Power, politics and conflict of ethnic identity in Nigeria

A paper delivered by Professor Banji Akintoye as Guest Speaker at a summit on “Peace Building and Conflict Prevention in Lagos”, hosted by ‘Journalist for Democratic Rights’ in Lagos on July 30, 2019.


I must start by thanking you, leaders and members of ‘Journalists for Democratic Rights’, for your long-standing and persistent efforts at advocating a healthy democracy, harmonious co-existence, and peace in our country Nigeria. It has been my privilege to have participated in the past in some of your conferences and seminars. From such contacts with your various activities, I am able to say, with much confidence, that your organisation stands today among the leading promoters of democracy and peace in this country.

I thank you particularly for the summit of today, the objective of which, according to your letter of invitation to me, is to contribute to the sustenance of the atmosphere of peace, unity and understanding in Lagos State, toward a strong and prosperous Nigeria. The coastal state and city of Lagos and its immediate hinterland, the Nigerian South-West or the Yoruba homeland, constitute a cultural and social continuum and an economic and developmental powerhouse in the making of Nigeria. I shall therefore be inevitably talking of all these in this lecture.

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Long before Nigeria came into existence in 1914, the Yoruba homeland had been regularly attracting non-Yoruba folks from among the many peoples of West Africa. There were many reasons for this. First, unlike other regions of Africa, Yorubaland has been an urbanised and increasingly urbanising country for over 1000 years. The urbanism created the economic opportunities and the social conditions that attracted people from the homelands of very many other nationalities. Moreover, Yoruba culture from ancient times greatly emphasised such features as hospitality to foreigners and religious accommodation and inclusiveness. By the time the first European explorers and traders came to the coast of West Africa in about 1480 AD, the Yoruba coastal kingdom of Lagos and the rest of Yorubaland were already considerably cosmopolitan. In addition to its indigenous Awori-Yoruba population, Lagos already had small immigrant populations of people from other Yoruba subgroups (like Ilaje, Ijebu, Ikale, Egba etc) and from non-Yoruba peoples such as Ijaw, Edo and Adja. By then too, there were fragments of Nupe, Hausa, Igala, Idoma, Ebira, etc, all over Yorubaland.

Lagos City, Lagos State and the Yoruba region have consistently had a rich history of economic growth and transformation. With a population of over 15 million, the city of Lagos is Nigeria’s largest city and Africa’s second largest city – and one of the cities classified as the world’s mega-cities of the future. It is the heart of a state, Lagos State, that is over 20 million in population and of a Yorubaland that is over 55 million in population.

By 1914, it was the only part of Nigeria in which Western education had firmly established strength. As far back as the 1860s, Lagos and the rest of Yorubaland had been producing a growing literate elite and a large class of university graduates – lawyers, doctors, engineers, writers, journalists, accountants, etc. By the 1920s, many Yoruba families were already producing their third generation of university graduates, whereas the first elementary schools were only beginning to be built by missionaries in most of the rest of Nigeria. No other Nigerian people produced their first university graduate until the 1930s.

Today, in the economy of Nigeria, the weight of Lagos city, Lagos State and the Yoruba homeland is very huge. Although Lagos State covers only 0.4 per cent of Nigeria’s territorial land mass, making it the smallest state in land area in Nigeria, it accounts for over 60 per cent of Nigeria’s industrial and commercial activities. Lagos State is the most financially viable state in Nigeria and it generates the highest internal revenue among all states in Nigeria. It generates over 75 per cent of its revenues, independent of federal allocations.

By 2010, the GDP of Lagos State was 80 billion US Dollars. This means that if Lagos State were a separate country in 2010, it would have been the 11th largest economy in Africa. In fact, since then, it has continued vibrantly to diversify its economy and to reduce its dependence on federal revenue allocations. In fact too, its potentials are much bigger than its present accomplishments; and it could grow into a much bigger economic powerhouse if it would invest in a skilled labour force, reduce its bureaucratic hurdles, turn itself into a ‘smart city’ and actively adopt a developmental and transformational approach that consciously includes the transformation of its natural and cultural Yoruba hinterland.

Lagos City and Lagos State have emerged as a major emporium for the headquarters of national and global companies and the complex web of businesses and professional services that support them. It is a global city with a substantial and increasing foreign-born population and with non-stop flights to hundreds of destinations around African and theworld.

Among the exploding population of Lagos City and state and the Yoruba homeland, there are large numbers of unemployed Yoruba and non-Yoruba youths. Indeed, the percentage of unemployment has been skyrocketing in recent years, owing to the generally deepening decline in the performance of the Nigerian economy and the consequent intensification of youth influxes from other regions of Nigeria to Lagos and the rest of Yorubaland.

We must therefore count it as a great gift to Nigeria that Lagos City, Lagos State and Yoruba land have generally lived in peace in a Nigeria in which various violent communal conflicts, religious wars and inter-ethnic wars have been more or less the norm for many decades. We are not saying that there have not been crimes in Lagos and Yoruba land. There have been crimes – including organised and violent crimes and crimes by various strange cults. Moreover, in recent years, because the Yoruba South-West is perceived by all the rest of Nigeria as the richest part of Nigeria, the incidence of cross-border crimes into Yorubaland from other states of Southern Nigeria has increased considerably. But it is true that Yorubaland has been generally free of the terrible and disruptive religious and inter-ethnic storms that have constantly wracked and buffeted most of the other regions of Nigeria, particularly the regions of Northern Nigeria.

The basic roots of the freedom of Lagos and the rest of Yoruba land from the wars that have been going on almost perpetually in Nigeria for decades are to be found in the Yoruba cultural attributes that we mentioned before. As more and more scholars and informed observers are saying now in the world, the Yoruba people possess the secret of religious harmony. Though indigenous Yoruba society consists broadly of adherents of Islam, Christianity and traditional Yoruba religion, the Yoruba tradition of mutual respect for individuals’ religious choices holds the whole society firmly in harmony. Two scholars, Gerald McLoughlin and Clarence Bouchat, who did a study of Nigeria for United States policy makers in 2013, wrote in their report: “The Yorùbá serve as a modern example of coexistence, since many Muslim, Christian and animist Yoruba dwell peacefully, not only in the same cities, but also in the same households”.

Intermarriage is very common among Yoruba of different religions; persons of different religions belong seamlessly in the same families, in the same business partnerships, the same social and civic organisations and clubs, the same political organizations and parties. The time for a Yoruba person or family to celebrate the festivals of their religion is time for their people of all religions to join with them to celebrate. It is one of the cardinal beauties of Yoruba life that all religions are welcomed in Yoruba land and that no religion is ever under any threat there. Yoruba people commonly do not consider religious orientations when choosing their political leaders.

Naturally, there are, and there have always been, some Yoruba persons who are inclined to religious fanatism or extremism who tend to imagine that their religion is somehow threatened and who might be perversely impressed by the kinds of religious extremism that exists in other parts of Nigeria. But such persons have always been fringe elements in Yoruba society and their extreme kinds of religious passion have always had very little influence among their Yoruba people and have usually been superficial and short-lived. Most Yoruba people proudly brag that their Yoruba nation is the most tolerant and most accommodating in matters of religion and that it is unthinkable that a Yoruba person would hurt or kill any person because of religion. The London University scholar, Professor J.D.Y. Peel, who studied Yoruba society for decades, wrote the following memorable statement in one of his last published works before his death in 2016: “The kind of trees that have produced the poisonous fruits that we now see in Boko Haram can never grow in Yoruba soil”.

Another root of the freedom of Lagos and the rest of Yoruba land from the wars that have been raging in Nigeria is the Yoruba culture of hospitality to strangers and foreigners. The foundations of Yoruba spiritual life demand that the foreigner must be accepted in love and be helped and included. Even in today’s experiences of warped inter-ethnic relations in Nigeria, when some of the non-Yoruba who relocate to the Yoruba homeland tend to treat their hosts with disrespect or even hostility, the Yoruba continue to hold very firmly to their ancient and spiritual injunctions concerning strangers and foreigners. This cultural trait, together with Yoruba land’s economic strength and culture of religious harmony, has been the factors making the Yoruba South-West the destination for most Nigerians relocating from their home regions.

For Nigeria to progress towards becoming a land of peace, security and harmony, one of the deliberate policies of Nigeria’s policy makers ought to have been to contribute consciously to the preservation, or even the enhancement, of the peaceful character of this Yoruba haven of South-Western Nigeria – with the objective and the hope that the peace and security that exist here would expand to the rest of Nigeria. But that is not what has been happening. Instead, what has been happening is that very intense efforts have usually been made to bring into the Yoruba South-West the culture of religious and ethnic wars that have been wracking most parts of Northern Nigeria. It is well known to most citizens of Yoruba land and Nigeria that surreptitious but determined efforts are always being made to influence and distort the religious character of the Yoruba South-West and to influence some Yoruba citizens to rev up Islamic extremism in their homeland.

Fortunately, the integrity of the Yoruba culture of religious tolerance and harmony has been so strong that it has, on the whole, succeeded to resist the religious subversion being injected from other parts of Nigeria. The decisive factor here has been the Yoruba Muslim population and their enormous success and sophistication in Yoruba society. Yoruba Muslims are not only generally as educated as the rest of their Yoruba nation, they also rank among the foremost promoters of education among their Yoruba people. They rank among the foremost builders of schools, colleges and universities in Lagos City, Lagos State and in all states of Yoruba land. Yoruba Muslims are always a very respectable part of the elite of the Yoruba nation – as professionals, academics, scientists, top civil servants, entrepreneurs, business captains, entertainers, artists, political leaders, elected public officials, etc.

Among citizens who are so well established among their people, the urge to any kind of fanaticism or extremism, religious or non-religious, is virtually impossible to promote. The one or two members of the elite who have sometimes chosen to incline towards purveying religious fanaticism or extremism have usually had little or no chance to win many adherents. When Boko Haram attempted to expand its Islamic terrorism to Lagos and a couple of other Yoruba states in 2013 to 2014, the vigilance of the people assisted the law enforcement authorities to foil their efforts.

But Yorubaland has not been as lucky as this in resistance to inter-ethnic bloodletting. Since about 2014, Nigeria has experienced a horrific surge in virulent specie of inter-ethnic war. The particular character of this experience has been that one of Nigeria’s smaller nationalities has come forth with an ambitious agenda aimed at planting its elements by force into the homelands of virtually all other nationalities across the face of Nigeria. Most of the consequent killings, maiming, raping and destruction of farms and villages have been in the homelands of the peoples of the Middle Belt and the South, including the Yoruba South-West.

Because this generation of ethnic violence started with cattle herders destroying farms and therefore clashing with farmers, it was generally called herders-farmers conflicts initially. But over time, the true nature of the conflicts has become better known. For one thing, the cattle herders in these conflicts are not like the traditional cattle herder peacefully herding his cattle in the countryside, respecting farms on his way, armed with only a stick and doing no harm to anybody or any property. Today’s cattle herder involved in the conflicts is belligerent, comes with the obvious intention of guiding his cows to ravage farms and is accompanied by well-armed, AK 47 Rifle-carrying militiamen who are no cattle herders at all and who seem to be well trained in military combat. When farmers protest or resist the destruction of their farms, the militiamen go into action, killing farmers and farmers’ families, and destroying their villages. These rampages are not directed only at peasant farming; they are directed also at modern large-scale agricultural ventures. They are not directed only at leading cows to ravage farms of arable crops; they are also directed at cutting or burning plantations of tree crops.

Very obviously, this whole devastation is a well-planned and well- coordinated invasion aimed at seizing territory – aimed at disrupting orderly life of some areas in order to seize and occupy the land and ultimately to create Fulani enclaves. This whole plan is not just a Nigerian agenda; more and more, we are learning that Fulani people from all countries of West Africa are streaming through the Nigerian North-West into Nigeria and aggressively seizing land in the Middle Belt and the South. The seizure of territory is already considerably successful in parts of the Middle Belt. In some parts of Yorubaland, some areas – especially forested areas – have seen the arrival of large numbers of Fulani from other countries of West Africa and they are aggressively behaving as if the land belongs to them.

Any doubt that these acts are acts of invasion and conquest is easily dispelled by what some of the spokespersons for the cattle herders are publicly saying. When the Ekiti State government made a law to regulate cattle rearing in Ekiti State, some leaders of the cattle herders responded that they would flout the state’s law and that they would bring intensified violence upon the people of Ekiti. In late 2017, after the Benue State government had made a law to regulate cattle rearing in Benue State, an organisation representing the cattle herders wrote a letter to the state governor, threatening that they would bring violence upon the people of Benue State in response to the law.

On New Year Day 2018, the threatened violence came and it took the lives of over 70 people and destroyed many villages. While the people of Benue State were mourning and carrying out mass burials, yet another letter came from the same Fulani herders’ organisation. On January 5, the governor of Benue State read this letter to a large assembly consisting of leaders of his state and a delegation from the South and the Middle Belt that had come to commiserate with the people of Benue State. There were four Yoruba representatives in that delegation – including me.

The letter threatened that bigger attacks would soon be coming upon the people of Benue State. It explained that the problem was that the nationalities of Benue State regarded their ancestral homelands as theirs, whereas all the land belongs to the Fulani (“to us Fulani”). It added that what was true of the land of Benue State was also true of all the land of Nigeria. It threatened that the Fulani had amassed large arsenals of weapons and large amounts of money for this war; that they had invited all Fulani people from all over West Africa to come and help conquer all of Nigeria; that they were ready to fight for years and years to come; and that the Federal Government could not stop them. There have been some more letters like this circulating, some of them on the social media.

Frequently in such letters of threat, the language used is that “we Fulani” will “kill, maim, destroy, banish”. From time to time, even prominent Fulani citizens have made statements to the effect that the Fulani can, and will, freely seize territory anywhere in Nigeria. Relentlessly, the Federal Government has been manoeuvring to get the governments of the states to grant land for Fulani enclaves or Fulani cattle colonies now called Ruga. The obstacle to the Federal Government has been the Land Use Decree which vests the land of each state in the government of the state; but now there are indications that steps may be taken to get the Land Use Decree amended or abolished. Also, some latest reports have it that the Federal Government is stopping state governments from employing high-tech gadgets to watch over their forests.

In more recent months, kidnapping of people has become the most sensational feature of these rampages. Most kidnappings are carried out by holding up traffic on highways and seizing choice travellers from vehicles. Some highway hold-ups also seem to have the objective of assassinating targeted notable travellers. Kidnappers most often hold their victims deep in the bush and demand and extorted ransom from their families. Many kidnapped persons end up being killed in the bush. It is widely believed among Yoruba people that while the kidnapping gangs might be expending part of the ransom to sustain themselves on the run, they also apparently send much money to some central war chest.

Under the cover of this development, some local criminal youths (youths from all parts of the South) are mounting kidnapping operations of their own in various parts of the Yoruba South-West, in order to get some share of the ransom bonanza. According to some estimates, about 30,000 Nigerians have been killed by these rampages across Nigeria, some of them in the Yoruba South-West. In the Middle Belt, hundreds of thousands have been displaced to Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps.

But the threat to peace may be building up too inside the cities of the Yoruba South-West – most notably in the foremost Yoruba cities of Ibadan and Lagos. Large masses of uneducated youths from the North are flooding into Yoruba cities. Most come to operate Okada (commercial motorcycle). Many are frequently observed arriving in trucks in Lagos and Ibadan accompanied by the bikes that have been bought for them in the North.

As a result of all these developments, there is growing fear among the people of Lagos City, Lagos State and all the rest of the Yoruba homeland that some big attack on peace looms over their future. The spirit of self-defence is therefore growing very massively. The widespread belief that the Federal Government would not defend the victims of the attack is seriously energising the growth of the spirit of self-defence.

Meanwhile, the rampages are imperceptibly but surely adding to poverty in all parts of Nigeria. With farming and travelling being widely disrupted and with many farmers abandoning farming, Nigeria faces the danger of food insecurity and an escalation in the number of people living in absolute poverty. Sharp declines in food production in the Middle Belt and in Yorubaland itself could affect Lagos City, Lagos State and the whole of Yoruba land very seriously and could dramatically degrade the peace of Lagos City, Lagos State and all of Yoruba land.

I must now end this speech by directing specific messages to our people of Lagos City and State and, by association, to all our people in Yorubaland – and ultimately to Nigeria. First, a message for the leaders and people of Lagos State: It is an obvious fact that the progress, success and peace of Lagos City and state in the past 20 years have owed much to the state’s orderliness and stability in governance. As a keenly observant elder among my people, I acclaim the fact that Lagos State has enjoyed admirable stability and orderliness in its changes of rulers and in its general tenor of government – in times when most other Nigerian states have stumbled pitifully. This has contributed enormously to Lagos State’s socio-economic progress in general and to the peace that has fairly consistently belonged to Lagos. I urge the leaders and people of Lagos State to sustain and preserve this enviable record.

Second, since our quest in this event is the building of peace in our country, I must, with love and candour, now address our Fulani compatriots and brothers. The only way to arrest the slippage of Nigeria into a sudden escalation of poverty, massive and widespread violence, or even total chaos, is that you, our Fulani brothers, must call off this campaign of killing, kidnapping, maiming and destroying in our country. The outcome of it cannot breed any good for you or for any other Nigerian people. Your conquest of Nigeria or of any significant part of Nigeria is impossible. You do not possess the capability for any meaningful or sustainable conquest; and the ethnic owners of Nigeria’s hundreds of ancestral homelands are too strong to be dislodged or suppressed in their homelands. An old-time kind of tribal conquest is impossible today in Nigeria. No ethnic group commands a monopoly of violence. It is not good for you, our Fulani brothers, to make yourselves chronic enemies of all the non-Fulani peoples of Nigeria.

All that this campaign can achieve is continual escalation of insecurity, poverty and hate in Nigeria and the speeding of Nigeria towards its terminal implosion and dissolution. Even if Nigeria somehow manages to hold together as one country in this storm (which is unlikely), it could descend into a land of hideous barbarism – a land not worthy to be called home by any self-respecting person in the modern world.

Third, a message to the large population of non-Yoruba immigrants, mostly from Southern Nigeria, in Lagos City, Lagos State and the rest of Yoruba land: While most of you have usually settled peacefully, done your businesses or jobs and raised your families, it has not always been easy for some immigrantsto maintain cordial relations with their Yoruba hosts. Occasionally, the rude and acrimonious character of Nigerian politics and inter-group relations creep in. But, happily, matters have never gone beyond crude verbal exchanges and all concerned deserve to be congratulated for that.

Fourth, a special message for the large masses of youths who have been streaming in from the North: No matter what anybody might have indoctrinated you to come and do in Yoruba land, you are mature enough to chart the direction of your own life and to respond constructively to the things that you see around you. You have come to the homeland of the Yoruba people, a homeland where you may practice your religion without hindrance or opposition, a land where, if you handle your relations with people carefully, you can get a lot of assistance from your hosts and you can go on and prosper.

Examples are very many of poor illiterate youths who have come to Lagos or Ibadan or any other Yoruba city and have grown up to be men and women of substance in the world. You can achieve what such people achieved. It is a venture much more rewarding than making yourselves tools waiting to be used to kill, maim and destroy. Decide to prove wrong all those people who fear that you have come to Lagos or any other city of Yorubaland to hurt and kill people and to contribute to a general collapse of society. Do not choose to kill and be killed violently on city streets where you could prosper and shine. Yoruba cities and towns are very ancient organisms; they command too much inner strength to be wrecked by any crowd of desperados.

Finally, a message to the leadership of the Yoruba nation: We Yoruba are the inheritors of one of the foremost harmony-conscious heritages in the world. Let us hold well that which we have. Let us have the courage to resist whatever threatens to destroy our heritage and peace. For more than 1000 years, our homeland has been a land of an expanding urban civilization. Our cities are situated usually not far from each other. Commonly, a backwoods area stands between cities. If one views Yorubaland from far in space, one would see patches of woodland with large cities dotting the edges of each of the woodlands. It is in those woodlands that our people make farms to produce sustenance and wealth. Here and there, inside every woodland there are hamlets, farmsteads and huts, marking the workplaces of countless numbers of our farming folks. To ask us to make room for enclaves for nomadic cattle rearing in our homeland is to ask us to give up our woodlands to nomadic cow rearers and throw large numbers of our people into abject poverty. It is also to ask us to push back on our civilized life in order to make room for a primitive existence.

Finally, from what the Fulani herdsmen and militias are doing today, we can see clearly that any Fulani enclaves in our homeland will be centres of violence, of intimidation of neighbouring farming folks and communities and centres from which chaos and instability will radiate out over large areas. Altogether, the demand that we should allow enclaves for Fulani nomadic cattle grazing to be carved out in our homeland is a hideously insensitive demand and we must muster the strength to reject and resist it definitively.

To succeed in rejecting and resisting it, we must re-orientate our approach to our state governors. We have a whole lot to thank our many civic organisations for in this resistance to the invasion of our homeland – our OPC, Agbekoya, Yorubakoya, YOLICOM, several self-determination groups, Afenifere, ARG, Voice of Reason and many more. But, in the final analysis, our state governors are our frontline of defence and we need to try hard to understand the situation in which they stand. Under the current chaotic and impunity-ridden unitary constitution and governance of Nigeria, all power and control in Nigeria reside in the hands of those who control the federal establishment in Abuja. Each governor, to be able to rule in his state at all, must cautiously manage his relations with the Abuja federal community.

So now, each of our state governors finds himself perched between the jaws of a pair of nutcrackers. While the Abuja controllers demand that each governor must grant land in his state for cattle colonies, our people are threatening fire and brimstone if any governor grants even one square inch of Yorubaland. Certainly, our state governors are our own men and none of them would consent to having our Yorubaland overrun by anybody. Already, they are coming together to evolve policies for the defence of our homeland. Therefore, I humbly propose that we leaders and people of the Yoruba nation should come close to our state governors and give them support, for the purpose of giving them confidence and strength to reject the Abuja demands.

I also propose that we should encourage our governors to promote, urgently, the establishment of modern ranches by our own entrepreneurs in our homeland. This should be done with consummate sensitivity to our people’s farming and settlement patterns in our woodlands. Some three or four modern ranches in each of our states will do. In this way, we will open new business and job opportunities for our people, produce beef and dairy products for home consumption and for export and eliminate in our homeland the need for cows reared by nomadic cattle herders.

In summary, I hope and pray that the current crisis will amicably resolve itself. I am confident that, if we Yoruba have to fight to protect our homeland, we will do it absolutely successfully. But I am sure that we command the cultural capabilities to navigate through this crisis mostly peacefully, with little or no further damage to peace in our Lagos and in the rest of our homeland.

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