Nigeria: Igbo and the governance of Lagos
By Kayode Samuel
Three fashionable fallacies lie at the root of prevailing Igbo outlook to Lagos, the former federal capital. The first is that Lagos is a no-man’s land with no indigenous population.
The second is that Federal Government money was used to build Lagos into the huge metropolis that it has now become. This argument goes further to claim that since the “federal money” allegedly belonged to all Nigerians, the political control of Lagos should, willy-nilly, be open to just about anyone and everyone who claims to be a Nigerian.
The third fallacy is that Lagos is a hunting ground, a jungle city where all being “joiners”, the predatory instinct must rule. By this pernicious thesis, Lagos is a place in which regardless of one’s roots – or the lack of it – one can seize the trophy. It is an el-Dorado where anything goes and in which everything, including political authority, is up for grabs since the place does not belong to anyone anyway!
These are erroneous claims, now being given new life in the current debate on Igbo participation and representation in the politics and governance of Lagos. Granted, the continued perpetration of these fallacies is not restricted to Igbo elements. Others, including some Yoruba (especially those that Lagosians refer to as ara oke– upland people), are equally guilty of the first if not all of these fallacies.
But the current debate marks the first time that an institutional claim to the governance of Lagos would be made by a non-Yoruba group. The commentators, Joe Igbokwe and Uchenna Nwankwo, among others, have done well in marshalling the arguments from the Igbo perspective. Spokesmen of Eko Pioneers, a group of Lagosians, have answered back from the other side. It is a debate that should be encouraged rather than stifled.
The fallacies are, of course, easily dismissed. The Yoruba identity of Lagos is not in doubt, regardless of its ethnically mixed composition. If the “no-man’s-land” claim were to be true, then Lagos must be the only metropolis anywhere in the world without an indigenous population.
Concerning the use of “federal money” to develop Lagos, four points need to be made. First, Lagos was a thriving metropolis even before the British created Nigeria, its prosperity being due more to its strategic location rather than its administrative designation.
Second, it is doubtful that the people of Lagos were consulted before their city was made the Nigerian capital, or that they were forewarned that being conferred with such a status would mean that they would lose their city to stranger elements.
Third, rather than invoke the “federal money” argument to dilute a people’s right to control their land, the rest of Nigeria, and, in particular, the Igbo, should be grateful to the people of Lagos for availing them of a conducive environment in which lives and property are relatively safe and in which the throats of settlers are not routinely slashed by sponsored zealots as happens elsewhere in Nigeria.
Fourth, and perhaps most tellingly, only a fraction of what is now Lagos State was ever under the central government. Strictly speaking, only four of the present twenty local government areas in Lagos State – Lagos Island, Eti Osa, Lagos Mainland and Surulere – were in the then Colony of Lagos.
The rest belonged, first to the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria and subsequently to the Western Region, before the state creation exercise of 1967. Lagos was also not the only city on which federal money was spent. (Calabar was once the capital and so should also qualify as a recipient of “federal money”.)
As for Lagos being a hunting ground, the self-defeating logic of this argument is clearly brought home to all of us – aborigine and settler alike – by the frightening crime statistics in the state.
Perhaps before I go further it is appropriate that I state my qualifications for pronouncing on this matter, aside of course from my rights as a citizen of Nigeria. From my father’s side, I am a Yoruba of Awori descent with strong Egba links. My mother however happens to be Igbo from Owerri in Imo State.
Based on these affiliations, I can claim a fair measure of familiarity with the issues in the current debate on both sides. I understand the feelings of Lagosians on this matter. I am also fully apprised of the passions and pressures that drive Igbo into internal economic exile and which impel their push for a place in Lagos.
While I empathize with the Igbo condition, I share the interest of all trueborn Yoruba people in maintaining and possibly deepening the Yoruba character of Lagos. And no one should have to feel apologetic about that.
The Igbo, perhaps more than any other Nigerian group, are in a vantage position to appreciate a people’s attachment to their soil and the unbreakable linkage between a people and their land and language.
A critical aspect of that linkage is the exercise of cultural and political authority over a land space to which one has aboriginal claim. More than any other group in Nigeria, save perhaps the Fulani Bororo, the Igbo move around the country a lot for considerations of geography and economics.
Unlike the Fulani, however, the Igbo often become sedentary in large clusters in the lands they move into, including Lagos. This naturally raises an interest in participation in the public affairs of their places of domicile. Yet, a legitimate interest in participation cannot translate into a contest for control, which is the way the current claims are being canvassed and construed.
Advocates of the Igbo claim to Lagos often refer to the putatively halcyon era of pan-Nigerianism spanning the 1930s to the 1950s. It was a time, we are told, when all Nigerians lived as one and when it did appear that all ascriptive barriers had dissolved in the ferment of nationalist politics. This period has become a favourite reference point for people with all kinds of agenda. But was the reality not indeed less glamorous? There was, no doubt, a fortuitous convergence in those times. An emergent commercial and educated elite needed to come together in the nationalist struggle to send the British away and so the city of Lagos, which was the hub of that struggle, seemed to have become a melting pot overnight.
Yet, the hometown unions remained strong and affectations to unity were soon exposed as only skin-deep as the struggle to ensure the departure of the British transitioned into the struggle over who would succeed the departing oligarchy. This is the reality that we continue to live with to date. And it would be asking a lot to expect that Lagos should offer itself as the guinea-pig for experimenting with the possibility of a new pan-Nigerian vision. Especially since there is as yet nothing on ground to suggest or guarantee that such a gesture would be reciprocated.
As things now stand, the Igbo in Lagos must decide what they really want from the state: participation, or representation, or control. Currently, their spokespersons seem to be using the three terms interchangeably, raising the spectre of a hostile take-over. This approach is bound to be resisted by a people barely recovering from the debacle of the June 12 annulment and the devastations of the Abacha persecution in which they saw the Igbo – with some admirable exceptions – as having played a less than salutary role.
The attitude and outlook of a majority of Igbo political elite and indeed common people to the June 12 crisis was mercenary if not malevolent. Many Igbo seemed to have approached the crisis with a revanchist agenda borne of deep-seated animosity and ill-will. How so?
It is a well-known fact that some Igbo still blame the Yoruba for having “pushed” the Eastern Region into the civil war only to back out at the last minute. This line of argument further raised and reinforced the unfounded stereotype of Yoruba people as unreliable. It has been peddled for so long that many have come to believe it. As Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda once famously said, tell a lie persistently over a long time and people start to believe it to be the truth. Anyway, hostile interests within and outside Nigeria that have reason to fear the rise of a southern solidarity of the type that was emerging with the UPGA party of the 1960s have also invested strenuously in promoting and perpetuating this lie.
Yet, without seeking to diminish the harrowing and often heroic sacrifice that the war entailed on the Biafran side, the truth is that the Nigerian Civil War was largely the consequence of a North and East alliance of brinkmanship whose cardinal objective and principle was the isolation of the West. It is said that the falling out of friends is often the most vicious. So, Igbo political elite are in no position to seek to build a cult of victimhood around themselves or to sermonize about the politics of bad faith that led to the war.
Beginning with the NCNC-NPC coalition, through the Action Group crisis, to the declaration of a state of emergency in Western Nigeria, the creation of the Mid-West Region, all through to the treasonable felony trial, many Igbo political leaders of the time seemed to have deliberately lent a hand or at least acquiesced in stoking the northern brazenness that eventually resulted in the pogroms and the war. Nor should it be forgotten the games that were played with the status of Lagos, with the establishment of a Federal Ministry of Lagos Affairs under northern headship but with copious NCNC concurrence.
But not to digress. With the defeat of Biafra, many Igbo in secret (and sometimes not too secretly) wished that the Yoruba too should receive a similar treatment someday soon. That day seemed to have arrived with the June 12 annulment and the crisis it unleashed. For some, the June 12 crisis appeared to have presented the Igbo with a perfect opportunity to get back at the Yoruba and permanently cut them down to size.
In executing their now famous exodus from Lagos at the time, many Igbo had said that they feared (hoped?) that another war was afoot, this time with Yorubaland as the theatre. Igbo political elite seemed to have offered themselves all too eagerly to bringing about such a confrontation. The role played by the likes of Sam Ikoku, Uche Chukwumerije, Walter Ofonagoro and Clement Akpamgbo, to mention a few, in adding fuel to the fires of the crisis would for a long time be remembered in the annals of infamy.
No doubt, the annulment and the ensuing crisis sorely tested the political maturity of Yoruba people and their elite. Fortunately, the Yoruba refused to bite the bait and managed to come out of the annulment crisis without a shooting war. There were, of course, several battles and notable casualties along the way. But, in the end, there was no war of the scale that had been feared – or hoped! How this was accomplished remains a tribute to the leaders of the pro-democracy struggle, a struggle that is yet to come to an end and of which Lagos remains the epicenter.
Igbo in governance
Feelings still run deep and memories of what many saw as malevolent undercutting could remain for long. It is partly in this context that many Lagosians situate current calls for expanded Igbo presence in the governance of Lagos. Many will shudder to contemplate the fate of the June 12 struggle if during that struggle political power in any part of the South-West had been in the hands of people hostile to Yoruba interests. What extent of damage would Chukwumerije have wrought if he had just one kinsman as an ally sitting in a sensitive local government chairmanship or governor’s office in the South-West in those terrible days?
Still, the work of building a united Nigeria must continue as we cannot afford to dwell for too long on past injuries and grievances. The Igbo input into this great work can be both positive and progressive, but not necessarily involving their ruling Lagos. Indeed, I think they have their work cut out for them. My view is that the Igbo are barking up the wrong tree in this whole matter over who rules Lagos. What do I mean by this?
The Igbo are such a leading and (hopefully) enduring part of the commercial landscape of Lagos. At this point in time, what they should be doing is lending their voice and energy to advocating for a reversal of what appears like a deliberate federal abandonment of the former capital, which has made doing business in Lagos all the more difficult.
The movement of the seat of the Federal Government to Abuja was ostensibly meant to un-clutter the environment of governance and deepen our country’s unity by giving everyone a sense of belonging in the nation’s capital.
But the move soon fell victim to elements whose knack it is to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in every good policy. The movement has been implemented as a punishment for the Yoruba and possibly as a reprisal for the central role that Lagos played as the seat of the pro-democracy opposition. Against this background, the attitude of many Lagosians to the Igbo quest for control is that they should commence it in Abuja and its area councils. After all, they say, Abuja is the only Federal Capital Territory that we have.
But speaking seriously, Igbo claims to an expanded role in the governance of Lagos cannot be pursued in an atmosphere of intentional federal abandonment of Lagos. Governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu of Lagos State has been making a case for renewed federal investment in Lagos, given the peculiar heavy demands on the state and its role as home to all. Rather than fantasizing about taking over the Alausa seat of government or occupying commissionership positions, the Igbo in Lagos should lend their weight to the push for special federal recognition for the needs of Lagos, to further enable the state continue to play its role as a safe, liberal and prosperous home for all.
Samuel, a former columnist with Vanguard, had caused this article to be published (in two parts) in Vanguard of 3 May 3 and May 10, 2002.
- Via Vanguard