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2023 Lagos Gubernatorial Election And The Weaponisation Of Bigotry By Ahmed Olayinka Sule

March 20, 2023

Before I continue, let me declare my bona fides. My name is Ahmed Olayinka Sule, and I am a Yoruba. I am a scion of the Balogun Kuku family of Ijebu. I am neither a BATified, Obidient, nor Atikulated supporter, as I believe that Nigeria's solution does not lie with a messianic political figure, especially one who is an exponent of neo-liberal ideologies. For those interested, my political sympathy lies with Omoyele Sowore, the revolutionary African Action Congress presidential flag bearer.

At the recently concluded Lagos State Gubernatorial election, Babajide Sanwo-Olu secured the mandate to govern Lagos for the next four years. With the election over, now is an excellent time to carry out an election post-mortem. 


Before I continue, let me declare my bona fides. My name is Ahmed Olayinka Sule, and I am a Yoruba. I am a scion of the Balogun Kuku family of Ijebu. I am neither a BATified, Obidient, nor Atikulated supporter, as I believe that Nigeria's solution does not lie with a messianic political figure, especially one who is an exponent of neo-liberal ideologies. For those interested, my political sympathy lies with Omoyele Sowore, the revolutionary African Action Congress presidential flag bearer. The essential characteristic of this gubernatorial election was the weaponisation of bigotry by some Yoruba political elites. After reading the following paragraphs, some of my Yoruba brethren may say, "Omo ale leleyi (This one is a bastard)". However, if this is the price for speaking the truth, then nothing can be more redemptive. 


The Labour Party presidential candidate Peter Obi achieved one of the most remarkable political upsets in Nigerian political history when he defeated Bola Tinubu, the so-called godfather of Lagos politics, in the Lagos State presidential election. With the gubernatorial election taking place a few weeks after the announcement of the shock result, the Labour Party was confident that it could replicate its earlier victory. On the other side of the political aisle, there was fear that the All Progressives Congress (APC) hold over Lagos State was under threat. As a result, the attention of political watchers and analysts turned to the forthcoming contest between the Labour Party's candidate, Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour (GBV) and the APC's candidate, Babajide Sanwo-Olu. However, through a strange formula, the gubernatorial election took a bitter turn as tribalism, the bane of Nigeria's problem, reared its ugly head. Within a couple of days, the election became a proxy war between Yoruba people and Igbo people.


After the shock result in Lagos three weeks earlier, anti-Igbo sentiments began to measure 7.6 on the Igbophobia Richter scale. Some South Western political elites began to weaponise bigotry by portraying Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour as a pseudo-Yoruba. According to the narrative they crafted, Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour was a Manchurian candidate placed by the Igbos to take over Lagos State. 

They adopted a trench mentality with the Igbos as the point of attack. Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, the Director of Special Operations and New Media of the APC Presidential Campaign Council, wrote on Twitter, "The Labour Party candidate, Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, whose mother and wife are Igbo and who is running a patently anti-Yoruba and pro-Igbo campaign, is one of those that burnt properties and buses during the Endsars riots…. He is also in bed with IPOB and is hell-bent on imposing an unashamedly Igbo agenda on the people of Lagos state, including removing all our Yoruba traditional rulers and imposing Igbo ones." 

Ayo Fayose, a former governor of Ekiti State, reportedly said, "The Candidate of LP, we understand, was born in Lagos but he can't speak Yoruba, are we going to get an interpreter for him when he's speaking to Lagosians?" Babajide Sanwo-Olu also played the ethnicity card by partly blaming the Igbos for Tinubu's loss in Lagos. 


The proxy war then moved to social media. Online forums were split along ethnic lines, with predominantly Yoruba online forumers lining up behind Babajide Sanwo-Olu and predominately Igbo forumers lining up behind GBV. A few days before the election, "The Igbos" began trending on Twitter. 

Ethnic baiting became the order of the day, with the Igbos accused of orchestrating a hostile takeover of Lagos State. We began reading on social media, "Lagos belongs to the Yorubas." Next, we started reading, "They are planning to capture Lagos from Abia... Lagos Youths, shine your eyes." Eventually, the online violence meted out against the Igbo's morphed into physical violence. A strange fire occurred at Akere market, Apapa, a spare parts market occupied mainly by Igbo traders. MC Oluomo, the Lagos State Parks Management Committee Chairman, warned Igbos that if they don't want to vote for APC, they should stay at home. He also suggested that Igbos were ritual killers.


As some well-meaning Nigerians spoke up against the recent violence against Igbos in Lagos State, the silence of the political establishment was deafening. The attitude of some members of the Yoruba professional class was shocking and disappointing. In the face of overwhelming evidence of the online and offline violence against Igbos, they turned a bigoted blind eye and put their bigoted heads into their bigoted ethnic sand. Rather than making a case for their candidate, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, by presenting superior political arguments in the marketplace of ideas, they took the path of least resistance by weaponising tribal sentiments. 


This election is not the first time the Igbos have been scapegoated for not genuflecting at the altar of Bola Tinubu's anointed candidate. In the build-up to the 2015 Lagos Gubernatorial election between APC's Akinwunmi Ambode and PDP's Jimi Agbaje, the Igbo's lives were also under threat. When a group of Igbo leaders paid the Oba of Lagos a courtesy visit on 5 April 2015, he warned them that if the Igbos did not vote for Akinwunmi Ambode, they would perish in the river within seven days. During the 2019 Lagos Gubernatorial election, Senator Remi Tinubu told an Igbo woman that she would summon the gods to drive the Igbos out and that Yorubas would inherit all Igbos assets in Lagos. She later told an Igbo man that Igbos could not be trusted.  


For want of a better word, the Igbos have become a sacrificial scapegoat for the excesses of the Lagos political elites. Bola Tinubu's loss in Lagos was not due to the Igbo votes; after all, the Yoruba's outnumbered the Igbos in Lagos. Other factors, such as the State government's response to the End Sars protest, the government's eviction of poor people from their homes and the weariness of Bola Tinubu's hegemony over Lagos State, came to play.


One shouldn't be surprised at the weaponisation of bigotry by some Southwestern political establishment members and some Yoruba intelligentsia. Nigeria has done well in learning the bigotry from her colonial master, the UK, and her neo-colonial master, the USA. The tactics deployed in this election were similar to those adopted during the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump's Presidential campaign. Like the Brexit campaign, where the rallying cry was," Take back control of our borders", the rallying cry for the Lagos election was, "Igbo's, go back to the South East and develop your land." Like Donald Trump's campaign, which was based on the demonisation of Mexicans as rapists and Muslims as terrorists, the Lagos election campaign was based on the demonisation, otherisation and thingifisation of the Igbos. Like the birther movement in America, which questioned Barack Obama's American citizenship, the APC Lagos election campaigners questioned Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour's Yoruba ancestry.


During the Jim Crow era, the white power structure was able to appease the white masses from agitating by letting them know that no matter how bad their conditions were, at least they were not nig&#rs. We also saw this tactic play out in the Lagos gubernatorial election. To paraphrase Martin Luther King: It may be said of the 2023 Lagos Gubernatorial election that the political elites took Lagos and gave the Yoruba masses "Emi lo kan." And when their wrinkled stomach cried out for the food their empty pockets could not provide, they ate "Emi lo kan," a psychological bird that told them that no matter how bad off they were, at least they were Yoruba's, better than the Igbo's. And they ate "Emi lo kan" for breakfast, lunch and supper. And when their undernourished children cried out for the necessities their low wages could not provide, they showed them the "Emi lo kan" signs dotted throughout Lagos. And their children, too, learned to feed upon Emi lo kan, their last outpost of psychological oblivion. 


Admittedly, several Igbos supported Bola Tinubu and Babajide Sanwo-Olu, and several Yorubas supported Peter Obi and Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, however irrespective of these trends, the general gist of what I have written still stands. 


So where do we go from here? All hands must be on deck to stamp out tribalism from our political process. We should hold our political leaders accountable. When politicians attempt to divide us along ethnic and religious lines, we should not play into their hands. Instead, we should bend the discourse back to policy issues and their plans to transform the Nigerian nightmare into the Nigerian dream.


If business continues as usual, we risk ushering in more bloodshed. The history books are replete with the blood that spills when bigotry is weaponised. Our history teaches us about an event that began fifty-six years ago in which a group of people were demonised, otherised, objectified and thingified because of their ethnicity. Two and a half years later, 2 million Igbos were bombed, shot or starved to death. With this tragic past, we can't and should not allow history to repeat itself.


Let he or she that has ears...


Eko O ni Baje




Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA

[email protected]