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Splits In Ethic Group Cast Shadow Over Obasanjo's Political Future

Nigeria’s Yoruba ethnic group won a victory of sorts two years ago when one of their own, president Olusugun Obasanjo, was elected president. Since gaining independence from Great Britain over 40 years ago, Nigeria has usually been ruled by military men from the mostly Muslim and Hausa speaking north. The Yoruba are concentrated mostly in the southwest. They are Muslim, Christian, and some still follow tradition, or animist, religions.

Yoruba solidarity is crucial for another election victory for president Obasanjo, or another Yoruba candidate, in the 2003 elections. But solidarity may not be certain. There are various groups of Yoruba emerging, not all of whom support the president, or his agenda. They are divided over various issues that affect the country’s 35 million Yoruba, including how far they should push for regional power, or even seccession.

Shaping the debate are candidates promoted by one of three influential movements. They include the long-established socio-political group called Afenifere. It supports a sovereign national conference to determine a new constitution guaranteeing ethnic rights based in large part on a strong ethnically based region.

A newer group, the Yoruba Council of Elders, would also like stronger rights for the six states that make up Yorubaland, but would rather amend the current constitution inherited from the last military government. The third group may have the youngest and most radical membership: the Oodua People’s Congress. During military rule, it encouraged the Nigeria’s 35 million Yoruba to break away from Nigeria. Today, it favors vigilante groups for crime control and protection of Yoruba wherever they are in Nigeria. Critics call them xenophobic, and accuse them of instigating bloody rioting in Lagos against other minorities earlier this year.

Traditionally, the most influential of all these movements has been the Afenifere. Politically, Afenifere has defended the rights of the Yoruba during decades of control by Nigeria’s mostly northern military.

Many Afenifere describe themselves as progressives, and say they hold to the more or less socialistic vision of their founder Chief Abafemi Awolowo with free education and health services for all. They have also pressed for greater regional autonomy from what have often been northern-led military governments. When political parties are given a chance to form, they are reluctant to form alliances with northern political groups.

Today, Afenifere is closely linked to the Alliance for Democracy party, which has scored well as a regional party, winning several governorships in the southwest.

However, Afenifere member, Dr. Joseph Olowofela, says his group is not dogmatic, and do have conservatives within their ranks who are willing to negotiate with northern parties. He says one was the presumed winner of the 1993 presidential elections, Chief Moshood Abiola. He died after being imprisoned for protesting the military’s annulment of those polls.

Dr. Olowofela says, “If you look at the issue of the political inclination of the late “generalissimo” of Yoruba land, Chief Abiola, his politics has been towards conservatism. He was a conservative politician.

Predominantly Afenifere are progressives, but then when he won the election given to him by the majority of Nigerians, the Afenifere did not reject him because his politics or political background had been towards conservative politics, rather they rallied round him and fought Abacha’s regime tooth the nail. That is the issue with Afenifere. You may not be an active member but they [Afenifere] will never support what is wrong, most especially when it comes to Yoruba nation.” The Afenifere are being challenged by the Yoruba Council of Elders and the radical OPC [Oodua People’s Congress].

The Yoruba Council of Elders, or YCE, is composed of prominent but older Yoruba with more moderate views. Their membership cuts across three registered political parties in country. Observers say the group came into being as an alternative to Afenifere.

Dr. Kunle Olajide is the assistant secretary general of the Yoruba Council of Elders. Dr Olajide says the YCE provides a rallying point for all Yoruba, despite their varying political ideas. He also says Afenifere’s support for a single party will not help the Yoruba to move forward.

Dr. Olajide said, "The more educated you are, the more and different opinions there would be in society and in any case the one party system is anachronistic. It is very primitive, it is no longer in vogue virtually anywhere in the world. So as far as we are concerned we want Yorubas to be very vibrant and active in as many political parties as they believe in this country. And this is why we believe that since Afenifere has said it can not be separated from the Alliance for Democracy political party.

"[But], we must have an organization where all Yorubas irrespective of their political leanings can come in to discuss the interest of the Yoruba and to promote the Yoruba, not necessarily any partisan political opinion.”

The Yoruba Council of Elders strongly supports President Obasanjo, while many in Afenifere remain mistrustful. They believe his lifetime in the military has made him a pawn of the largely northern-run military.

Many in the YCE say they want to play a moderating role, like the ones played by traditional kings and chiefs. They have not endorsed any party, though many unofficially support President Obasanjo as a native son of Yorubaland. Like Afenifere, the Council supports greater state powers and resource control.

Both Afenefere and the Yoruba Council of Elders have often called for moderate and non-violent changes within the federal system.

Less likely to tolerate that system is the Oodua People’s Congress. This younger and more radical Yoruba group is no longer as strident as they were under military rule, when some of their members called for a sovereign Yoruba state. On the other hand, many do call for a separate police force made up of vigilantes to control crime, and for protections of Yoruba wherever they are in Nigeria. Earlier this year, the OPC was banned for its role in attacks on ethnic and Muslim neighborhoods in Lagos and other cities in the southwest.

The OPC, like the Council of Elders, does not support any particular political party. It does support a sovereign national conference. But it goes back to the early days of independence for their ideal of statehood, when the country was made up of a handful of regions that each controlled its own resources, including budget, police, and educational systems. The federal government’s most important role was conducting foreign policy.

Many Yoruba are asking all three groups to come together and put any differences they have behind them. In particular, they want to be sure that the Yoruba unite behind a single candidate in the 2003 presidential elections. At this point, the likely candidate is President Obasanjo. But in a country where the north has ruled for over 30 years, the fear remains: if the president fails to carry his own region, it could be decades before another Yoruba sits in the presidential palace.