Mallam Mamma Daura is easily one of the most powerful Nigerians today. Not only because he occupies the amorphous ‘Office of the First Nephew’ as the supreme commander of ‘Aso Rock Cabal’ but also because he knows how to play the power game. Daura is hardly ever seen in public neither does he court media limelight, despite his professional accomplishments. So, when a man who prefers anonymity decides to speak publicly, especially on such a hot potato issue as zoning, people are bound to pay attention. That was precisely what happened three years ago. In a rare interview with BBC Hausa Service in July 2020, Daura was quoted to have said that the 2023 presidential election in Nigeria should be based on competence rather than on zoning.
Such was the uproar generated by the interview that the presidency had to dissociate itself from Daura’s position. “It is important that we state from the onset that as mentioned by the interviewee, the views expressed were personal to him and did not, in any way, reflect that of either the President or his administration,” presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, wrote in a statement. “At age 80 and having served as editor and managing director of one of this country’s most influential newspapers, the New Nigerian, certainly, Malam Mamman qualifies as an elder statesman with a national duty to hold perspectives and disseminate them as guaranteed under our constitution and laws of the land. He does not need the permission or clearance of anyone to exercise this right.”
Not surprisingly, fierce criticisms of Daura’s position came from several quarters. But I paid more attention to the views canvassed by Southeast politicians. The kernel of their argument was that the idea of ‘merit’ was being floated by Daura to deny the Igbo people what was generally considered their turn at the presidency. Based on my reading of the situation at the time, I believed an elite consensus could indeed be forged on the issue in the interest of equity in diversity. I decided to intervene with a piece titled, ‘Thoughts on Igbo Presidency’. As I reasoned, the Ndigbo had more claim to the presidency in a nation where citizens had long been conditioned to a tripodal (WaZoBia) political arrangement. But I also argued that it would be more productive to stake the Igbo claim within the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) than in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
I rested my thesis on the fact that the Southeast people had been loyal to the PDP from inception so could easily negotiate for the party’s ticket. Besides, I could recall a conversation I had with the Katsina State Governor, Aminu Bello Masari in 2016 while writing my book, ‘Against the Run of Play: How an incumbent president was defeated in Nigeria’. Masari had told me then (seven years ago) that after President Muhammadu Buhari, it would be the turn of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu to pick the APC ticket and that many of his colleagues in the north were already committed to working for that outcome.
As I often do when I write on sensitive issues, especially when they border on ethnicity or religion, I shared the draft with a few respected friends for counsel. The consensus was that even though I made a compelling argument for ‘Igbo presidency’, the draft could still be misconstrued by those who already believed at the time that Buhari was planning to hand over power to someone from the Southeast on the platform of APC. By my own assessment, PDP was a more realistic route to power for the Southeast. At the end, I decided to err on the side of caution by not publishing the draft.
While the content of my unpublished column may have been overtaken by recent events in the polity, let me share some of the views that prefaced the intervention. In July (2020), former Governor of Anambra State, Dr Chukwuemeka Ezeife, warned that not allowing an Igbo man to succeed President Buhari in 2023 would not be in the national interest. “My view is the general view. We are talking of equity, we are talking about fairness, and we are talking of justice. All these considerations require that power should move to the South and within the South, it should go to the Southeast. Unless some people are not interested in what happens to Nigeria then they can deny the Southeast,” Ezeife reasoned.
Same week, former PDP National Chairman (and erstwhile Enugu State Governor), Dr Okwesilieze Nwodo, said: “the Igbo, 50 years after the war, have been so marginalised as if the civil war was still on. To heal that wound and to put that war behind us, I think if the country reaches out to the Igbo (for the presidency), it will be the masterstroke to heal the wounds.” The then President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Nnia Nwodo, who spoke through his Media Aide, Emeka Attamah, also insisted that it was the turn of the Southeast: “Daura’s comment is self-serving. He should have said this before the 2019 elections. They ganged up against former President Jonathan because they believed it was the turn of the North to produce the President. Having benefited from his nephew as President, he now wants the principle of rotation jettisoned…Now that it is the turn of the South, precisely Southeast, Daura is mouthing qualification and competence. Equity is a constant flagship for peace and good governance. Without it, there will be continued agitations and crisis. At his age, Daura should stand for equity and fairness.”
The foregoing subtext provided the background to the primaries of the political parties last year. In the PDP, Mr Peter Obi was easily the most prominent Southeast politician bidding for the party’s ticket. But when it became obvious that some power brokers within the party had other ideas about where the ticket should go, Obi left to become the flagbearer of the Labour Party. By accident or design, he had also become the toast of young Nigerians on social media. Meanwhile, shortly before the APC primaries last June, Tinubu was in Abeokuta to meet with the Ogun State delegates. Speaking in an angry note at a period his aspiration for the APC ticket appeared to be floundering, he reminded his audience of the role he played in theemergence of Buhari in 2015. He ended with the famous line, “Emilokan”.
Although Tinubu spoke against the background of whatever agreement he and Buhari may have struck in putting together the political special purpose vehicle called APC, it was not lost on many politicians from the Southeast that a Tinubu presidency would be at the expense of their legitimate group aspiration.When ‘awalokan’ (it is our turn) jams ‘emilokan’ (it is my turn), it is no surprise that we have this crisis between the Yoruba and Ndigbo. It may be unspoken but in the words of a writer I once referenced, the most dangerous part of an iceberg is not the part you see; it’s usually the part beneath the water surface.
However, having had a Yoruba man (President Olusegun Obasanjo) who spent eight years in office with another eight years by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, there is no group aspiration in the Southwest for the Number One job in the country. But the fact that Tinubu is a Yoruba man is a problem even if he plotted his way to power by forging alliances that have paid off for him. Meanwhile, the challenge of the moment has been compounded by theoutcome of the presidential election on 25th February in Lagos followed by recourse to violence, ethnic baiting and unbridled brigandage during the gubernatorial election last Saturday.
I am going to unpack that election and all the associated issues but that is not for today. We have two immediate challenges on our hands. One is about the distribution of political opportunities in a way that excludes a significant section of the country. The second is on inter-ethnic relations, harmonious living and the danger that comes with profiling. In a plural society such as ours, profiling not only creates and perpetuates a poisonous social environment, but it also makes peaceful co-existence very difficult. I derive no satisfaction in saying that I saw this problem coming but it is on record that I warned about it. In my column, ‘At the End, Only One Will Win’ published just two days before the presidential election, I illustrated my point with the story of how in 1825 a new Russian Czar, Nicholas I, cancelled the pardon granted dissident, Kondraty Ryleyev because of what he said after miraculously surviving hanging.
I concluded the column with the following words: “…many Nigerian politicians and their supporters have refused to learn: That words spoken or written in moments of anger or sometimes for fun, have consequences. Beneath the sabre-rattling we have witnessed in recent weeks is a certain mentality of politics as warfare. However, my concern is not the damage their words can do to themselves but rather to the peace of our country and national security, especially after the votes are in. With the presidential election just hours away, it is important that the leading candidates and their supporters watch what they say, regardless of whether they win or lose. Given how the BATified, ATIKUlate and OBIdients have gone overboard during this campaign, especially on social media, one cannot rule out gloating or even ethnic baiting by members of the victorious side at the end of the process. Yet, one insensitive tweet or a reckless Tiktok video post could trigger violence in a contest that unwittingly stands on Nigeria’s ancient tripod…”
Whether we want to admit it or not, Nigeria now has a problem that the political elite must confront. With the current arrangement based on north-south oscillation of power, a psychological exclusion of an important ethnic group for a long time cannot help the development of our country. As we therefore seek to navigate this tricky period in our history, those “whose palm kernels were cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble,” to borrow from the wisdom of the late literary icon, Prof Chinua Achebe.
It is to the eternal credit of the late Professor Akinwunmi Isola that in writing the script of the movie, ‘Magun’ (Thunderbolt), he chose to make the Yoruba character the villain. So, it is easy to recommend it at a time like this. Incidentally, I first deployed the message embedded in the movie in August 2013 in my column, ‘Yoruba, Igbo and Media Warriors’ where I wrote that the “Igbo this, Yoruba that” argument that dominated the period “detracts from what should be the focus of our attention…It is time we put an end to the on-going nonsensical debate between some Igbo and Yoruba commentators and face the real issues of poverty, development and national unity.”
The cast included seasoned professionals like Adebayo Faleti (now also of blessed memory), Bukky Ajayi, Uche Obi-Osotule (one of Nigeria’s most adored actresses of my generation), Lanre Balogun, Wale Macauley, Ngozi Nwosu and the late Dr Larinde Akinleye. The story is woven around Ngozi (Uche) and Yinka (Balogun) who met and fell in love at the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) orientation camp. Feeling insecure, the Yoruba husband laced his Igbo wife with ‘Magun’, the mysterious chastity control which instantly terminates the life of any man who dares to ‘climb’. Efforts to break the spell on the faithful Igbo wife provided the entertainment and drama of existence in the movie. In the final analysis, Ngozi’s redemption came from the family of her irresponsible Yoruba husband, the Yoruba native doctors, her local Yoruba guardian and finally the love-struck Yoruba medical doctor who offered himself as a guinea pig to test the efficacy of ‘Magun’ on the altar of a five-minute enjoyment!
Twice on this page, I have used the Yoruba/Ndigbo online war that has been going on for almost two decades to illustrate the danger of blaming the conduct of one person on an entire group. That happens to be the central message in ‘Magun’ which, as I also wrote in 2017, “speaks to a time like this in our nation when some Yoruba and Igbo irredentists are promoting hate speech in the name of a meaningless superiority war that glorifies some distorted accounts of the past.” In ‘Magun’ (produced by Tunde Kelani’s Mainframe), when the tribulation of Ngozi was over and she was confronted with the prospect of another Yoruba suitor, she was hesitant. But her father, who started out as a Yoruba antagonist, saved the day by giving us that memorable line: “A man is a man; and a race is a race”.
At this point, let me state that no side is innocent in this never-ending ‘supremacy battle’ between Yoruba and Igbo, fuelled mostly by those in the Diaspora. Because of it, I have on several occasions suffered unprovoked online insults and abuse which I usually ignore. While social media platforms amplify voices of the fool and the wise alike, the consequences are always more dire when those in responsible positions engage in toxic and hateful speech. That sadly was lost on Mr Bayo Onanuga, a respected senior colleague who was at the frontline in the struggle against the Sani Abacha dictatorship in Nigeria. By the position he holds in the APC campaign, Onanuga’s words carry the imprimatur of authority. And because of that, he cannot say certain things.
It is true that some Igbo irredentists in Lagos have needlessly been making provocative statements because I also get a lot of their posts on WhatsApp. But there is a huge difference between some random guy on TikTok saying Igbos have conquered Lagos, and the official spokesman for the president-elect saying Igbos are not allowed to participate in the civic life of the state they reside and in which many were born. He may claim to be speaking in his private capacity, and Tinubu’s call for healing shows they do not share the same view on the issue, but the toxic tweet is nonetheless still dangerous to the health of our society.
It is therefore important that Onanuga be compelled to retract and apologize. The damage is done, but there will at least be the symbolic acknowledgement that there are certain lines we must not cross, even in the pursuit of power.