Over the weekend of 13-14 February the country’s escalating ethnic tensions boiled over in the Oyo State capital of Ibadan where Yoruba and Fulani youths clashed in local markets. Perhaps as many as 20 people were killed and several thousand Hausa residents were displaced in the clashes over the two days. The state government was forced to close down a major market and impose a 12-hour night curfew in those parts of the city which were worst affected.
The clashes have raised fears that there could be retaliatory attacks in northern Nigeria. Tensions are also escalating in many parts of the Southwest where clashes between Yoruba and Fulani having continued to spread. The likely retaliatory attacks in the North can be expected to target others besides the Yoruba with Igbos also likely to be attacked. This, in turn, will lead to retaliatory attacks in the East which could expand the ethnic violence nationwide.
President Muhammadu Buhari rather belatedly said that his government will not allow any ethnic or religious group to stoke up hatred and violence against other groups but the state governors appear to be divided along regional lines over the attacks. This has created an apparent lack of leadership as well as an absence of clear and cohesive messaging, both of which are essential to prevent an explosion of ethnic violence which could easily get out of hand throughout the country.
While the current ethnic violence appears to be a reaction to the escalating clashes between Hausa-Fulani herdsmen and indigenous farming communities, there are also strong political undercurrents. The violence is a strong push back against the ambitions of key Southwest politicians to succeed President Buhari in 2023. Lagos State’s former governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Ekiti State’s current Governor Kayode Fayemi have been caught in a no-win political battle by the current ethnic tensions in their home region. Speaking against the attacks on the Hausa-Fulani will appear by some to be a betrayal of their people, while their silence will come back to haunt them when they start campaigning for the Presidency. So far, Tinubu has been silent on the issue while Fayemi has tried to use his position as chairman of the Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF) to proffer solutions and criticise the violence.
Some are claiming that the current crisis is part of the agenda to push the candidacy of former President Goodluck Jonathan — who is being promoted by some governors from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) governors — in 2023. Jonathan is being touted as a compromise candidate if the current crisis makes the candidacy of a Yoruba or Igbo person difficult to sell in the North. The rebranding of Jonathan as a peace-loving person who will not rock the boat is seen as a good selling point in the North. The Central Bank of Nigeria’s (GBN) Governor Godwin Emefiele, who is from the South’s Delta State, is also said to be under consideration. Buhari is apparently open to both suggestions if that is what it will take to stop the presidential aspirations of Tinubu, whom some key people in the North do not trust despite Buhari being determined that the next president should come from southern Nigeria.