By M T Usman
The above phrase was borrowed. Economist magazine used it, in an article ‘Intolerant India’, to describe the country’s then just-passed Citizenship Amendment Act (ACA) and the proposed National Citizenship Register as the latest in the decades-long “project of incitement” against the country’s 200 million Muslim citizens by the Bharataya Janata Party (BJP) government of prime minister Narendra Modi. Going back all the way to the destruction of the 500-year old Babri Mosque in Ayodhya by Hindu nationalists in 1992 and the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2000 when Modi was Chief Minister.
An exact same situation exists today in Nigeria. It is a project of incitement being pursued by Afenifere, the socio-cultural arm of the Yoruba political establishment. The purpose being to so demonise the Hausa-Fulani ethno-religious group as to make other ethnic groups in the country to view them in the most negative of light, thereby engendering hostility towards them. Deploying propaganda methods that are Goebbelsian in character and inflammatory in content, Afenifere and public intellectuals, in cahoots with Southern-based media have been pushing ideas, views and sentiments that derive from misrepresentation, falsehood and fabrication and outright bigotry towards the aforementioned objective. In countries with laws against it, much of the pronouncements and the publications would qualify as hate speech or crimen injuria.
These activities have crested during the current dispensation, the Fourth Republic and the results are clear to all. A gang-up against two so-called North-west and North-east geopolitical zones, arising from the above, has left the country careening towards the edge of the cliffs.
Afenifere’s acute animus towards, first the North, which was gradually refined and targeted at the Hausa-Fulani, can be traced to the first engagement between representatives of the three regions at the Ibadan Constitutional Conference of 1950. At that meeting representatives of the Northern region rebuffed the bullying efforts of Western region delegates to bend them to their views on issues. From that encounter Egbe Omo Oduduwa and the political party it gave birth to, the Action Group (A.G.) identified the Northern region and its party, the N.P.C. as the strategic adversary in the politics of the country. Relationship with the North and NPC thus became an important issue to AG; disagreement on approach caused a historic rupture, the consequences of which spilled onto the national scene to become one of reasons for the January 1966 coup d’etat.
The crises and conflicts, including the Civil War – when Chief Awolowo was the country’s virtual deputy leader – and the long period of military rule (1966-1979 and 1984-1999) put a lid somewhat on the bitter rivalry. President Shehu Shagari (1979-1983) was however vigorously and viciously opposed, with notables like Tai Solarin and the Lagos media dubbing his “the Stolen Presidency”.
The annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election in which Chief M. K. O Abiola was the clear winner burst the dam of resentment against the Hausa-Fulani. Yoruba political establishment, which hitherto loathed Abiola, deemed it the personal act of the generality of the Hausa-Fulani against “their son”, not that of a military regime unwilling to leave office. It proved to be the flame that lit the current destructive phase of this project of incitement.
In 1994, at the beginning of the Abacha dictatorship and soon after the Rwandan genocide, the prominent Yoruba politician Chief Bola Ige, in an article in the Tribune newspaper, opined that the Fulani were “Nigeria’s Tutsi”, the ethnic group that was the victim of that genocide. Not for the similarity of physique or of profession. But for the “outsize” influence each was alleged to wield in politics and governance in their respective countries. Chief Ige plainly thought the Fulani deserving of the treatment meted out to the Tutsi.
Lagos-based media took up the task of deconstructing the North: like the peeling of an onion, it was revealed that there is “the core North and the Middle Belt, the Hausa-Fulani North, the Caliphate North, the Muslim North and the Christian North.” Each description was designed to appeal to a different base instinct and further drive apart the numerous ethnic groups of the region. The Guardian newspaper took the lead in this enterprise, giving acres of newsprint to public intellectuals to disseminate falsehood and revisionist history. The paper itself has been publishing editorial upon editorial impugning the rights of the Fulani in this country. Accusing them of working to Islamise Nigeria, the Guardian even questioned their citizenship; it estimated the date of Fulani migration to Nigeria at around 1472AD. As if any ethnic group has ever claimed origination from the ground.
Lately, the Guardian has been running a series of editorials under the theme “Federalism is the answer, after all” in support of the campaign for “restructuring”, the sole issue of today’s political discourse. With rhetoric a touch less toxic than in previous assays, the paper makes its case with arguments that range from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Restructuring is Afenifere’s nuclear weapon against the Hausa-Fulani. Quiescent except for the National Conference of 2014, it has since then been on the campaign trail selling its vision of a restructured Nigeria. Working to build a coalition of detractors and running from pillar to post – workshop, seminar, conference and the almighty (Yoruba) Summit – Afenifere used these structured events to vilify the Hausa-Fulani as Nigeria’s bete noir, oppressors and opponents of progress. Never invited to what should be parleys, the Hausa-Fulani have had their heads serially shaved in their absence.
But what the heck: habituation to hyperbole, bombast and self-acclaim has engendered belief among Yoruba political leadership that their position on any national issue to be the eternal and evident truth, admitting of no tweaking to accommodate the concerns of other Nigerians.
Surprisingly, neither Afenifere nor the umbrella Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum (SMBLF) has worked to sponsor a bill via supporting members of the National Assembly to take up any of the issues that restructuring should address. Rather, it prefers to rely on public pressure and blackmail to get its way. Never mind the fact that attempts to address them outside the ambit of the National Assembly (2006) and (2014) ended up only serving the purposes of the convening authority.
Today, believing that propaganda of decades has taken hold, Afenifere, like India’s BJP, clearly has judged it time to ramp up pressure to achieve its objective – a loosened federation or no federation at all. Hence the frantic search for casus belli. The killing of Pa Fasoranti ‘s daughter by armed robbers almost became Nigeria’s Sarajevo and led to the formation of the ethnic militia Amotekun. A spike in the criminal activities of rogue herdsmen in the South-west which columnist Dare Babarinsa deemed “of major consequence to Nigeria” is the occasion to expel Fulani pastoralists from Ogun and cleanse them in Oyo. Northern Elders Forum (NEF) Secretary-General Dr. Baba-Ahmed noted that there “were justifiable worries” in that regard, but “engineered mass hysteria” and “dangerous politics” greatly accounted for the heightened tension in the region.
It speaks volumes of the mindset of Afenifere when its leading lights applaud the terrorist activities of Sunday Igboho, described by THISDAY’s Reuben Abati as “a respected able-bodied man who nobody knows exactly what he does for a living.” The ascendancy of such people raises fears of a repeat of Operation Wetie in 2021.
Nigeria is at its most vulnerable today; moving towards 2023 things can only become even more fraught. There is the opportunity to reset the country’s journey through the various initiatives afloat now – at both party and National Assembly levels. Would Afenifere – and its cohorts – test the terrain in order to move the country forward or remain in self-absorption? Would it defy precedent?