By Azu Ishiekwene
When King Charles, the head of the Church of England, is crowned on May 6, there would be two very unusual non-Protestant special guests at the ceremony, among others: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak who is Hindu; and the Leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and next First Minister of Scotland, Humza Haroon Yousaf, a Muslim.
Not two unusual guests. Three, actually. The third, Ireland’s Prime Minister and son of a Hindu Indian doctor, Leo Varadkar, is openly gay; one of the only five openly gay world political leaders.
It gets even more interesting. Before King Charles’ arrival at Westminster Abbey, the Muslim Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, would be waiting. Buddhist Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, would be in charge of security; Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, whose mother is a Sierra Leonean, would be on hand to welcome dignitaries; and the cashier for this extraordinary event and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, would also be there with his Chinese wife.
King Charles who himself is father-in-law of African American Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, appears to have embraced this new multicultural face of modern Britain.
Three weeks and two days after King Charles’ coronation and about 3,900 miles away, another crowning would be happening in Nigeria – the inauguration of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who won the recently concluded election on the ticket of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
The names and faces speculated for Tinubu’s cabinet are nothing remotely resembling the Westminster mosaic. The inauguration, in fact, comes on the heels of one of the fiercest, most fractious waves of ethnic tension in the country following a general election.
Politicians stoked the old, dangerous religious and ethnic fault-lines leaving the country more divided than it was before the polls. The fiction that tribe and tongue was dead and that the last general election would be the burial ceremony appears to be well and truly over.
Even though Nigeria’s highlife music legend, Oliver De Coque, famously said, “Ana enwe obodo enwe” (literally meaning a town is owned), before Nigeria’s civil war ethnic tensions were not as salient. Politicians made home wherever they found themselves.
That was why for many years the Nnamdi Azikiwe-led National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) dominated politics in the West, especially in Lagos, even though Azikiwe was from the country’s South-East. Some of closest confidantes of the Premier of the Northern region and leader of the Northern’s People’s Congress (NPC) Sardauna of Sokoto Ahmadu Bello were from outside the core Northern region.
Businessmen and women from the South-East, concerned mainly about creating wealth and prosperity invested in Lagos and in other parts of the country without qualms, while Nigeria’s civil service reflected not quota or ethnicity, but competence and merit.
And then the war happened. In spite of Nigeria’s efforts to heal and reconcile after the three-year civil war the genie of tribe, religion and ethnicity was released, first by the military, and then by politicians, turn by turn. The country has now spent the last five decades struggling with the worst demons of identity crises. We are still trying to answer the question, who are we?
The presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, for example, campaigned in the South East that he deserved their vote because he has an Igbo wife. And then, to the embarrassment of his Igbo wife, he went to the North to say, “only a Northern president can best serve the interest of Northerners.” Others are on their own.
When one of Nigeria’s leading entrepreneurs, Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, said Igbos in Lagos who were attacked during the recent elections should rest assured that the “Yoruba rascals” responsible for it won’t go scot free, he didn’t mean to further stoke ethnic tensions.
In an election in which victims of violence were not only Igbos, but even some who looked like Igbos, however, Iwuanyanwu obviously forgot that it was not only his kinsmen that deserved protection from “rascals,” but indeed every voter or citizen in harm’s way.
The kindred spirit in Iwuanyanwu long silent in the face of the horrific violence in the South-East that has claimed the lives of scores of innocent people in the last few years, mostly Igbos, found expression hundreds of miles down South when, as a red cap chief, he felt obliged to stand up for kith and kin.
Yet, such awkward moments in Nigeria are not only the lived experiences of red cap chiefs, politicians, or indeed ordinary citizens. Some years ago, I experienced it firsthand. My son, then in his early 20s, refused to fill out the part of a form that required his “state of origin,” on the grounds that the only state he knew was Lagos, his state of residence.
How did Britain which appeared to be one of Europe’s racial and multicultural backwaters before 9/11 manage to reinvent itself in two decades while the bright hope of one Nigeria appears to have fallen off the wagon?
What has Britain done differently? It has not arrived yet, especially with lingering concerns about its policing and the virtually white top echelons of FTSE 100 firms. Yet the British parliament has grown from 2001 when there were only two Muslim MPs to 19 four years ago. After the 2019 election, 66 or 10 percent of Members of the House of Commons were from ethnic minority backgrounds.
The changing face of British politics was not an accident. It was not entirely unforeseeable a decade ago that Sunak, Varadkar and Yousaf would rise to the top. Once Asians, who make up one-tenth of the British population, grew from their corner shops, became prominent in the economy and deepened integration while recognising their minority status, their rise to political prominence was only a matter of time.
Even though more political parties would be represented in Nigeria’s 10th National Assembly than at any other time in the last 24 years, tribe, religion and ethnicity are still heavily in play. The evidence re-echoed in the recently leaked audio of Labour Party candidate, Peter Obi, allegedly telling a Pentecostal pastor that the 2023 election was a “religious war.”
The younger population, less attached to ethnicity and religion, tend to have a more liberal attitude. My son, for example, like many of his generation, was prepared to forfeit a business opportunity if filling out his “state of origin” was a precondition for eligibility.
In the rat race for nativism, not many appear to be concerned about the rapidly dwindling resources from commodity rent, combined with an even more rapidly growing population. Or that squabbles over spoils not only divide citizens from different states but also those from the same states but from different local governments and communities.
On top of this, our institutions are still very weak. Not much gets done except you know someone or know someone that knows someone. Not that ethnic diversity is a bad thing in and of itself. The US, perhaps one of the world’s most successful stories of a melting pot, is proof of the power of the rainbow.
Nigeria’s story has been one of how not to play ethnic or identity politics. It has been a story of how to weaponise identity to serve a small political elite that hardly remembers or cares where the next man is from when they gather to share the booty.
The way to keep the “rascals” at bay is to recognise that it’s not only street thugs that should be called out. Thugs across party lines in the corridors of power dressed in fine, flowing garbs or stiff collars are just as guilty.
If we’re serious enough, it shouldn’t be hard to produce the sort of mosaic inner circle expected at Prince Charles’ coronation at the inauguration of a Nigerian president. Britain offers a usable example.
Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP