The controversial comments of the traditional ruler of Eko, Oba Rilwan Akiolu has generated a lot of discussion among Nigerians; at home and in the Diaspora; online and offline.
The Oba made the comments while meeting with Ndigbo representatives at his palace and threatened his guests with an encounter with the lagoon should they fail to heed his demand to support the APC candidate – Akinwumi Ambode. Those that understand the nature of rulership in Yorubaland will attest to the fact that an Oba hardly ever speaks contrary to the will of his council. The council itself is often a good reflection of the feelings and aspirations of the people at large. So, while it may have been politically expedient to discountenance the Oba’s statement at the point of a closely contested election, politicians will do well to take note. It comes as no surprise that, post-election, the governor-elect has prioritised a quick visit to the palace. Time cannot be lost in securing relationships as important as this.
However, we need to examine Oba Akiolu’s comments against the hope of a New Nigeria and the rights of indigenes in that new dispensation. For starters, what rights do communities have in a new Nigeria? Our laws do not distinguish between the person whose ancestry belongs in a place, and the chap who arrived yesterday as an employee or businessman. If for example, a small conservative village of 200 is overrun by an influx of city dwellers, whose values should prevail? Those of the villagers or their guests? Few question the economic value that non-indegines add to any population. Settlers tend to work harder, invest more, and provide services at a lower cost than indigenes. However, there is a social cost. So, there must be a melding of values and cultural accommodation on both sides, so that the economic benefits are not outweighed by the social costs.
The synthesis of a New Nigeria must take cognisance of these issues and begin now to articulate a model that drives synergy from diversity without stoking ethnic tensions. Such balance cannot be a simple case of majority, or right of law; because moral right is more powerful than legality and the use of force. Furthermore, the controversy in Lagos today may bear resonance in other communities across the nation and the country needs a solution that can be applied in every context.
One approach is to ask if there are inalienable privileges that should accrue to indigenes of a place. One could also examine if certain minimal responsibilities should be expected of settlers. The 1999 constitution makes no differentiation between indigenes and settlers, and while the intention is good, it is an omission that has led to many unresolved issues all over the country. The most critical and widespread being the conflicts between Fulani herdsmen and agrarian communities in their migratory path. In the middle belt there are problems between Hausa settlers and the native peoples, just as there are lines of tension between some southern business people and their hosts in the north central.
Our constitution may be silent on this issue, but African ethics and morality is not. A guest, as opposed to an invader, is expected to be deferential to their hosts. Over time, a guest who remains in a place, evolves to become a settler. This evolution must involve some socialisation/indoctrination of the guest with express aim of integration into the community. It is a two-way street though. The guest must desire it, and the hosts must be willing to provide the support or means. Both parties will change in the process. The hosts will have gained some empathy for their guest and built allowance for the guest’s values into their world view. The guest will need to do same, perhaps more so.
Moving on from the 2015 elections and the evidence of a polarisation of Nigerians, one must be careful not to take the results as a true reflection of the will of the people. The country is not as divided as the polls may suggest; but there are unresolved issues around tribe and religion. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the metropolis where large numbers of Nigerians from varying tribes and religions congregate. Given an urban population accounting for over 30% of the total, balancing the rights and responsibilities of indigenes and settlers is vital. It may be useful to start by stating what is not a solution.
The leadership must not attempt to legislate accommodation, or to use the force of law and the instruments of coercion to impose the rights of one side over the other. Enforcing hospitality only widens the divide between hosts and settlers, accentuating differences, and entrenching hostility to those seen as “coming here to cause trouble”. Where there are significant numbers involved, this can be easily exploited by the politically savvy for electoral gain. History suggests that it is much easier to address extant issues that fuel alienation than to contain ethnophobia once it has blossomed. It is not possible to legislate against the emergence of far-right politics.
In the post Jonathan/PDP era, things are likely to get difficult before they get better. The perfidy of the past decades will take some time to recover. As the immediate resource pool shrinks though, the circle of identity of many will contract. There will be the temptation for politics and power gamers to exploit this myopia of consciousness for personal gain. Care must be taken to ensure that we find balance in our relationships, especially in our metropolises to ensure that the diversity which is our strength does not become a weakness.
Before beginning to proffer solutions, it is worthwhile to play some possible scenario to set the scene.
(1) Abians discover large deposits of oil in their State. With prudent use of the additional revenue, the State really transforms the economy and wellbeing of its citizens. Within a few years, Abians no longer do menial or blue-collar jobs. Spotting the gap in supply, many Hausas migrate to Abia and begin to fill the jobs and to provide services that indigenes would not deign to touch. Such is the abundance of opportunity and the number of migrants that within a decade the new comers now constitute a majority. What will happen if a block vote by the settlers demands Sharia law as a condition to support candidates for governor?
(2) A radical governor revolutionises rulership in Sokoto State by making education mandatory till secondary level, and also financing it. The transformation in lives results in a huge explosion in demand for services. Over a few years, powerful interests from Yoruba land respond by moving offices and employees in large numbers. These families relocate and settle all over the state. On account of their economic significance and dispersal across the State, the settlers insist that a form of Yoruba customary law should operate side-by-side with Sharia. How are the indigenes likely to respond?
In each case there are legitimate demands, but are they appropriate? Would the first guests have been welcomed if they made such a request on arrival? Now, it is easy for the elite to dismiss these issues and obfuscate reality with sophisticated arguments and logic. However, they are often far removed, economically and socially from the trouble spots. The privileged do not have to compete with non-indigenes for survival opportunities. Neither do they live in localities where residents are directly impacted by the dress-code, social conduct, and religious practise of their neighbours. So to them, the problem is selfishness, in-hospitality, intolerance, or some other hidden agenda.
We should learn from the Europeans and the problems they have had with integration of migrants. The issues are real and cannot be wished away. What we see in some parts of Europe is a failure of the political elite to balance the economic benefits of migration with the social costs.
The United Kingdom: England and the Eastern Europeans
Federal Republic of Germany: The Turks in Germaney
The French Republic: French identity and North Africans
Some of these “foreigners” were already resident in their adopted communities before Nigeria became independent! Leadership failure, though, has opened up an opportunity for far-right nationalist politicians to gain political relevance. These fringe parties offer themselves as vents for the concerns of threatened groups. In return, they gain bloc votes that put them in the limelight and the corridors of power. From there, they project a fulsome agenda on an unsuspecting but hitherto apathetic majority.
Here are some recommendations for change:
As a nation, we need to maintain engagement between the elite, middle classes, and the lowest levels of society/economy at all times. Avenues must be created for the articulation of the feelings and concerns of the poor and the disadvantaged. This should be a regular exercise, so that dissatisfaction does not accumulate, or find vent in violence. The poor are less mobile, geographically, so issues need attention in-situ and on time. Townhall meetings with local government chairmen, State/federal officials, legislators, and governors should be part of the calendar for every locality.
Where there is more than enough, few bother with the identity of the person next in line. However, when the dearth arrives, suddenly, colour, religion, ethnicity and other consideration suddenly gain relevance. It is vital that programmes are targeted to conflict areas to provide opportunities that will engage as many idle hands as possible. This needs to be a deliberate action. The target needs to be persons between the ages of 15-35, as they are more likely to be involved in violent disputing.
The CIA has identified that (ignorance + poverty = violence). This should be revised as; ((ignorance + poverty) * political-action = violence). There is usually a spark that ignites a fissile situation: the activist, terrorist, or other. In all cases, it is sufficient to eliminate ignorance, and the threat is largely eliminated. Boko Haram and other terrorists thrive on the uneducated. As a nation, we must cut off this supply line, as a matter of urgency and national security. Education should be a combination of formal instruction and targeted information (propaganda).
The introduction of the unity schools and the NYSC by the Gowon government is laudable. However, it is time to review these initiatives in the light of our present circumstances. The unity schools are too few to have an appreciable impact, but their ethos can be extended to many other schools. Such schools should be supported by goal-linked funding. Similarly, the NYSC should no longer be a source of subsidised labour for the private sector or the public service. Neither should it be limited to graduates of polytechnics and universities. Instead, service should be diverted to key national need areas, and all Nigerians who have attained the age of 16 and have ceased schooling should be involved. NYSC should be divided into an initial 6-months military training for all. This should be followed by either of 6-month military, 12-month police/DSS, or 15-month community service.
There are some cases where the overlap will forever be contentious. There is no point forcing irreconcilables into union. In cases like Modakeke-Ife and other tribal rivalries, or the never ending conflict between nomadic herdsmen and agrarian communities, the government must help facilitate physical separation. For warring communities within the same geographical space, boundaries need to be established and enforced, in dialogue with affected parties and State authorities. For nomadic herdsmen, clearly mapped out grazing paths must be established by the federal government, across the country. This should be backed by law, just like the demarcation of games reserves. Herdsmen must be given preferential access along the migratory path, and affected landowners and communities should be compensated for their loss.
A hundred pages will not suffice to identify the problems, much less to proffer all the solutions in advance. Instead there should be a programme of continuous risk assessment and mitigation planning. Ongoing work should be commenced on the constitution to recognise the ethnic composition of Nigeria and our embedded nationalities. Provisions need to be introduced to recognise and validate these ethnic, cultural, and religious identities. No group should feel lost, marginalised or insignificant in a New Nigeria. The executive, and legislative arms of government should be organised for empathy to these considerations. The judiciary should strengthen and extend customary law at the State level, so that all groups have some representation and expression in the laws of the land. For all other considerations, our commitment to continuous examination and change will help our peaceful coexistence and prosperity.
We are entering a new phase in our nation’s history and being joined at the hip, we need to ensure that it works well for us all. We have lived in the shadow of north-south divide, and ethnic and religious tension for too long. It is time we ceased reaction and take the initiative to make Nigeria better for one and all. The argument here is that there is room for all of us in this New Nigeria. All we need to do is rearrange the chairs!