By Obi Nwakanma
Lagos is a great city. Hot, roiling, edgy, bitter and sometimes cruel, the city’s great source of energy, the oil that fuels the dynamo of Lagos, is its great diversity. It is a city, depending on whose statistics you’re using, of about fifteen million people. It is certainly the largest city on the continent of Africa, and as some economists have said, Lagos as a city alone is the fifth Largest Economy in Africa.
This is what makes it attractive: the theatre of the streets of Lagos, the bitter sweet smell of sweat, grime, and the most expensive perfumes in the world, mixed with the heady whiff of spicy African food floating in salt-sea air, leaves the senses swooning with complexity. The crowd – the concert of people in their daily motions speaks directly to the kind of frenzy of the French social theorist, Gustave Le Bon’s three stages of Crowd behavior, submergence, contagion, and suggestion. I have lived in Lagos, and I have experienced its infectious and sometimes heady chaos, but I will never again live in Lagos, because it is unhealthy, overcrowded, extremely poor, and subject to deadly contagion.
I prefer the quieter, calmer, life-sustaining ambience of the lovely countryside of my village home in Imo state these days. Or beautiful, easily navigable cities, like Orlando. When the Ebola fever arrived Lagos, I was very scared, because it occurred to me that the living conditions in Lagos, the state of its infrastructure and housing, and the density of its population was a tragedy waiting to happen. It is still not impossible, that this city, will be unable to contain a deadly contagion, and that when such a force arrives, half the city of Lagos will be wiped out because Lagos lacks the infrastructure of a 21st century city of its size and complexity.
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It is is a vast ghetto – the world’s largest ghetto; larger than Calcutta, because even Ikoyi and Lekki are ghettos when we examine their conditions and particulars. Lagos is a poor, thoroughly misgoverned megacity, and in spite of all its famed wealth, is not worth a copper compared to real, world class cities. So, why is Lagos the site of contention between the Igbo and the Yoruba? Granted, these are the two largest ethnic populations in the city of Lagos. But they are by no means the only ethnicities that inhabit this vast city. So, why is the ethnic flare-up constant? I think we must go back to 1955, in the debate over the status of Lagos in the federation between Nnamdi Azikiwe’s NCNC, and Awolowo’s Action Group.
The NCNC contended and pushed the argument that Lagos was, and remained a Federal Territory, distinct from the Western Region, while Awolowo and the Action Group contended that Lagos should be part of the Western Region, and even threatened secession should that not be the case. Eventually, the British, aware of the unique history of Lagos, kept Lagos as a Federal Territory. That agreement subsisted even with the creation of Lagos state in 1967 as a distinct state from the Western states, following pushes led by Lagosians themselves, who were always great supporters of the NCNC.
The origins of Lagos has once again become a matter of contention, between those who say the Igbo are “non-indigenes” in Lagos, and that Lagos is “Yoruba land.” This distinct fallacies played out in these elections, when the ethnic Igbo were attacked by political thugs who support the Tinubu-led APC in Lagos, who have been pushing this argument of Igbo non-indigeneity. Let’s be clear about this: for as long as Nigeria is a modern nation-state, and for as long as the history of man is the history of settlements and resettlements, the Igbo are as indigenous to Lagos as any other ethnic claims, including Yoruba claims to Lagos. Aside from the constitutional guarantees to residency status, the Igbo are covered by citizenship rights. They have right to vote, and be voted for, and to equal treatment, accruing to any other citizen of Nigeria with clear residency rights in Lagos.
Indigeneship is “birthright” claims to belonging to land, and it shifts, as the weather shifts. If you were born in Lagos, irrespective of the time lapse, you’re an indigene of Lagos, period. So, Igbo children born in Lagos are the “Igbo of Lagos.” Just as Yoruba born in Onitsha are the “Yoruba of Onitsha.” There is pretty little anyone can do about this, and it is about time that this nonsense about the place of the Igbo, or any other ethnic groups residing in Lagos stopped. The Igbo have a right to vote, to organize their society in Lagos, their leadership, their religion, their economic and cultural interests, and they are neither subject to the Oba of Lagos nor do they owe him allegiance, nor to any other claimant to some pseudo-authority, other than the authority of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as currently constituted.
Whoever feels that the Igbo are too “pushy” and must be contained must go and jump into the lagoon, because the Igbo are not about going to stop being “pushy” simply because some folks do not like them pushy. They push to get things done. Lagos as a postmodern city in a republic is “no man’s land”- no, let me rephrase that, Lagos is “everyman’s land” who wants to live in it, who finds opportunity to prosper, contribute to its society, and makes it grow. The origin of Lagos is far more complex than current revisionists even attempt to grapple with. Modern Lagos was not built on Yoruba culture. As MJC Echeruo, one of the world’s most formidable intellectual historians wrote, “Lagos of the late 19th century was a “negro” Lagos.
The leading figures in it were either returned slaves from the West Indies or Brazil, or educated and sophisticated professionals from Liberia or Sierra Leone. The high culture of Lagos of the 1880s was accordingly that of non-native upper-class, sharing a common historical identity with the negroes of black America; it was a civilized elite suddenly and fitfully seeking to develop a local African patriotism based not so much on a particular Lagos identity but on a cosmopolitan black ethos.” These returnee black folk established the cosmopolitan outlook of Lagos. It was thus not strange that one of these, a Liberian-Igbo, with roots from Maryland, John Payne Jackson – for whom Nnamdi Azikiwe later named the Jackson College of Journalism at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka published and edited the most formidable newspaper in Lagos of the 19th and early 20th century Lagos, the Lagos Weekly Record, which he started in 1892, and which on his death in 1915, was edited by his equally formidable son, Thomas Horatio Jackson.
It was in the scheme of things those years that John Payne Jackson who arrived from Liberia to work for J.S. Leigh, a prominent merchant in Victorian Lagos, was later sent to Brass, and from Brass he returned to Lagos, and took up a job working for R.B. Blaize’s Lagos Times. The point is that Lagos is the city of the “cultural flaneur,” that wanderer who accretes values, and settles, and disseminates it within this space.
The Igbo have been such a cultural flaneur. Returnee-Igbo, like the Pratts of Gambia, and the Kings of Sierra-Leone, just for instance, have been part of modern Lagos from the 19th century. But the Igbo have been in Lagos even long before its 1861 annexation: the Aro, the Igbere, the Abam, etc, were already trading in Lagos, when Lagos was still a slave-trader’s port, and were even part of the early Benin settlement of Eko, as mercenary soldiers in the Benin imperial army, and settled heavily in the cluster of the area we even now still know as “Oyigbo” in old Lagos. The Igbo are in that sense not new settlers in Lagos. They have been here even when hinterland Yoruba, like the Ijebu, were still paying duties before they could be allowed to trade in Lagos. It is important that the contemporary Nigerian understand the history of modern Nigeria, as well indeed as the history of what we now know as Southern Nigeria.
If anything can be said of that history, from its classical times, the Igbo have been the mobile glue and muscle of Southern Nigeria. As even the custodian of Lagos history has said, Lagos was originally founded by the Benin (Idu/Edo). As even the Ooni of Ife has hinted the habitation of the ancient Igbo of Ife (which the Igbo know as “Igbo-Omoku”) are still known to the Ife, and are still the kingmakers who crown the Ooni of Ife. These histories are preserved in ritual and in narrative. The late Professor Ade Obayemi did establish these linkages. It is an indictment on Nigeria’s contemporary historians, anthropologists and archeologists that they have not fully created and connected the nationalist history of Nigeria, and clearly periodized the very close contacts of these groups that now make up modern Nigeria, and have thus allowed jingoists field, and free reign to close the Nigerian mind.
Let us return a bit to the history of Southern Nigeria, and insist that the Igbo are not mere “visitors” to “Western Nigeria.” When folks talk these days, they forget that Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, an ethnic Igbo, was the first leader of opposition in the Western regional House in 1951-3, and followed later, by another Igbo, Dr. Denis Osadebe who became the leader of opposition up till 1963. Western Nigeria, with its boundaries stopping at the bridgehead of the River Niger in Asaba, included vast areas of Igbo country. In other words, the Igbo were politically part of Western Nigeria. Although the Yoruba were the ethnic majority in that region, the Igbo were the second largest ethnicity in Western Nigeria.
Up till 1957, Azikiwe’s paper, the Southern Nigerian Defender, was the most influential newspaper in the city of Ibadan, even when Awo established his Tribune on November 16, 1949 in that city, to honour Dr. Azikiwe’s birthday, as well as compete for opinion in that city. The Igbo have also been in Ibadan from the time Lagoelu first went up the Okebadan hills, to begin the life of that republican city. Therefore, those talking about the Igbo as “visitors” and “aliens” are either full of drink or are unaware.