[Read Article] The Oba’s Words Matter: Chimamanda Adichie Responds To The Oba Of Lagos’ Statement

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A few days ago, the Oba of Lagos threatened
Igbo leaders. If they did not vote for his
governorship candidate in Lagos, he said, they
would be thrown into the lagoon. His entire
speech was a flagrant performance of
disregard. His words said, in effect: I think so
little of you that I don’t have to cajole you but
will just threaten you and, by the way, your
safety in Lagos is not assured, it is negotiable.
There have been condemnations of the Oba’s
words. Sadly, many of the condemnations from
non-Igbo people have come with the ugly
impatience of expressions like ‘move on,’ and
‘don’t be over-emotional’ and ‘calm down.’
These take away the power, even the sincerity,
of the condemnations. It is highhanded and
offensive to tell an aggrieved person how to feel,
or how quickly to forgive, just as an apology
becomes a non-apology when it comes with
‘now get over it.’
Other condemnations of the Oba’s words have
been couched in dismissive or diminishing
language such as ‘The Oba can’t really do
anything, he isn’t actually going to kill anyone.
He was joking. He was just being a loudmouth.’
Or – the basest yet – ‘we are all prejudiced.’ It
is dishonest to respond to a specific act of
prejudice by ignoring that act and instead
stressing the generic and the general. It is
similar to responding to a specific crime by
saying ‘we are all capable of crime.’ Indeed we
are. But responses such as these are
diversionary tactics. They dismiss the specific
act, diminish its importance, and ultimately aim
at silencing the legitimate fears of people.
We are indeed all prejudiced, but that is not an
appropriate response to an issue this serious.
The Oba is not an ordinary citizen. He is a
traditional ruler in a part of a country where
traditional rulers command considerable
influence – the reluctance on the part of many
to directly chastise the Oba speaks to his
power. The Oba’s words matter. He is not a
singular voice; he represents traditional
authority. The Oba’s words matter because they
are enough to incite violence in a political
setting already fraught with uncertainty. The
Oba’s words matter even more in the event that
Ambode loses the governorship election, because
it would then be easy to scapegoat Igbo people
and hold them punishable.
Nigerians who consider themselves enlightened
might dismiss the Oba’s words as illogical. But
the scapegoating of groups – which has a long
history all over the world – has never been
about logic. The Oba’s words matter because
they bring worrying echoes of the early 1960s in
Nigeria, when Igbo people were scapegoated for
political reasons. Chinua Achebe, when he finally
accepted that Lagos, the city he called home,
was unsafe for him because he was Igbo, saw
crowds at the motor park taunting Igbo people
as they boarded buses: ‘Go, Igbo, go so that
garri will be cheaper in Lagos!’
Of course Igbo people were not responsible for
the cost of garri. But they were perceived as
people who were responsible for a coup and
who were ‘taking over’ and who, consequently,
could be held responsible for everything bad.
Any group of people would understandably be
troubled by a threat such as the Oba’s, but the
Igbo, because of their history in Nigeria, have
been particularly troubled. And it is a recent
history. There are people alive today who were
publicly attacked in cosmopolitan Lagos in the
1960s because they were Igbo. Even people who
were merely light-skinned were at risk of
violence in Lagos markets, because to be light-
skinned was to be mistaken for Igbo.
Almost every Nigerian ethnic group has a grouse
of some sort with the Nigerian state. The
Nigerian state has, by turns, been violent, unfair,
neglectful, of different parts of the country.
Almost every ethnic group has derogatory
stereotypes attached to it by other ethnic
groups.

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