From pre-independence ethnic dog whistling, to pogroms, a civil war and the systemic socio-political ostracization that has since followed, the Igbo are the most discriminated ethnic group in Nigeria and ethnic bigotry against Igbo people has been on full display in the 2023 election.
When Peter Obi first declared his interest to run for the office of the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria on the Labour Party platform, chances of his success were written off as slim to none.
The People’s Democratic Party (PDP), from which Obi decamped, felt confident that he would neither survive nor thrive outside their established political ‘structures’. Members of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC), scoffed at the idea that he could pose a threat to their candidate Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a behemoth of Nigerian politics credited with masterminding the election of President Muhammadu Buhari.
Obi’s initial support base—a diverse group of progressive Nigerians of different ethnic and religious affiliations—knew that the odds were stacked against him from the onset. Nonetheless, they were happy to back a politician who seemed to have genuine zeal to serve the people and stuck with him based on this principle. Only Obi’s kinsmen knew that the conversation would soon become about where he was from instead of what he stood for or what he could offer. True to their fears, Obi’s candidacy soon became ethnically polarizing.
Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, the presidential candidate of the New Nigeria’s People’s Party came on national TV with carefully selected words. According to Kwankwaso, ‘it would be very difficult for the northern voter to vote for a candidate from the South East.’ These loose comments started the barrage of attacks from mainstream personalities which has since then intensified. Politically exposed people like Kaduna State governor, Nasir Ahmad El Rufai, referred to Obi supporters in a tweet as ‘imports’ ahead of a planned one-million-man march and social media influencer Reno Omokri, repeatedly referred to Obi supporters as members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), the proscribed secessionist group whose goal is to excise the South East from the rest of Nigeria. In a tweet, Omokri wrote that ‘at night, in their covens, there is absolutely NO DIFFERENCE between IPOB and the core Obidients!’
In all this, Obi stayed above the fray, maintaining that his candidacy was based solely on his belief that he could reposition Nigeria towards socioeconomic recovery. In his campaign, Obi told Nigerians everywhere that it was their turn to ‘take their country back’.
THE ROOTS OF IGBOPHOBIA
Igbophobia /ɪgbəʊˈfəʊ.bi.ə/ is the baseless suspicion of, prejudice, discrimination, or hostility against people from the Igbo ethnic group of Nigeria, by Nigerians (from other ethnic groups). Igbophobia is an ever-present thread that runs through the tapestry of the story of Nigeria. Long before the first military coup in 1966 and the civil war the coup precipitated, Sardauna of Sokoto and the premier of Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello, expressed deep-seated distrust towards the Igbo people in Northern Nigeria. According to him, ‘an Igbo man comes to a place and wants to become the top boss.’ To assuage his unfounded fears of Igbo domination in the North, the premier stated that they only hired Igbo people for jobs they cannot find a northerner or an expatriate to do, and in this case, only on contract basis. This enshrined a culture that made it nearly impossible for Igbos to secure civil service jobs in the North.
Bello made unfounded claims of the East not employing northerners, without pointing out that in 1964 formal education had penetrated the South East more than any other region of the country, and thus poised the Igbo for formal professions. He also tactfully fails to mention that his kinsman became the first elected mayor of Enugu, the capital of the Eastern region. Igbo sociocultural norms conditioned Ndigbo to be ambitious, engage in commerce, take risks and value community progress. As a result, Igbo people have travelled to different parts of the country to start and run businesses. With the help of the Igbo apprenticeship system, these businesses quickly expanded, contributing commerce and revenue to the environments they were run in. Bello’s views, now replayed in the 2023 election cycle, are not arbitrary or without effects. Igbo people were singled out in public places like airports and massacred by the Nigerian military for looking Igbo or having Igbo names. Eventually, these incidents of ethnic cleansing matured into what became the bloodiest genocide in recent history.
Igbophobia shares a lot in motivation, intent and practice, with other forms of ethnic and nationalist hate displayed around the world and throughout history. From xenophobia and anti-Semitism to racism, igbophobia in Nigeria has stayed true to every rule in the playbook of targeted national discrimination of a group. Just as Bello thought of the Igbos, many South Africans believe that Nigerians in South Africa are the reason they cannot get good jobs. In periods of social tension, these reservations lead to sporadic attacks and killings of Nigerians in South Africa, comparable to the Igbo pogroms that preceded the Nigerian civil war.
While the exact number of Igbo people lost to the civil war is still speculated, Achebe notes in There Was A Country that ‘the head count at the end of the war was perhaps three million dead, which was approximately twenty percent of the entire population.’ This, according to Achebe, made the Nigerian-Biafran war ‘one of the bloodiest civil wars in history’. After the war and following systemic, government sanctioned socio-economic disenfranchisement, Ndigbo were stripped not only of their property but also of their pride. They were given a meagre 20 pounds to rebuild their lives from the ground up; regardless of how much they had saved in banks across Nigeria before the war.
In the past few days, similar narratives and sentiments have been expressed in public by Twitter users. In a now-deleted tweet, a user said of the popular Igbo-owned retail franchise, ‘when we take Lagos back, it’s Ebeano supermarkets me i want o.’ This tweet follows earlier threats of forceful appropriation of Igbo-owned properties in Lagos issued by the wife of the president-elect Senator Oluremi Tinubu in 2019.
In There Was A Country, Chinua Achebe points out that former minister of finance and the premier of western Nigeria, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, also had reservations towards the Igbos and that the feelings of distrust and prejudice played an impactful role in the formation of the Action Group (AG), western Nigeria’s foremost political party. ‘Over the years,’ Achebe wrote, ‘Awolowo had become increasingly concerned about what he saw as the domination of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) by the Igbo elite, led by Azikiwe.’ These reservations may explain his intent on creating financial policies aimed to cripple a people already left desolate by a genocidal war.
In a society that values meritocracy, the Igbo presence and professional progression should raise questions about the capabilities and capacity of said Igbo person. Both Awolowo and Bello could have asked questions about why Igbo people should occupy such positions. Instead, Bello—rather than promoting national unity by employing the best possible hand and encouraging interethnic collaborations—adopted an approach that damaged the ideals of one united Nigeria.
AS IT WAS IN THE 1960s
Despite decades of exclusionary economic policies and inter-citizen hostility, Igbo people have continued to participate in and contribute to the Nigerian project across all sectors. Yet, their national loyalty is frequently questioned—despite producing sterling individuals like Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Oby Ezekwesili, Dora Akunyili; an endless list of dedicated individuals who have not only represented the country well internationally but have served their country dedicatedly in different degrees.
As Chinua Achebe pointed out in The Trouble With Nigeria 30 years ago, ‘Nigerians will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo.’ This sentiment has been greatly observed in this election cycle, as both ruling and opposition parties set aside their differences to take turns antagonizing Obi, LP and Ndigbo.
When social media bullying failed, Obi’s antagonists made efforts to link Obi with IPOB. As with Bello, this form of bigotry conditioned them to expect nothing from an Igbo man but disloyalty to the state, even if this disloyalty was imagined. Finally, they resorted to physical attacks on Igbo communities, both before, during and after the presidential election. For instance, Akere Market in the Ifelodun area of Lagos State, an Igbo dominated spare-parts market, was set on fire by arsonists.
THE ‘HALF BLOOD’ PRINCE?
Ahead of the elections, the LP gubernatorial candidate for Lagos State, Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, came under fire on Twitter for having an Igbo mother and wife. On 14 February, a Twitter user said ‘They’re also pitching that he’s half Igbo. Because his middle name is Chinedu. You are going to be part of an agenda to give Lagos out to the SE.’ After LP and Obi won Lagos State in the presidential election, this ‘revelation’, became a big topic on Twitter.
A Twitter user wrote:
Labour Party recruited Gbedebo Chinedu Rhodes-Vivour (A.K.A. GRV) to hijack Lagos for the Ibo people. GRV is their governorship candidate. GRV mother is NKECHI, an Ibo woman, GRV wife is Ifeyinwa also Ibo from Anambra state. Yoruba youths please resist this Igbo ulterior motives.
Many tweeted their rejection of Rhodes-Vivour, not because of a failing in his character or the inability to serve competently but because he is not ‘fully’ Yoruba. The irony is, like all acts of hate, it was ill-informed. Rhodes-Vivour may have an Igbo mother and be married to an Igbo woman but as seen in his campaign, his lineage in Lagos can be traced back over 200 years. Not that this should matter.
For any act of oppression, suppression, or bigotry against a person or group of persons to succeed, some acquiescence must be granted by that person or some members of that group. This is not to blame the victim of oppression for ‘allowing’ themselves to be oppressed, but to acknowledge that there are elements within the oppressed group that ‘betray’ that cause.
In this case, the efforts of powerful political voices like former governors Orji Uzor Kalu, Chimaroke Nnamani, and current governors of Ebonyi State and Obi’s home state of Anambra, Dave Umahi and Chukwuma Soludo in maintaining the oppressive status quo cannot be overlooked. These men openly rejected the candidacy of Obi, not because he was found to be unfit to be president but because he was Igbo. Soludo put out a tweet, giving reasons why Obi would not win the elections. He wrote, ‘Of course, Peter Obi will get some votes, and may probably win in Anambra state—as “home boy”. But Anambra is not Nigeria.’
After the declaration of Tinubu as the winner of the elections amid flagrant electoral flaws and breaches of the constitution and the electoral act of 2022 by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Umahi said ‘the wise thing for the Igbos to do is to tell themselves the truth that we alone cannot make ourselves President.’
TWITTER AND ITS ‘INTELLECTUALS’
Following the unexpected win Obi and LP experienced in Lagos in the presidential election on 25 February, a video of Musiliu Akinsanya, the head of the Lagos State Branch of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), popularly known as MC Oluomo, went viral on social media. In the video, Akinsanya told Igbo people to ‘stay in their homes if they knew they were not coming out to vote for them.’ He threatened that if they came out, they should be ready to face whatever they see.
It did not help that ‘respectable intellectuals’ of Yoruba extraction propagated online attacks targeted at Igbo people in Lagos. The violence, voter suppression, disenfranchisement, and attacks experienced by the Igbo, or anyone who ‘looked Igbo’ was a product of these narratives pushed by Akinsanya, Seun Osewa, Bayo Onanuga and many others.
THE WAY FORWARD
Contrary to what many claim, Nigeria’s resentment of the Igbo is not imagined; Igbo people living in perpetual victimhood aren’t doing so to garner sympathy. The resentment of the Igbo in Nigeria is overt. There have been orders to close down markets with mostly Igbo traders. Traditional rulers have openly threatened to kill and throw Igbo people into the lagoon for daring to support candidates that are not backed by the political elite. In 2021, outgoing President Buhari made a veiled threat of a second genocide on Twitter and in 2023, the spokesperson of the president-elect would boldly call Igbo people ‘the existential threat to his people’.
The discourse around this election, about Obi’s candidacy and voting patterns, underscores the unmasked hostility that is the lived Igbo experience. The conduct of pro-APC agents at the gubernatorial elections shows that when people talk about Igbophobia, they are not only talking about the pogroms of the 1960s but about Nigeria as we know it today.
There is the refusal to accept that on many occasions, these open threats of ethnic cleansing and genocidal attacks launched against the Igbo people make it impossible to have an honest discussion about Nigeria’s unity and national growth. However, while shunning this conversation, the Nigerian state buttresses its Igbophobia. The reality is that the distrust and the lived experiences of a people never go away. This does not only slow Nigeria’s development but also sets it back by decades⎈
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