Behind Recent Ethnic Conflict in Lagos

David Altman altman_d at SPAMhotmail.com
Fri Dec 3 13:46:17 MST 1999



Subscribers to this list may have read recently of ethnic conflicts in
Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria and the center of the Yoruba nationality
(or "tribe," as it is often incorrectly called).  These conflicts pit
Yorubas against Hausa traders from the northern part of the country.
Northerners have dominated the Nigerian government ever since Independence
in 1960.  The recent conflicts seem to have been provoked by a faction of a
movement called the Oodua People's Congress.  The OPC calls for the
independence of the Yoruba regions from Nigeria, or at the very least,
reorganizing Nigeria along the lines of an "ethnic confederation."  The OPC
has been involved in a number of conflicts like this recently - against
Ijaws from the Niger Delta in Lagos, for instance, and other groups.
Predictably this has led to retaliation against Yoruba immigrants by those
groups in other parts of Nigeria.

People who have read articles I have written in APST know that I consider
"Nigeria" an historical abortion that was set up for the benefit of
imperialism and not the peoples within it.  I might mention that my wife is
an Igbo, a group which tried to secede from Nigeria as the Republic of
Biafra in the late 1960's.  So I'm no fan of "Nigerian Unity," particularly
one which is imposed by force.  I'm sympathetic to the desire of the Yoruba
for self-determination or even independence if they so choose.

What's obvious, however, is the OPC is a racist and even fascistic
organization which promotes ethnic cleansing and attacks against
non-Yorubas.  Apparently they do this with the full knowledge that this will
lead to attacks on Yorubas elsewhere, resulting in an endless cycle of
retribution.

There has been a tendency in recent years toward describing conflicts in
Nigeria in "racial"  terms - talk of the "Igbo race,"  "Yoruba race,"
"Ogoni race,"  etc.  Couple this with tendencies toward Islamic
fundamentalism in the North (one northern state recently voted to impose
Sharia and is sending 1200 "volunteers" to Saudi Arabia to learn how to
implement it) and it's apparent that Nigerian "unity" is on shaky ground.

The OPC is apparently a large and growing movement which has many
connections with more "mainstream" Yoruba politicians who were active in the
"pro-democracy movement" under the regime of the late Sani Abacha.  I
believe we will be hearing more about this organization in the future.  For
this reason I am re-posting for List subscribers an article I posted in APST
earlier this year.  It is from the Lagos newspaper "Tempo" (via
http://www.africanews.org) & is the best explanation I have read so far of
the OPC's views and aims.

----------

Tempo 26 Ijaiye Road, Ogba, Ikeja, Nigeria, or P.M.B. 21531, Ikeja, Lagos,
Nigeria Tel: 920975/ 4924998 | Fax: 4924998/ 4923710

Nationalists Or Vandals?

March 11, 1999; Lagos - What do the militants of the Oodua People's Congress
want? Who are their backers? Ebelo Goodluck provides some answers.

On a pew sit these men in an open space. All of them grey at the right
places. Across, tens of young men sit on the bare ground, their legs folded.
All are clearly riveted to one of the elders who has the floor. A few women
intersperse this conclave of men. Behind the men, a white flag with an
imprint of the famous Ife bronze head in black flutters on a flagpole.
Arched across the flag is the legend: Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC). Welcome
to a meeting of the Iyesi zone of the OPC, Sango-Ota, Ogun State. Apart from
other minor matters, the crucial point of the meeting is the initiation of
new members. The languid pace of the elder's speech underlies the solemnity
of the occasion. As he speaks, his eyes dart over across the faces that sit
before him to rest on a basin in between. The basin is full of water,
reputedly from Ile-Ife, the cradle of the Yoruba race. But also in this same
basis are assorted items: a short Dane gun, machete, knife, a wooden staff,
and what appears to be a bullet. Aside these ones that can be easily
discerned are charms, some of which are in fist-size calabashes, others in
arm's length stuffed animal horns. Part of this frightening concoction is a
liquid said to be concentrated acid. The elder has a long animal horn in his
hand and punctuates his speech by flipping his tongue on the crimson red
mouth of the horn. What the elder has been telling his audience amounts to a
code of conduct for the movement. The code involves an emphatic 'no' to
crime- stealing, fighting, disturbing public peace with impunity. The elder
is done and a youth gets up, dusts his behind and moves forward through the
space that separates the elders from the youths.  By his own mouth, he
disavows all criminal acts and calls on the gods to visit him with death if
he indulges in them. From here he move on and pledges his loyalty to the
Oodua nation. What he says is to the end that he is prepared to defend his
Yoruba race from all manner of marginalisation and to make his body and soul
available to fight for the realisation of a republic for his ethnic
nationality if need be."

He then drinks from the barrel of a gun and recites the pledge: Oodua ni mi
t'okan t'okan (literally meaning, I am an Oodu'a progeny body and soul). He
takes his place in the sand. Others take their turn and soon the ceremony is
over. As part of these rites of passage, they are also taught pass words and
identity codes. The miscellany of items in the basin represents the sobering
hazards of the job he has just sworn to perform. Having gone through a
rigorous selection process that is concluded with his grim initiation, an
OPC member comes into the outside world better equipped for his special
role. He is never cowered by the sight of a gun nor would a slash of the
machete draws blood. In fact, he has conquered fear and demands a
corresponding respect from the perceived oppressors of his tribe.

An OPC member in full gear is quite a sight. Expectedly, myths of
invincibility swirls round him. On his wrist is a red piece of cloth with a
cowrie adorning it. Another red band circles his head. In his hand is a
staff. This is usually wooden and at times, it could be metal. Those who top
off their regalia with a cap are the moving encyclopaedia of Yoruba charms.
Of all these articles of clothing, none stands out the OPC members like the
white handkerchief he holds and swings regularly above his head. The red
wrist band is said to warn him of impending danger, while the staff could
fatally incapacitate anybody it is pointed at in a dangerous situation. The
white handkerchief comes in handy when he is shot at: the kerchief simply
deflects all bullets and the holders walks off! Every OPC group has its own
police. These ones generally keep law and order strictly to OPC's group
objectives. And, when they venture into the street, chanting songs, a member
could be seen carrying a bunch of willow canes. If they are accosted by the
police or any form of authority and matters verge on confrontation, as they
nearly always do, the bunch is quickly distributed among the members. With
these, they confront armed policemen. And, according to them, anyone that
gets a lashing would or fall to the ground in the grip of strange disease
that he may find difficult to cure.

They operate a common pool of charms. Everyone that has a particular charm
donates to the common wheal. All these charms reinforce one another. They do
have incisions (gbere) on their skin too. But this is not generalised. Those
that carry such incisions have it running down from their shoulders and it
terminates midway at the elbow where a ring of incisions circles the biceps.
Given all these, how does the female OPC member cope? In the OPC, gender
does not come with a handicap. Two weeks ago, at the decaying Isheri-Olofin
Town Hall in the Idimu area of Lagos, where the OPC enjoys having its
'World' press conferences, a female member, barred a female reporter from
the hall. Even though she was shown the invitation letter, it took some
persuasion to get her off the way. The womenfolk here range from young girls
to women who still put to birth and those clearly beyond menopause.  They
partake in all rites. When asked what particular effect has her menstrual
period on her membership, a female member simply says, "none".

The OPC member is quite aware that people scoff at his claim of
invincibility. But it is something he thinks only the ignoramus should
indulge in. The Nigeria Police Force takes the claims seriously. It has
declared a war on the congress. The police admits that its zone 'D'
headquarters was torched by the members of the congress through conventional
means, but the Oodua folks say just a fresh egg that split on impact against
the wall ignited the fire. While many police officers go to work with
another top hiding their uniform, many had stayed off the checkpoints along
the trouble spots.

Membership of the group can be divided into the basic groups - the educated
and the illiterate. The illiterate - the bulk of the movement, consists of
bricklayers, masons, touts, drivers, farmers and other artisans. The
educated are mainly professionals.  Even though they attend all important
meetings and participate to all decision- making, they sometimes stay away
from Oodua public activities except when the congress was at the airport to
welcome Professor Wole Soyinka and Chief Gani Fawehinmi home, some time last
year. But to an OPC member, this categorisation is artificial as they are
all- literate and illiterate - united in the cause of liberating the Yoruba
ethnic nationality.

The OPC funds itself. Even though it receives generous donations from rich
members, it demands a mandatory contribution of N5 from members at each
meeting.  Aware of its meagre resource base, it has kept its projects
modest. The congress boasts a rich repertoire of songs. These songs deal on
various aspects of the movement's agenda-some, like the anthem, is a
statement of avowal and loyalty to the destiny of the Yoruba people, while
others taunts those it regards as its oppressors - the ruling class,
perceptively situated in the land of the Hausa/Fulani.

As the case may demand, names of individuals could be substituted at will
drawing on a tradition of improvisation in the rendition of songs in the
public domain. Songs also came with a lot of confusion for the untutored ear
but remain codified messages to its members. The Oodua People Congress is a
baby of Frederick Fasehun - the Ondo-born physician. It never disguised its
agenda right from the very beginning: "the Yoruba nation has been brutalised
and marginalised. . .The aims and objectives of OPC was to foster Yoruba
unity so that they do not speak with discordant voices," said Fasehun. Since
1994, it kept to the shadows making public appearances during rallies to
protest Gen. Sani Abacha's tyranny. Even at such rallies, its choice of
costume clearly stood it out. It resisted the urge to transform its enormous
following at the grassroots into a political party at the beginning of Gen.
Abdulsalami Abubakar's transition programme but cast its lot under the
amorphous banner of "socio-cultural organisation." But that is quite an
intellectual term to describe a pain that is real and ever present. And,
here the cut runs deep.

Members of the Oodua Peoples Congress trace back the genesis of their
organisation through the general frustration in the land to the misrule of
the northern oligarchy that has had the reins of power since independence.
Even though a sizeable chunk of the youths were still feeding on their bibs
at the time, they blame events such as the Western Region crisis on attempts
by powers outside the region to run their lives for them.

If the outcome of the controversial 1979 presidential election in which the
late Chief Obafemi Awolowo lost the presidency to Alhaji Shehu Shagari on
the two-thirds of 19 puzzle represented another hiding the Yoruba look from
their northern competitors, the Oodua see the annulment of the June 12, 1993
presidential election won by Chief M.K.O. Abiola as the ultimate insult they
could get from the oligarchy. In the nadir of their frustration, Abiola, the
flame of their struggle, died mysteriously in detention. In the mind of the
OPC member, Abiola's life was taken to pave way for the introduction of the
current transition programme. These are the deep wells from which the
fundamentals that undergid the movement spring. Millions of their kinsmen
share in their frustration and had given them more than a sympathetic nod
and hardly disavow the movement in public.

The claimed political leader of the Yoruba, Senator Abraham Adesanya
underlines the convergence in thought of the mainstream Yoruba movement and
OPC. "If the OPC is saying that they are marginalised and oppressed, do you
agree? If you do, then it is not just perceived. I haven't any doubt in my
mind that there is marginalisation of the Yoruba." This shared frustration
is where the OPC, Afenifere congruity stops. While the Afenifere believes
that participation rather than boycotting the transition programme and other
civic and political responsibilities is the best way out of the spot, the
ethnic nationality finds itself, the far more radical advocates a total
boycott. This sharp division was evident when Yoruba leaders gathered at
Premier Hotel, Ibadan, last August to chart a political course for the
Yoruba.

Although the mainstream Afenifere carried the day, the likes of Dr.
Frederick Fasehun, Comrade Ola Oni and Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti just did not go
home licking their wounds. They kept their principled opposition to the
transition. This strengthened the resolve of the OPC to undermine the
federal authorities or as they would put it, protect their race against the
manipulations of the power- mongers. Though it refused to take to the bush
to confront the Nigerian government, it began showing unmistakable signs of
its preparedness to resist acts of oppression in the future. The police
authorities seemed prepared for this. OPC was officially branded a terrorist
organisation. Before its current battle with the force, there have been a
spate of skirmishes with the police suffering humiliation in the hands of
the better-organised OPC.

But the police seem to be on a killing spree. It arrests, and in many cases
administer jungle justice on the spot on youths it calls OPC members. The
organisation denies such members because all OPC operatives are insured
against the weapons of the police force. Given its wide catchment area and
the fact that its founder was hounded into jail by the Abacha junta, the OPC
is factionalised. Even though they all agree on the fundamentals, there are
serious differences on its modus operandi. Some believe that the OPC should
engage the Nigerian authorities in street battles while others think that,
given its burgeoning membership, the OPC remains a potent pressure group
capable of achieving its goals without resorting to violence.

Beyond the operational differences are matters that are financial and here
the details are messier. The faction led by Gani Adamson accuses Dr. Fasehun
of collecting $1.3 million from foreign governments, N20 million from
General Obasanjo and N5 million each from Chief Olu Falae, Alhaji Rasaq
Akanni Okoya (Eleganza), Prince Sam Adedoyin and Alhaji Wahab Folawiyo.
Fasehun denies this. He counter alleges that the Gani Adamson faction had
raised a N7 million fund from OPC branches across the country which it is
yet to account for. Dependable sources close to the OPC state that though an
unidentified woman arranged a meeting between Obasanjo and Fasehun, the OPC
leader left the meeting reaffirming his group's opposition to the
transition. "He told Obasanjo that the OPC will never support the
transition." Also, sources close to the meeting aver that though Fasehun
left Obasanjo's place without collecting a dime, the lady who brokered the
meeting was said to have later gone back to collect a draft which never got
to Fasehun.

For some time, the allegations and counter-allegations have remained a
diversion for the group's and threatening its much- acclaimed cohesion. All
these appear good news to the Nigerian authorities who have their hands full
dealing with similarly- extremely radical groups such as the Ijaw Youth
Council (IYC), in the Niger Delta. Taken as a whole, these movements express
deep anger at the way resources are allocated in the Nigerian project.
Either in such pressure cooker issues like oil revenue, VAT, appointments in
the civil service and choice postings in the armed and security forces, the
system, to them, rankle. And, this remains the platform on which their anger
appears to rest.

Compared to other liberation movements elsewhere in Africa like those of
Kenya and Eritrea before it, the Nigerian movements seem to be in the
process of internal reordering.  Their potentials to some of them, if not
capable of achieving their expressed goals, could be fatally-injurious to
the super federating power. This seems the source of their resilience,
according to some keen watchers of the unfolding phenomenon.Abuja has
meanwhile kept a studied silence in public on the OPC affair largely because
it does not want to be seen declaring another crackdown on the Yoruba people
after Abacha's five trying years for the ethnic nationality.

But sources close to Aso Rock reveal that Abuja is just as worried about the
OPC as it is of the Ijaw Youth Council and may have greenlighted the
police's crackdown. The sources also alert that in the days to come if OPC
proves to have enough internal resilience and dynamism to suck in the police
attack, Abuja would have no option but to treat the matter as a threat
against the federation. This is said to be the current line of reasoning in
Aso Rock and other centres of power across the land while the managers of
the present arrangement wait with keen interest. Additional reports from
Joke Hassan, Nkiru Nwokediuku, Seyi Oduyela, Jeje Adebayo and Friday Olokor
Publication Date: March 18, 1999

Copyright © 1999 Tempo. Distributed via Africa News
Online(www.africanews.org).

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