Dr. Ugoji Egbujo
In April 2017, Igbo traders took to the streets in Yenagoa in an unprecedented protest. Something had rattled them. Three prominent Igbo traders had been murdered in one month. They suspected something more sinister than routine armed robbery and assassination. They put their finger on xenophobia. The police dismissed the insinuation and reassured them of their safety. The murders were unrelated incidents, they said. The traders took the assurance but remained nervous.
A month later, a man checked into a hotel room in Yenogoa with his girlfriend. What transpired in that room has not been fleshed out. The girl was rushed to a hospital with stab wounds. Two days after, she died. The boyfriend had sneaked out of the hotel and has not been seen since then. There are versions of his story. But the dead lady was certainly Ijaw, an indigene. The fugitive boyfriend is an Igbo trader. The story that gained traction on the streets of Yenagoa was sharp toothed. It was that an Igbo man had used an Ijaw girl for money-making ritual.
What followed was unprecedented. Violent mobs sprouted. Every Igbo man became an actual or potential criminal. The town convulsed with hate and chants of ‘Igbo must go.’ Shops belonging to Igbos in a section of the town were ransacked and burnt. Igbos squirreled into holes. They weren’t entirely shocked. They had warned about rising anti Igbo tensions.
The police and the Army were deployed to contain the rampaging youths. Naked violence was brought under control. Wounded Igbos were taken to hospitals. But the animosity and hate that had been lit couldn’t be doused by mere law enforcement. Igbos lived their lives in fear. Ghosts of reprisals lurked their homes and followed them everywhere. Their shops remained shut and locked. They were told, in that section of Yenogoa, to lie low. Leaving their shops locked was in their own interest. The nursing of the tempers of their landlords , the Ijaw indigenes, had to be their immediate priority. They stayed indoors like sheep while the state struggled to negotiate with the indigenes their citizenship rights.
Throughout their ordeal none of the prominent Azikiwes of Ijaw descent was heard or seen. None of the surrogates of that political leader who always flaunted his kinship with the Igbos during elections was heard. The political tendency that prides itself as latter-day Igbo ethnic champions was not heard. They could have at least reminded irate Ijaw youths a few political debts. The IPOB didn’t bother to issue a statement even though Yenagoa is within its description of Biafran jurisdiction. The Igbos in Yenagoa were left to genuflect, prostrate, worship Ijaw youths and their anger.
I called a friend of mine who is Ijaw from Bayelsa to discuss the incident. He was not embarrassed by the actions of the youths in that town. He proclaimed that Igbos brought armed robbery to Yenagoa. I was speechless. But that explained so much of what was happening on the streets of Yenogoa. He is enlightened but he subscribes to the very jaundiced ideas that have bred this xenophobia.
They believe Igbos are settlers that can be sent away from Yenogoa. They believe Igbos are contaminants of Ijaw morality, they are responsible for much of the evil in the town. And there is one he didn’t talk about that flows from envy. They believe that Igbos are usurpers. The corollary is the ungodly idea that some kind of cleansing is required. That is why many didn’t find the action of the youths repugnant. That is a dangerous situation.
The economy is passing through a turbulence. There are many jobless youths. In many places in Nigeria, Igbos dominate street commerce. Indigenes welcome them but prosperity can breed envy. When frustrations mount, some of the anger ordinarily meant for the governments will be channeled towards the prosperous settler. He will become the one who has usurped the opportunities that rightly belonged to the indigenes. That is the pattern. His crimes are magnified and labeled affront against the peace and quiet of the indigenes, by his tribe. That is the reason Nigerians are from time to time butchered in South Africa.
South Africa has been mismanaged. Joblessness and frustration have taken over the streets. Some of the anger naturally must be projected to immigrants. Nigerians commit crimes like others. But their crimes are not seen as individual transgressions of the criminal code but a corruption of the society, a dilution of morals by a contaminating and eradicable tribe. Such animosity can cake into xenophobia. Then xenophobia seethes like a volcano, splashing lava in its seasons. That is what erupted in Yenagoa
Where ethnic hate flows freely ethnic profiling must exist. The sin of one man can be visited on his tribesmen. It is wrong. Sometimes, a fight between a Hausa man and a Yoruba man in Idumota could become a Yoruba versus Hausa world war, in minutes. But it will die quickly once the fire is put out, and everyone moves on. That’s a different thing. Some other times it could linger. If a market or some other privilege is in contention, the animosity can endure. But in all such cases the frictions and flares are localized. There are no widespread systemic complications. That’s the Ketu mile 12 scenario. No one tribe rises to demand the evacuation of the other. The incident in Yenogoa was different.
The implicated incident was ordinarily too isolated, too cold to spark such a wide response. That incident alone couldn’t have fed the mob with such vengeance. The anger and violence were deployed with a touch of premeditation. Mere provocation cannot explain the direction of vengeance towards all Igbo in a purely criminal matter being handled by the police. It is interesting that incident could happen in Yenagoa now.
The civil war put a wedge between the south south communities and the Igbos. The civil war sowed deep suspicions. Post civil war, Igbos complained of more bitterness and resentment in the hands of the South South communities than the Hausa Fulani, their supposed enemies. Recently, that friction appeared to have abated. Since Saro Wiwa and MOSOP, Igbos have identified with the plight of the Niger delta and supported their agitations for resource control. Igbos want equity. And equity includes resource control and true federalism.
When Jonathan became president, Igbos gave him more support than his Niger Delta. So it all looked that the ghosts of the civil war had been banished. It looked like the South South has switched political alliance from the north back to the east. It looked like the shared sense of victimhood was deep and had birthed a brotherhood. Hate against Hausa Fulani has been freely spread around those regions. Once the heart learns hate it can choose other targets.
Perhaps Yenagoa is a mere blip on the path of that political alliance. Perhaps, it’s a cautionary reminder of reality. The wide dispersal of Igbos and their integration into all communities in the country is good for national unity. What happened in Yenagoa is inimical to national unity.