By Tonnie Iredia
Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as President of Nigeria lived in the Presidential Villa for 4 years (1999-2003) in the first instance. While seeking reelection in 2003, he left his residence in Abuja for his home in Abeokuta to vote. Could that be a sign of ethnic jingoism?
Even if so, it appears acceptable hence President Goodluck Jonathan left the same Villa in 2011 to vote in his home-Otuoke. Meanwhile, nothing hinders any of our first citizens from voting at the Villa polling station. In actual fact, our electoral body encourages all eligible Nigerians to register and vote at the election centres nearest to them in view of the restriction to movements on voting day.
Many other Nigerians similarly head for home at every election and other auspicious times to underscore their preferences for the ethnic than the nation. They can hardly be blamed because ethnicity is one of the settled issues of Nigeria’s federalism. It is the over-all decider of all matters of public interest. The nation exists on fundamentals like the quota system, federal character principle and the zoning of political offices. In addition, many people who criticize ethnicity are in the forefront of its adherents.
The only exceptions are perhaps my people-the Benins of Edo State who have an ambivalent disposition towards the subject.
Like every minority group, the Benins are marginalized by the majority ethnic groups of the federation. At the same time, they are marginalized in their own State-Edo, where they are the majority tribe both in population and landmass.
The State Governor, the Minister representing the state in the federal executive council; the Chief of Staff to the President; the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the ruling party who also chairs the Nigerian Ports Authority and even the State Chairman of the ruling party are all Edos but none is Benin.
Where then are the Benins? This was the core issue I sought to address in November 2011when I was invited by a Benin group to deliver a lecture titled “Benin: Time to sow the seeds of resurgence”. There, I expressed regrets that the inheritors of the famous Benin Empire of old have since become exceedingly lukewarm about their own continuous growth and development.
I recalled for example, how for no less than 4 decades, other tribes took advantage of the nonchalance of the Benins to gang-up each time and prevent a son of the soil from becoming the Vice Chancellor of the Federal University located in Benin City. For long, the Benins rationalized the development by arguing that heading a university was a purely academic choice and not an ethnic matter.
Are Benin professors comedians? I also took a look at the catholic faith which came to Benin over one hundred years ago and in which no Benin priest has been able to become Bishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of the city. To the Benins who rationalize this as a matter ordained and directed by God I ask a second question- Can God the Almighty, the epitome of justice and fair play disapprove of members of only one tribe moving up to the apex of their occupation-if a Benin man cannot be the Bishop in other peoples’ homelands, why can’t he in his own home??
I did not expect my questions to be taken seriously because the posture of some Benin politicians concerning the governorship election which was around the corner at the time portrayed a people who preferred others to themselves. There was the slogan that there were non Benin politicians with proven Benin interest! Indeed, the incumbent Governor was proclaimed an “Honorary-Benin man”.
One interesting story of the time was that of a prominent Benin Chief who proudly announced that he sought to abort the visit of a Benin citizen to the Oba of Benin to seek the Royal Father’s blessing for his governorship ambition. What motivated this Chief to work assiduously for the success of a non-Benin governorship candidate and to despise his own son? Some said it was material inducement but he tried to bamboozle the rest of the world that it was the proclamation of the ‘oracle’ making me to become cautious about what our chiefs say.
Thus, when the media reported last week that some Benin chiefs had cried out against the continued stay in their city of an ‘imperialist’ Catholic Arch Bishop, I had to read the story over and over again.
What I gathered was that a particular foreign tribe now lords it over the Benins in anything catholic. For instance catholic institutions in Benin are now being allegedly managed by that tribe and that there is a conscious effort to downplay the use of the Benin language in the church. But we all saw it coming yet, we were as usual complacent.
In a similar situation in old Anambra, the late Governor C. C. Onoh did not just cry, he acted. Although he was not a catholic, he travelled to Rome to lobby the Pope to install a ‘wawa man’ as Catholic Bishop for his people.
Onoh recognize that competitive ethnicity was an imperative in a multi-ethnic developing society like ours where every ethnic grouping has its own agenda. The Benins must therefore stop destroying their own under the guise of being rational. Thus those who voted against a Benin candidate in the last Edo Governorship elections with the argument that their own son who ruled before did not govern well actually missed the point. The poser for them is this; Is it because successive Governors of Benue State have been wonderful that the Tiv who are the majority tribe in the state continue to vote for their own son as governor?
While agreeing that ethnicity has not been programmed to be a blessing to our nation, any group that ignores it at this point in time does so at its own peril until Nigerians are identified not by where they are born but where they live. At that point, the nation would belong to us all and centrifugal ethnicity would wither away. Until then, this is obviously not the best time for the Benins to shed crocodile tears.