alleged that the West and the East had agreed to boycott the election. While the Yoruba kept to their side of the bargain, the Igbo went ahead to vote.
However, some political observers say that the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) which were in power at the time in the East faced a dilemma, which was either to boycott the election — (that saw the Federal Government-powered Nigerian National Democratic Party NNDP of Akintola which was opposed to the then mainstream Action Group AG) — and lose power or to play along and stay in power. The observers said the Igbo looked at political reality and then chose to hold on to power. This, according to the observers should cut the Igbo some form of slack in the blame game.
In another twist of blame, the Yoruba have accused the Igbo of never trusting them. They say the South-East always preferred to form an alliance with the North, even when the Yoruba extended their hands. The Yoruba would site an instance where a joint government between Zik’s NCNC and Awolowo’s AG, offered by Awolowo was jettisoned by Zik. In that arrangement, Awolowo conceded for Zik to be the Prime Minister while he would become the finance minister. Recall also that the Sardauna (Sir Ahmadu Bello) had also offered an alliance to Zik. This deal eventually saw (Tafawa) Balewa become the Prime Minister while Zik became the President.
In the defence of Zik’s decision, it is opined that he had more of a Nationalist inclination and disposition in his decision, in that he felt that an alliance with Awolowo would be judged as a Southern alliance.
Another defence was that Zik sensed some form of double play by the Yoruba because at the time Awolowo, who was the Premier of the Western Region offered the alliance to Zik, a principal actor in the West (AG) Ayo Rosiji, was also patronizing sir Ahmadu Bello in the North (NPC).
Some would wonder, why would an alliance even work when in the 1951 Western House of Assembly election, Zik aspired to be the premier but some Yoruba allies in the NCNC dramatically cross-carpeted and teamed up with Awolowo’s AG leading to him becoming the Premier.
These interplays of accusations and allegations meant that the two tribes would continue to demonize each other and the consequences of the hate-filled exchanges continue to haunt the two tribes.
Just in the recently concluded 2023 general elections witnessed in Lagos, we all saw how ethnicity was deployed as a weapon to execute the elections. Hurtful and hateful words became catchphrases used by miscreants on the streets of Lagos and the ‘vawulence’ streets of Twitter.
The zenith of it all was during the 2023 governorship election. Lagos became the centre of attention for its attempts at vilifying Ndigbo for holding contrary political positions. Social miscreants known as ‘Area Boys’ allegedly instigated by certain political heavyweights, attacked Igbo-dominated areas of Lagos.
It was alleged that their grouse against the Igbo was their inability to vote for the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Chief Bola Ahmed Tinubu. Recall that Tinubu, the godfather of Lagos politics lost at ‘home’ to Mr Peter Obi the candidate of the Labour Party (LP) during the February 25th, 2023 Presidential elections. It was unheard of because many didn’t imagine that such a feat could be reached by Obi.
After Tinubu lost to Obi in Lagos, barely five days before the gubernatorial election, nine governorship candidates stepped down and declared support for the incumbent Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu of the APC. Political analysts say the Labour Party may have instilled some level of fear into the ruling APC. Somehow, Mr Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour (GRV) the governorship candidate for Labour Party was riding on the giant stride of the LP at the presidential polls. GRV whose mother and wife are both Igbos also exploited some ethnic cards in the elections given that the Igbo communities of Lagos threw their weight behind the labour party at the Presidential polls.
While some Igbos in Lagos would celebrate and rub the Labour Party’s victory at the Presidential polls in the face of others, the Yoruba — the ‘landlords’ of Lagos, felt some air of disrespect from the Igbo while also failing to realize that other non-Igbos (including Yoruba) also voted for Obi.
That aside, Igbos in Lagos have always complained of voter intimidation and suppression and these were the hallmarks of what transpired in Lagos during the just concluded 2023 general elections in the state. One Instance, an unidentified man said to be the party agent of the APC, could be seen threatening to send people home if they failed to vote Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
His words are thus,
“If you no fit vote APC for here, go your house. No body force you come here oh. Go house oh. If I see you vote another party, I go come look am. If I see you vote another party, you go enter wahala oh. We no come joke for here ooh. This territory wey you dey na APC, go your house.”
This happened in the Aguda, Surulere area of Lagos state and anyone who knows Surulere would tell that after the Yoruba, the next majority population in the area are the Igbo. So, one could hazard a guess as to who was told to go home.
Also in 2015, the Oba of Lagos, Rilwan Akiolu was reported to have warned Igbo residents in Lagos that the consequences of not casting their vote for Akinwunmi Ambode, his chosen candidate in the April 2015 gubernatorial poll would be to perish inside the lagoon. All these instances have exemplified voter intimidation of the Igbos resident in Lagos.
On the one hand, the Yoruba accuse Igbo of stoking ethnic confusion only to turn around and play the victim card. They also accuse the Igbo of lack of respect for their hosts because they often lay claim that Lagos is a “no man’s land.”
On the other hand, the Igbos in Lagos believe that most of the rhetoric directed at them were conceived out of envy because they own properties and businesses in Lagos that are doing pretty well. This they claim is why major markets where Igbo traders do business become subject to increasing attacks when such ethnic tensions between the Igbo and Yoruba heighten. Some also will argue that the Igbo can lay claim to the ownership of Lagos since their businesses pay taxes that contribute to the revenue being used to run the state.
But then, historically, the ownership battle for Lagos has always been there. Either it is between the indigenous people and the slave returnees, or it is between the indigenes of Lagos and the Yorubas from other towns. Fast forward to this day, Igbo communities have grown in numbers in Lagos that the battle has morphed from intra-ethnic to intra-ethnic dimensions and the media — which are mostly owned by the Yoruba have helped to blow things out of proportion, thereby creating a further divide between the two southern brothers.
What then is the way forward?
Starting with Lagos, Igbo residents in Lagos and their host communities should realize that Lagos is better when the two tribes work together. A careless and brash statement like “Lagos is a no man’s land” should be avoided because it is understood that it provokes the host.
Authorities in Lagos should take steps to address visible trust deficits that propel ethnic tensions in the state, especially during elections. In this regard, the Lagos state government, the National Orientation Agency and concerned stakeholders should put in efforts to help eradicate the misconceptions that create an unhealthy rivalry between the two tribes.
Again, to douse ethnic hostilities between the two tribes, the idea of containment by intimidation being used to prosecute elections in the state should be discarded. Perpetrators of such offences in the 2023 elections should be identified and prosecuted. This will serve as a deterrent, lest it becomes a norm in the state.
Then on the wider front, inter-ethnic marriages between the Igbos and Yorubas should also be encouraged to reduce the trust issues being experienced between the two. GRV, the governorship candidate of the LP for Lagos state during the 2023 polls is probably a prime beneficiary of this ethnic wedlock. He would have clinched the Governorship seat as a result if elections were truly free, fair, transparent and credible.
More so, the Igbo and Yoruba should begin to see themselves as southern brothers who have the same blood flowing through their ethnic veins. They should not allow the divide-and-rule tactic being employed by dominant regions to further put them apart. Igbo and Yoruba should have a ‘handshake.’ The kind being experienced in Lagos. It is that collaboration between the Igbo and the Yoruba that is believed could save Nigeria and sustain the country’s indivisibility.
This idea of accord is also corroborated by Afenifere leader, Ayo Adebanjo as he maintained that the reality of the present times suggests that only an agreement between the East and the West is capable of saving Nigeria. In this light, Ohanaeze Ndigbo and Afenifere should sustain the Igbo — Yoruba summit convened in Enugu in late 2017 tagged “Handshake Across the Niger.”
Such summits should be hosted frequently to strengthen the friendship between the two tribes. The leaders of Ohanaeze and Afenifere should begin to tell unifying stories. It’s about the stories they choose to emphasize the ones they choose to de-emphasize. For instance, the story about Major General Aguiyi Ironsi and Lt. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi should always be emphasized to fan the embers of brotherhood between the Igbo and Yoruba.
In a related development, the creative industry in Nigeria can help propel brotherliness between the two tribes. There should be Igbo and Yoruba movies that can buy into this idea as a matter of urgency.
Finally, those (especially politicians) who have seen the evil of the Igbo and Yoruba mistrust should begin to inform, educate and re-orientate the younger generation on the need to avoid the mistakes of the past, because, a (southern) house divided against itself cannot stand.
About The Writer
Chukwuemeka Oluka is a graduate of Electronic and Computer Engineering from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka. He is a passionate writer, a research enthusiast and a COREN-certified Engineer. He tweets @Mekus_Oluka and can be reached via “firstname.lastname@example.org”