Ethnic profiling and xenophobia have been prominent issues in Nigeria for decades, with incidents of violence and discrimination against non-indigenes occurring frequently. In recent times, these issues have reached a heightened and downright worrying level, especially during the latest elections in Nigeria, particularly in Lagos State. The “Lagos is not a no man’s land” campaign is a clear indication of this, with the campaign advocating a pure Lagos that excludes non-Yorubas. This campaign has led to an increase in belligerent and outright ethnic jingoism, which is a deeply concerning trend.
The tweets by Bayo Onanuga, a spokesperson for the President-elect, Bola Tinubu, and former presidential spokesman, Reno Omokri, further exacerbated the situation, with Onanuga stating that the 2023 elections should be the last time of Igbo interference in Lagos politics, while Omokri posted a tweet that insinuated that non-indigenes of Lagos should behave or relocate. These tweets have caused outrage among Nigerians who view them as outright and blatant ethnic profiling, divisive and harmful to our unity.
The implications of ethnic profiling and xenophobia are far-reaching and can have serious consequences for a country’s unity and stability. We don’t want a repeat of the experiences of countries like Rwanda and South Africa, where ethnic tensions led to genocide and xenophobic attacks, respectively.
In Nigeria, the issue of ethnic profiling and xenophobia is particularly sensitive, given the country’s diversity and history of ethnic conflicts. The promotion of a pure Lagos that excludes non-Yorubas could lead to further polarisation and conflict in the state, which could spread to other parts of the country.
The candidacy of Mr. Gbadegbo Rhodes-Vivour, the governorship candidate of the Labour Party, was one of the issues that some persons had against non-indigenes in Lagos. It was so disgustingly toxic that some went as far as throwing his Igbo name, Chinedu, at him as if it were sacrilegious to bear that name. They painted him as an outcast, an infection that ought to be cut off, as if it deleted a history of excellence of the Rhodes-Vivour name that went back generations in Lagos State. It is an alarming example of how some Nigerians support disenfranchisement of non-indigenes in Lagos and it is a dangerous and divisive rhetoric.
Lagos, as a geographical entity, is located in the South-West region of Nigeria and rightfully belongs to the Yoruba. That is one side of the story. On the flipside of the coin, as Nigeria’s commercial capital and melting pot of cultures, Lagos also belongs to all Nigerians who live there and pay taxes, regardless of their ethnicity. Its history as a coastal state also has a diversified story. The claim of it being part of Yorubaland has been contested by some who back their stance on history and the very words as the current Oba of Lagos himself, Oba Rilwan Akiolu noted in 2017.
In trailing the origins of the state, Akiolu preluded it by relaying his source as a descendant of Oba Ovonranwen Nogbaisi, his late paternal grandmother passed down to him her knowledge of Eko or Lagos as it is now known. He noted that this was along with historical facts that shed light on the city’s fascinating past.
According to the story, Lagos was founded by Prince Ado, the son of the Oba of Benin, who became the first Oba of Lagos and named the town Eko. However, the name was changed to Lagos by Portuguese explorer Ruy de Segueira, who arrived in the area in 1472 and established a Portuguese expedition centre along the African coast. For many years, Lagos was a major centre of the slave trade, until it was annexed by the British in 1861 via the Lagos Treaty of Cession, marking the end of the consular period and the beginning of the British colonial era. The remainder of Nigeria was later seized in 1886, leading to the establishment of the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria in 1914, with Lagos as its capital, due in part to the efforts of the Bini King.
Oba Akiolu noted that Lagos experienced significant growth even before the arrival of British colonialists, thanks to the contributions of the Awori, Bini, Yoruba and migrants from across Nigeria and beyond. These diverse groups of people each played a role in shaping Lagos into the vibrant, cosmopolitan city that it is today.
The Awori and Bini are considered the first settlers of Eko, with the Aworis speaking a distinct dialect that bears similarities to the Yoruba language, as well as a rich Bini mixture. According to tradition, the Aworis originally lived in Ile-Ife but were driven out by the Ogiso’s stepmother, prompting them to follow Prince Izoduwa, who became ruler of the Ife people and is now known as Ooduwa. Today, the Awori are part of the larger Yoruba ethnic group and they are recognised as important contributors to Lagos’ rich cultural heritage.
In the 1300s, the King of Benin learned that the Aworis were mistreating the Binis who had settled in Eko. In response, he sent his son, Prince Ado, to the area with an army to investigate the situation. Upon arriving in Eko, Prince Ado was warmly welcomed by the Awori, who invited him to stay and become their leader. Ado agreed, on the condition that they recognise the Oba of Benin as their sovereign ruler. The Awori consented, and Prince Ado was crowned as the first Oba of Lagos, a position he held for many years. The city then became a centre of the slave trade, with the support of both the Oba of Benin and his son, the Oba of Lagos.
Over time, Lagos continued to grow and prosper, attracting people from all over Nigeria and beyond. The palace of the Oba of Lagos, known as Idugaran or “palace built on a pepper farm,” was built on Lagos Island, which was previously uninhabited until the arrival of the Binis and Aworis. Later, Yoruba settlers from Isheri in Ogun State and Ekiti were allowed to settle in Eko during a war and eventually came to outnumber the Aworis and Binis, leading to their claim of ownership over the city.
Today, Lagos State is Nigeria’s commercial capital, the country’s most populous state, economic hub and has a population of over 21 million people, making it the largest city in Africa. Alone, it has about seven million voters even if it has historically seen low voter turnouts in elections. It is also a melting pot of cultures, with people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds living and working together. However, the state’s political landscape is dominated by the All Progressives Congress (APC), led by Tinubu, who has been in power since 1999. The APC has earned an unenviable reputation for using ethnic and religious sentiments to win elections and maintain its hold on power. Tinubu’s foot soldiers have been deployed across the state to ensure this status quo remains unchanged by all means necessary. These actions generally undermine the democratic process and the right of every Nigerian to vote and have their voice heard.
As a voting bloc, the Igbo are unfairly categorised as tribalistic when they have not shown that strain of behaviour previously until they decided to vote for one who they truly believe is good for the country in the 2019 and 2023 polls. This situation is particularly troubling for the Igbo, who have consistently rejected their own kinsmen in previous presidential elections. Since the advent of the Fourth Republic in 1999, Igbo voters have consistently supported presidential candidates from other ethnic groups overwhelmingly, highlighting their willingness to prioritise competence over tribe.
The Igbo voting pattern has sparked criticism and led to accusations of ethnic bias. However, the facts tell a different story and the Igbo’s voting pattern should be celebrated. In the 2003 presidential election in which Ojukwu, the famed Igbo leader, vied, the South-East voted tremendously for his rival – Obasanjo. They also voted overwhelmingly for the Yar’Adua/Jonathan ticket.
In the 2019 presidential election, Dr Kingsley Muoghalu, an Igbo candidate from the Young Progressives Party (YPP), was widely regarded as one of the best candidates. Despite his qualifications, the Igbo rejected him and voted for another Fulani candidate. This is a clear indication that the Igbo electorate vote based on competence, rather than ethnic bias. Now, voting for Peter Obi and attempting to go with Rhodes-Vivour has suddenly made them tribalistic?
Nigerian politicians often play the tribal and religious card to deceive voters and win power. The competition for political power and resources, which often takes on ethnic dimensions, is the key driver of these sentiments. Political parties and candidates often appeal to voters based on their ethnicity, using ethnic identity as a tool for mobilisation. This strategy often leads to the demonisation of other ethnic groups and the promotion of ethnic supremacy. It leads to a situation where non-indigenes feel marginalised and excluded from the political process, despite being citizens of Nigeria.
The recent attacks on non-indigenes in Lagos State, including the burning of shops and houses, are a clear indication of the dangerous consequences of ethnic profiling and xenophobia. These issues threaten the unity and stability of the country, as they create divisions and sow the seeds of conflict. As we saw in Lagos, they can result in violence and displacement, as people are targeted based on their ethnicity. They can also undermine democracy, as people are disenfranchised and excluded from the political process.
We do not have to look too far to call out these acts because of the dangers they pose. Again, the events in Rwanda and South Africa are within living memory. In Rwanda, ethnic profiling and discrimination played a major role in the 1994 genocide, which claimed the lives of over 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis. The government of Rwanda has since taken steps to address the root causes of the genocide and promote national unity, but the scars of the past still run deep in the country. In South Africa, xenophobia has been a persistent issue for years. In 2008, xenophobic violence broke out in Johannesburg, leading to the deaths of over 60 people, most of whom were foreign nationals. In 2015, a wave of xenophobic attacks swept through South Africa, leading to the deaths of at least seven people and the displacement of thousands of foreign nationals. These attacks were fuelled by resentment towards foreign nationals who were seen as taking jobs and opportunities away from South Africans.
The rhetoric of some individuals, such as Onanuga, Omokri and the despicable Femi Fani-Kayode only serves to inflame tensions and deepen divisions. It is important for leaders to speak out against hate speech and promote a message of unity and inclusiveness. In addition, efforts must be made to address the underlying issues that fuel ethnic and tribal tensions, such as inequality and lack of economic opportunities. It is important to recognise that all Nigerians, regardless of their ethnicity or place of origin, have a right to live and work in Lagos and contribute to the growth and development of the state. They also hold the right to decide who governs them. That is the very essence of democracy and it emphasises the need for free and fair elections that represent the will of the people, the true will of the people. The determination of who governs Lagos State, and any other State in the country for that matter, must belong rightly to the people, the residents of the State.
I must reiterate, ethnic profiling and xenophobia undermine democratic processes, as they deprive people of their fundamental right to choose their leaders based on their qualifications and policies. The use of violence and intimidation during elections also undermines the legitimacy of the electoral process, which is critical to the functioning of any democracy.
To this end, I recommend that:
Political parties and leaders can make a conscious effort to promote diversity and inclusion in all aspects of their work, including party membership, leadership positions, and policy-making. This can be achieved by deliberately recruiting members from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds and ensuring that they are given equal opportunities to participate and contribute to party affairs.
Education and awareness-raising campaigns can be an effective way to address ethnic profiling and xenophobia in Nigerian politics. These campaigns should focus on promoting tolerance, respect, and understanding of different cultures and ethnic groups, and on dispelling myths and stereotypes about them.
Nigerian institutions such as the police, judiciary and electoral commission must be strengthened to ensure that they are free from ethnic and cultural biases. This can be achieved by ensuring that they are adequately funded and staffed, and that they are given the autonomy and independence to carry out their functions without interference.
Nigeria has laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and other factors. However, these laws are often not enforced or are poorly enforced. Political leaders and institutions must ensure that these laws are implemented effectively and that perpetrators of discrimination are held accountable.
Civil society organizations such as human rights groups, religious groups, and community-based organizations can play an important role in promoting tolerance and countering ethnic profiling and xenophobia in Nigerian politics. Political leaders should engage with these organizations and seek their input and support in addressing these issues.
Political leaders and institutions can promote inter-ethnic dialogue and cooperation as a means of reducing tensions and promoting unity. This can be achieved by organizing inter-ethnic forums, workshops, and other events that bring together members of different ethnic and cultural groups to discuss common issues and find solutions together.
Overall, addressing ethnic profiling and xenophobia in Nigerian politics requires a multi-faceted approach that involves political leaders, institutions, civil society organisations, and the wider public. By working together, all stakeholders can create a more inclusive and tolerant political environment that respects the rights and dignity of all Nigerians.
Ethnic profiling and xenophobia have no place in a country as diverse as Nigeria. We must work towards inclusiveness and unity, and not promote divisive and harmful rhetoric. The dangerous trends observed during the latest elections in Nigeria, particularly in Lagos State, must not be allowed to fester. We must all speak out against hatred and bigotry and focus on the good that Nigeria produces. Only then can we build a better and more prosperous Nigeria for all.