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The Oba’s words matter, says Chimamanda

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A few days ago, the Oba of Lagos threatened Igbo leaders. If they did not vote for his governorship candidate in Lagos, he said, they would be thrown into the lagoon. His entire speech was a flagrant performance of disregard. His words said, in effect: I think so little of you that I don’t have to cajole you but will just threaten you and, by the way, your safety in Lagos is not assured, it is negotiable.

There have been condemnations of the Oba’s words. Sadly, many of the condemnations from non-Igbo people have come with the ugly impatience of expressions like ‘move on,’ and ‘don’t be over-emotional’ and ‘calm down.’

These take away the power, even the sincerity, of the condemnations. It is highhanded and offensive to tell an aggrieved person how to feel, or how quickly to forgive, just as an apology becomes a non-apology when it comes with ‘now get over it.’

Other condemnations of the Oba’s words have been couched in dismissive or diminishing language such as ‘The Oba can’t really do anything, he isn’t actually going to kill anyone. He was joking. He was just being a loudmouth.’

Or – the basest yet – ‘we are all prejudiced.’ It is dishonest to respond to a specific act of prejudice by ignoring that act and instead stressing the generic and the general. It is similar to responding to a specific crime by saying ‘we are all capable of crime.’ Indeed we are. But responses such as these are diversionary tactics. They dismiss the specific act, diminish its importance, and ultimately aim at silencing the legitimate fears of people.

We are indeed all prejudiced, but that is not an appropriate response to an issue this serious. The Oba is not an ordinary citizen. He is a traditional ruler in a part of a country where traditional rulers command considerable influence – the reluctance on the part of many to directly chastise the Oba speaks to his power. The Oba’s words matter. He is not a singular voice; he represents traditional authority. The Oba’s words matter because they are enough to incite violence in a political setting already fraught with uncertainty. The Oba’s words matter even more in the event that Ambode loses the governorship election, because it would then be easy to scapegoat Igbo people and hold them punishable.

Nigerians who consider themselves enlightened might dismiss the Oba’s words as illogical. But the scapegoating of groups – which has a long history all over the world – has never been about logic. The Oba’s words matter because they bring worrying echoes of the early 1960s in Nigeria, when Igbo people were scapegoated for political reasons. Chinua Achebe, when he finally accepted that Lagos, the city he called home, was unsafe for him because he was Igbo, saw crowds at the motor park taunting Igbo people as they boarded buses: ‘Go, Igbo, go so that garri will be cheaper in Lagos!’

Of course Igbo people were not responsible for the cost of garri. But they were perceived as people who were responsible for a coup and who were ‘taking over’ and who, consequently, could be held responsible for everything bad.

Any group of people would understandably be troubled by a threat such as the Oba’s, but the Igbo, because of their history in Nigeria, have been particularly troubled. And it is a recent history. There are people alive today who were publicly attacked in cosmopolitan Lagos in the 1960s because they were Igbo. Even people who were merely light-skinned were at risk of violence in Lagos markets, because to be light-skinned was to be mistaken for Igbo.

Almost every Nigerian ethnic group has a grouse of some sort with the Nigerian state. The Nigerian state has, by turns, been violent, unfair and neglectful, of different parts of the country. Almost every ethnic group has derogatory stereotypes attached to it by other ethnic groups.

But it is disingenuous to suggest that the experience of every ethnic group has been the same. Anti-Igbo violence began under the British colonial government, with complex roots and manifestations. But the end result is a certain psychic difference in the relationship of Igbo people to the Nigerian state. To be Igbo in Nigeria is constantly to be suspect; your national patriotism is never taken as the norm, you are continually expected to prove it.

All groups are conditioned by their specific histories. Perhaps another ethnic group would have reacted with less concern to the Oba’s threat, because that ethnic group would not be conditioned by a history of being targets of violence, as the Igbo have been.

Many responses to the Oba’s threat have mentioned the ‘welcoming’ nature of Lagos, and have made comparisons between Lagos and southeastern towns like Onitsha. It is valid to debate the ethnic diversity of different parts of Nigeria, to compare, for example, Ibadan and Enugu, Ado-Ekiti and Aba, and to debate who moves where, and who feels comfortable living where and why that is. But it is odd to pretend that Lagos is like any other city in Nigeria.

It is not. The political history of Lagos and its development as the first national capital set it apart. Lagos is Nigeria’s metropolis. There are ethnic Igbo people whose entire lives have been spent in Lagos, who have little or no ties to the southeast, who speak Yoruba better than Igbo. Should they, too, be reminded to be ‘grateful’ each time an election draws near?

No law-abiding Nigerian should be expected to show gratitude for living peacefully in any part of Nigeria. Landlords in Lagos should not, as still happens too often, be able to refuse to rent their property to Igbo people.

The Oba’s words were disturbing, but its context is even more disturbing: The anti-Igbo rhetoric that has been part of the political discourse since the presidential election results. Accusatory and derogatory language – using words like ‘brainwashed,’ ‘tribalistic voting’ – has been used to describe President Jonathan’s overwhelming win in the southeast.

All democracies have regions that vote in large numbers for one side, and even though parts of Northern Nigeria showed voting patterns similar to the Southeast, the opprobrium has been reserved for the Southeast.

But the rhetoric is about more than mere voting. It is really about citizenship. To be so entitled as to question the legitimacy of a people’s choice in a democratic election is not only a sign of disrespect but is also a questioning of the full citizenship of those people.

What does it mean to be a Nigerian citizen?

When Igbo people are urged to be ‘grateful’ for being in Lagos, do they somehow have less of a right as citizens to live where they live? Every Nigerian should be able to live in any part of Nigeria. The only expectation for a Nigerian citizen living in any part of Nigeria is to be law-abiding. Not to be ‘grateful.’ Not to be expected to pay back some sort of unspoken favour by toeing a particular political line. Nigerian citizens can vote for whomever they choose, and should never be expected to justify or apologize for their choice.

Only by feeling a collective sense of ownership of Nigeria can we start to forge a nation. A nation is an idea. Nigeria is still in progress. To make this a nation, we must collectively agree on what citizenship means: all Nigerians must matter equally.

-Article by Chimamanda Adichie

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0 Comments

  1. adedeji Adekoya

    April 11, 2015 at 8:40 am

    The Oba has committed many unforgivable sins by issuing death sentences on fellow Nigerians without comiting any offence, not to talk of being found guilty after trial. He should be blamed if per chance Lagos is lost to the PDP

  2. Don Lucassi

    April 11, 2015 at 8:50 am

    Chimamanda, well written piece, as most of your pieces are ofcourse. What I never understand though, as in this case again, is that you always fail to put a balance on your thoughts. It always feels like there is a bias. Nowhere in your article, did you tell the few Igbo( or a lot) people who always claim that Lagos is no man’s land. To call Lagos a no man’s land is adding almost the same incitement the foolish and uncalculated Oba in Lagos has spurt out recently. How can you tell a real Lagosian( not my type whose roots are from Oyo) that his land is for no one and not expect a reaction from him? Imagine someone going to Nnewi and saying its no man’s land because there was definitely a time in history when no one was there… To cap though, impressive writing.

  3. Jedimaster

    April 12, 2015 at 12:45 am

    Lagos is “No man’s land’ actually, if you look at the early history, the original settlers were the Awori’s, then the Benin kingdom ruled Lagos for a while, before the British made it a protectorate after it was ceded by Oba Akintoye for military protection. The name Lagos is portuguese meaning Lakes. If you took out all the Igbo businesses Lagos would inadvertently crumble. Unfortunately, many ignorant people are quick to stereotype other ethnic groups, that doesn’t help matters, if one ethnic group feels superior, they should secede and let’s see what happens. I reiterate, Lagos is no man’s land as it is a collage of different ethnicities, in this I share Chimanandas sentiment, we as Nigerians all have an equal right to Lagos and we should nit be made to feel as if dwelling here is a privilege.

    • Don Lucassi

      April 15, 2015 at 8:43 pm

      Im sorry that is the most shallow thing I have ever heard a man say. Lagos is no man’s land? Was anyone ever in any land? Didnt somebody have to settle there first? Who are the aworis? Arent they yoruba? You must be very stupid for quoting history and making it for your own use.

      • Jedimaster

        April 16, 2015 at 8:53 am

        First of all, we are all entitled to our opinions. Secondly if you took away all the Igbo businesses, Lagos would crumble. Thirdly, it is rather petulant to resort to insults to get your point across, grown ups know how to argue without resorting to ad hominem attacks.

        • Don Lucassi

          April 16, 2015 at 12:48 pm

          So you show you are grown up by telling a few people who have strong convictions that here is their heritage, that that have no place and where they call home is “no man’s land”. You keep talking about take Igbo people out of Lagos and the city will crumble. Tell Americans that their land is no man’s land because most institutions are held strong by immigrants and hence the country will collapse. Have u heard the phrase that describes you thinking only you can do something? If the Igbo’s did not build the business mentality in Lagos, someone else would have. Never tell a man his home is not his home. If you are so sure of yourself, go tell the people in Isale oke or Oba Oniru that his land is no man’s land.
          BTW Im not a lagosian.

          • Jedimaster

            April 16, 2015 at 5:08 pm

            Humour me, if Igbos did not build most of the successful businesses in Lagos, who would have? The Yoruba’s just got fortunate because they sided with the British, and I’ll leave it there before this becomes more tribal than it already is. That is all.

  4. Adams Muheen

    April 16, 2015 at 8:02 am

    I hope u will need to agree with me that despite that all you said could be correct, it is in this Lagos State we are seeing an Igbo man being appointed a commissioner and a GM of a parastatal ,so if Oba could decide to react the way he did kudos to him, he should not have been asked to come and apologize publicly, He is a paramount ruler of Lagos and should not be relegated .

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