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“To Be Igbo In Nigeria Is Constantly To Be Suspect” Chimamanda Adichie Writes On The Oba Of Lagos [MUST READ Op-ED]



by Chimamanda Adichie

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.


Article Chimamanda Adichie, Award winning Nigerian writer, originally published by OlisaTV..


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  1. yommy

    2015/04/11 at 1:03 pm

    It is either you r not a student of history, lost your thinking cap or your not been objective. The write up is totally bias…

  2. Chijioke

    2015/04/11 at 2:23 pm

    I am not a huge fan of Chimamanda, but am completely in agreement on these issues and the clarity with which she has conveyed them. It is unfortunate that right from independence, most of our so-called leaders have never considered Nigeria as a nation. Rather, it has suited them to regard it as a collection of ethnic groups. And how well have they exploited this feeling for their own selfish interests.

  3. Alausa Ademola

    2015/04/11 at 5:13 pm

    Religion, culture and politics are what really defines a people. Lagos might be receptive of all tribes and culture. Infact it amuses Lagosians to experience other cultures. That doesn’t mean we don’t have cultures and tradition peculiar to us. If a friend obliges me a space in his house , I shouldnt be so insensitive to the extent of claiming I have equal rights as him in his house, pick holes in his religion and culture. My Igbo cousins should stop the insults- Lagos is the land of my forefathers.

    • Kenny G

      2015/04/12 at 8:11 pm

      You don’t own Lagos sir, sorry to break the news to you. Nigeria belongs to all Nigerians. Thank you.

    • Lawal

      2015/04/13 at 12:51 pm

      Hope you have been told, “Lagos is not your property” You were born into it, and one day you will leave it behind..
      Leave ownership to God…
      One love…

    • Olusegun

      2015/04/13 at 10:50 pm

      You need to groom an open mind bro…cause I sense so much hate in you still and I pray people like you don’t get hold of power; it will definitely corrupt you beyond what you have just meted out. #LongLiveNigeria

  4. Matthew Ayeyemi

    2015/04/11 at 6:24 pm

    It’s nice to defend ones ethic group as you did here, however, I wonder why you have failed to address the main issue…. Why are igbos troubled by all other ethnic groups? Have they being treating others right? Speaking of the issue at hand- the oba’s speech- can any other ethnic group make same claim that igbos are making in Lagos in any eastern state? I doubt No…. Let’s face reality, if only igbos are the ethnic group facing trouble, suspicion, etc, let them think inward. Everybody cannot be your enemy for just being good….

    • Kenny G

      2015/04/12 at 8:14 pm

      “can any other ethnic group make same claim that igbos are making in Lagos in any eastern state?” What claim are you talking about exactly, sir?

  5. Stumpy

    2015/04/12 at 12:12 pm

    Oba was wrong. Yes I agree.

    However, our supposed Igbo Leaders accepted the insult by remaining in the meeting and even sharing kolanuts.
    As far as I am concerned, we Igbos are the ones victimizing ourselves. The only thing we are good in is business.
    Pending when we get our act together, and eliminate all those silly leaders that always sell out the Igbo nation for personal gain, let us stop shouting victimization and face our business.

    Woman wey dey waka for street with mini skirt at 12:00 midnight no fit dey complain say person call am “Ashawo”

    • Olusegun

      2015/04/13 at 10:54 pm

      Ezi okwu! The very question I asked myself… What were those ogologo akp?r? ichies searching for in Oba Rili’s obi?!

  6. Gbenga

    2015/04/12 at 1:19 pm

    What the Oba said was probably one of the worst things he could have said last week and it should be condemned in all quarters.

    I find it hard to believe Igbos feel unsafe in Lagos. Maybe I haven’t spoken to enough or those who I interact with are not a good reflection of what it means to be Igbo and also Nigerian. Having said that, I have no right to question anyone’s judgement of their personal safety (Never knew Chinua Achebe left Lagos cos he felt unsafe thought he just retired to his village) just as I think no one has any right to question my judgement of my personal safety as a black man living in the United States.

    I also do not fault those who voted overwhelmingly for Jonathan because they had a right to their votes, however my question to them was this “Are you better now than you were 6 years ago when Jonathan became president? Is Nigeria less corrupt? Is food cheaper? Has our reputation as a nation been enhanced by his presidency? Are we more secure as a nation?” (BTW The last question might not apply to my Southeastern brothers because BH was in the Northeast). If the answer to majority of those questions is No, then it is hard to justify voting for him again and then thats where the tribal nature of their votes comes in. Yes the guys in the North and SW most likely voted for Buhari cos of tribe but it is also easy to see that irrespective of tribe, we were all tired of the ineptitude that Jonathan had displayed. In any case, if your vote was on tribal lines just own it. It is your vote and the beauty of democracy is that you can do what you like with it including not exercise it.

    I am beginning to see that Igbos feel very marginalized in the Nigerian state and something needs to be done soon. What that is is hard to tell. The Nigerian state and Ndigbo need to figure out how to fix this marriage. One thing I know for sure is that increased economic empowerment has to be one of the tenets of that solution (although I am sure every part of Nigeria can make that argument for themselves as well). I do not think having a SE president is necessarily part of that solution because Jonathan didn’t necessarily prioritize the SE/SS when he was president. I also don’t think Biafra is a solution either however if the feeling of disenchantment I perceive is that high, perhaps a discussion on having a referendum might be worth it. Again that might be more divisive than anything in the long run but sweeping it under the carpet I don’t think is the right solution. We need to work hard towards a more perfect union.

    I served in Enugu and had a great time in the Ebeano state. I will hate to see igboland not be part of Nigeria.

    • Tim

      2015/04/12 at 9:57 pm

      Please see comment below Gbenga.

    • Roasties

      2015/04/14 at 5:37 am

      Gbenga, excellent response and I cannot but agree with what you have stated. The only area of disagreement is on the issue that voting for Jonathan may have been on tribal sentiments.

      If you understand the Ibo’s and what they have gone through following the civil war and after, the tendency for them to feel alienated from Nigeria is better appreciated. That being the case, anyone from the South will in the first instance be their choice. Don’t forget that the South East voted overwhelmingly for OBJ twice. Jonathan is also not from the South East and they voted for him even though there were two Ibo candidates during the Presidential election.

      If you look at the history of the Ibo man more in depth, I think you may now understand them better and then appreciate some of the choices that they make.

      I hope this helps.

  7. Tim

    2015/04/12 at 9:56 pm

    Gbenga, what makes you think people from the SE and SS didn’t adjudged GEJ to have performed well to deserve a second term? Or hasn’t it occurred to you that some people do not just like GMB because of his past deeds? Thus the votes from these regions may just be anything else other than tribalism and religion. I mean the majority of votes because you would definitely have people who voted on sentiments. I’m wondering why this particular focus isn’t on the North and SW?

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