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Nigeria 2023 Election: Violence, Xenophobia, and Electoral Malpractice

The promotion of ethnic politics is shrinking our democratic space and brewing a culture of impunity and violence.

The Nigeria 2023 general election has passed, but the unsavoury effects will linger for a long time and could permanently change the way future elections are conducted in the country. The All Progressives Congress (APC) and the people of Lagos took electoral malpractice and violence to an egregious level by deploying hooligans to disenfranchise voters. There were gory tales of arson, blood-letting and mayhem unleashed on innocent citizens who heeded the patriotic call to perform their civic duty. 

During the 18 March Gubernatorial and State House of Assembly elections, area boys and the motor park touts known as ‘agberos’ in Lagos were mobilised and armed to attack ‘Ndigbo’ – literally translated in English to mean ‘everybody,’ however, the term is unique to the Igbo ethnic group of Nigeria – preventing them from exercising their franchise, all while security officers looked on without any official reprimand – in a country they call their own. Despite all the widely reported cases of voter suppression, INEC went ahead to announce the election results. 

Prior to the election, there were numerous instances of attacks on the Igbo people in Lagos. Firstly, area boys harassed Igbo people who queued to obtain their PVCs, which was interpreted as a move against Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who had emerged as the APC presidential candidate. Tinubu’s daughter, Mrs Folashade Tinubu-Ojo, who was appointed by her father as the ‘Iyaloja’ – leader of the market women – of the Lagos markets, harassed traders, closing different markets indiscriminately, coercing them to contribute and participate in Tinubu’s campaign rallies against their will. Tinubu’s wife, Oluremi, was caught on tape insulting the Igbo, calling them ingrates and Tinubu’s allies and stooges took turns to denigrate the Igbo in a bid to intimidate and blackmail them into voting for Tinubu.

After the presidential election, ‘Ndigbo’ were attacked in different parts of Lagos, markets were burnt down, goods and markets stalls destroyed, shops looted and properties of ‘Ndigbo’ worth billions of Naira at Ikate, Oshodi, Olodi Apapa and many other places destroyed without compensation. It was reported that in some locations, the ‘Baale’ – a Yoruba title in reference to the head of the house – and the community heads spearheaded and supervised the attack on ‘Ndigbo.’ The notorious leader of Lagos Motor Park touts, Musiliu Akinsanya – alias MC Oluomo, issued an open threat warning ‘Ndigbo’ in Lagos not to come out to vote on the day of the election unless they were voting for the APC.

From the onset, Tinubu made it clear that he intended to run for the office – he declared that ‘it is his turn to rule’ – and was prepared to do whatever it takes to win the election. He was caught on tape instructing his supporters as thus: ‘power is not served a la carte; fight for it at all costs, snatch it, grab it and run with it.’  Shortly before the election, Tinubu stoked the fire of xenophobia when he accused the Igbo this way: ‘these are people who left their villages, came into Lagos from childhood, 12 years of age. We accommodated and took care of them. Now they want to bite the fingers that fed them …’ It is therefore unsurprising that there was no official statement from Tinubu’s camp condemning the xenophobic attack on the Igbo in Lagos during the election. One of the Tinubu’s supporters, Bayo Onanuga, even justified the violence – regaled in their pyrrhic victory – he celebrated the criminality and failure of democracy and the triumph of hooliganism and brigandage in Lagos without any official reprimand – yet, these are people who claimed to have fought for democracy; they claim to be progressives and pro-democrats!

Tinubu’s use of hoodlums to intimidate voters in opposition strongholds has been a common tactic since he was elected as the governor of Lagos State in 1999. This trend has continued and has been particularly difficult for the Igbo community in Lagos. In 2013, Governor Raji Fashola, Tinubu’s protégé and successor, authorised the arrest of some Igbo people in Lagos, kept them in sub-human conditions – that claimed the lives of some of the victims – and then dumped them under the Upper Iweka Bridge in the wee hours of the morning in Onitsha Anambra State – ostensibly in a bid to decongest Lagos. The victims were not compensated and only received a half-hearted apology from the erring governor. 

Some Yoruba people tried to justify this heinous crime, including Femi Fani-Kayode, who wrote a fallacious essay attacking the Igbo. The Oba of Lagos also contributed to xenophobic tension when he threatened to drown the ‘Ndigbo’ in the Lagos Lagoon if they failed to vote for his preferred candidate in the 2015 gubernatorial election – and the xenophobic tensions have been brewing unchecked reaching a crescendo in the just concluded gubernatorial election.

It is clear that the skewed, adverse and ruinous political philosophy prevalent in the Yoruba South West Nigeria is responsible for all of these issues. Despite the Yoruba man pretending to be a progressive, pro-democrat, patriot, nationalist or human rights activist, the reality is different. SG Ikoku spoke from a vantage point when he said that the Yoruba man cannot rise above regional politics – he worked closely with the Yoruba in his Action Group days. From Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, we learned that politics is a do-or-die affair for the Yoruba man. To Tinubu, it is a war that he has to win at all costs, fighting dirty and using unorthodox methods. Politics is a zero-sum game for the Yoruba man; it is a game of bitterness and rancour – where blind solidarity is essential. Seyi Makinde and Ayo Fayose abandoned the party that made them due to Tinubu’s emergence, and other PDP members in the Yoruba South West who worked underground for Tinubu did the same.

The Yoruba man believes in micro-nationalism; his loyalty is first to the Yoruba nation before anything else. He makes no secret of his tribal instinct, which tends to show blind solidarity and often clouds his sense of justice. To the Yoruba man, a government is good if he is part of it, otherwise, it is bad. I have openly said that the Yoruba man is not significantly different from those he maligns in the press – in fact politically, he is worse than any other Nigerian group in the country. The only difference is that Nigerians have not told them the truth about who they are. That is why they can grandstand on some national issues to distract the gullible public. Undoubtedly, the Yoruba man’s biggest tool has been the press, and now that he is losing dominance in the media due to the emergence of new media platforms, he has resorted to violence.

The Yoruba man does not believe in sharing power; his culture is known for its politics of exclusion and winner-takes-all, with a strong loyalty to the Yoruba Empire and culture. However, in an attempt to belie their true intentions, the Yoruba have pretended to be what they are not, using ethnic profiling to obfuscate others through negative Yoruba Press. Whilst the Yoruba man may nit-pick, vilify and demonise others, in reality, he is worse than those he denigrates.

Buhari and his people would be making a grave mistake by handing power over to an ethnic demagogue like Tinubu, who has openly stated that he does not believe in one Nigeria – and he has not refuted that assertion. Nigerians have seen a foretaste of what Tinubu presidency will look like – make no mistake about it, what is happening in Lagos may be replicated everywhere in the country if we are unfortunate to have Tinubu as president. A Tinubu presidency would lead to the metempsychosis of a full-blown dictator, with a dangerous focus on ethnic jingoism and warmongering – it is extremely dangerous to have someone like that in power at the national level. 

Tinubu might decide to move the capital or key federal agencies back to Lagos in order to maintain his stranglehold on the nation. He and his cohorts will claim, as they have always done, spuriously, that Abuja is built with revenue from Lagos. Given Tinubu’s background and antecedents, it might be delusional to think that he can effectively manage a multicultural entity like Nigeria.

The South should not be deceived by the deception of the power shift, as Tinubu cannot be trusted to cater for their interests, as demonstrated by his treatment of ‘Ndigbo’ of the South East. Similarly, the North should not be fooled by the phoney-baloney of Tinubu’s Muslim-Muslim ticket into thinking that he can be tamed. If the North thinks that Tinubu will hand over to Shettima – his vice president – they will be disappointed by the turn of events when Tinubu will transmogrify into a tyrant. Today, it is the Igbo that is receiving the butt of Tinubu’s hegemony in Lagos, tomorrow, it will be the whole country – he believes in simony. He has bought his party, INEC and the judiciary, and you can be sure that the National Assembly will be at his becks and call – And what is more? The making of a maximum ruler is loading.

There is no gainsaying that a person with Tinubu’s mindset cannot govern a multicultural entity like Nigeria. Nigeria needs a statesman who possesses a more inclusive and liberal mindset – not a die-hard ethnic chauvinist. We are already crying about the negative effects of Buhari’s divisive and vengeful policies, but Tinubu would be even worse – Tinubu will be the worst tyrant in the history of Nigeria. He has made no secret of his intolerance for the opposition, and he would do everything in his power to silence dissenting voices and consolidate his grip on power, just as he did in Lagos – people who have worked with him in the past can attest to this. 

Tinubu’s presidency will finally sound the knell of democracy in Nigeria and usher in a reign of terror and kakistocracy. He will stamp out opposition, and suppress free speech and civil advocacy. We can already see evidence of this in his hate speeches and inflammatory statements mocking and the way he and his followers have been gloating over their electoral fraud. They are using Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) to intimidate broadcast stations – with prescription and revocation of their operating licenses – and prevent them from reporting the truth.

Today it is in Lagos that Tinubu and his cronies have used various means to suppress voters who do not support their party. Tomorrow it will be replicated nationwide that ‘if you are not coming to vote for the ruling party, do not bother to come out.’ It is no surprise that he has kept the touts and area boys uneducated, untrained and underdeveloped in Lagos despite the huge federal presence and obvious advantages for growth and human development – it is for political reasons. The area boys and the social miscreants are his button boys, who must be kept in a perpetual state of ignorance and put in overdrive to kill and maim whenever he calls on them. It is pathetic and unfortunate in the extreme! 

I am indeed saddened by the state of affairs in the country at present and the looming danger of political instability. It is disheartening that after 63 years of Independence and 24 years of unbroken democratic rule, democracy has not taken any firm roots in Nigeria, but rather it is deteriorating by the day because of the antics of the ethnic irredentists and bigots that have hijacked the state political apparatus. The promotion of ethnic politics is shrinking our democratic space and brewing a culture of impunity and violence. 

The tribal politics of the South West is generating xenophobic tensions that may snowball into genocide, if unchecked, because Tinubu and his co-travellers in the Yoruba land have kept their people deliberately lazy and pauperised, and then blamed their misfortune on the hardworking Igbo people, whom they accused of coming to take over Lagos from them. If Bola Tinubu can instigate xenophobic attacks with his utterances and body language, he would organise genocide if given the state powers.

They have successfully executed the first phase of the xenophobic attack on Ndigbo and they have issued further threats for 2027 – and why not? There was no official reprimand and no arrest or prosecution and so the perpetrators are emboldened. The Igbo have a saying that ‘a child whose father sent on a robbery operation will smash the door with his foot’ – meaning that anyone who has official backing for his misconduct will always act with impunity. You can be rest assured that those who spearheaded this attack on Ndigbo in Lagos will get rewarded by those who sent them.

I am not a doomsday prophet or conflict instigator, but I can see the tell-tale signs of an impending genocide in the country, especially in Lagos. It is palpably evident and those versed in conflict management and anti-terrorism studies know this. The first stage in the planning and execution of genocide and pogrom usually begins with false narratives, ethnic profiling and stereotyping, intended to induce hatred. The second stage is xenophobia, which is the open exhibition of induced hatred through acts of accusation, discrimination and dehumanisation. The third and final stage is execution or extermination, which usually begins with threats and persecution.

On a final note, I must state that the political future of Nigeria is hanging on a precipice. Although I am not a disciple of Karl Max, I believe in the Marxian hypothesis that every thesis has its antithesis. Tinubu and his group have demonstrated to the world who they are and might have inadvertently set the stage for a revolution that would sweep them away. Besides, the xenophobic attack on Ndigbo in Lagos is a wake-up call, and I trust that the Igbo will respond accordingly. Ndigbo will not be hoodwinked or distracted by the half-hearted plea for peace by the instigators and perpetrators of the xenophobic attack against them. It will be extremely foolish and dangerous to ignore these ominous signs of impending genocide. I believe strongly too that the antics of Tinubu and his people will boomerang on them sooner rather than later. These hordes of miscreants they are brooding as political tools will turn against them someday when there will be no Igbo man available for them to extort and prey on. ◆

Gozie Irogboli is an economist and a public policy analyst.

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