The Ijaw and Nigeria’s Ethnic Politics

The three deepest gulfs that divide the Nigerian society are ethnicity, sectional interest and the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor. Bribery and corruption on the other hand, are cancers that are steadily eating away at the marrow and soul of the nation. Of the three gulfs, ethnicity is the deepest and most turbulent, pulling at the nation’s seams and zippers (threatening to undress it). Ethnicity is mostly at the heart of all that is wrong with Nigeria. For instance, a typical Nigerian would rather hire or give contracts to his ethnic brethren than to the most qualified Nigerian from across the River Niger; a typical Nigerian would betray fellow Nigerian because of ethnic differences.

And a typical Yoruba would not come to the aid of an Ibibio if there are no impending gratifications; likewise, a typical Igbo father would never allow his daughter to marry a Fulani man. In the same vein, a typical Ekiti man would be very suspicious of a Tiv when conducting business. Ever wonder why an Ijaw man could live in Bauchi or Sokoto State for quarter of a century or more, and still would find it difficult, if not impossible, to secure employment with the state civil service? And in fact, a Kanuri woman, married to a Benin man would find it impossible to secure state employment in Benin. For a sizeable number of Nigerians — what matter the most is ones ethnic group.

In today’s Nigeria ethnicity is either at the core or at the ring of our problems; or at the least, ethnicity straddles it. At the core of corruption is ethnicity. At the core of most coups was ethnicity. At the core of who gets what resource is ethnicity. At the core of the national blame-game is ethnicity. At the core of irrational violence is ethnicity. At the core of plum federal appointments is ethnicity. At the core of university admission is ethnicity. We disregard people’s skills, education, training, and work experiences in favor of ethnic affiliation. Therefore, ones qualification for certain position or contract, in most cases, is irrelevant: you get it, get in, or get by if you belong to the right ethnic group.

One section of the country is suspicious of the other. One group is suspicious of the other group. Every move and every pronouncement has ethnic or regional undertone. Even the fight against corruption has ethnic undertone. All the groups know it — every group but the Ijaw knows there is a method to the sleaze game that has been part of the nation the last forty-seven years. In spite of their marginalization and unconscionable exploitation, the Ijaw — indigenous to six or seven states in the federation — ironically, are the most Nigerian-friendly and Nigerian-conscious of all the major groups. When one think of how other groups have exploited and made silly the nation’s political and economic systems, one cannot but marvel at the sanity and stability of the Ijaw people. Their love and affinity for the nation is beyond reproach, beyond question.

Regrettably, their love and affinity for Nigeria is one of the five factors that is likely to cause their down fall; at the very least, it will continue to cause their collective stagnation and collective poverty. Within the Niger Delta itself, the Ijaw outnumbers the Itseriki almost 50:1. But an outsider would not know it. In spite of their almost insignificant numeral, the Itsekiri have consistently outpaced and outperformed the Ijaw economically and politically. There are those who think the Itsekiri are the King of the Delta. Countrywide, the Ijaw being the fourth largest group, and considering the resources on their land and waterways, could have also performed marvelously, but for whatever reason, they have continued to lag behind. Why are the Ijaw laggards?

Well, several commentators and public intellectual have espoused several reasons for why the Ijaw are the stragglers and slackers of the Republic, i.e. poor terrain, lack of access to early and quality education, a culture that does not encourage adventurism, expansionism or exploitation, and a culture that encourages several competing power centers. A few other have attributed the Ijaw-condition to the fact that they are not organized, and do not have unity of purpose. All the aforementioned may be true. They might as well be. However, I would attribute the Ijaw predicament and underdevelopment to the fact that they do not understand politics, especially regional and ethnic politics.

The Ijaw and their cousins have a pure view of the country. They have a pure view of ethnic relationships. They have a pure view of the stated and unstated intentions of other groups. They are too-self critical. They are too self conscious. They are too proud and too self-righteous. They reflect too much on their role and place in the nation. And they pay too much attention to history and posterity. The Ijaw nation is a nation of pacifists, of easy-going people. If Nigeria had done right, recent history wouldn’t have been born; if Nigeria had not been too insatiable and self-seeking and predatory in its relationship with the Ijaw nation, the ongoing crisis and attrition would probably never have been part of Nigeria’s narrative. As with all situations of rampant and senseless injustice, the Ijaw just had to wake up and claim their space before they are driven into the Atlantic or resettled in the desolate tracts of the Sahara Desert.

Wherever you have an Igbo, Hausa/Fulani or Yoruba manager or director, you’d find that he or she is surrounded by men and women from his or her ethnic group. But wherever you find an Ijaw manager or director — assuming there are any — you’d find that he or she is surrounded by men and women from other ethnie. What you then have is an Ijaw boss who is socially isolated, and open to all sorts of attacks and betrayal. Economically, his people does not benefit from the privileges that might trickle-down. Politically, his views are discounted, his power and influence of no consequence; and his position unsafe from ambitious sharks. If he is not forcefully removed, he become a figure-head, and later, an impotent leader who is neither useful to himself nor to his people. The Nigerian military and security services are filled with such men.

Consider this: Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, while he was the president, was ringed mostly by men and women from his ethnic stock. From the kitchen to his security detail, he was ringed mostly by the Yoruba. That was also true of Vice President Abubakar Atiku: he was surrounded by men and women he could easily and conveniently converse with, people he trusted. Same is true of President Yar’Adua: he is circled by his “own people,” people who are willing to die for him. But is it also true of Vice President Goodluck Jonathan? Unassailable evidence points to the fact that, from the kitchen to the communications department to his security detail, he is encircled mostly by “outsiders.” Where are the Ijaw men and women whose presence and contribution should be felt (if not in the presidency, at least in the vice presidency). Where is the Ijaw presence?

To the extent that ethnicity and ethnic politics is part of the Nigerian reality, Vice President Ebele Goodluck Jonathan should be surrounded mostly by Ijaw men and women. From his personal assistant to his speech writer, from his cook and chauffeur to his security detail, the majority of his lifeline ought to be his own people. If Dr. Goodluck Jonathan doesn’t know and understand this fact, he should know now. When things go wrong, he will come home to his people. Now that things are going well for him, his people should be with him — reaping the rewards of his post and basking in his glory. Reward and glory are two of the seven elements of ethnic politics. In Nigeria power and ethnicity are joined at the hips.

Written by
Sabella Ogbobode Abidde
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