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Friday, 10 April 2015

Chimamanda Adichie: Why the Oba’s words matter








A few days ago, the Oba of Lagos threatened Igbo leaders. If they did not vote for his governorship candidate in Lagos, he said, they would be thrown into the lagoon. His entire speech was a flagrant performance of disregard. His words said, in effect: I think so little of you that I don’t have to cajole you but will just threaten you and, by the way, your safety in Lagos is not assured, it is negotiable.


There have been condemnations of the Oba’s words. Sadly, many of the condemnations from non-Igbo people have come with the ugly impatience of expressions like ‘move on,’ and  ‘don’t be over-emotional’ and ‘calm down.’ These take away the power, even the sincerity, of the condemnations. It is highhanded and offensive to tell an aggrieved person how to feel, or how quickly to forgive, just as an apology becomes a non-apology when it comes with ‘now get over it.’




Other condemnations of the Oba’s words have been couched in dismissive or diminishing language such as ‘The Oba can’t really do anything, he isn’t actually going to kill anyone. He was joking. He was just being a loudmouth.’

Or – the basest yet – ‘we are all prejudiced.’ It is dishonest to respond to a specific act of prejudice by ignoring that act and instead stressing the generic and the general.  It is similar to responding to a specific crime by saying ‘we are all capable of crime.’ Indeed we are. But responses such as these are diversionary tactics. They dismiss the specific act, diminish its importance, and ultimately aim at silencing the legitimate fears of people.

We are indeed all prejudiced, but that is not an appropriate response to an issue this serious. The Oba is not an ordinary citizen. He is a traditional ruler in a part of a country where traditional rulers command considerable influence – the reluctance on the part of many to directly chastise the Oba speaks to his power. The Oba’s words matter. He is not a singular voice; he represents traditional authority. The Oba’s words matter because they are enough to incite violence in a political setting already fraught with uncertainty. The Oba’s words matter even more in the event that Ambode loses the governorship election, because it would then be easy to scapegoat Igbo people and hold them punishable.

Nigerians who consider themselves enlightened might dismiss the Oba’s words as illogical. But the scapegoating of groups – which has a long history all over the world – has never been about logic.

The Oba’s words matter because they bring worrying echoes of the early 1960s in Nigeria, when Igbo people were scapegoated for political reasons. Chinua Achebe, when he finally accepted that Lagos, the city he called home, was unsafe for him because he was Igbo, saw crowds at the motor park taunting Igbo people as they boarded buses: ‘Go, Igbo, go so that garri will be cheaper in Lagos!’

Of course Igbo people were not responsible for the cost of garri. But they were perceived as people who were responsible for a coup and who were ‘taking over’ and who, consequently, could be held responsible for everything bad.

Any group of people would understandably be troubled by a threat such as the Oba’s, but the Igbo, because of their history in Nigeria, have been particularly troubled. And it is a recent history. There are people alive today who were publicly attacked in cosmopolitan Lagos in the 1960s because they were Igbo. Even people who were merely light-skinned were at risk of violence in Lagos markets, because to be light-skinned was to be mistaken for Igbo.

Almost every Nigerian ethnic group has a grouse of some sort with the Nigerian state. The Nigerian state has, by turns, been violent, unfair, neglectful, of different parts of the country. Almost every ethnic group has derogatory stereotypes attached to it by other ethnic groups.

But it is disingenuous to suggest that the experience of every ethnic group has been the same. Anti-Igbo violence began under the British colonial government, with complex roots and manifestations. But the end result is a certain psychic difference in the relationship of Igbo people to the Nigerian state. To be Igbo in Nigeria is constantly to be suspect; your national patriotism is never taken as the norm, you are continually expected to prove it.

All groups are conditioned by their specific histories. Perhaps another ethnic group would have reacted with less concern to the Oba’s threat, because that ethnic group would not be conditioned by a history of being targets of violence, as the Igbo have been.

Many responses to the Oba’s threat have mentioned the ‘welcoming’ nature of Lagos, and have made comparisons between Lagos and southeastern towns like Onitsha. It is valid to debate the ethnic diversity of different parts of Nigeria, to compare, for example, Ibadan and Enugu, Ado-Ekiti and Aba, and to debate who moves where, and who feels comfortable living where and why that is. But it is odd to pretend that Lagos is like any other city in Nigeria. It is not. The political history of Lagos and its development as the first national capital set it apart. Lagos is Nigeria’s metropolis. There are ethnic Igbo people whose entire lives have been spent in Lagos, who have little or no ties to the southeast, who speak Yoruba better than Igbo. Should they, too, be reminded to be ‘grateful’ each time an election draws near?

No law-abiding Nigerian should be expected to show gratitude for living peacefully in any part of Nigeria. Landlords in Lagos should not, as still happens too often, be able to refuse to rent their property to Igbo people.

The Oba’s words were disturbing, but its context is even more disturbing:

The anti-Igbo rhetoric that has been part of the political discourse since the presidential election results.  Accusatory and derogatory language – using words like ‘brainwashed,’ ‘tribalistic voting’ – has been used to describe President Jonathan’s overwhelming win in the southeast. All democracies have regions that vote in large numbers for one side, and even though parts of Northern Nigeria showed voting patterns similar to the Southeast, the opprobrium has been reserved for the Southeast.

But the rhetoric is about more than mere voting. It is really about citizenship. To be so entitled as to question the legitimacy of a people’s choice in a democratic election is not only a sign of disrespect but is also a questioning of the full citizenship of those people.

What does it mean to be a Nigerian citizen?

When Igbo people are urged to be ‘grateful’ for being in Lagos, do they somehow have less of a right as citizens to live where they live? Every Nigerian should be able to live in any part of Nigeria. The only expectation for a Nigerian citizen living in any part of Nigeria is to be law-abiding. Not to be ‘grateful.’ Not to be expected to pay back some sort of unspoken favour by toeing a particular political line. Nigerian citizens can vote for whomever they choose, and should never be expected to justify or apologize for their choice.


Only by feeling a collective sense of ownership of Nigeria can we start to forge a nation. A nation is an idea. Nigeria is still in progress. To make this a nation, we must collectively agree on what citizenship means: all Nigerians must matter equally.

21 comments:

  1. Chimamanda you don't live in Lagos...
    ...Chimamanda does not live in Lagos.
    What about the disrespectful ways Igbos address hausa as "abokis" and dumbheads, and "nama" meaning cow?
    "Aboki" actually means friend but watch an hausa man when an igbos calls him that in a disrespectful tone. He stiffens and looks annoyed because he knows the tone he is called with is one of disrespect and insult.

    EVERY TRIBE is guilty of tribalism.
    NOT EVERY TRIBE IS GUILTY OF "PEACEMAKER-ISM".
    I would like the Igbos to be know to be guilty of MAKING PEACE.

    So we go on and on about it and what happens? Fights and fracas and some fathers and sons lose their lives and people lose property and investment.
    As you may see from my name Ijeoma Omotade; I am Igbo married to yoruba...happily married. I went into their culture and took time to learn about it. It was when i decided to marry that i knew how deep tribalism has eaten even into our so called igbo and yoruba elite.
    As an igbo girl,I may not agree with all the yoruba do but it is their culture and i'm in their land, so I respect it and in turn they sense my aura of respect and willingness to understand them and they treat me so well. And when I get an opportunity to talk and nd ndly about MY CULTURE and correct some misconceptions they have about us, because I respect them, THEY LISTEN and learn, even through jokes and laughter.
    Even the few who were antagonistic toward me embrace me now or are at least civil toward me. It didn't make me any less dignified to understand another man's culture better; it made me wiser, and stronger and more appreciative of the richness of our country.

    This flagrant disregard for people's culture is really bad! How do you expect to reason with someone unless you understand their worldview?
    Truly, we wouldn't tolerate half the things we expect from Lagos in Aba or Onitsha or Enugu. So why do we want to "Take over" another man's land. It wasn't bare land before people came and developed it. It's people's ancestral homes.
    I don't want take be told I should be "grateful" living in lagos because that is utter stupidity; any yoruba person saying that has peanuts for brains! Igbos work HARD for our living, and add IMMENSELY to the growth of the town. So does the hausa community in the east that bring in food and food our markets. So EVERYONE, and specially to my IGBO KING MEN,  speak as you would like to be spoken to.

    I share a bit of the Lagos indigene's sentiment. I wouldn't want my hometown to be "cosmopoliticized" and my ancestral homes snatched away and turned into highways and hotels, and be told my home town is "no man's land". That's highly disrespectful. History has deep roots in his land.
    I don't support the Oba, he is not my relative,nor did he "settle" my family lol.
    In his heart, he is just like many other igbos, hausas and yorubas; TRIBALISTIC! The only difference is that he is an influencing public figure and so we can all tweet and Facebook his bad communication skills; a public figure who didn't think about the implications of his words before he spoke...

    That statement would have been made by even an angry IGBO king or hausa emir cos I don't see anyone of them doing any better!

    In a quest for peace,you have two parties;the one making amends and the one accepting the apology.

    Let us accept,and move on.
    The other alternative is not better. No one wants tribal clashes; people will die,women will be widowed, children will be orphaned,on both sides...and Chimamanda will probably write a book about it, all the way from her desk which IS NOT IN LAGOS!

    Selah...




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    1. "Ijeoma" Omotade, you must be a bastard Igbo--if at all you are Igbo at all! Idiot! Anu-ofia!

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    2. Ijeoma Omotade, thank you . You are spot on in your comments.
      1.lagos is NOT No-mans land. Just as Aba or Onitsha though commercial still have the culture and traditio of Igbo land

      2. We need to understand others cultures and be tolerant of them.

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    3. Ijeoma, I believe what you are missing out is this. The historical capital of the Western Region was Ibadan - not Lagos. Lagos has attained it's cosmopolitan outlook by virtue of the fact that it was the nation's capital for a very long time resulting in extensive federal presence and investment in infrastructure. The carter bridge, Eko bridge, National Stadium, national theatre, Muritala Muhammed International Airport, Federal Secretariat, Former Supreme Court, Race Course, Former Court Of Appeal, former state house (Dodan Barracks ), NETBuilding, NIPOST, NEPA and Marina as it was known before are national heritages situated in Lagos by the Federal Government because Lagos was the nation's capital. All the embassies where previously situated in Lagos as the nation's capital. The same is happening even now to Abuja. Are the original inhabitants insisting crying that Abuja has been taken over by non-indigenes? The multinationals also situated their offices in Lagos for that purpose as well as private businesses who did business with the Federal government. The 3rd mainland bridge was done by the federal government under IBB. Lagos therefore has enjoyed a special status and resultantly special benefits even if situated in Yoruba land. My grandfather who is Delta Ibo worked for the Federal Govt (in the Ports Authority in the 60's). The super permanent secretaries- Asiodu, Allison Ayida and Ahmed Joda as Federal employees were situated in Lagos which was the Federal capital and contributed greatly to its development infrastructure wise. So Lagos has become what it is today because of its special status as a former federal capital and can not suddenly revert to the property of a region. London is known today as a melting pot and if you are going into England today, you are likely to be processed by an immigration officer originally from Pakistan or India. Even yoruba's have worked elective positions in the UK . Are they told they must comply with the customs of the original Londoners? No. The o lying requirement is that they obey the laws which is no respecter of persons or tribe. We should see where Ibadan which was the previous capital of the Western Region (with no Federal input) is today and compare with Lagos. Even Caliber that used to be the headquarters of the Royal Niger Company still has the infrastructural development of that time to show. So I don't think this issue calls for Abuse but we need to properly put it in context.

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    4. Idiot your village is a no mans land.if u dont know there are aba , onitsha lagos and your village native's

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  2. Ijeoma what? you have not truly stated your last name. Let me tell, delusional or not, self-hate is not enlightenment but intense psychological complex. You sure need a doctor.

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  3. God bless ijeoma omotade...Thank you for your reply! When someday if she ever happens to become a traditional ruler, she should abandon her people and not defend her territory or the legacy of her land and ancestry. Advice! study on who an Oba is and represents in North, East, West and South before arriving at this myopic and ethnically shallow article you made up.

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  4. Chimamanda, You have never been so right. You're on point. Nice write up.

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  5. Ijeoma Omotade! Respect! Spoken like a true ambassador of peace and civility. Chimamanda I expected better.

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  6. Absolute balderdash. Allow me say that the SE is no man's land. Allow me be a public office holder in your states. Allow me be a PS in your civil service. Truth is... tribes and ethnic sentiment will always exist. Please respect our land and shut up. I am Yoruba and I don't like it if a non-indigene wants to dictate the tune in my state.

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    1. i dont no wetin una dey find about sef. u claimed to ve contributed to d development of lagos. kk, y una no develop una state. the election violence in the east says it all. how u guys like to resist change and cling the past no wonder d king feminist was quick to dig into d past.

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    2. If you have the guts, the competitive spirit and the strength, go to anty part of the East and try. Nobody will fight you and call you names. SE is more developed than most other parts of the country even without the almighty federal presence. So I encourage you to go on and live in any part of the SE you wish. Igbos, unlike other tribes, hate being dictated to, so you hardly find them dancing to the tune of so-called rulers.

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  7. By being accommodating to the point of giving an Igbo person a sensitive seat in Lagos State executive council should not be taken as an opportunity to take over a peoples land. I am sure no south east state has any Yoruba in their state exco. Though Oba's statement was a little unguarded but the root of his point remains that Lagos is not constitutionally a Freetown like Abuja. It is the home of a people and we should respect their ownership.

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    1. Aderinola Oloruntoye, why do you also talk like an idiot? Indeed tribalism is simply in Yoruba blood and we see you manifesting it even unconsciously here! "...the root of his point remains that Lagos is not constitutionally a Freetown like Abuja. It is the home of a people and we should respect their ownership". So what has that got to do with the idiotic statement of the chaff? And you think also that this "Mega City" called Lagos can be anything without the Igbos? I don't blame you at all! I blame my brothers who senselessly keep investing their resources over there even while leaving their fatherland desolate. We now have the Igbos seeking elective positions in Yoruba land--thus still living under the old illusion of One Nigeria. If the Yorubas do this in the Igbos' land--I mean seek elective positions--the Igbos will simply appreciate it, because we are naturally lovers of strangers. But the Yorubas?The truth is that the Yorubas are haters of strangers. They only love and respect themselves, but have absolutely no regard for strangers--in fact, they behave like real animals towards strangers! It is high time the Igbos left Yoruba land, which is simply a really enemies' land.

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    2. You miss the point here. The Oba thtreastened to throw them into the lagoon if the APC candidate lost the election. So he wanted to force everyone to vote for APC? What a joke. Are we in a Zombie Republic?

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  8. If you dont want peace by all pleasure start a war. If that will drive your point. You dont seem to appreciate lagos present state. I will advice you should spend a month in the northern state may be you will embrace peace.

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  9. IJEOMA are right. Every tribe in this country is rooted in NEPOTISM and TRIBALISM even our CONSTITUTION! And yet we say one NIGERIA. But our hearts embrace tribalism. May God bless NIGERIA. Only God knows how to fix this nation. Our founding fathers(nationalists) were the originators of these woes. This is a foundation thing and we are busy building a new nigeria founded on TRIBALISM AND NEPOTISM. Let's fix our foundation first before any other thing. let's go back to our CONSTITUTION and amend it.

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  10. Some folks just have a victim mentality and, they sulk and and wail when something is done against them. Every other tribe are guilty but yours is "holy". The Oba was wrong to have spoken in that manner, he was upset and didn't choose his words carefully, coupled with bad timing(eve of election). Well if you guys want to stretch your pity party till December, carry on. My advice either you guys grow up and stop poking at your scar/stitches and or you continue you macabre dance.


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  11. it is now even more cleare to me...Nigeria is not a nation yet...Ada Mazi may your ink never dry.

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  12. Please what of those Lagosians with Brazilian descent? Bank Anthony, Da Silva, Fernando families. How did they integrate into the Lagos society without so much hate on them or they fell from heaven. It's funny that one day we will all this life and appear before God. He won't ask anyone of us whether we are Yorubas or Igbos. Mtcheeeeew..

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