The struggle of the Yorubas


A famous Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, once wrote about Nigeria, “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else.” In essence, that seems to be the greatest downfall of Nigerian politics, that corruption and mismanagement, practiced by both democratic and the military regimes, have squandered the immense wealth collected from Nigeria’s burgeoning petroleum industry. Additionally, mass poverty is pervasive as over 45% of the population lives below the poverty line, and ethnic and regional conflicts destroy any hope of forming a united state where it is possible to reinvent the economy to put Nigeria in the limelight of world economics and politics. At the heart of the crisis in leadership is the internal strife between the three main ethnic and regional groups in Nigeria. The Yoruba, Igbo and the Hausa-Fulani groups comprise over 68% of the population; the Yoruba is the second most populous out of the three. Yet, even though they comprise a large percentage of the population, up until recently their political power was limited by the military regimes, primarily controlled by the Hausa-Fulani ethnic group. Only now, with the dissipation of the military government are the Yoruba politicians able to get high government offices, a Yoruba is even the president of the country.


However, the Yoruba are still facing many problems as they begin to ascend the political ladder that was previously populated by the Hausa-Fulani parties and military regimes. Yoruba’s lack of ethnic unity within themselves and institutional prejudice against the Yoruba stand in the way of Yoruba taking their place in the sun, so to speak, to become the political powerhouse that it deserves to be, additionally, their place in Nigeria is in doubt because of the struggles that they meet in the field of politics. The Yoruba people make up 21% of the total population of Nigeria, they are mostly based in the south, bordering the Igbo on the right and the Mid-Western Belt on the top, a section of the country populated by countless, small, related ethnic groups. The Yoruba region is itself subdivided into smaller, more-or-less autonomous provinces. These provinces often fight with each other, making it hard to form a coalition that represents the whole region, and not one or two of these principalities.


On this topic, the human rights campaigner Chief Gani Fawehinmi said, “The bane of the Yoruba people is that you can hardly get them to speak with one voice.” His point is that the Yoruba people cannot unite on any one issue, because their divisiveness is so intense, their dislike for other Yoruba groups so strong. This strife dates back to before the colonial era, when a high-ranking Yoruba general turned on the Oyo king, and this set off several decades of provincial civil war, infighting between the many Yoruba kings who thought they too could rebel against the Oyo king. Some of the strife that went on in the 19th century continues today as Ife and Modakeke clans fight between each other around the city of Ife. This continued even in the early independence years, as two main figures in the Yoruba Action Group party, Chief Awolowo and Chief S.L. Akintola, fought between each other to such a degree that a state of emergency was declared in the western region, one of the main causes of the 1996 military coup.


The division between the different provinces inside of the Yoruba region creates many problems for the Yoruba people as a whole. First, it is difficult for them to create a unitary, representative party that will present the Yoruba people as a whole in the legislature and not as a divided group of ethnicities. This failure to create such a party prevents the Yoruba people from consolidating their political might; rather, as it stands now, the power is separated and divided between various factions comprised of Yoruba ethnic types. It has often been said, “If the Yoruba had united, they could have defeated the Fulani and retaken Ilorin, however, they resulted to fighting each other instead.” In Yoruba’s case, with their constant infighting, their enemies are not only the neighboring ethnic regions, but also themselves, for they themselves are the ones who are sabotaging the ascendance of the Yoruba people to the political heights to which they aspire. Probably the most poignant example of Yoruba divisiveness is the elections of 1999, where even though two of the candidates were Yoruba, most of the voting public voted for the loser of the elections, and the powerful north voted for the victor, Obasanjo. These further cements the idea that the Yoruba people are largely divided and in that, they sabotage their efforts to consolidate their power.


Added to their schismatic nature, the Yoruba people are also institutionally prejudiced against, especially by the Hausa-Fulani region of Nigeria. This prejudice not only encompasses the lower segments of offices in the political system, but also more important offices, even the office of the president. A prominent Yoruba scholar and politician, Dr. Frederick Fasehun, the founder of the OPC (Oodua People’s Congress), a radical and sometimes extremist movement of Yoruba people, said this about the role of prejudice in Nigerian politics, “The only reason Babangida had cancelled the elections was that the northern Hausa-Fulani Muslims who wielded the real power simply refused to accept a Yoruba as president.” The military regime in Nigeria, which was supposed to end with the handing over of the government to a civilian government, was prevented from being so primarily because the general in charge of the regime did not want a Yoruba to succeed him. Even more so, many of the more prominent Yoruba politicians in Nigeria were jailed simply because they were Yoruba by birth, even Dr. Fasehun – even though he did not commit any illicit acts.


Since there is so much institutional discrimination, and the lack of opportunity that it brings about, many Yoruba intellectuals – doctors, professors and lawyers – began to consider leaving Nigeria. Since their political opportunities were so hindered by the military regime and its extremist opposition of Yoruba leadership, their thinking was that alone they could succeed where together with other ethnic groups they could not. Many of these people suggested that Nigeria become a de-centralized, region-based government, where most of the authority is at State level, and not at the national level. The prolonging of the Nigerian state, as it exists today, is in jeopardy because there is not enough political opportunity afforded to those of other ethnic groups than the dominant Hausa-Fulani in the North. For this reason, many unemployed college graduates chose to join the extremist OPC party, and riot and fight with the police, instead of constructively and legitimately trying to affirm their constitutional rights. The internal strife that this creates makes it difficult to maintain any sort of order in this society, since the educated youth, the future of the country, is violently fighting to cement their political position in the grand scheme of the Nigerian government.


The main problem of the Nigerian system seems like is not only the massive and pervasive incompetence of the leadership, rather the mass diversity of the country. Nigeria has over 250 different ethnic groups within its borders, three of which are the most dominant politically. Between these three, there is much strife, especially in the higher offices of the government. This strife predates even the early independent Nigeria, for it goes back to before even colonial rule. The only way it seems like to fix this problem is to perhaps de-centralize the government and let the different ethnic regions govern themselves. This rings even truer now, since the Hausa-Fulani ethnic group, a Muslim constituency, decided to institute the Shari’a body of law, one that follows the strict guidelines of the Qaran, the Muslim holy book. It is difficult if not impossible to maintain the state when there are so many different and warring ethnicities living inside of it. A look into recent European history explains this point perfectly. The country of Yugoslavia is a perfect parallel to Nigeria of today, including it religious makeup. A country like that could not have stayed together if it was not for external forces, like the Soviet Union, keeping it together.


However, there is still hope. With the recent moving of the capital from Lagos, a city deep inside of the Yoruba region, to Abuja, a city in the central, unaffiliated, belt in Nigeria, the current government showed great desire to keep the country as one, a collection of ethnicities that work together, instead of against each other. Another great step to success is the election of a Yoruba native to the position of President, once unheard of, and now a reality. Even though much stands in the way of the Yoruba people from becoming political contenders, there are great strides to alleviate that. As internal strife subsides, and as institutional prejudice goes away because of more enfranchised people in the population, and more Yoruba people holding government posts, the future of Yoruba looks less murky and more positive than it did 10 years ago. Still, steps must be taken to preserve this careful balance, and to ensure that the future generations have something great to emulate.


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