Just before genocide broke out in Rwanda in 1994, a broadcaster on the Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) had said: “Someone must … make them disappear for good … to wipe them from human memory … to exterminate the Tutsi from the surface of the earth.” That statement, among others, from that Kigali-based radio which broadcast from July 8, 1993, to July 31, 1994, became the tinder that set Rwanda on fire. By this time next week, the 2023 Nigerian general elections would have been concluded. However, like the shrew – the asin – which leaves in its trails pungent and breath-ceasing smell, the elections, perhaps unwittingly, have endangered social cohesion among ethnicities and set Nigerian unity back by almost a century.
RTLM broadcasters got enveloped in crude jokes and usages of offensive language that have today been held to have contributed highly to the 1994 genocide. Though figures of casualty are still being disputed, from April 7 to July 9, 1994, a total of between 600,000 and 1000,000 people were either macheted or shot to death in the Rwandan inter-ethnic animosity. While the government claimed that 1,074,017 people were killed, 94% of whom it said were of Tutsi ethnic origin, Human Rights Watch said casualties were 507,000. In contrast, the Journal of Genocide Research, in a 2020 report, claimed that the official figure earlier given was not credible, situating it at between 500,000 to 600,000 deaths. What was however incontestable was that the genocide left thousands of widows, many women raped to death and hundreds of them infected with HIV. Thousands of children also made up an approximate figure of 400,000 who became orphans.
The radio was so oblivious of how it was leading the country to a funeral parlour. Only 1.52% of its airtime was dedicated to news and on the contrary, a huge 66.29% of its airtime saw its broadcasters espousing incendiary thoughts. The radio broadcast mainly anti-Tutsi propaganda during this period just as it characterized Tutsi as dangerous enemies of the people whose aim was to hijack political power and elbow Hutus out of power. Almost on a daily basis, RTLM amplified ethnic and political divisions. One of the most notorious profiling it made was labeling the Tutsi as inyenzi – non-human pests or cockroaches, which must be wiped out for their irritancy. Two hundred and fifty-two broadcasts by RTLM called for Hutus to machete Tutsis to death.
Nigeria is unwittingly going down this cadavers-full road. Its own RTLM are social media ethnic irredentists who have no idea of what it means to fight war. These cyber warriors get reinforced by notable leaders in the country who fuel ethnic politics. Can you notice any dissimilarity between RTLM’s “making them disappear for good” and a Nigerian leader calling for the “throwing of an ethnic group inside the lagoon,” so that they can be feasted upon by sharks?
Rwanda of 1994 is an African sore thumb that hangs out as an eerie lesson for every ethnicity under the human race to avoid. It describes in short sentences how hatred-laced speech and sporadic threats of violence can effectively help to spread genocidal prejudice across the length and breadth of society. Today in Nigeria, politics and politicians have groomed a deeply divided Nigeria, whose divisiveness spans over a century. This is fuelled by extremist ethnic, political views and divisions that openly and mutually preach hatred and violence. We are almost arriving at that bitter Rwandan intersection.
Rwanda, pre-genocide had a lot of historical similarity with Nigeria, especially domination history. In a journal article entitled Prejudice, Crisis and Genocide in Rwanda, published in 1997 by African Studies Association and written by Peter Uvin, the author asked, in a pathetic evocation of our humanity, “how do situations come about in which people massively participate in brutal violence against their neighbors who have not harmed them?”
Today, Nigerians may need to ask themselves same question that Uvin asked. The greatest culprits of this widespread seeds of hatred and discord are the Yoruba and Igbo of southern Nigeria. Though mutually historically suspicious of each other since the 1950s, basing this suspicion on historic claims of betrayals that are at best mythic, the 2023 elections have far worsened this divisiveness, widening the crevices beyond tolerable level.
In tracing the history of Rwanda which I said shares similarity with Nigeria’s, Uvin submitted that, before the advent of colonization, a vast part of Rwanda was a monarchy dominated by a cattle-rearing ethnic group called the Tutsi. Fleeing famine and draught, Tutsi arrived in Rwanda from the North in the 15th and 16th century. They met an agrarian people called Hutu who themselves immigrated into this fertile land some centuries earlier from Central Africa. The two of them were predated by inhabitants called the Twa who were about one percent of the population and noted for pottery and hunting. The three groups were further joined, approximately a century ago, by an ethnic group called the Bazungu, descendants from central Europe who conquered Rwanda by force of occupation. They were “whites,” had an exclusive lifestyle and constituted about a percent population of Rwanda. They were however wealthy, owning sizeable shares of Rwanda’s wealth.
These ethnicities integrated over the years, speaking same language, believing in same God, sharing same culture and living side by side without rancour. Some ethnographers, on account of this, say that Rwanda had a single ethnic group and that no country in the world had this uniqueness. Sharing different ethnicities, they nevertheless possessed same characteristics. Their cohabitation made it difficult to distinguish between them, so much that, by the 19th century, after they had lived together for hundreds of years and intermarrying in the process, they became so integrated that the only way to categorize them was by their occupations. One was that, anyone who had a sizable herd of cattle was Tutsi.
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This unity was not to last for long. The Bazungu supported a Tutsi monarchy that dominated the others. The Tutsi kings were infamous for imposing taxes and ordering obligatory cash crops as means of payment of taxes, foisting on the people very cruel legislation and forced labor. When the Belgian colonizers came, they reinforced this by promoting the Tutsi hegemony. As powerholders, Tutsi commanded the top echelon of society. At the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, this Tutsi rule was overthrown by some educated Hutu who got schooled in Catholic schools after the Second World War. This radically altered and reordered the Rwandan political space. The two Hutu-led post-Independence regimes that came thereafter, under Gregoire Kayibanda of the First Republic, between 1962 and 1973; and the Second Republic, between 1973 and 1994 under General Juvenal Habyarimana, both sowed the seed that culminated in the genocide of 1994.
Like Rwanda, Nigeria has also had a history of domination by the Hausa-Fulani. I went into this long Rwandan history for two reasons; one to show that as Rome was not built in a day, it was not destroyed in a day either; and also, to show that unless Nigerians delink history of hate and violence from their mindset today, the resultant effect can be cataclysmic. In doing this, I will quote generously from a piece I did on November 6, 2022, entitled The abduction of Pa Reuben Fasoranti. With it, I intend to back my claim that historical and social roots can be located as responsible for the ethnic prejudice among Yoruba and Igbo today.
This mutual hatred didn’t start today. Two narratives feed its trough. The first was Nnamdi Azikiwe of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC’s) attempt to become the first Premier of the Western Region. Before then, tribal tension in the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM) had constituted a huge centre of distraction to the two ethnic groups.
Azikiwe didn’t hide his disdain for the Egbe Omo Oduduwa and its leaders. Indeed, the Egbe had not been formally inaugurated by the time Azikiwe’s NCNC, in December 1947, sponsored protest demonstrations against it, using the editor of the Pilot, F. O. Coker, as its peg. Zik and his party, the NCNC, went on to form the Yoruba Federal Union (YFU) as a counterpoise to and as such, weaken the Egbe. This was at a time of growing solidarity among the Yoruba. Zik and his crew launched the YFU on June 12, 1948, at Glover Hall, Lagos but were so tactless as to make the speakers at the inauguration be Azikiwe himself, Mbonu Ojike, a known Zik apostle and columnist in the Pilot, as well as Oged Macaulay, a known Zik ally. The YFU however suffered the fate of all politically concocted contrivances – it faded out.
The second point of antagonism between Yoruba and Igbo was Zik and Obafemi Awolowo’s struggle for the control of the western region. While the NCNC was founded in 1944 by foremost nationalist and Yoruba, Herbert Macaulay and who became its first president, Azikiwe was its first secretary. At Macaulay’s death, the mantel fell on Zik to lead the party. However, Zik’s usage of the Pilot to situate the Igbo ahead of other ethnic groups infuriated the Yoruba who walked out of him at the London conference.
Zik was said to have resisted suggestions that Adegoke Adelabu be made leader of the party in the western region while he held the position of national leader. He then contested the 1951 elections under a Macpherson Constitution which stipulated an indirect election to the regional assemblies through electoral colleges. Many of the NCNC members refused to vote for him, reportedly due to their having seen through his plan against Yoruba. They then aligned with Awo during the election. Zik was defeated, prompting his return to the eastern region with the belief that ethnic card was used by the Yoruba against him. Since then, the Igbo have held on to the belief that an alignment with the north is more sustainable than with the west. The inter-tribal political conflicts which ensued thereafter have been acerbic and constitute the basis of the gulf in political and even social relations among the two ethnic groups till date.
The civil war is the third and another major source of ethnic hatred between the two ethnicities. While knowledgeable Yoruba and even Igbo have put a lie to a mythic meeting between Awolowo and Biafran leader, Colonel Odumegwu-Ojukwu, where the former allegedly assured the latter that if the east seceded from Nigeria, the west would follow suit, this “betrayal” has worsened the symbols and narratives of relationships between the east and west.
The combination of all these led the east to prefer political relationship and association with the north, than with the west and vice versa. The only time when the west attempted to unite with its eastern brothers was in the 1962 imbroglio when the rump of the NCNC, represented by Michael Okpara, formed an alliance with the rump of Action Group which resulted in UPGA. S.L. Akintola, who himself had formed an alliance named NNDP, had made jest of the UPGA alliance in the Sketch of November 10, 1964, calling it “a club of grousers and grumblers.”
Since then, the socio-political relations between the east and the west have been ruled by mutual suspicion. The 2023 elections have taken it a notch higher, to a frightening level. Whether out of their communicated or uncommunicated actions, both Bola Tinubu and Peter Obi, with their parties, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Labour Party (LP) as well as their supporters, have instantly metamorphosed into becoming the duelers of the 1951 elections. In the east, it was a mixture of ethnicity and religion. I was told that the Catholic Church instructed its adherents to vote for the LP because its logo of a father, son and wife was equal to Joseph, the father of Jesus, Mary and Jesus Himself. Thus, voters believed that in voting the LP, they weren’t just voting their Igbo brother, they were voting for Jesus’ party. In the west, a vote against Tinubu was a vote by bastards of Yorubaland. All the divisive narratives since 1951 then resurfaced, with sophisticated but destructive symbols.
Mundane indices like ethnicity and religion ruled the February 25 election. While the southwest was even fairer by allowing the LP to penetrate its zone due to the sophisticated nature of its intelligentsia, the southeast was unilineal in its voting pattern, voting for nothing else but its son. This is what worsened the already fragile relations between the Igbo and Yoruba in Lagos especially, leading to saber-rattling and bellicose narratives, pushing both ethnicities towards the road to Kigali.
The winner of the 2023 election, in my view, is the northern region of Nigeria. In what will appear its first ever since the First Republic, the north showed the west and the east that it was more knowledgeable, more accommodating and more politically sophisticated than them. Not only didn’t it vote according to region, religion or ethnicity, it paved way for both Tinubu and Obi to enter its electoral spaces.
If the bellicose armies of tribe have not set western and eastern regions on fire by this weekend when the final elections would be held, the two ethnicities must return to the drawing table after the election and enter their own Arusha Accord as the ethnicities did in Rwanda. Their Accord must contain how to begin all over again. The current ideology of discourse, especially on the Lagos State gubernatorial election, is tottering on the path of genocide, the type that was present in Rwanda preparatory to the 1994 killings.
The systematic discrimination by the ethnicities has provoked what can be called a prejudicial ideology. While the Yoruba maintain the stranger-ness of Igbo in Lagos, Igbo have also maintained same of Yoruba in their land. It can be likened to what happened preparatory to the genocide against the Jews by Germans.
We must destroy this structure of discrimination that exists between the Yoruba and Igbo. In the same vein, we must eliminate the ethnic prejudice that is daily radicalizing the existing structure constructed in the 1950s. It is daily nurtured by profound and divisive images on the social media. If this is not done quickly, we will arrive faster than we imagined at a 1994 Rwanda where Hutu identified and targeted their Tutsi neighbours to be macheted to death.