Nigeria 2023: Ethnic tension rises in Lagos as Peter Obi targets Tinubu’s empire

By Eniola Akinkuotu

Posted on Monday, 20 February 2023 16:14
Campaign billboard of candidate of Labour Party Peter Obi and running mate Datti Baba-Ahmed displayed at Aguru in Anambra State, southeast Nigeria, on February 17, 2023. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

For 23 years Bola Tinubu has run the politics of Lagos State as the undisputed godfather. But the rising popularity of Peter Obi especially among non-indigenes of the state has intensified tribal tensions in the country’s commercial capital ahead of this week’s election. 

Traders in Gbara community, Eti Osa local government area of Lagos State were recently summoned to a meeting by the traditional and political leaders where they were threatened with eviction if they failed to vote for Tinubu’s All Progressives Congress (APC) in the upcoming elections.

In the audio clip posted on Twitter by journalist David Hundeyin which has since been authenticated by the police, the community leaders who are Yoruba, pointedly asked the traders – who are mostly non-Yoruba indigenes – to take photographs of their ballot papers as proof that they actually voted for the APC, adding that failure to do so could mean their shops getting shut. 

“For you to continue to do business here we must see who you are voting for. When you are voting, you must snap the party you are voting for. It’s a secret ballot. When you vote, take your phone and snap the party you are voting for. If we do not see APC there, you are in trouble. We will fight,” said one of the politicians. Police are investigating.  

Ethnic tension 

Although the original dwellers of Lagos are of the Yoruba ethnic stock, the state has a large population of non-Yoruba speakers, especially Igbos, due to its status as the nation’s commercial nerve centre and former capital.  

Although all tribes live harmoniously in Lagos State due to its cosmopolitan nature, election season is usually different as politicians and traditional leaders seek to exploit ethnic frontiers for personal gain. 

In 2015, the most influential monarch in Lagos, Rilwan Akiolu, threatened to lay curses on Igbos in the state if they failed to vote for his preferred candidate, Akinwunmi Ambode, of the APC. 

“If anyone of you, I swear in the name of God, goes against my wish that Ambode will be the next governor of Lagos State, the person is going to die inside this water,” he said while addressing some Igbo leaders he had summoned to his palace. 

For you to continue to do business here we must see who you are voting for. When you are voting, you must snap the party you are voting for … If we do not see APC there, you are in trouble. We will fight.

He warned them not to go against the wishes of the Yoruba people in Lagos State who have decided that they want the APC. The monarch further warned the Igbo leaders that when in Rome, they should act like the Romans. 

“I am not begging anybody, but what you people cannot do in Onitsha, Aba or anywhere, don’t do it here. If you do what I want, Lagos will continue to be prosperous for you. If you go against my wish, you will perish in the water,” he said. 

But the king’s threat was ignored as five of the 20 local governments – which are mostly inhabited by Igbos – voted overwhelmingly against the APC. 

In the 2019 election as well, the Okota area of Oshodi/Isolo local government area which has a large Igbo population witnessed electoral violence as thugs believed to be working for the ruling party overturned ballot boxes. 

Even now, the Okota area remains tense. Ahead of the 2023 Presidential poll, residents of Okota staged a protest, accusing the electoral commission of voter suppression by denying them their voter cards without which they would not be allowed to vote. 

The protesters, who are mostly Igbo from the southeast, subsequently wrote a petition to the electoral commission, accusing the local authority of voter suppression. So far, more than 18,000 people have signed a petition on Change.Org demanding the removal of Olusegun Agbaje, the head of the electoral commission in Lagos for alleged voter suppression and ethnic bigotry. 

Tinubu vs Obi 

Lagos has more than 20 million residents, out of which more than seven million are registered voters. These voters are a mix of several tribes which means they never vote in one direction, unlike more homogenous states where bloc votes are given to one candidate. For this reason, Lagos is often targeted by politicians as a swing state. In 2015, while Muhammadu Buhari of the APC garnered 792,460 votes, the PDP’s President Goodluck Jonathan got 632,327, a difference of 160,133. 

Similarly, in 2019, while Buhari polled 580,825 votes, Atiku Abubakar of the PDP got 448,015 votes, a difference of 132,810.  

This time around, Tinubu will be on the ballot and thus wants to win by a landslide. The Lagos godfather has a huge base in the state, especially among the uneducated Yoruba in the informal sector. They are largely concentrated in about 14 of the 20 local governments. 

However, five local councils namely- Surulere, Amuwo Odofin, Oshodi/Isolo, Ajeromi/Ifelodun and Ojo have a large Igbo population, many of whom will be expected to vote for Obi.  

Ethnic and religious sentiments

Another local government, Eti Osa, which comprises highbrow areas like Victoria Island, Lekki and Ikoyi districts, is considered a ‘swing council’ because it has a large number of educated youths and upper-middle-class professionals who are unlikely to vote based on ethnic and religious sentiments. Eti Osa also happens to have the highest number of newly registered voters in Lagos. 

With the election just days away, ethnic politics is now being played up by both sides. Some Yoruba who have decided to vote against Tinubu are branded as traitors ditto for some Igbo working against Obi. 

“I am Igbo and I am supporting Tinubu but I dare not say it publicly in order not to incur the wrath of my people. They are passionate about Obi because the last time an Igbo man ruled Nigeria was 1966 and so most Igbos believe it is their turn to produce the next President,” an Igbo APC leader in Lagos tells The Africa Report. 

Tinubu himself has at various rallies attacked Obi for living in Lagos, threatening to send him back to the southeast. 

“Peter Obi lives in Lagos, not in Anambra. He doesn’t know the road. We will return him to Anambra. We will chart him a new course,” he said at a rally. 

Obi, who seeks to get at least 40% of Lagos votes, has campaigned in the state more than any other part of the southwest. He recently campaigned in Lagos for four straight days where he visited several markets dominated by Igbos. He, however, claims not to be doing it to whip up sentiments. 

Some of the markets he visited include Computer Village, Ikeja; Ladipo Auto Spare Part Market; and Alaba International Market where he received a hero’s welcome to the chagrin of the ruling APC in the state. 

During one of such campaigns, Obi’s supporters were stabbed by thugs while vehicles bearing the Labour Party sticker were vandalised. They allege that these thugs are loyal to the ruling APC. 

Social media 

On social media, ethnic tension has also been palpable. Lagos-based musician, Olawale Ashimi, who goes by the stage name, Brymo, set Twitter alight last month when he tweeted, “F*ck the Ndi Igbos (Igbo people), to hell with it.”  

Brymo, who is a staunch Tinubu supporter, was heavily criticised on social media, causing over 28,000 people to sign a petition to disqualify the singer from the All Africa Music Award (AAMA). He later apologised for his comment, insisting that he was responding to cyberbullies. 

Online comedian, Debo Adedayo aka Mr Macaroni, who is from the southwest and has over 10 million followers across social media platforms, says he has also been called a bastard for supporting Obi. 

“The moment I said Peter Obi is the candidate that I will cast my vote for, I have been subjected to all sorts of attacks and insults by APC supporters. Calling me a bastard does not change the fact that Peter Obi is my choice. Cry today, tomorrow and forever,” he tweeted. 

Both the UK and the US have threatened to impose sanctions on politicians found to be stoking violence. Will this be sufficient to calm frayed nerves? 

In a chat with The Africa Report, Sam Amadi, an Associate Professor and Director at Abuja School of Social and Political Thoughts, said the recourse to ethnic sentiments had become normal in Lagos politics. 

Amadi, however, said there was a need for security agencies to protect the voting rights of people. 

“I think people will defy these threats. It is an old antic of some of these traditional establishments in Lagos. The police need to arrest those making threats and ensure voters are protected. No one should be forced to reveal who they voted for. That is the height of voter suppression,” he says. 

Earlier, Charles Omole, the Director General of the Institute for Police and Security Policy Research, told The Africa Report that Lagos would likely witness tribal violence on the day of the election. 

Omole said: “I am concerned that elections in Lagos may end up being violent especially if you look at a detailed study of elections in Lagos in the last 20 years.   

“The Igbo in Lagos don’t usually vote or their votes are usually suppressed but Peter Obi on the ballot means more Igbo people in Lagos will want to vote. This will trigger more tension between the Yoruba and the Igbo.”

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