In 1964, the late dramatist and actor, Herbert Ogunde, produced a play, Yoruba Ronu (Yoruba, think!), which cast a disapproving glance at the political strife that had then engulfed the old Western Region. Since then, the term has been adapted and used by film-makers, intellectuals and politicians to urge the Yoruba to rethink their position within Nigerian politics and the society. I am using it here merely to suggest how we might make sense of what is going on in the South-West today.
The political temperature in the South-West has been rising steadily over the past two years. The embers of #EndSARS, which itself had long turned into something else, have still not died out in Lagos. Calls for ‘restructuring’ and secession to Oduduwa Republic are growing more strident among intellectuals and ethnic champions alike. News reports of famers-herders clashes in the region have become so frequent and hysterical in recent months that you might think all the Fulani in Nigeria had relocated there. In Kwara, a state which has its head in the North, but its heart in the South-West, religious tension is brewing under the surface over what female students can or cannot wear to school. Across the region, an ethnic militia stands guard in the garb of state police. Meanwhile, a pliant regional media is fanning all of these fires.
Nigerians in the South-West and the rest of the country will do well to pay careful attention to all these seemingly disparate events. First, whenever the South-West gets too hot and boils over, it tends not to end well for the whole country, as in the 1960s, and to a lesser extent, the early 1990s. Second, the growing disquiet in the South-West is qualitatively different from the conflicts in other parts of Nigeria today. The North, for example, has been ravaged by self-inflicted religious crisis, a deadly insurgency, and now rising banditry. But the effects of these have largely stayed within. On the other hand, the sort of thing that happened at Sasha market in Ibadan recently could easily escalate across all the country.
Third, the South-West has in fact been relatively the most politically stable and peaceful part of Nigeria throughout this dispensation. So we should all be concerned when the political temperature there is building because such rumbles could be priming a people for something sinister that will then be ignited by even the slightest spark, as happened at Sasha market. So what is happening in the South-West? Any answer for what is going on in the South-West today must take a peep into its past.
Nigerian politics today and the place of the Yoruba within that politics are vastly different from that which Ogunde invited his audiences to reflect upon six decades ago. The Western Region itself, and the First Republic, of which it was a part, are now both defunct. In their place, we now have the Fourth Republic and six states. The key political actors have also changed. Chiefs Obafemi Awolowo and Ladoke Akintola and the political alliances they formed dominated Yoruba politics of the 1960s. Today, the brewing political conflict is between the rival factions of Chief Bola Tinubu and those of ‘God-Knows-Who.’
Yet, Yoruba politics within Nigeria has not changed since the 1950s, which then, as now, has been defined by three tendencies. The first is the collective desire and ambition to control federal power in Nigeria. This is legitimate and justified because all other regions of Nigeria, however defined, also want the same thing. But the ambition to control power at the centre is cancelled out by an equally deeply engrained and collective instinct in the South-West to withdraw from Nigeria’s political centre. The third tendency is the need to have only one person from the South-West to lead the rest of the pack, both at home and at the federal political table.
These three political attitudes are clearly incompatible. The first two are fundamental questions of southwestern politics; the third a question of strategy. But taken together, they provide a useful framework through which, in my view, we can approach and understand Yoruba politics within Nigeria, in the past, or now, and explain much of political behaviour within the region itself, as well as in its political intercourse with the rest of the country.
The inherent conflict between the collective need to control Nigeria’s political centre but also to simultaneously withdraw from it when things don’t go well determine, to a large extent, how the South-West behaves politically in relation to other parts of Nigeria, while the question of who leads the pack, both at home and beyond, determines local politics within the region itself. Unfortunately, no one has yet successfully resolved any of these three issues, but some have tried.
Chief Awolowo, for all his political wisdom and sagacity, could not resolve this contradiction. Four times he sought to lead Nigeria as prime minister or president from a solely regional political platform, roles that, it must be said, he was probably best suited for among his peers. But he lacked the numerical strength to win an outright majority, and even more significantly, he was unwilling or unable, or both, to make the necessary compromises and shifting of grounds at home that being part of a coalition government inevitably requires. The result is political failure, even if it was cast off with a veneer of respectability as ‘opposition politics’.
But since being in opposition is not exactly an achievement in politics, this was political failure, nonetheless. Moreover, the late sage could not resolve the strategic question of the need for a single Supreme Political Leader for the Yoruba. Throughout his long political career, he was challenged first by Ladoke Akintola and later by others who thought that direct participation with other parts of Nigeria at the centre is the only route to federal power and its benefits.
One such challenger is former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who himself tried to force the South-West from a regional political enclave to the federal table. He came to power in 1999 through the votes of other Nigerians and without the support of the Alliance for Democracy (AD), a regional party in the South-West that had almost no representation anywhere else. To change this in 2003, Obasanjo took five of the six states in the South-West, using the ‘federal might’, for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), a national party with representation everywhere in Nigeria but his own home of the South-West.
This worked for a while. But his attempt to make himself the supreme political leader of the Yoruba did not, as he came into conflict with a rising star in Yoruba politics, Chief Bola Ahmed Tinubu. One by one, Tinubu took back those states from Obasanjo and the PDP, and in effect, driving the South-West back to the familiar regional political enclave. Yet, Tinubu himself is the third person to take the Yoruba to the federal centre in Nigerian politics. But the growing disquiet in the South-West today suggests that, like Awo and Obasanjo before him, he too has not been able to resolve the fundamental questions of politics and strategy in the South-West. Or has he?