The recent ethnic/regional clashes between some Yoruba youths and some people of northern Nigeria extraction at Mile 12, Lagos, is the latest in a series of clashes between host communities (indigenes) and ‘settlers’ across the country. Lagos, given its population, and ethnic melting pot character, is understandably one of the cities in the country where frictions between the Yorubas who are the indigenes of the city and others (the settlers) are quite frequent. In these frictions, it is pointless blaming any group. The sons and daughters of the soil (the indigenes) cannot be blamed for feeling under siege or that they are not ‘respected’ enough in their ‘homeland’. The ‘settlers’ on the other hand cannot be blamed for exercising their constitutionally guaranteed citizenship rights, which empower them to settle and do business in any part of the country as a matter of right – not favour. This feeling of entitlement on either side of the divide is often the basis of anti-immigrant sentiments in the West. We simply haven’t found a workable third way around this problem.
The online newspaper The Cable reported that the ethnic/regional clash at Mile 12 Lagos on Thursday March 4 2016 (which continued for a few days after despite curfews and the closure of the market) had been a fairly regular occurrence. The Mile 12 market is famous for its perishable food stuffs – tomatoes, yams, cucumbers etc from the northern part of the country. Traders from the northern parts of the country are well represented in the market – if not the dominant group there. Scores were reported dead in the clashes and properties worth millions of Naira were destroyed. To stem the violence, the Governor imposed curfew and ordered the market closed – a wise move that also has the unintended consequence of having adverse economic effects on the traders at the market especially as most of the goods sold there are perishable food stuffs.
According to the The Vanguard of March 5, 2016, the Mile 12 fracas started brewing on March 1 2016 when an “Hausa” commercial ‘Okada’ rider who was riding against the traffic knocked down a Yoruba woman. The woman reportedly sustained severe injuries and the Okada rider was asked to take her to a hospital but he refused on the grounds that the motorbike association, which collects tolls from them, should take care of the woman. It is not very clear from newspaper stories why the Okada man insisted on this rather strange course of action because Nigerians are usually compassionate, especially towards the sick and the dying.
A fight was said to have ensued between the woman’s co-tenants and the Okada rider who reportedly had the sympathy of people from his own regional/ethnic group. The paper reported that the matter was amicably settled by some community leaders. Unfortunately, however, the woman died the following day from the injuries she sustained. It was alleged that this fired some Yoruba youths into a revenge mission in defence of their ethnic in-group. The “Hausa” Okada rider also mobilized people from his own regional and ethnic groups and what ought to have been a simple matter quickly morphed into an ethnic/regional clash.
Since there is a tendency in the southern part of the country for all people from the north to be pigeon-holed as ‘Hausa’, especially if they are Muslims, it is not clear from the newspaper headlines if the Okada rider was really an Hausa man or merely someone from the north. Be that as it may, it is likely that the Yoruba youths that mobilized to fight for the woman who was knocked down by the Okada did so more out of a feeling that they were defending ethnic pride against the ‘disrespect’ and ‘ingratitude’ of ‘settlers’ than out of any pursuit of justice. For the Okada rider and his ethnic and regional brethren, it was probably more a fight to enforce their citizenship right of freedom to be treated like anyone else in any part of the country. And usually such clashes are preceded by the use of intemperate languages and profiling between the host community and the settlers. We will never know the role played by such intemperate language and profiling in the conflagration at Mile 12. As we all know identities that are perceived to be under threat are often very aggressively defended.
Let me mention that contrary to the impression in some quarters, the indigene-settler problem is found across the length and breadth of the country, even in villages that appear to have a homogenous population. It is however usually more politicised in some parts of the country because of the intersection of this dichotomy with other markers of identity such as ethnicity and religion. What the Mile 12 clash and others vividly tells us is that we need to revisit the indigene/settler dichotomy against people’s desire to robustly enforce their citizenship rights.
It is true that several efforts have been made in the past to resolve this tension. For instance in 2010 the House of Representatives sought to deal with the problem ‘once and for all’ when Hon. Sama’ila Mohammed (ANPP, Plateau State) sponsored a Bill, which would give Nigerians the right to be indigenes of any local government area in Nigeria if that person or the person’s parents migrated to that Local Government area before October 1 1960. Again during the discussion on amending the 1999 constitution in 2013 and 2014, one of the ‘bold’ proposals was for any Nigerian, who has lived in an area for ten years, to claim to be an indigene of that place.
Proposals such as the above only underscore the fact that indigeneship rights is quite often mistaken for citizenship rights – and it ends up worsening the relations between host communities and the “settlers”. For instance chapter Four of the 1999 Constitution outlines the Fundamental Rights of all Nigerians, including the right to be free from discrimination while Section 41(1) gives every citizen the right to “move freely throughout Nigeria and to reside in any part thereof.” Section 43 guarantees every citizen “the right to acquire and own immovable property anywhere in Nigeria.” These are citizenship rights. There are no constitutional provisions that make these rights dependent on indigene status. The constitution is right not to make these rights dependent on indigene status. What however it fails to take into consideration is that the parameters of nationhood remains contested across the country and that people everywhere are protective of their culture and ways of life and would often feel – rightly or wrongly - that ‘settlers’ are harbingers of destructive values. This is why people defend aggressively their citizenship rights when they are living outside their ‘homeland’ but will be uncomfortable when other people come to their own ‘homeland’ to exercise their citizenship rights. We need to recognize this fact and use it as a point of departure in finding amicable solutions to the intractable problem of indigene/settler problem. With increasing urbanisation and changes in the demographics of many cities, the need to find more lasting solutions to the indigene/settler issue will become more urgent.
I do not believe that the law alone will be sufficient to solve the indigene/settler problem. In fact one of the likely but unintended consequences of too much reliance on the law to solve the problem will be the exacerbation of a sense of siege among members of the host community. This will in turn unwittingly create bottled up feelings and mark out members of the ‘favoured’ ethnic group as targets of misplaced aggression.
Encouraging effective dialogue between relevant associations of the host and settler community, developing early warning systems and rapid intervention forces would have helped in dousing the tension generated by the unfortunate Okada incident at Mile 12.