Peter Obi and Nigeria’s silent minorities

On face value, the Peter Obi phenomenon currently sweeping across the Nigerian political space is driven primarily by youth demographics. His followers, also called “Obidients”, are mostly Millennials and Gen Z, aged between 18 and 45 years. Some even say they roughly approximate the #EndSARS demonstrators whose protests against police brutality rocked the country in October of 2020. Beneath the surface however, Obidients are much more than youths driven by adrenaline and facilities of the Information age. They include a multitude of other stakeholder groups long suppressed or sidelined by Nigeria’s unique brand of tyranny – a tyranny of the “majorities.”

For the purpose of this article, I shall refer to these other stakeholder groups who are currently coalescing under Obidience as the “minorities.” They are victims of systemic policies and politics of exclusion which has confined them to the fringes of their own society.

Perhaps the most obvious of these are the ethnic minorities, a large group of nearly 250 nationalities with distinct languages scattered across Nigeria. Their only crime is that as separate groups they are not as numerically strong as their three bigger neighbors – the Hausa, the Yoruba and the Igbo. For that reason, they have practically been relegated to the status of second class citizens in their own country.

The British were mostly responsible for creating this state of affairs. With neither the manpower nor the logistics to adequately control the vast territories they appropriated across the globe, they deployed the Indirect Rule System to make up for their inadequacies wherever they went. In Northern Nigeria for instance, British colonial officers struck a deal with Fulani Emirs (whom they had just defeated in battle) to stay on in power over the Hausa Talakawa on behalf of the British Crown. Together,the Hausa and Fulani then wielded power over the smaller ethnicities of the entire region.

This system was also implemented in Western and Eastern Nigeria, with modifications to suit the cultural uniqueness of each region. In essence, Nigeria was purpose-built by the British on giant pillars of guile, manipulation and oppression. It rests on a foundation of few vested interests controlling the vast majority. Community leaders were used to subdue and control their own peoples. The bigger ethnic groups were used to subdue and control the smaller ones.

While the role of paramount rulers over their peoples is widely acknowledged in colonial literature, the intimidation of smaller ethnic groups using their bigger neighbors is one of the most under-reported iniquities of British rule in Nigeria.

The term “Hausa-Fulani”is part of the fraud. There is no such group in reality. There are Hausa on the one hand and Fulani on the other. In physical appearance, language and other aspects of culture, they are two distinct ethnic groups – as distinct as the Zulu of Southern Africa are from the Mandinka of Western Africa.

While the Hausa are indigenous to the area, the Fulani are known to have migrated from their ancestral homeland of Futa Djallon in the region of present-day Sene-Gambia only a few hundred years ago. Between 1804 and 1810, under Uthman Dan Fodio, they triggered a series of revolts which overthrew the governments of the Hausa states and set up the Sokoto Caliphate. They (the Fulani) have since lived in the same region with their Hausa hosts, intermarried and adopted Hausa as lingua franca while keeping their native Fulfulde. But it does not make them one ethnic group any more than the Urhobo and the Itshekiri who live together in the vicinity of Warri.

It was British colonial officials who coined the term “Hausa-Fulani” in the process of setting up the Indirect Rule system. Why? The term was used to confer the numerical strength of the Hausa commonfolk on their numerically challenged Fulani overlords in order to justify a single proxy government over the two groups. So, the Hausa were the first majority ethnic group to be officially treated as a silent minority within the territory of modern Nigeria – purely for administrative convenience!

Next came the Igbo. Officially, they are listed as one of the three major ethnic groups in the country. But between 1967 and 1970, the Igbos went to war against the rest of Nigeria. When hostilities ended in January 1970, this group became a marginalized majority – effectively excluded from Nigeria’s top leadership ranks – just like the Hausa – for their effrontery.

Beyond the smaller, numerically disadvantaged ethnic groups, and the marginalized majority groups, Nigeria is literally brimming with other “minority” interest groups – all pushed to the political fringes by design or by default.

Women for instance constitute nearly 51% of the total national population according to the National Population Commission (NPC). But they account for less than 10% of persons in elective or appointed positions in the public service. And they bear the brunt of growing poverty among Nigerian households as homemakers and primary care givers.

In essence, Nigeria is one huge scam which thrives on systematically excluding the greatest possible number from the decision-making table. This heist is usually undertaken by a small number of clever individuals, masquerading as the majority, who carefully keep in place the indirect rule system inherited from the British.

It is one of Nigeria’s best kept secrets that all the “minority” and disadvantaged groups joined together actually make up the single largest and most powerful block – both numerically and politically. They are widely spread across the entire country – from the South-South to the far North.

The recent emergence of Peter Obi, an ethnic Igbo from the South-East, as easily the most viable Presidential candidate for the 2023 elections, stokes a new fire in the belly of these groups. They see him as a symbol of their yearnings for inclusivity in governance. This unspoken sentiment is made even more powerful by the fact that Obi’s wife, Margaret, is ethnic Ibibio (minority) by birth – from Akwa Ibom State in the South-South region.

So, behind Peter Obi today, we have what may be called an alliance of Nigeria’s political underdogs. It is not just that the man is evidently the cleanest, fittest and smartest of the the presidential candidates; he also embodies the secret aspirations of all the oppressed and sidelined. If he makes it to Aso Rock, they reason, he would have broken the glass ceiling.

How much political capital can this group muster? How many votes can they bring to the ballot? What is their electoral value? Quite a lot, it turns out. Apart from their combined numerical strength, they are widely spread across the country’s six geopolitical zones and their territories account for much of the country’s mineral and agricultural wealth.

Over the decades of their political marginalization, most of these groups have thrown their energies into education, enterprise and skills acquisition, making them some of the most advanced in Sub Saharan Africa, when it comes to human capital development. So, both quantitatively and qualitatively, this group is formidable. Any candidate or party they support is halfway to victory.

They are the the dark energy behind the meteoric rise of Peter Obi and the Labor Party. With them, Obi must make a fresh pact to undo past injustices. To do things differently and better. To treat every Nigerian citizen and group as an equal partner in the Nigerian project. To choose the path of inclusion. To banish the ghost of majority and minority politics forever.

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