When will Nigeria outgrow ethnic politics?

Every four years or so, Nigerians generally agree to come together and cannibalize every semblance of national unity that our collective suffering and failure as a people might have fostered in us.

It is always distressing to see with the coming of election season, the increasing bile, bitterness and hate in the social and political spaces as one after the other, Nigerians turn on each other, often based on region, religion or tribe.

I have in the past cause to write about an Igbo man who saved a mosque in Jos in response to a 2019 “mugun inyamiri” diatribe by a certain sheikh whose mosque that Igbo man saved. It is 2023 and we are still having the same conversation, about wicked Hausas, wicked Yoruba or wicked Igbos.

This year, thanks to the colossal failings of the Buhari administration, there is a desperation to see him retire from politics and return to Daura to continue picking his teeth. But the race to replace him, thanks to the caliber of candidates lining up to take his place, is shaping up to be one of the most toxic this country is going to experience. We say that every election year, don’t we? Perhaps except for 2019 when two seventy-something-year-old Fulani men ran for office and it was always clear the incumbent was going to win.

Yes, there have been toxic elections in the past. Obafemi Awolowo losing to Shagari in 1979 was one example of that and the 1993 elections, which promised to lead the country down a different path soon resorted to ethnic thuggery after the Babangida administration annulled the elections. So even if northerners and easterners had voted for MKO Abiola, a Yoruba man, at the time, an angry South West lashed out at northerners, especially for Babangida’s decision simply because he is a northerner.

But this quadrennial fouling of the air with ethnic toxicity in election years has a long history. Political scientists have pinpointed the year 1951 as the official birth year of ethnic politics in Nigeria.

Two things of significance happened that year. The first was the adoption of the Macpherson Constitution, which provided, for the first time, for general elections in the country. The second was the formation in March 1951 of the Action Group by Chief Obafemi Awolowo and his supporters.

At that time, Nnamdi Azikiwe’s National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), established by Herbert Macauly in 1944 as the first truly nationalist party drawing across various ethnic and socio-cultural groups, which was on course to win parliamentary elections in the eastern and western regions.

Awo’s newspaper, the Nigerian Tribune, championed the call for Zik to stay away from the Western region’s politics since he was not from the region “by birth” and highlighted that Zik’s “political and social activities had this Ibo-domination inclination.” An editorial in that paper claimed it was an “insult for all westerners” for Zik to be contesting in their region.

Eventually, such ethnic rhetoric prevailed and Zik lost the elections, retreated to his Eastern region to consolidate his powers and from a smaller base challenge the NPC for power at the centre. Soon the NCNC became primarily associated with the Igbos. The party that would eventually dominate national politics at the time would be the NPC which established the first indigenous government in 1957.

Of course, here, by its nomenclature, The Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC) was established to cater for the needs of a particular region. Established in 1949, by Sir Ahmadu Bello, the party morphed from a socio-cultural group.

In essence, what the AG represented in the West, the NPC represented by name and deed in the North and the United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC) replicated in the Middle Belt.

So, we started with political parties whose primary interest was to amplify regional sentiments as a means of accessing power at the centre. While that is not entirely unusual as great parties all over the world started off to cater for peculiar localized interests. The British Labor Party for instance grew from the trade union movement and socialist parties of the 19th century to what it is today.

What has been our bane has been the inability of political parties in their various iterations from the First to this Fourth Republic to rise above their regional origins to morph into nationalist parties. The denationalization of the NCNC for instance seems to be repeating itself with the PDP which dominated the early years of the Fourth Republic.

The consequence has been an electorate that is by and large incapable of making conscious, informed and objective decisions about candidates to vote for without resorting to ethnic or religious forts.

This scenario is very much present in the narratives around candidates and the choices of their running mates ahead of the 2023 elections. Tinubu is a candidate because in his view it is the turn of the Yoruba to lead and the emi lokan mantra. A criticism of Peter Obi’s policies is easily reduced to conversations of Igbophobia and Atiku… well, it is interesting what the conversations around Atiku have become and a candidate who has hitherto enjoyed support in the South is now riding the tailcoat of a weakened party and backlash over a deleted tweet.

The quality, if one may even use such a term, of the conversation around the 2023 elections has been reductionist and petty, driven by anger and hate rather than reason and collective good. The ethnic divide has seen the Hausa and Fulani crisis that has given rise to banditry playing out on Twitter recently. Some Yoruba champions are up in arms (or rather keyboards) against some Igbos and some Igbos have picked up arms against some Yorubas and Northerners while some Northerners, the Hausa and Fulani, when they are not at each other’s throats or clashing with Northern Christians, are up in arms against the Igbos.

The level of toxicity is high and disheartening. It has derailed objective conversations about policies and plans for Nigeria instead unleashing a pandemic of hate diarrhea.

But there is a thing to say about the politicians who stoke these ethnic and religious flames, like Babachir Lawal, who managed to get himself sacked from a Buhari government that has shown incredible tolerance for corruption and incompetence for, of all the things in the world , graft and somehow managed to escape being prosecuted is fighting the APC today because he was overlooked as a vice presidential candidate. This is not to say that the APC did the fair thing in choosing a Muslim-Muslim ticket, it did the politically expedient thing for that party’s interest. But the point is that people who are not good Christians or Muslims, who violate the teachings of their faiths to plunder and loot the treasury are usually the first to retreat to the religious knoll and rally religious militia to fight their exclusion from power.

What Nigerians have failed to realize and accept is that candidates who are often voted for and championed simply because of their religious or regional background, not their competence, have often proven to be the biggest disappointment. If you don’t believe me, look at Buhari and the North that bled to put him in power and that has been bleeding, in torrents, since he became president.

Every four years Nigeria tears itself apart to hoist one regional kingpin into the office of president and spends the next four years healing and simultaneously deepening the chasm only to repeat the process once those four years expire.

While it is commendable for one to be proud of his tribe and whatever values ​​they hold sacred, it should not be at the expense of the collective good. The idea of ​​faith, in the first place, is for the betterment of all in the service of God. That is often not the case in Nigeria.

With regards to these elections, it is hard to trust any of the candidates, and the politicians who have failed to move Nigerian politics from the ethnic rhetoric of 1951. It is even harder to trust the electorate who have failed to move away from that tether to make the right choices, devoid of sentiments. And that, dear reader, is the tragedy of the forthcoming elections.

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