The last two weeks have been marked by very hot verbal exchanges between Yoruba nationalists and defenders of the Igbo polity. Not long ago, the two groups had also squared against each other over perceived uncomplimentary remarks on Chief Awolowo made by the late Professor Chinua Achebe in his book, There Was a Country. At issue in this round of exchanges was the said deportation of some Igbo destitute who were allegedly dumped on the River Niger by the Lagos State government via its agent, Kick Against Indiscipline (KIA). Depending on which side of the fence you are shouting from, the number of the ‘deportees’ varies from 12 to over 70. The cadences of the narratives also vary – again depending on where you pitched your battle tent.
There are two contending accents in this ‘deportation’ story. According to one version, echoed mostly by defenders of Igbo interests, KIA arrested over 70 Igbos from Lagos and callously dumped them on the Niger Bridge. Those who argue from this perspective see this as another instance of Igbo prejudice, if not an attempt at ethnic cleansing, especially after the Igbos have ‘helped to develop Lagos’. Acting within the ambits of this framework, a furious (real or contrived) Governor Peter Obi reportedly wrote to President Jonathan about the incident, threatening to retaliate.
Another version of the story, mostly from defenders of Fashola or Yoruba interest, is that 12 or 14 destitute were removed from Lagos State in a bid to ‘re-unite them with their families’ in their home states. They argue that three States, not just Anambra, were affected in the exercise. According to this version, before the destitute were returned to their states of origin, the Lagos State Government notified the Government of each affected State at least 90 days ahead of time to enable them make adequate arrangements to receive and rehabilitate their indigenes but Anambra State never replied to any of the letters from the Lagos State government on the matter. People who fire from this side of the trench also remind us that over 3,000 of such people had previously been‘re-united’ with their families in the northern part of the country. They also told us that Governor Peter Obi was being hypocritical over the whole issue because he had also ‘deported’ members of the mendicant profession from Akwa Ibom in 2011.
There are obvious holes and contradictions in the two contending versions of events, which we need not waste space on. Suffice it to add that the expected ethnicization and politicization of the issue has led the combatants to dig into their institutionalized memories of perceived ethnic hurt or ingratitude to mislead and indulge in wide exaggerations.
I personally find it difficult to believe that Governor Fashola deliberately targeted the Igbo or any other ethnic group with his KIA and its associated dream of making Lagos a mega city. Compared with the small- minded Governor Theodore Orji of Abia State who sacked virtually all non-indigenes employed by the state, Governor Fashola comes across as a truly cosmopolitan Nigerian, continuing and expanding on former Governor Ahmed Tinubu’s policy of incorporating non-Lagosians in the governance of the state. For instance Fashola’s Commissioner for Economic Planning and Budget, Ben Akabueze, is Igbo just like the chief executive of the state’s Infrastructure Maintenance and Regulatory Agency, Joe Igbokwe. His Personal Assistant on Media Mac Duruigbo is also Igbo.
My personal opinion is that the ‘deportation’ once more demonstrates our penchant for embracing expediency over the rule of law. For instance, in societies governed by the rule of law, those who contravene any law of the state such as on vagrancy, will be charged to court, and upon conviction, the courts will prescribe the form of punishment to be meted. There is something untoward and distasteful about carting away citizens or even persuading them to leave your state –whatever their offence. The argument that such people were being re-united with their families is spurious for it wrongly assumes that those being repatriated have families who will welcome and care for them. The truth is that the extended family system which used to provide such care function has considerably weakened and bottomed out in some cases. Had Governor Fashola been more sensitive to the Nigerian temperament, he should have handled the matter differently. For instance finding a temporary camp for those removed from the streets (and awaiting trial) but insisting that such people should bring in their relatives to help foot the bill for their accommodation and feeding, would probably have achieved the same result without unnecessarily raising the ethnic dust or risking that this minor incident will overshadow his legacy.
Fashola is however not alone in our love of fire-brigade approach to issues. For instance in the midst of the raging controversy over the deportation of the Igbos, the Vanguard of August 3 2013 reported that Governor Peter Obi personally supervised the demolition of a hotel in Onitsha where human heads were allegedly found. It is difficult to fault Governor Obi on this given the gravity of the offence and the public mood for an instant justice to be meted on the suspected culprit. However in saner countries where the wheel of justice turns quickly and is blind-folded, only a competent court of law could authorize such demolitions – however strongly people felt about the hotelier’s alleged evil deeds. Part of the tragedies of the country therefore is that no one dares question what seems to work and what satiates the mood of the moment. We pick and choose when to compare our country with the likes of USA and Britain and when to emphasize our uniqueness which will render such comparison irrelevant.
The ‘deportation’ issue also raises salient questions about our federalism. Given that in a federal system, each federating unit is within its sphere of competence, independent, what will be the relationship between the citizenship rights of Nigerians and the rights of states to regulate the behaviour of citizens within its domain? Does a state government have the right to expel non-indigenes from the state, and if so, under what conditions?
Also buried in the punches and counter-punches from the deportation brouhaha is a demystification of the stereotype that destitution is a social problem synonymous with the Almajiris phenomenon, and therefore a problem for only a section of the country. As the folklore goes, the Igbo, especially those from Anambra state, are supposed to be so enterprising and so aggressively competitive that everyone does what is necessary to succeed because, in the people’s culture, there is no excuse for failure. The truth, as unearthed by the ‘deportation’ issue, is that across the country, so many people are being left behind in the Darwinist competition for survival that underlies the spirit of capitalism. This means it might be time for the government to start evolving social programmes that deliberately target such people. Removing them from the streets because they are ‘eyesores’ is not a policy. Assuming that those ‘repatriated’ will be taken care of by their families (nuclear or extended) is to miss the point that the family system across the country is under stress and transformation.
The deportation issue also re-echoes the lingering confusion between citizenship rights and ‘indigeneship’. For instance the claim that Lagos welcomed the Igbo with open arms and that they should not take the Yoruba sense of generosity for weakness is hogwash. The truth is that your citizenship rights enable you to live and own property in any part of the country – irrespective of the feelings of the indigenes of the place. In fact you do not even need to be a Nigerian to enjoy such rights. If you are a legal resident in the country and operate within the limits of the law, what you own in your place of domicile is not necessarily at the benevolence of the indigenes. Generosity arises when you are accepted as one of the indigenes and treated as such either professionally or in their social circles. Obviously common decency dictates that wherever we are, we should not make ourselves odious by being insensitive to the feelings of others and the environmental variables in which we operate. But this is a matter of social etiquette and wisdom, not of citizenship rights.
Similarly, there is an exaggeration when the Igbos argue that they developed Lagos or other parts of the country. While it must be conceded that probably no ethnic group is as much willing to invest outside their ethnic enclave as the Igbo, it must equally be admitted such is never borne out of any altruistic sense of ‘bringing development’ to any part of the country. It is mostly actuated by commercial interest, evaluation of available opportunities and expediency. With one of the highest population densities in West Africa, the Igbo are naturally diasporic, not out of any missionary interest in exporting development but as part of their survival kits.
With the November 2013 Governorship elections in Anambra State around the corner, it cannot be ruled out that some politicians have vested interest ethnicizing and politicising the ‘deportation’ matter. The calculation here could be that such will hurt Dr Chris Ngige, who has declared his interest in running under the APC and who is still seen as one of the top contenders to beat.