The New Identity Politics In Lagos.

By Pat Utomi

I know Femi Kusa. He is a friend and a classmate. I knew of him from his Daily Times days. Then we met at the University of Nigeria shortly after the end of Nigerian Civil war. I have read his reflections on Ndigbo and the politics of Lagos. And have followed with considerable curiosity the Galestorm his article set off and some of the responses to his rebuke of Ndigbo.

My reaction has been influenced by a number of experiences from my own life’s journey. Two related to the times I shared with Femi at Nsukka, the other came from a few years later in Graduate School, in the United States. I shall start from the latter.

When I was at Indiana University, a certain Professor of comparative politics and former Vice President of the University J. Gus Liebenow remarked that it was a shame that some very bright African students were completing Ph.ds in Economics, Education and even Political Science and other disciplines with little understanding of the American system of government. He thought this particularly unfortunate because such people ought to be the kinds to turn to for light on how the American system worked, on return to their home countries. Who better to elucidate on the American way, in his home country than a US education Ph.D.

Liebenow, a Liberia expert, pushed for fellowship that could take some of the top Ph. d prospects from Africa, as interns, to the corridors of American government. He got his way.

I turned out to be the first to be selected for this programme and went off to the US Capital, Washington DC as an intern in the Indiana Washington Office for rotation through the offices of members of the Indiana Delegation to the US Congress.

While the opportunity allowed me the bragging rights of engaging the American way in observing and asking questions directly of a Senator who would later become Vice President of the United States (Dan Quayle) and a Congressman who would dominate foreign policy oversight from the House of Representative for many years, (Lee Hamilton), I suspect the opportunity advanced Liebenow’s goal because I have done many hours of talking, in the 38 years since that exposure, on how the American system works.

Some people at UNN were apparently not as smart as J Gus Liebenow. If they were, one of the Yorubas that ventured to Nsukka just after the Civil War, should probably not be one to raise issues of questionable charity towards a people he had ample opportunity to better understand.

In those days at UNN some of my closest friends were Yoruba: my classmate from Loyola College Ibadan, Gbenga Sadipe; Folu Ayeni, First Class Graduate and Class Valedictorian in 1974, who would, with his wife Bose, found Tantalizers, years later; Ade Ogidan who would work at The Guardian for many years with Femi Kusa; and Ademola Ayegoro, among others. Most times we gathered in Baba’s room, a room next door to that of Clement Ebri, later Governor of Cross River State. It was part of a season in which things ethnic seemed peculiar to me. I was sometimes “one of those Yoruba boys”, other times a Midwest boy and at others an identity challenged rascal. But I had fun, happy with myself and with everyone around.

My Yoruba tribe at UNN did not get in the way of association with my old school mates from Christ the Kings College Onitsha, so I had another cluster. What’s in the language you claim as mother tongue? Well, Femi Kusa and I, got a chance to leave UNN reflecting on this because at our farewell party Prof. Donatus Nwoga, the Dean of Faculty, gave a speech I still lift from till this day; and we got gifts of books. I am not sure if Femi got the same book I got but mine was a novel by the Kenyan writer Mugo Gatheru, A Child of Two Worlds.

When I read Femi’s piece, which has been called xenophobic, and compared to the kind of remarks that set off genocide in Rwanda, what I saw was a spirit trapped in the desire to be modern but struggled with capture of the medieval. Femi is smart and capable person and quite deliberate in what he does but we all can be trapped by things within and just outside of us.

Human Emotion is a subject that fascinates me. This is why the work of people like Joshua Greene at Harvard, who draws from Neuroscience and Psychology to explain Emotions and how people respond to the need for both cooperation and competition in the advance of human endeavor, intrigues me. I was quickly inclined to send my friend Femi Kusa, Greene’s book, Moral Tribes.

Responding to Femi with fury will do little to change how he thinks of a people just as the passionate response in abuse tends to turn off. The shower I vitriol in response, therefore seemed quite unhelpful from my point of view.

Adducing rational measurable benefits of cooperation and identifying faults in reasoning may better help a person struggling as we all tend to be, to locate themselves in the modernity/medieval mindset continuum, may help a little more.

The bigger problem for me is that many who vilify Femi actually live the shortcomings they point out on Femi. They are pockets of what they accuse him of but they do not publicly declare such. But if they show that Ondo State and Oyo States, with few Igbos, seemed to have voted like Okota, in Lagos, they may make Femi think. Did Femi think about that in coming to conclusions so divisive and threatening of cooperation? Why did such a people who take over the territory of others vote a Northerner the Mayor of Enugu in the 1950s? There are many examples that could point a different way. But stereotypes reduce the pressure to think. They make life easy but potentially dangerous because they can perpetuate unreason.

In our earlier years in the department, at UNN, the Head of Department, Ezenta Eze, taught a class on Gestalt. The idiosyncratic forging of the shape of reality should not be dismissed. Some personal experience can shape a view others can consider jaundiced or biased. Condemning such outright may therefore be unfair Maturity demands continuing sensitivity to the fact that people see reality differently, which neither makes them good, or bad people.

Identity politics is a significant point today in Nigeria. Kayode Komolafe (KK) of THISDAY, in writing about my politics, thought, I should have run for office from Lagos rather than Delta. I know Lagos and I’m better known here, he submitted.

Femi Falana and a few others have suggested same. Nothing wrong in principle, but maturity suggests to me that it is early days yet for such. My response to such prodding is a nice smile. Surely if we want to build a nation, then the nationality question has to be addressed. We can choose not to build a nation and federate or separate but we need to pace and try things before we decide.

Still, it does not mean anybody has the entitlement to denying me a right that is fundamental. Maturity must come from all sides. But what makes a difference is the conduct of leaders. As we saw with Yugoslavia, well captured by Robert Kaplan in Balkan Ghosts, once Josef Tito died the story was different.

The Filipino Professor, of Chinese ethnic stock, at Yale University, Amy Chua, years ago, wrote the book World on Fire, about how globalization was stoking ethnic hatred against market-dominant minorities. In her list of such groups were Jews, Chinese minorities in places like the Philippines (her own ethnic stock) and Igbo of Nigeria. It is easy and cheap to attack such groups.

In my own writings from my work in South East Asia, I have also referred to an “Emigrant Economistic Ethnic” to explain why migrant peoples tend to be economically successful. In my view, they are often shut out of the politics of the land by the indigenous people, and often out of High Society, and so their passions become uncommonly focused on economic pursuits. They invariably tend to thrive and that creates new irritation with the indigenes. How newly arriving Vietnamese Boat people in the US outperformed African Americans was a favorite example of mine.

Understanding these phenomena, and a little maturity keeps cooperation and progress on the roll.

There is a daughter of the Oba of Lagos who reminds me that when Oba Rilwan Akinlolu was under fire during the 2015 elections for remarks about the Igbo being drowned in the Lagoon I was the only one that stood up for him.

All I did was a simple offer of maturity. First he had no capacity to enforce such a thing, and secondly, I know he speaks joking, in such tones. So seeing it for what it is, the kind of remark many make in their living rooms but do not really mean, helped diffuse what could have boiled over. Many wars have been sparked off by little deeds that mature handling could avert. This is why I am pained that Femi Kusa should have known that it is a duty of his education and exposure to avoid comments that could be termed Hate Speech.

I have been both loved and abused for making myself available to support the work of every government of Lagos. That disposition has never made me any less Igbo. Neither has the fact that I was born in the north and have such close friendship with friends from across northern Nigeria but that did not manage to get in the way of my championing resistance after the annulment of elections of June 12, 1993, which was pitched, by some, as a north/southwest cleavage.

Exposure, experience, and education confer privilege of a moral Authority. Femi should have exercised that moral authority. Sadly, Nigeria is more divided today on ethnic, religious and other parochial cleavages than when we experienced a civil war 40 years ago.

Leaders have a duty not to pour petrol on emotions of people yet to have enough information about their neighbours to improve understanding and cooperation. Policies ought to promote balanced development so there are enough centres of thriving economic conurbation to reduce such tensions. Sadly, with the poor politics of narcissism that dominates the Nigeria landscape with individuals in pursuit of self-interest, in the name of politics, provoke fear of neighbours where good leadership would have focused on our shared humanity and how to cooperate for the advance of the Common Good.

My experience has thought me that the stereotyping of any ethnic group by politicians anywhere is a true measure of their weakness, whether it is in the United States, Indonesia or Nigeria. I long learnt that God created no group of humans better or worse than the others. This is why I often make the claim that there are no more than six of Nigeria’s 36 states that I can arrive into and not have a friend so close that I will get an invitation to spend the night in their home.

Whether it be Maiduguri where Mohammed Hayatudeen has a home or Biu in the same Borno State where Ahmed Kuru, Ibrahim Usman and others have hosted me; or Abia where I have several dozen options including the Ohuabunwas, Ottis, Ogahs; or Ekiti where I can go from Fayemis to the Onis and Falanas or Sokoto where the Sultan himself has provided accommodation for most of my visits there and I have enjoyed dinner in his tent with him and Bishop Mathew Kukah, the classic example of ethnic and religious tolerance.

I have never understood that Ndigbo are attacked for investing outside of Igboland. Canvassing for them to return home to invest, had that been done would have been attacked and criticised as parochialism. Perhaps this is the opportunity for the governors of Igbo- bearing states to lay out a regime of incentives and run a campaign promoting think home.

If those governors are really clever, they should take the campaign further, and welcome people from the southwest, and north to move to Igbo people majority- bearing states. A fair number of Hausa -Fulani colonies already exist in Igbo states.

Asari Dokubo already made the point that many Yorubas fly into the Oil fields of south- south and southeast, make their fortunes and leave no development behind. Strangely it is those who add value that are being vilified.

This is the 21st Century. A new slavery in which people are denied their fundamental human right and citizenship rights cannot be accepted. That is why CNN runs its Freedom project. Politicians and intellectuals who promote such are working their way towards the International Criminal Court. They may do well to first visit the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda.

In this twenty-first century you cannot actively, by subterfuge or directly, deny people their rights and insist you cannot leave them alone to go their way when you do not have their time. That is slavery. The doctrine of self-determination emerging in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights at its founding, which began to unwind the sovereignty and non-interference doctrines which began with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, rejects that. As the lawyers say, you cannot probate and reprobate. You cannot celebrate what the Igbo helped build as Lagos and deny their humanity,

For those who try to prove that historically Lagos is a “no man’s land” or an outpost of the Benin Kingdom and those who make the point that if Lagos desires or aspires to a global megacity, the cosmopolitan nature of such ambition means that like Paris, London and New York it has to end up as belonging to no ethnic groups, my take is that all just play into the hand of a group of selfish politicians. Nobody told the original Londoners that London was no man’s land. The nature of the course of things just sorts things out. A little maturity can buy all of the peace we all crave for.

The trouble with Nigeria is that many of the truly mature do not care to act and the politicians who thrive in bringing to conflict people who ordinarily live in peace as neighbours, but are lacking in maturity, are the most vociferous in expressing their points of view.

*Utomi, Political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship, is founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership.


“Stereotypes reduce the pressure to think. They make life easy but potentially dangerous because they can perpetuate unreason”


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