Letter from Africa: Playing the ethnic card

  • 20 August 2013
  • From the section Africa
  • comments
Igbo chiefs in Ogidi, Nigeria, on 23 May 2013

In our series of letters from African journalists, Sola Odunfa in Lagos writes about how ethnicity is exploited in Nigeria to win political support.

I laughed in amazement shortly after an otherwise well-informed friend living abroad telephoned to alert me about a serious political crisis about to burst in Nigeria.

He said that the Igbo people of the south-east and the Yoruba of the south-west were smarting for war over alleged maltreatment meted to some Igbo people residing in Lagos, the commercial capital.

He said the matter was already dominating social media sites.

I asked what the meat of the matter was. My anxious friend explained that some Igbo persons were "deported" from Lagos to the south-eastern town of Onitsha in Anambra State and abandoned at a dangerous roadside.

My friend said that the angry governor of Anambra had sent a strongly worded protest letter to President Goodluck Jonathan over the matter.

"All Igbo people were angry," he added.

"Is that all," I asked? "You too have been conned," I told him and burst into laughter.

He was surprised. "So that's all you will say," he demanded to know.


I then told him that I heard the story when it first hit the airwaves two weeks earlier. The accounts available from Anambra were so disjointed that I did not find them credible.

Were the "deportees" 62 or 73? Did they travel in a passenger bus or a goods lorry?

Image caption Most people in Onitsha belong to the minority Igbo ethnic group

Where exactly in Onitsha were they driven to - a roadside or motor park? They arrived at 03:00 or thereabout and by day-break they were being attended to by Nigerian Red Cross officers in front of press and TV cameras!

Suddenly, it occurred to me that there would be elections for governor of Anambra in two months' time.

The governing party at federal level, the People's Democratic Party (PDP), had launched a strong campaign to oust the All Progressives Grand Alliance (Apga) of outgoing governor Peter Obi from power in the state.

Also, a new opposition party, the All Progressive Congress (APC), had joined the fray.

So, the governor fell back on a line which was sure to resonate with the justifiably angry electorate: Igbo people were being persecuted in Lagos and he was standing up in their defence! I don't know of a better election winner.

The governor of Lagos state, Babatunde Fashola, who ordered the evacuation of the people, has since come out with his side of the story.

According to him, the number of people involved was 14 and he listed them.

'Rich versus poor'

He said that the state had been in correspondence with the government in Anambra since April over the issue.

Image caption Beggars risk being "deported" from cities

He described the action of his government in transporting the 14 - described in reports as beggars and people who were destitute - as "integration" with their families and not "deportation".

And now, as I was sure it would, the matter has died down in the media.

The ethnic warriors have stood down. Mr Obi's Apga party is cruising towards the election with some more confidence.

Meanwhile, the more important constitutional issue of the freedom of Nigerians within Nigeria has been swept under the carpet.

Soon, the federal government will "abduct" poor people and the destitute from the streets of the capital, Abuja, and send them away.

State governments - all of them - are doing this in the name of urban renewal.

As it is, only the rich and comfortable are guaranteed the enjoyment of freedom of movement, of residency and of speech stated in Nigeria's constitution.

The rest of us are at the mercy of the various governments.

Ethnicity has little or nothing to do with it. It is a case of the elite versus the rest, the rich versus the poor.

Correction 4 September 2013: An earlier version of this article stated that Peter Obi was seeking re-election as governor of Anambra state. The story has been amended as he will be standing down after serving two terms in office.

If you would like to comment on Sola Odunfa's column, please do so below.

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites