"The Yoruba want a regional autonomy that grants them access to natural resources and education"

Aderemi Suleiman Ajala

INTERVIEW to Aderemi Suleiman Ajala, an expert on Yoruba nationalism: “Yoruba complain of marginalization” in the Nigerian political system, he argues · Division among elites and among political representatives hinder an effective mobilization within the

Nigerian newspapers have been talking during the last days about the call for autonomy by several Yoruba organizations. The Yoruba form a majority (some 30 million people) in the south-western area of Nigeria. They keep a distinct cultural identity and, prior to European colonization, they ruled several powerful kingdoms and empires in the area they still populate. In order to have a more clear knowledge about present Yoruba politics, Nationalia has interviewed Aderemi Suleiman Ajala (University of Ibadan, Nigeria), one of the main experts on the Yoruba nationalism.

Several Yoruba organizations (the Yoruba General Assembly and the Yoruba Elders Forum among them) have recently asked for regional autonomy for the south-western area in Nigeria, the homeland of the Yoruba people. Which is the rationale for such a demand?

Yoruba in south-western Nigeria are set of people that valued development in terms of provisions of basic needs such as good education, roads, shelter, healthcare and other infrastructures that could enhance their livelihood. Since Nigerian independence in 1960, all these have gradually eluded the Yoruba people. However, the incidence is not only experienced by the Yoruba alone but across Nigeria. Since Yoruba had once enjoyed speedy and monumental development between 1951 and 1966 when regional autonomy (in terms of economic and social development drives) was granted in Nigeria, the Yoruba consider the political system, where regional autonomy would be granted on internal security, access to natural resources, education programmes, transportation, and other social programmes as the only way through which the region can again experience monumental development.

Nigeria officially styles itself as a federal country. Some of its federal units have an obvious demographic Yoruba majority, but it seems that Yoruba organizations do not consider them to be a true way of autonomy. Why?

In Nigeria, access to Federal power is determined by who and who are in the echelon of political posts. For instance the offices of the President and Vice President in Nigeria; the Senate Leader; Speaker of the House of Representatives; the Chief Justice and the President of the Appeal Court in Nigeria; Head of Armed Forces; the Inspector General of Police; Accountant-General of the Federation and the Key Ministers in the Federal cabinet are the top priority in access to federal political and economic resources. So at present, there is no Yoruba in any of those offices. So, Yoruba complain of marginalization.

However, that is the spirit of ethnic nationalism across Nigeria, where President in office shows ethnic aversion in appointment to those offices. During the regime of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo being Yoruba, Yoruba had many important positions in Federal government; during Umaru Yar'Adua regime being Hausa/Fulani, it was the Hausa-Fulani that dominated the Federal government and now that Goodluck Jonathan who is an Ijaw from South-south, most important offices in Federal government are occupied by the South-south people mostly the Ijaws or Ijaw related peoples. That partly explains the violent actions against Jonathan Goodluck regime from Northern Nigeria. Because they are cut off from federal political patronage. So Yoruba do not consider such arrangement as fair, since they are not well represented.

To what extent do Yoruba organizations have social support in Yoruba society? Could they mobilise Yoruba people in order to get their demands considered?

Not all the Yoruba organizations have widespread support in Yoruba land. Organizations such as Odua People's Congress still enjoy grassroots' support that cut across all the divides of the Yoruba people. But organizations such as Yoruba Elders Forum, Yoruba Unity Forum; Yoruba Consultative Forum; Afenifere Renewal Group; Yoruba General Assembly and some others do only enjoy sectional support. Partisan politics has polarised the Yoruba sense of political oneness and unity. Although this has been the Yoruba political attitudes and behaviours from time immemorial.

In Yoruba land it is difficult for a dominant political leader to emerge, rather alter ego in leadership ranges and as such divisions are often experienced that often lead to different political linings. In the past before 2003, such divisions are less feasible; but with the influence of Obasanjo the division has since being widening and causing fatal damage to the construction of Yoruba nationalism. Even the ever strong Afenifere group, that was the platform for the foundation of many Yoruba political parties such as Unity Party of Nigeria in 1978; and Alliance for Democracy in 1999; the organization seems to have lost its control of the Yoruba people starting from 2003 due to so many reasons. As at present, there is no single Yoruba organisation that could mobilise all Yoruba people for attainment of its nationalist struggles. This is because no organization has cohesive power, and the elites are fragmented in Yoruba land. There is even no organization in Yoruba land for now that has a clear definition of Yoruba aspirations in Nigerian socio-politics.

Has the Yoruba movement any important support outside the Yoruba community itself? This means not only in other parts of Nigeria, but also at the international level (countries that could support them and exert pressure on Nigeria, any influential diaspora...).

In the past, organisations like Afenifere, and Odua People's Congress enjoyed the political and financial supports from Yoruba in diaspora especially in US, UK and Germany. Through their efforts, international and non-governmental human rights organisations that bore the Yoruba sentiment of possible alienation in Nigeria supported the Yoruba movements. But at present there is no known activity of such organizations in support of Yoruba movement. Nonetheless, Yoruba abroad shares the aspirations of their kinsmen in Nigerian politics.

As for other Yoruba in West Africa, they show support for their kinsmen in Nigeria, especially when Yoruba are politically maltreated in Nigeria. A clear example was the annulment of June 12, 1993 Presidential election in Nigeria. The election was rumoured to have been won by a Yoruba man, but the result was annulled. So Yoruba in Benin and Togo, supported the Yoruba campaign for de-annulment of the election, which failed. Again when Obasanjo became the president of Nigeria in 1999, Other Yoruba in West Africa were very happy and they expressed their joy in Porto Novo in Republic of Benin, with large concentration of Yoruba.

As you said, Yoruba people are not only living in Nigeria, but also in neighbouring Benin and Togo. Is there any political project that aims to include all Yorubas under the umbrella of a single political unit across borders inherited from colonialism?

There is no such project yet, as Yoruba in Nigeria feels that it would be difficult to redraw international boundary. Again, Yoruba in south-western Nigeria considers nationalism as internal issue that has to be limited to Nigeria.

Which is the feeling among Yoruba people: do they consider themselves to belong to a Yoruba nation; or rather do they understand themselves to be part of a larger Nigerian nation?

Like any other national groupings in Nigeria, Yoruba first consider themselves as Yoruba and on rare cases see themselves as Nigerians.