THE only war that caught my attention in the build-up to the presidential election was the bloody ethnic war between President Buhari and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar. I am talking about the war to ascertain who was more Fulani between the two gladiators. So violent was this war that the precious lives of hundreds of thousands of words were lost. Words were violently massacred as proxies of the two sought to determine who came from where or who spoke better Fulfude and all that jazz.
As the war raged on and the blood of precious words flowed freely, I reflected on the fundamental and foundational unfairness of Project Nigeria. I don’t think there is a national experience more unfair than the Orwellian experience of being a citizen of Nigeria where the biological accident of ethnic origin guarantees ab initio that you are more (or less) equal than other Nigerians. I thought that these two gladiators who, in the middle of a race to become the President of 180 million of us expressed in more than 300 ethnic nationalities, suddenly could afford the luxury of a parallel race to pure Fulani bloodedness.
I thought about the Orwellian less equalness of candidates Oby Ezekwesili and Kingsley Moghalu. Can you imagine two Igbo people vying to be President of Nigeria suddenly bifurcating into an intra-ethnic war to determine who was the purer Igbo in a body politic which has a million daily ways of signalling that you are never to be trusted and will always be “othered” on account of your ethnicity?
Think about the unwritten rules of Nigerian nationhood which made a Kingsley Moghalu carefully curate a cosmopolitan profile not “endangered” by his Igboness. I am not sure I ever heard him campaign once in Igbo. At a point, I even felt he was running away from his Igboness in other not to “hurt” his chances. Yet, his two Fulani competitors enjoyed the privilege of running two parallel and open campaigns for the Presidency of Nigeria and for pure blood Fulaniness.
Also, no Igbo candidate dared to move near Biafra. Nigeria is rigged in such a way that any evocation of Biafra by an Igbo presidential candidate would sink such a candidacy. By moving near Biafra, I am not implying support for secession. I am a well-known pro-Nigerian and pan-Nigerian. However, Biafra is a summative metaphor for legitimate Igbo issues and grievances within the Nigerian body politic.
Nigeria has never addressed these legitimate Igbo issues beyond criminalizing, smearing, and policing them with military jackboots. No restitution. No gestures towards inclusion. Nothing. Why should an Igbo presidential candidate not be able to even move near these issues? Why should they not be able to openly demonstrate how they propose to argue the case for Nigeria to their people? Above all, why should any presidential candidate be able to get away with not telling us how they propose to address the fundamental and legitimate grievances embodied in Biafra – beyond Nigeria’s wrongheaded approach of criminalizing, demonizing, and militarizing any mention of Biafra?
In the same country, there is no issue germane to Fulani wellbeing that the concerned do not freely address knowing that they will suffer no political consequences for Fulani irridentism. Nasir El Rufai, Buhari, Atiku can openly artiulate Fulani issues – as they should be able to – with zilch political consequences. Why should running away from Igbo grievances be a precondition for minimal national validity by Igbo politicians?
Same applies to our friends in the Southwest political clan who are spectacularly deluded these days. Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo did manage a few campaign stops in Yoruba but such soapbox moments in Yoruba were so heavily curated in an overall context of his cosmopolitanism as to lend credence to my suspicion that were he running for President, he would not have enjoyed the luxury of being able to engage another Yoruba presidential candidate in a race to determine who was more Yoruba. Both Yoruba candidates would have been overreaching and overstretching themselves to show who was more Nigerian and less Yoruba in order not to hurt their chances.
I have argued and lectured for more than a decade on the following submissions: you cannot be a good citizen of Nigeria if you are not first and foremost a proud, fantastic citizen of your ethnicity. Ethnic affinity and national identity are not mutually exclusive. To this extent, the Buhari-Atiku model is my favorite model. You should be able to proclaim and fight proudly for your Fulanihood while running for President of Nigeria. I have issue with it only because we have rigged Nigeria so unfairly that Igbo or Yoruba or candidates from any other ethnic background would have been severely endangered had they ventured near the same proposition. Fulani candidates are clearly more equal than others and this is not acceptable to me.
Nothing buttresses my submission more than the ongoing threats and rumbles of war between Yoruba and Igbo in Lagos and elsewhere in the country. I have asked myself a million times: how on earth did a presidential contest between two northern Fulani presidential candidates eventuate in threats of ethnic warfare down south between Yoruba and Igbo?
When these two Fulani gladiators fought their who is more Fulani war, only words died as I have shown above. Yet, we know that if Yoruba and Igbo inheritors of this war should fight, real lives would be lost, and real blood would be shed. We need a de-escalation. However, we must understand that there cannot be de-escalation in the absence of justice. An entire ethnic group was disenfranchized in Lagos during the presidential election. Before then, Bourdillon had issued threats and blackmail in between arranging bullion vans: deliver your block vote to my candidate or face disenfranchisement and other repercussions.
I do not subscribe to the no man’s land argument. There is no version of cosmopolitanism as we know it that can be marshalled to support it. Asked where he came from, Diogenes, that famous philosopher of Ancient Greece replied: “I am a citizen of the world”. Thus, was born cosmopolitanism. Diogenes did not deny or undermine autochthony in ancient Greece. He was just saying that the autochthonous spirit and identity are not mutually exclusive with extension into and opennes towards the other.
That is why the cosmopolitanism of London, Paris, and New York have never really precluded autochthony. However, the rise of primitive, racist, white ethnic nationalism in the cosmopolitan capitals of the West is a warning to us: cosmopolitanism needs to be constantly worked at because there will always be primitive sentiments that could corrupt the real meaning of autochthony any time.
In the context of Nigeria, it means we should never accept apartheid. You cannot mobilize the threat of cosmoplitanism as justification for apartheid and political disenfranchizement based on ethnicity such as we witnessed in Lagos last week. That is one more sin of Nigerian nationhood that needs to be addressed with justice. When that great Yoruba son, Wole Soyinka, uttered these immortal words, “justice is the first condition of humanity”, he did not enter caveats and conditions in which you could deny justice. He was right.
When Buhari and Atiku fought on the ethnic front, they fought with words. Think!