Air Peace, Wike And Nigeria’s Ethnic Turbulence

By Casmir Igbokwe

Nigeria’s leading airline, Air Peace, experienced turbulence recently. But it was not in the air. It was on Nigeria’s social media space where ethnic jingoists decided to deploy a major tool in their arsenal – hate speech. It was soon after the inaugural flight of the airline to London on March 30, 2024. The occasion was supposed to be a moment of joy for every Nigerian because for the first time in a long while, Nigeria has an airline that flies its flag internationally at an affordable fare. Rather than hail the management of that airline for this great feat, some citizens decided to devote their time to mundane issues about the dress code of the cabin crew.

These Nigerians were not happy that the crew wore what they termed Igbo attire (jackets sewn with Igbo traditional ‘Isi-Agu’ fabrics) for the flight. Some individuals even threatened not to have anything to do with Air Peace again. They went as far as canvassing for the boycott of the airline. The questions are: what do these ethnic jingoists expect the crew to wear? And what has the crew’s uniform got to do with safety, low fares and seamless flight which every passenger expects from an international airline?

Meanwhile, none of the people vomiting this tribal bile is more patriotic or more Nigerian than the Chief Executive Officer of Air Peace, Allen Onyema. In the heat of the xenophobia in South Africa a few years ago, Onyema volunteered his aircraft to evacuate stranded Nigerians of different ethnic and religious hue. He did the same thing during the recent crisis in Sudan. Many Nigerians who were beneficiaries of this gesture are eternally grateful to Air Peace.

True, ‘Isi-Agu’ fabric is associated with the Igbo. The owner of the airline is Igbo. I’m still wondering what crime he committed by showcasing the dress associated with the Igbo. Do we complain when we enter other international airlines and behold their crew dressed up to showcase their culture? If the crew members had worn ‘babanriga’, perhaps, nobody would have raised an eyebrow. Why are we like this?

It is this same mindset that informed the recent comment attributed to the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Minister, Nyesom Wike. It was during the demolition of a property belonging to Prince Nicholas Ukachukwu in Asokoro district of Abuja. Wike allegedly said he would deal with the Igbo in Abuja just as he dealt with them in Port Harcourt. He was quoted to have said, “Why should an Igbo man be given such massive land?”

Wike himself is Igbo of Ikwerre extraction. Even if he is one of those who believe they are not Igbo, must he go to the extent of denigrating an entire ethnic group just to achieve a motive or prove a point? Already, a group known as the Igbo Community Assembly has decried his alleged statement, saying it amounted to intimidation and disrespect. It called on President Bola Tinubu to intervene and call Wike to order. The group also called on Wike to publicly apologise to the Igbo within seven days or face the collective wrath of the Igbo and the gods of Igbo land.

In defending himself, Wike called Ukachukwu an ethnic jingoist and noted that the land in question did not have the approval of any minister, as it was allocated when there was no minister. He denied seeing any court order restraining him and the FCT administration from tampering with the property.

I am not interested in the legality or otherwise of the demolition. My concern is in the derogatory statement Wike allegedly made against the Igbo during the exercise. Did he actually make such a statement? I’m not sure he has denied it. All he reportedly said was, “Why do we behave like this in this country? We keep doing the same thing and expect different results. If you transfer a director, he would say, ‘Oh! It’s because I am Hausa.’ If you transfer another one, he would say, ‘it’s because I am a Muslim.’ But why?” To me, this is evasive. He needs to make a categorical statement on the alleged hate speech against the Igbo.

It is unfortunate that many individuals and groups in Nigeria view the Igbo with suspicion. Yes, they fought a bitter war with the rest of the country between 1967 and 1970. They lost millions of souls in that war. Since then, they have been crying of marginalization to no avail. The Yakubu Gowon regime had declared no victor, no vanquished after the war. His administration instituted what it called the three Rs: Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation. Today, there is no true reconciliation. Reconstruction and rehabilitation appear to be in the figment of the imagination of those who coined the phrase.  

In the political arena, the Igbo are nowhere near the corridors of power. They are not found worthy to be President of Nigeria. And this is not even the point. The main issue is that some politicians deploy hate speech and ethnic sentiment to shove them out of contest and out of relevance. The 2019 and 2023 general elections are typical examples. Those who felt threatened by the population of Igbo in Lagos started warning that they should stay clear of voting anywhere in Lagos. They engineered crisis in some parts of the city and attributed it to the Igbo. Anywhere there is crisis in the country, people target their shops and properties for looting and destruction.

As we continue our march to true nationhood, Rwanda offers us a good example of what hate speech does to a people. On April 6, 1994, serious crisis erupted in that East African country between the majority Hutu ethnic group and the minority Tutsi. There had been ethnic tension between these two groups. But what triggered the genocide against the Tutsi was the downing of the aircraft carrying the then Rwandan President, Juvenal Habyarimana, and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira. Everyone on board, including the two Presidents, who were Hutu, died in that incident.

Hutu extremists believed it was the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels led by the incumbent President, Paul Kagame, that shot down the plane. They set up radio stations and newspapers to attack the Tutsi people. Their chant of “weed out the cockroaches” (kill the Tutsi) eventually resulted in the killing of about 800,000 people (mainly Tutsi) in about 100 days. It took the invasion of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, by the RPF, backed by the Ugandan army, to restore normality to that country. The RPF took over power and Kagame, who has been President since 2000, frowned seriously upon ethnic sentiment in his country. His government outlawed anyone identifying himself by his ethnic origin. Today, Rwanda towers above many African countries in terms of socio-economic transformation and human development index. The country’s flag carrier, RwandAir, is doing well without any such distraction as whether the crew members wear Hutu or Tutsi traditional dress.    

While it may not be feasible to outlaw identification by ethnic origin in Nigeria, we can take certain steps to engender a peaceful and harmonious atmosphere. And the major thing we can do is to devolve power to the regions as it was done during the First Republic. Concentration of power at the centre is the root of our political problems. Every region struggles to grab power and run with it because having that power guarantees unlimited access to the resources of the country. It guarantees that the man at the helm appoints whoever comes to his fancy, mainly people of his ethnic stock, to what we consider juicy portfolios. We have the federal character principle, as enshrined in Section 14(3) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). It stipulates fairness and equity in the distribution of appointments and other entitlements in the country. But most leaders do not reckon with that constitutional provision. Nepotism, ethnicity, favouritism and such similar lexicons have become the cardinal principle of state policies. Merit is often relegated to the background.

The onus is on our leaders, both at the executive and legislative levels, to save Nigeria from perdition. Let there be an executive bill for the restructuring of the country. Let our lawmakers expedite action on the bill so that our federalism will truly be what it ought to be. Some small nations around us are getting it right. Liberia and Senegal are typical examples. They had seamless, free and credible presidential elections recently to the admiration of the whole world. Why can’t we do the same thing in Nigeria. President Bola Tinubu should save this country because time is running out.          

 

Re: Former governors and life pension

Casmir, the scriptures, without mincing words, was spot on in its unequivocal and categorical statement that; “the heart of men (ex and serving ministers, ex and serving presidents etc still receiving life pensions as ex-governors of their states) is desperately wicked”. There is truism in the statement that; monkey (tax payers) dey work, baboon (exploiters of docile followership) dey chop. But ‘one day’ baboon go go market, e no go return when ‘monkey vex’, because, baboon don ‘over do am’ as we say in local parlance. Out of office, these career politicians dont want to be weaned from the purse or treasuries of their states. Herein lies the idea behind the life pensions laws. While in office, they become addicted to a life of opulence & extravagance to oil the political structures that are kept for their lifelong future ambitions. Some of these present governors remain unperturbed by these notorious life pension laws, because they are potential beneficiaries. Thumbs up to the governors who have repealed this selfcentred law. But thumbs down to those who are yet to!

Mike, Mushin, 0816 111 4572

 

Casmir, most people that found themselves in different places as governors and top public servants often are carried away by the enormous goodies emanating from such portfolio that they forgot that there’s a time limit. Their failures to deliver the dividends of democracy stare them on their faces. They abhor anything that will make them come back to their original position before they got to office. The fear of the unknown forces them to bribe the house of assembly to enact such laws. Unfortunately, their greed and inefficient distribution of dividends of democracy creates a wide gully in the financial status of the governors and the governed. This has continued to bring tension among the governed. Governors and other public servants who excelled in the provisions of essential services to their people have no need for pensions after vacating their position because the progress of their subjects will always be a source of comfort and unquantifiable pensions to them.

Pharm Okwuchukwu Njike, +234 803 885 4922

•Also published in the Daily Sun of Monday, April 15, 2024

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