Mr Joe Igbokwe is an Igbo chieftain and All Progressives Congress spokesman in Lagos. In this interview with KAZEEM UGBODAGA, he speaks on the relationship between the Igbo and Yoruba
Why is it that the Igbo and the Yoruba are not the best of friends?
It is a misconception that the Igbo and Yoruba do not agree or that there has been an age-long misunderstanding or disunity between the two major ethnic groups. I don’t think it is true and history is my witness to prove this. Despite the fact that we have gone through a checkered history, Yoruba and Igbo have relationship which dates back to early 1930s. In Nigeria, without sounding immodest, the Yoruba had an edge in terms of education in the early ‘30s and by early ‘50s, Igbo came almost at par with Yoruba in terms of education and since then, we have been almost at par with them in education, economy, politics.
Even though the Yoruba are a little bit more sophisticated in politics than the Igbo, there has been a long-standing relationship existing between them. That is why when Zik of Africa came back from the USA, he settled in Lagos and played politics here until the politics of 1951 in Ibadan changed that equation. I was not born then, so I don’t know what happened.
Civil war came. It was said the Yoruba agreed to leave Nigeria if Igbo left but it was said that the Yoruba joined the North to fight the Igbo. Today if you ask an average Igbo, he will tell you that the Yoruba agreed to leave when Igbo leave and later they teamed up with the Hausa to fight the Igbo; they see that as betrayal, they will tell you that you can never trust a Yoruba man.
But things have changed. Events have changed that, judging from the situation in Nigeria today. I have lived here (in Lagos) for about 30 years, I have worked here and I know the relationship between the Yoruba and the Igbo and I know the investments our people have in Lagos; they don’t have up to a quarter of it in the East. I know that our people have thrived here because of the conducive atmosphere provided for us here by the Yoruba.
If there is crisis in the North, the destination is Lagos. I know also that almost 80 per cent of rich men in the South-East made their money in Lagos, that is what I know from empirical evidence. It is a figment of imagination of some people that there is misunderstanding between the Igbo and Yoruba. I have not seen it, even though you still have pockets of it because of people who are not lettered.
It has been broken over the years via inter-marriages, it goes on without borders. Our people married Yoruba and Yoruba have married our people. It has been like that over the years. I remember that Adeniran Ogunsanya was closer to Zik than any other Igbo man, to the extent that when he died few years back, his people refused to give him a befitting burial. They said he should go and call his Igbo people to come and bury him! We closed all the markets in Lagos and went to Ikorodu to bury him. I was there. I think the gains of the Yoruba and Igbo relationship are more than the losses. That assumption that the Igbo and Yoruba are not the best of friends does not exist. It is left for people like us who know to educate our people.
I have to be honest with you, the Igbo people are more at home in Nigeria with the Yoruba than any other ethnic group in the country. That is my findings in the past 30 years. I have been here for years and I know that the Yoruba are very accommodating. Sometimes you can find ethnic bigots among them, this is natural; sometimes, you find ethnic bigots among the Igbo too. This is also natural. But in the midst of all these confusion, there is a huge established relationship between the Yoruba and the Igbo and it transcends some of these things we talk about and it has been going on for years. What I am saying is that those who think there is an established hatred, suspicion or strained relationship between the Yoruba and Igbo miss it. Any person saying that still needs to go back to history to trace where we started and where we are today despite what happened in the civil war and what happened in Ibadan in 1951. We have moved on.
In politics, there are no permanent enemies and there are no permanent foes. That is why I am working in Lagos State Government and others are doing the same. Our people have many investments here and control almost all the markets. I think we should give the Yoruba nation the kudos for giving us conducive atmosphere for our businesses to thrive and if there are crises in other parts of the country, our people run to Lagos and Lagos, you know, is the second home of the Igbo and I want that relationship to continue. I don’t want anybody to rock the boat because a lot is at stake. It is not by accident that among the tribes in Nigeria, it was only the Yoruba that never appropriated Igbo properties after the civil war.
The deportation fueled the assumption that there is a strained relationship between the Yoruba and the Igbo; what do you say to this?
This is uncalled for. Before 2011, the governor of Abia State sacked all workers from the South-East working in Abia, nobody said anything. In 2011, Governor Peter Obi relocated some people to Akwa Ibom and Ebonyi states, probably because it is Igbo-Igbo and South-East affairs, nobody raised an eyebrow. People have been moved from Lagos to Ibadan, to Osun and to other places in the South-West, nobody raised an eyebrow; people have been moved to the North severally, nobody raised an eyebrow, why is this one different? The destitute and beggars were shipped out of Abuja and no one complained. Is it because Igbo are involved in a South-West state? What of the sins of the Igbo against Igbo? Again, before this incident took place, Governor Fashola took all the precautionary measures: he wrote Anambra State Government via the liaison office in Lagos on April 9 and another one was written on April 29 and there was no response and the governor relocated them in August, four months after. Why this noise? I call this all noise and no substance. That my own must be different (“nkem di iche bu ajo afa”) is a bad name. Why must your own be different? Why must the people taken to Ibadan and Osun, who are Yoruba people, and some to the North and Igbo deported by the Igbo, be a different case? These are destitute and the pictures confirmed the position of Lagos State Government that these were people picked from under bridges and places not quite conducive for human habitation.
The big question is, why are all the people now trying to harvest from this so-called deportation, treating the rehabilitation of homeless destitute to their home states, which should be in a better position to help rehabilitate them, as a major crime? What did they do to the plight of their people who live under bridges in Lagos to see to their interest? How many have stopped by to see these destitute, ascertain if they are their brothers and possibly find means of helping them? If these people have these legions of ‘brothers and sisters’ now trying to cash in on their destitution, how come they never asked of them for the many months they were under rehabilitation by the Lagos State Government? We are not talking about justice, we just are trying to play up ethnic sentiments in this matter and that is why I disagreed with my people entirely.
Many people playing up this issue are not doing so because they love any of the destitute. They are merely harvesting the cheap ethnic capital and the political mileage they want from this issue. Let me ask, We saw the photographs of the 14 people sent home, how many people or groups have taken time to visit them in Onitsha and help rehabilitate them? Until Fashola takes 100 buses and moving from street to street to take Igbo people and dropping them in their states, that is when you call it deportation and that is when I will listen to you. But if you tell me that some people who are mentally retarded were picked from the streets of Lagos and cleaned up, fed very well and finally taken to their states to unite them with their people is deportation, then we need to go back to the dictionary to look at the word deportation again.
They took them to where every eye would see them, they did not drop them inside bushes but in places where people will see them. If they had dropped them one by one in various locations, nobody would have seen them. Why this noise? Is it because of the coming Anambra election? In fact, that is what people are saying. It is a figment of imagination of the people who are insinuating that Fashola deported Ndigbo. Why the word deportation? Our people are not being fair to Governor Fashola. I am saying, if anybody wants to win an election you do not have to castigate other people to win an election. The fact must be stated: that Fashola did what he has been doing, not because you come from any part of Nigeria, it is a policy of the government and it borders on security. Again, it is not restricted to Lagos. It is a normal practice by nearly all governments in Nigeria.
If people can disguise as mechanics or mad people to throw bombs or disguise as orange sellers to throw bombs in a section of the country, it can happen in Lagos. Governor Fashola is just being proactive and he has been moving area boys who are Yoruba from Lagos, he has been rehabilitating some of them who are able to work. Instead of them to encourage Fashola to continue to keep Lagos state as the safest place in the country for now, they are attacking him. Governor Fashola is a friend of the Igbo, he is a detribalised Nigerian and he does not know who is who. This has been the hallmark of his administration in the last six years. I must take a calculated risk again by insisting that our people must be careful. We must stop whipping up sentiment that is totally uncalled for. We must stop being manipulated by merchants of ethnic politics and ethnic chance takers who lie in wait to benefit from the woes of our people, even when they had golden opportunities to improve the lot of our people and left it worse.
Look at former governor Orji Uzor Kalu who allegedly looted the resources of Abia State and left the people poorer and weaker, while he grew richer. He is now seeing this as an opportunity to gain from the same people he pauperised. He could not even rebuke his successor who woke up one morning and sacked over 3,000 Igbo from the Abia Civil Service thereby rendering tens of thousands of dependants of these sacked workers poor, destitute and sentencing many to untimely death. It is not fair. Our people are whipping up lots of sentiments that can even weaken the position of our people or can even make it dangerous for our people to thrive in business. Some are saying, Eh, Lagos went for the mad people; tomorrow, it could be you. This is a dangerous statement. This is incitement. Instead of our leaders to go to Fashola to engage him, they are holding press conferences. They did not even give the governor room to explain before they rushed to the press. Since the governor came out and laid bare all the developments that preceded this incident, they have gone quiet but we expect they either come out and refute all the governor has said with their own documents. Finding out their mistake, they have waxed silent instead of addressing the same press conference to correct the wrong impression they sold to our people. Why is Governor Obi not forthcoming with a reply to Governor Fashola, to debunk the comunication they had on these people and how many of those people that were harvesting from these have asked Governor Obi to tell the world his own side of the story? Our people must show tact and apply wisdom; our people need to be talked to. Government’s policy is meant to be in the interest of everybody, it is not targeted at a section of the country. Why should my people think that Igbo are very special people that are untouchable? You can do it to the northerners, westerners, but you cannot do it to the Igbo simply because we can write or can make noise. I call that all noise and no substance because we believe that what is good for the goose is also good for the gander. We believe that the only state that is thriving in the country must be protected. They are tagging it deportation because they want to play politics.
What do you think is the way forward for the Yoruba and Igbo?
How else can you prove that the Igbo have made Lagos their second home? The evidence is everywhere in Lagos and Igboland. Igbo must reciprocate the goodwill of the Yoruba for us to move forward. Yoruba must also do their own part. It is a symbiotic relationship. It is a give-and-take affair. I know that sometimes our people will flout the laws and when they are caught and punished for their offence, they term it something else. I know the crime my people commit here in Lagos; have they been deported? Those driving against traffic and are fined say they are fined because they are Igbo even when Yoruba are also subjected to the same punishment when they flout the same law.
I conclude by saying that my people must show tact, wisdom, apply common sense instead of making noise that cannot be substantiated atimes. The huge relationships between Yoruba and Igbo have gone beyond what we are talking about today. I think both sides can do better than this. Let me say this: if Anambra cannot take care of these destitute let them bring them back to Lagos or Lagos can even go to pick those people back. I can persuade Fashola to do this in the interest of peace. But then, it must bear asking why a state or people should reject its citizens, deny them their heritage and prefer instead that they live under inhuman conditions in other states? Why are we rejecting our own people and prefer they be exposed to vagaries while living in sub-human conditions in Lagos? This is food for thought for those firing the pin of clannishness on this simple issue.
Quote: “It is not by accident that among the tribes in Nigeria, it was only the Yoruba that never appropriated Igbo properties after the civil war”.