Southern elite threatens to split from Nigeria: Post-election coup angers the Yorubas

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BILLBOARDS on the way into the southern town of Abeokuta still proclaim Chief Moshood Abiola as the champion of Nigerian democracy, as if the military coup that snuffed out his chances of becoming the elected president had never happened.

For many Nigerians, the recent struggle has had less to do with democracy than the desire of the Yorubas - the second biggest ethnic group in a country that is home to more than 250 tribes - to have one of their own as president.

If Chief Abiola, a Muslim millionaire philanthropist, had been a northerner from the biggest ethnic group, the Hausas, the wave of demonstrations and strikes that almost paralysed the south-west in the past four months would surely not have occurred.

Nowhere is the feeling that the Yorubas are not getting a fair deal in modern Nigeria, stronger than Chief Abiola's home town of Abeokuta. There is an Abiola bookshop here, and Abiola graffiti everywhere.

From a poor family, Abiola won a scholarship to study accountancy at the University of Glasgow, and became a vice-president of the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation. Then on 12 June he won the election to become the country's first elected president from the Yoruba people of south-western Nigeria.

But Abiola was never allowed to take office, because the military strongman, General Ibrahim Babangida, a Hausa from central Nigeria, annulled the election and installed a weak civilian administration that lasted 82 days before another general, Sani Abacha, from the predominantly Hausa northern city of Kano, overthrew it on 17 November.

The conflict between the Hausas and the Yorubas is centuries old. It led to the collapse of the Old Oyo state in the early 1800s. Later, in the anti-colonial struggle, the Hausas attempted to delay independence, fearing that the more educated southerners would dominate them.

The first European Christian missionaries called Abeokuta 'a sunrise in the Tropics', but really it was historically a town of wanderers. It was founded in 1829 by the Egba chief, Sodoke, who led a group of refugees from the wars and banditry that followed the collapse of the Old Oyo state.

Twenty years later there began an influx of former Yoruba slaves, freed by the Royal Navy and deposited in Sierra Leone, as well as some from Brazil and the Americas. It was a volatile mixture.

The Church Missionary Society recruited some of the former slaves to spread the Gospel in West Africa, and they set up Nigeria's first newspaper in Abeokuta, the Yoruba language Iwe-Irobin. Sold into slavery by traditional African rulers, the former slaves believed that African development could be won only by integrating Western concepts into traditional government and society.

In 1865, traditional authorities and the Western-educated elite in Abeokuta set up an autonomous government, which resisted colonial domination until 1914. 'The political rebels of the last century also rebelled against orthodox Christianity,' Mr Soyinka said. 'They broke away and formed their own independent, heavily Africanised churches.'

The mixture of African and Western ideas brought Abeokuta and its favourite sons, once evangelists of Western Christianity, to the forefront of the anti-colonial struggle. As Laray Danzer, a scholar on Yorubaland, has written: 'Even as they helped to usher in colonialism, they were shaping the intellectual tradition that would ultimately lead to its overthrow.'

The list of personalities that has emerged from Abeokuta reads like a Nigerian Who's Who: Wole Soyinka, the Nobel prize-winning author, Chief Abiola, General Obasanjo, Fela Kuti, the singer, Dr Beko Ransome Kuti, the human rights activist, Chief Ernest Shonekan, the industrialist head of the overthrown interim government.

In the modern political era, the Hausas have clearly had the upper hand. The only Yoruba ruler of Nigeria, also from Abeokuta, was General Olusegun Obasanjo, who had power foisted on him after an assassination, and was the only military leader voluntarily to relinquish power to an elected civilian government.

General Babangida's denial of office to Chief Abiola has intensified the divisions, prompting many Yorubas to speak seriously of secession for the first time since the Ibos of eastern Nigeria tried to break away during the Biafran civil war, with tragic consequences.

'The monopoly of power stays where it has always been,' Mr Soyinka said at his Abeokuta office. 'It will be trouble. I do not see how people in the south will respond to the success of a non-southerner in the next election.'

Many Nigerians view the Yorubas as a loud, aggressive people who have adopted too many of the trappings of European culture. 'Often we find ourselves accused by the rest of the nation of causing trouble,' Mr Soyinka said. 'The country would be unified except for the arrogance of Abeokuta. They think the Yorubas know too much; they think they are too clever. They are accused of taking all the plum jobs, in the judiciary for instance. We were the first lawyers to come out, so we sort of monopolised the judiciary. Natural litigants, it is part and parcel of our general cantankerousness.'

Many believe that the traditional Yoruba religion, with its pantheon of deities, rather than Christianity, deserves credit for the Yoruba spirit. It is a hardy religion, having survived the arrival of Christianity and Islam, and remains deeply rooted among the descendants of slaves living in the Caribbean and Brazil.

'The Yoruba allocates to every deity some kind of flaw,' said Mr Soyinka. 'It brings them down to mortal level, it makes them accountable, makes them undergo penance. It is very sophisticated, which is one of the reasons why it has survived in the Americas.' It is perhaps the belief in inherently flawed deities and their implied forgiveness that holds the threads of hope that Nigeria will remain a united country or, if it splits, a peaceful one. 'They might not accept, and they are fighting all the time, but there is forgiveness,' said Mr Soyinka. 'So when it is all over, the people who have wronged them do not remain permanent pariahs.'

(Photograph omitted)