Despite the long history of Lagos as a commercial centre and cultural melting pot, the city has remained vulnerable to tensions around indigeneity. Yet within the debates around who ‘owns’ Lagos, the city’s indigenous groups like the Ogus and Ekos are often left out.
Every day, I find myself learning new lessons and relearning old ones that seem new. One such example is the concept of indigeneity. The World Bank defines indigenous people as ‘distinct social and cultural groups that share collective ancestral ties to the lands and natural resources where they live, occupy, or from which they have been displaced.’ Recently, I was forced to grapple with the meaning of indigeneity and its application to Nigeria during the 2023 Lagos State gubernatorial election, during which debates about ethnicity, nativity and claims to indigeneity featured prominently.
LESSONS FROM CANADA
In February 2022, I moved to Canada to continue my undergraduate studies after having begun attending virtual classes from Nigeria in 2021. During my orientation, I came to learn about the so-called ‘Dish with One Spoon’ treaty used by indigenous communities across the Americas to share hunting territory among different nations. In Canada, the law was promulgated in 1701 as a treaty between the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas and Haudenosaunee nations binding them in an agreement to share the territory and protect the land. It also governed how they welcomed newcomers to share this treaty in a spirit of peace, friendship, and respect. In a basic sense, the treaty—which essentially declares a pleasant welcome to newcomers in exchange for their commitment to treating the land and its people with respect—reads like a pact toward common human courtesy.
In 2014, the then-provost and vice president academic of Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), Mohamed Lachemi, requested that the institution’s Aboriginal Education Council create a land acknowledgement statement to be used uniformly across the university. A land acknowledgement is a formal statement recognizing indigenous people in the Americas broadly, as ancestral custodians of their traditional territory in a bid to honour indigenous people who have lived on the land since time immemorial and to remind co-inhabitants of the need to acknowledge the indigenous people.
TMU is not the only university in Canada with a land acknowledgement statement. Recognizing and honouring Canada’s indigenous people and their territory is a nationwide tradition designed to foster peace by truth and reconciliation, which the Truth Reconciliation Commission defines as ‘a process of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous people.’ TMU’s version of the compact is omnipresent in the university’s affairs, from course materials to speeches at conferences, events and gatherings. When I first arrived on campus last year, I failed—as I would like to assume most new immigrants also would have—to understand why there was a need to reiterate something that seemed so obvious. But as I observed the March 2023 Lagos State gubernatorial election and the weaponization of ethnic sentiments in the run-up to the election, I came to a new understanding of the significance—and value—of TMU’s land acknowledgement statement. The treaty is a reminder of the horrific atrocities committed against Canada’s indigenous people but at its core, the treaty also serves as a reminder of the human decency that is antithetical to colonialism.
WHO OWNS LAGOS?
Lagos could be likened to an abstract piece of artwork that looks and feels different or morphs into a different subject depending on where one views it from or whom they see it with. It is a metropolitan and multicultural city with a once-promising future that now seems uncertain. Lagos has for a long time attracted migrants from across Nigeria who seek greener pastures, giving way to its position today as a multicultural, overpopulated commercial hub. And for many Nigerians of different ethnic origins, Lagos is home despite longstanding debates about who ‘owns’ Lagos or whether it is a ‘no man’s land’.
Those debates featured prominently during the March 2023 Lagos State gubernatorial election, in which one of the major candidates, Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour of the Labour Party, whose father is Yoruba and mother is Igbo, sought to unseat incumbent Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu. Rhodes-Vivour was dogged by insinuations made by some Yorubas in Lagos, like former minister of aviation, Femi Fani-Kayode of the All Progressives Congress, that he was not fit to be governor of Lagos because of his personal affiliations with Igbo people—despite his status as a descendant of Awori. The Aworis are an indigenous ethnic group in Lagos whose origins trace as far back as the 1,500s long before the establishment of Lagos as an extension of the Benin Kingdom. Their claims to indigeneity in Lagos are based on their longstanding ancestral ties, presence and contributions to the city’s development and these claims are supported by historical records, oral traditions and documented evidence of their settlements.
The argument against Rhodes-Vivour’s candidacy seemed to suggest that Lagos—a state in Nigeria’s South West where Yorubas are a majority—could only be governed by Yorubas. But that supposition raises the important question of whether all Yorubas are Lagosians, to which the answer is evidently no.
Lagos, which is home to people of many ethnic groups and cultural backgrounds, is a microcosm of Nigeria writ large, including the divisions and tensions that have shaped the country since its modern founding by British colonial authorities. But given Lagos’ status as a cultural melting pot and Nigeria’s economic nerve centre, many believed that the state had moved past crude ethnic divisions and regarded it as a model of the national unity which Nigeria needs but has proven so elusive.
Despite the Nigerian socio-cultural system that determines one’s ‘home’ along patrilineal lines, many Nigerians of different origins consider Lagos to be home because they were born and raised in the city. But the question of Lagos as ‘home’ takes on more significance for the state’s indigenous groups like the Aworis and Ogus as well as the Ekos, as well as pioneer settler groups like the Binis, Saros, Ijebus and Remos. And invariably, these arguments regarding who ‘owns’ Lagos or its status as ‘no man’s land’ almost always excludes such indigenous groups.
‘NO MAN’S LAND’
Given the position of Lagos as a commercial centre and the former seat of the national government, the exponential growth in the city’s population was almost inevitable, and a by-product of that expansion was the displacement of the city’s indigenous people to make room for a new group of Lagosians. Many attempted to make that question of the ‘new Lagosians’ and their place in the state’s politics a central theme during the 2023 Lagos State gubernatorial election, and to wield this theme against Rhodes-Vivour. Despite being a descendant of Awori repatriates, some Yoruba voters in Lagos claimed that Rhodes-Vivour would ‘hand over Lagos to Igbos’. Some others justified their opposition to an ‘Igbo’ candidate winning the governorship office in Lagos by arguing that a Yoruba candidate could not successfully win office in an Igbo-majority state like Anambra.
But there is no reason why a Nigerian of any background—or indeed, even a person of non-Nigerian parentage—who was born, raised and lives in Anambra should be considered ineligible to seek office there. After all, section 177 of the Nigerian Constitution states that ‘a person shall be qualified for election to the office of governor of a state if he is a citizen of Nigeria by birth.’ It mentions nothing pertaining to which state whatsoever in Nigeria they were born, or wishes to run in.
In recognition of the historical injustices Canada’s indigenous people have experienced, there are a range of benefits allocated to them, including tax exemptions and benefits; bursaries and the waiving of tuition in tertiary institutions; income assistance intended to cover living costs; as well as reserved lands and seats in parliament. In Lagos, there are virtually no such benefits for the state’s indigenous people, many of whom live in some of the most underserved, economically deprived communities.
It is important to make clear that Lagos is not a ‘no man’s land’. It is the ancestral home of many people, who have chosen to share it with migrants and to make it everyone’s land. But perhaps if Lagos had a treaty similar to Canada’s ‘Dish with One Spoon law’ where people like me—an Ekiti-Lagosian—acknowledged the hospitality of the indigenous people of Lagos and pledged to return the favour, the ethnic divisions that typically rear their ugly heads during elections might be mitigated. But as much as Lagos is described as a multicultural city, it is yet to reach its potential of what counts as one—namely, flourishing cultural and national pluralism. People of Nigerian descent hold elective and appointed public offices in global cities including London, Houston, Toronto, and Vancouver. But if people of non-Yoruba—to say nothing of non-Nigerian—backgrounds are deemed to be unfit to hold office in Lagos, then it cannot credibly claim to be in the league of the global melting pots it purports to keep as company.⎈
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