March 11, 2023

Lagos and the political puberty of big cities

Lagos and the political puberty of big cities

By Dr. Ugoji Egbujo

At puberty, big changes happen. Not long ago Amwuo Odofin was swampland. Long after Gov Jakande and his industriousness birthed mass housing, swathes of land around Festac town were still inhabited by toads in the rainy season. Then Tinubu came to rebuild Lagos island and moved the Balogun market to the Trade Fair Complex on the Badagry Expressway. Once that happened, the traders besieged Festac town and took over Amuwo Odofin to build homes and live closer to the market.  

Today, Amuwo Odofin is comparatively a quasi-middle-class  neighborhood  occupied  predominantly  by  non-indigenous. Today, a plot of land in Amuwo that used to cost N200,000 in 1997 costs over One Hundred Million. The natives have given up quite a bit of their space. There was perhaps a compelling reason to welcome non-indigenous  who  have brought breathless development. But are Amuwo natives ready to accept the inevitable political changes? Amuwo Odofin has seen urbanization, and cultural diversification and lost its electoral innocence.

When villages become big cities, they lose not just their innocence. The rurality and serenity will disappear for street lights and car horns. The taboos will stretch to accommodate the red-light district because the big city has to cater for all kinds of appetites. There will be squatters, slums and sewage problems. When villages transform into towns and then into big cities, their characters change and they become wholly unrecognizable organisms from what they once were.

Bigger  cities have more educated people, and that group is often more welcoming to strange progressive ideas. Big cities grow and acquire size not by breeding like rats,  but by welcoming outsiders in large numbers. And with people comes the influx of new cultures. So, such enlargements bring inescapable cultural diversity which might upset locals for a while.  

Cultural diversity means that in becoming big, a town loses its original DNA, its genetic integrity, its homogeneity and becomes a mongrel. The socio-political evolution that ensues is rarely harmonious. Cultures will clash,  but more importantly, political and religious tendencies may lock horns. One annoying thing about having your village become a big city is witnessing outsiders take the  front  seats  in  the  town  Union  meetings if and when they still exist.

That dissolution of traditional hierarchies allows the outsider to occupy echelons of powerful authority reserved for natives. Cultural diversity brings good things- new foods, new music, and new tastes. It dilutes and enriches. But it brings new friction and tensions. When a village becomes a big city, its demographics change. And voting patterns change. The Igbo say. If the poor man is told what it cost the big man to be rich, he might choose to remain poor.

After the Biafra civil war, the Igbo were broken, poor and jobless. Many crept out of the villages and poured into the cities in search of food and jobs. Onitsha was a  commercial  center  before  the  war. So folks returned to Onitsha and its ruins to restart their lives. By the return of democracy in 1979, Onitsha had regained its status as the commercial heartbeat of Igbo land. As Onitsha throbbed, more people trooped in from every part.

Property prices skyrocketed and Onitsha indigenes most of whom preferred white-collar jobs to trade sold their properties and receded into the inland town. As the town boomed, a dichotomy between the non-indigenes and the indigenes which had existed since time immemorial was exacerbated. Non-indigenes sought a slice of political authority. Now outnumbered, the natives felt that the setters whom they had accommodated had begun to sit on their scrotum.

But it was inevitable. The Onitsha people had always reminded the settlers that they weren’t Igbo. The surging numbers of settler Igbos left the native with diminished electoral strength. The non-indigenes moved to influence local political control of Onitsha by supporting fellow non-indigenes in local elections. But Onitsha has matured now. Nobody bothers about the ancestral origins of candidates any longer. Onitsha has become one and its commercial explosion has almost swallowed neighbouring communities like Nkpor, Obosi and parts of Ogbaru and Oba. The character of Onitsha now reflects the character of the entire southeast.  

Onitsha isn’t as large and as complex as Lagos. So it’s puberty came early and smoothly. Lagos isn’t Onitsha. Lagos is Yoruba. The integration of non-Onitsha Igbos into Onitsha politics would have been more difficult if language, ethnicity and political allegiances were markedly different. In Lagos inter ethnic suspicions and rivalries existed before the civil war. And since 2015, non-Yoruba residents have begun to assert themselves politically to the chagrin of many Yorubas. After the last presidential elections, a new inter-ethnic tension developed between the Yoruba and the Igbo.

The noticeable shift in the allegiance of the Lagos electorate has been blamed mostly on Igbo migration. The shock defeat of Tibunu in Lagos wasn’t due to the Igbo alone,  but the Igbo, in being the largest non-Yoruba speaking group in the state, must take the brunt for the landlord losing his state to an Igbo politician.  It didn’t matter that many Yoruba youth said they were tired of the two major parties and opted for a fresh idea.  It was enough that in many places like Amuwo Odofin where the Igbo dominate, the president-elect Tinubu who hails from Lagos lost by a startling margin.  

Like Onitsha, Lagos will go through it and mature. The tensions will dissipate. Lagos natives are accommodating and peaceful. Only peace and unity can make Lagos prosper. Ultimately the people of Lagos will focus on good governance and won’t remember the ancestral origins of a good candidate when choosing leaders. The DNA of Lagos has changed forever. Like the DNA of Abuja, London and all big cities. All groups will matter and every vote will count. Politicians must work to unite the people and alleviate poverty. Newcomers can assert themselves democratically without   triumphalism. Rapidly growing cities need mature politicians to explain and smoothen sociological tensions.