August 26, 2023

What Ilorin issue revealed about Lagos-is-no-man’s-land gimmick - Azuka Onwuka

The recent misunderstanding between Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, and the Emir of Ilorin, Ibrahim Sulu-Gambari, over the Isese festival proved that the no-man’s-land narrative bandied during the March governorship election in Lagos was political. About two weeks ago, there was a news story that the Emir stopped the Isese festival in Ilorin, Kwara State. The Isese festival is a traditional feast of the Yoruba ethnic group to celebrate Ifa spirituality and practice. Some members of an Islamic group who said they were acting on the orders of the emir had prevented an Osun priestess, Yeye Ajesikemi Omolara, from holding the festival in the state on the purported grounds that it is a “pagan festival” which should not be allowed in a Muslim territory like Ilorin. The priestess subsequently cancelled the festival, alleging that her life was under threat. 
Soyinka wrote an open letter to the Emir condemning the action as intolerant and capable of triggering a crisis as witnessed in Borno State which birthed Boko Haram. Soyinka said: “The truncation of a people’s traditional festival is a crime against the cultural heritage of all humanity.” Shortly after, the Emir replied through his secretary, hitting hard on Soyinka, saying uncomplimentary things about him. Some weeks before the governorship election in March this year, a narrative that has recently been surfacing before every Lagos election since 2015 emerged again. The narrative was that the Igbo people said that Lagos is a no man’s land with the intention of taking over Lagos. Surprisingly, even well-informed columnists, as well as radio and TV presenters and analysts, fell for the gimmick. Those who knew that it was a recurring political propaganda used to whip up ethnic passion asked that the Igbo group or Igbo personality that said such should be named. None was named. The hollow excuse was that “some people in the neighbourhood” said it.
Interestingly, that allegation did not come up before the February 25 presidential election. It only surfaced after the result showed that the Labour Party beat the All Progressives Congress in Lagos, which is the home state of the presidential candidate of the APC, Bola Tinubu, who is now the President. That was the first time since 1999 when a party not supported by Tinubu had won the election in Lagos State. It was a shock to the APC. Before the election, the opposition governorship candidate that was of concern to the APC in Lagos was Dr Abdul-Azeez Adeniran, better known as Jandor, who was the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party. The party paid little attention to the candidate of the Labour Party, Mr Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour. But shortly after the result of the presidential election, the Lagos APC took its eyes off Jandor and focused on Rhodes-Vivour. It immediately unleashed its propaganda machinery against him via two routes. One was the narrative that the Igbo people have said that Lagos is no man’s land and want to take it over. The second was that Rhodes-Vivour is married to an Igbo woman and also has an Igbo middle name, Chinedu, and is therefore not Yoruba enough to govern Lagos.
In a country where there is deep-seated ethnic distrust, such an accusation is easy to believe for the purpose of whipping up nationalistic feelings. In 2015 when Mr Jimi Agbaje of the PDP had the momentum against Mr Akinwunmi Ambode for the governorship position in Lagos, that narrative was unleashed for the first time as a campaign gimmick. Agbaje was accused of promising the Igbo to make the Eze Ndi Igbo a first-class traditional ruler of equal status with the Oba of Lagos. Many bought the lie and recoiled against Agbaje. The defeat of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan in the presidential election, which came before the governorship election, also dampened the morale of many voters, who chose to enjoy their Easter holiday rather than vote in the election. In 2019 when Mr Babajide Sanwo-Olu contested against Agbaje to be governor of Lagos, the narrative was resuscitated. Many still believed it. In 2027, if there is strong opposition against whoever is the candidate of the APC in Lagos, the narrative will still be unleashed, and many will still believe it.
But this year, not only was the Lagos-is-no-man’s-land narrative believed by many, but violence and threats of violence were used before, during and after the election to ensure victory in Lagos. The argument was that Lagos is a Yorubaland and should not be allowed to be won by the Igbo. Illogical comments like, “Can they allow such to happen in their land?” and “They should go back to their state” became rife in Lagos. People who lived peacefully as friends and associates suddenly became enemies. After the election and the victory of the APC, the narrative was not rested. The Speaker, Lagos State House of Assembly, Mr Mudashiru Obasa, during his third inauguration in June, continued with the narrative by issuing a subtle threat that “there would be laws and resolutions in the areas of economy and commerce, property and titles,” to protect the indigenes of Lagos.
Following the action and comment of the Emir of Ilorin on the Isese festival, many commentators openly posted on social media that Ilorin is not Yorubaland and that the Emir is right to ban any “pagan” practice. Surprisingly, there was absolute silence from those purported defenders of Yorubaland that raised so much dust during the March election in Lagos. There was neither an official response to the Emir’s action and comment, nor any social media outrage against it. The second point is that there have been many commentators from Edo State who have openly claimed that Lagos is part of Benin Kingdom, based on history. Despite these provocative comments, there has been no anger from those who raised so much dust over a comment that no identifiable person made before the 2023 election.
That confirms the view of many that the accusation that some people are championing the statement that Lagos is a no man’s land was a political gimmick used to whip up ethnic sentiments for the sake of the control of the Lagos governorship position. All Igbo people and non-indigenes of Lagos State including those from other states outside Lagos know that there are people called omonile (sons and daughters of the soil) in Lagos. Non-Lagosians also know that if any position for oba or baale is open in any part of Lagos, they are not qualified to be elected into such traditional offices. No Igbo has been a prime contender for the governorship of Lagos. Neither Agbaje nor Rhodes-Vivour is Igbo. The only thing the Igbo like other ethnic groups have tried to do is to peacefully exercise their right to vote and be voted for as guaranteed by the constitution to citizens. It is the same way Yoruba who are citizens of countries like the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, and other true democracies exercise their right to vote and be voted for without any intimidation or molestation.
The Igbo and the Yoruba have a long-running relationship of peaceful coexistence. In my church in Lagos, almost on a weekly basis, there are weddings and banns of marriage between Igbo and Yoruba people. The same thing goes for friendship and business relations. One can easily hear of ethnic clashes between most Nigerian ethnic groups, but it is rare to hear of any ethnic clash between the Igbo and the Yoruba in the South-East or the South-West. However, the good part of this whole issue is that there are many Yoruba people who see through the political gimmick of always resorting to the allegation of people saying that “Lagos is no man’s land” for the purposes of winning the governorship election. They condemned that blackmail and called out those who spread it when the Ilorin exchange occurred. They understand that such deceptive ethnic narratives are divisive and destructive to the peace and well-being of Lagos as well as Nigeria.
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