The King’s Speech: Reflections On Oba Akiolu’s Comment To The Igbo Community
by Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA
“On Saturday, if anyone of you, I swear in the name of God, goes against my wish that Ambode will be the next governor of Lagos State, the person is going to die inside this water.” Ever since Oba Akiolu, the King of Lagos said the above words to leaders of the Igbo community, the incident has become one of the most talked about topic in Nigeria. Some people have called for the king to apologise to the Igbo people, others have threatened to take him to the International Criminal Court, and others have created various memes on social media, which mock the king. Some people are still in denial and refuse to admit that the king made such a comment, while others are supportive of the comments.
To get a better appreciation of the significance of the event, it is important to examine the incident from a holistic point of view rather than focusing solely on what the king said. In the next couple of pages, I will try to analyse the event from a multi-dimensional viewpoint by examining a) The Speech b) The King c) The Venue d) The Supporters e) The Target and f) The Others
Before I proceed, I know some members of my ethnic group may be outraged with what I have to say. I may be called an idiot or a bastard, however, if this is the cost for pointing out injustice, then I consider it a prize worth paying.
To recap, on Sunday the 5th of April 2015, a group of Igbo leaders paid Oba Akiolu a courtesy visit. During the visit, the king advised the Igbo community to vote for his candidate Akinwunmi Ambode in the forthcoming gubernatorial election. He warned the Igbos that if they did not vote for his candidate, they would perish in the river within seven days. He said that the Igbos would prosper in the state if they heeded to his instructions. He pointed out that when the Igbos came to Lagos, they did not have houses but now they have properties. During the speech, Oba Akiolu also made reference to God and the ancestors of Lagos and swore in the name of Allah that the Igbos will die if they disobeyed him. He also warned the Igbos that they must not do in Lagos what they can’t do in Onitsha and Aba otherwise they will perish.
The comments made by Oba Akiolu has all the hallmarks of an extreme form of hate speech bordering on an incitement to commit genocide against the Igbos resident in Lagos State. The king’s speech dehumanized the Igbos and they appear to have been singled out for PDPs strong showing in Lagos during the recently concluded general election. This is despite the fact that people of other nationalities also voted for PDP and the actions of OPC probably dissuaded people from coming out en-mass to vote for APC due to fear of violence. The assertion that Igbos came to Lagos without houses and now have houses can be construed to be a threat that their properties are not safe if they go against the king’s wishes. In addition the statement that Igbos will perish in water is inflammatory and could possibly lead to violence. The speech breaches Chapter IV Section 34 of the Nigerian Constitution which states, “Every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person, and accordingly — no person shall be subject to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment.” It also breaches Article 25 (3) (e) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which states that a person who “directly and publicly incites others to commit genocide” has committed a crime against international law. While Article III of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide states “Direct and public incitement to commit genocide” is a punishable event.
In Yoruba culture, the king is given the utmost respect. Oba Akiolu as the king of Lagos is a high ranking king and a man full of authority. His influence extends to the 17.5 million people that live in the state. What he says carries a lot of weight and this was evident when people were clapping as he threatened the Igbos with sudden death. Since the king boasted that he should be called a bastard if his threat does not come to pass, this could motivate some of his subjects who revere him to attack the Igbos in order save the king’s face. Furthermore, in the event of an attack against Igbo people, the attackers can easily evade personal responsibility by appealing to the king’s authority.
Even though the speech was made at the king’s palace, Oba Akiolu’s area of influence covers the entire Lagos State. Lagos is a melting point where people of different cultures congregate. As the economic capital of Nigeria, it attracts people from the four corners of the country. Many Igbos have come to Lagos to live the Lagos dream. Igbos are very entrepreneurial and have been able to make a success of their sojourn in Lagos. They have set up shops, businesses, built houses, climbed the corporate ladder and are also making in roads into politics. From history up to the present, we learn that very often, when foreigners prosper in a foreign land, sometimes the host community becomes wary, especially in times of economic hardship. From Scripture, we learn that when the Jews began to prosper and multiply in Egypt, King Pharaoh stirred up the Egyptians against the Israelites saying, “Let’s figure out a way to put an end to this. If we don’t, and war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us and escape out of the country.” In the 1930’s, the Jews living in Germany were prospering as the nation was in economic hardship. A “King” by the name of Adolf Hitler instigated the Germans by accusing the Jews of causing Germany’s economic depression and the country’s loss in the First World War. In most parts of Europe, immigrants are currently being targeted as the continent recovers from the ravages of the Great Recession. In 2013, the Lagos State government deported some alleged destitutes of Igbo origin and “dumped” them in Onitsha.
When the king made his vitriolic speech, there were two categories of people listening, namely the supporters and the targets. As the king told the Igbos that they will perish in the Lagoon within seven days if they disobeyed his orders, some people were clapping and praising him saying “Kabiyesi.” Those cheering the king are the open supporters. They are a proxy for those who are prejudiced towards Igbos and do not hide their bias. Outside of the palace, there are other open supporters. There is another group of supporters called the closet supporters. Like the open supporters, the closet supporters also hold similar prejudiced sentiments towards Igbos, however they don’t express these sentiments in the public arena for fear of being called a bigot or tribalist.
The king’s speech resonates with many of these supporters and it has now provided an opportunity for closet supporters to openly express their prejudices. Shortly after the elections, the blame game began with our Igbo brothers and sisters at the receiving end. Comments like, “These Igbos voted for Goodluck”; “The Igbos are outnumbering the Yoruba’s in Lagos”; “Soon we will have an Igbo Oba or Governor in Lagos”; “The Igbos are buying properties even in Ijebu”; “Lagosians have sold their birthrights”; “My street is named after an Igbo man”; “Igbos keep saying Lagos is no man’s land,” has become the norm.
This is why the king’s speech is dangerous. In Scriptures, Jesus spoke about a farmer that went out to sow some seeds. He said some of these seeds feel along the path, some fell on rocky ground, some among the path and some fell on fertile ground. The king’s comments are like a seed, some people have brushed his comments aside while others have taken his comments as a joke. However, the king’s comment has found a home in the hearts of the open and closet supporters. Their hearts are fertile for the vitriolic statement to germinate and produce prejudiced and tribalistic fruits some a hundredfold, some sixty fold and some thirtyfold.
When the king addressed the Igbo leaders, he was also addressing all Igbo people living in Lagos State. The Igbos are the most persecuted ethnic group in Nigeria. Three million Igbos died during the Nigerian Civil War, out of which two million (mainly children) died from starvation resulting from the air blockade. A global audience watched in horror as images of the kwashiorkor-inflicted children of Biafra were beamed on TV. The use of “starvation as a weapon of war” against the Igbos led to the formation of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) an NGO, which provides medical facilities in war-torn regions. As a result of the civil war, 40% of Igbos died.
In the build up to the Civil War, comments like, “The Igbos are taking over Nigeria”; “The Igbos are clannish”; “The Igbos eat people”; “The Igbos are not human” became the norm. The Igbos saw their neighbours grass them up. As the civil war intensified, our Igbo brothers and sisters ran to their base and lost all hope as they tuned to their radios and heard influential Nigerians say, “All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder;” and “I want to see no Red Cross, no Caritas, no World Council of Churches, no Pope, no missionary and no UN delegation. I want to prevent even one Ibo from having even one piece to eat before their capitulation. We shoot at everything that moves and when our troops march into the centre of Ibo territory, we shoot at everything even at things that do not move.” The Igbos woe didn’t end with the cessation of hostilities. They saw their properties confiscated in the Northern, Western and Southern parts of Nigeria. The wealth of a whole generation of Igbo wealthy people was wiped after the war.
In today’s Nigeria, the Igbos have been key targets in the Boko Haram insurgency. So one can only imagine what our Igbo brothers and sisters are going through when they are told that they will perish in the Lagoon or when they hear that they want to take over Lagos. They must be experiencing déjà vu.
The others fall into two categories namely the activists and the bystanders. The king’s speech has generated a national outrage and many people have come out to condemn the king’s speech. A positive development has been the youth’s condemnation of the speech on social media. This is a possible indicator of a future where I hope that people will begin to be judged by the content of their character rather than by their ethnicity. A number of Yoruba people of influence have come out to condemn the king’s action and the two main political parties have expressed its dissatisfaction with the king’s speech.
However, there are many who are still standing by the sidelines and refusing to make a statement. For instance, the Lagos State Government should be able to do more to allay the fears of our Igbo brethrens. The State Government should also condemn the utterances of the king and make it clear that every citizen irrespective of tribe has the right not to be discriminated against. Evil prevails when men and women of goodwill chose to act as bystanders in the face of great moral conflict. It is therefore time for all bystanders to unfold their arms, stand up and say tribalism should no longer prevail in the land.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE
When we look at the king’s speech in isolation, it can be easily dismissed as either a joke or as an intervention in the political process. But we should not look at it within this narrow prism. The combination of a powerful and influential king who makes a vitriolic statement targeted at a marginalised ethnic group (within the historic context of a genocide that took place nearly fifty years ago) listened to by a supportive audience and ignored by passive bystanders in an environment of scarce resources is a toxic mix. We can’t afford to be silent.
In the next couple of day, the gubernatorial elections will take place, the outrage in social and mainstream media will simmer. People will go about their normal business and just as we swept aside the atrocities of the Biafra War with the “No Victor No Vanquished” concept, the king’s speech will be swept aside.
But as Edmund Burke once said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” So the Federal government needs to put in place a legal framework to address the issue of hate speech and incitement to commit genocide. Nigeria sits on a fault line of religious and ethnic tension. A misguided statement from the mouth of a person of influence could be the fuse that ignites the whole religious or ethnic powder keg. Furthermore, it’s time to address the Biafra question once and for all. I know this will be uncomfortable for many, but we cannot move forward as a country if we continue to sweep the atrocities of Biafra aside. As I have argued before, the issue of reparation for crimes against humanity inflicted at our Igbo brothers and sisters during the war needs to be considered.
A detailed account of the Nigerian civil war should be included in the school curriculum so that children can have a better appreciation of the importance of ethnic harmony. If there is space in our educational curriculum for Mungo Park, William Wilberforce and Lord Lugard, I see no reason why we shouldn’t create space for the root cause of the Civil War, the numbers of death during the war, the human sufferings as a result of the war and the lessons learnt from the war.
Finally, there needs to be a revolution in our collective thinking. Tribalism should have no place in our country. Ethnicity and nationality are not mutually exclusive concepts. It is not an either/or; it is a both/and. We can be proud of our Yoruba/Urhobo/Igbo heritage and still be proud to be Nigerian. Every Nigerian has the right to live in any part of the country without fear of harm. Lagos will always be in the South West so people should not be afraid that “outsiders” are coming to take the land. There is enough room for all of us to live in perfect harmony. We should also realise that we are all interdependent on each other. The South relies on the North for its beef; The rest of the country relies on the Niger Delta for oil; Our Igbo athletes and footballers bring joy and pride to all of us when they excel in global sporting events; our Yoruba financiers help lubricate the Nigerian economy. Nigeria is greater than the sum of its individual parts. So let’s put our differences behind and work towards making our great nation Nigeria greater.
I began this article by quoting a king and I will end this article by quoting another king — Martin Luther King who once said:
“WE MUST LEARN TO LIVE TOGETHER AS BROTHERS OR PERISH TOGETHER AS FOOLS.”
Eko O ni Baje
Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA