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The Yoruba also travel

By FELIX OGUEJIOFOR ABUGU

It took us all of five hours from Ajao Estate, Isolo, on the international airport road, to get to Redemption Camp on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, where we finally came clear of the punishing gridlock. We had set out for a trip to the East at exactly 6am, driven in an in-good-condition (to say the least) Toyota SUV by portly, thoughtful, eyes-on-the ball Rashidi, a Muslim turned Christian who had been working with this Anambra family since 1993. Our calculation was that give or take, we would drive into Onitsha in another five to six hours or about 10.30- 11 that morning. We grossly miscalculated: as it turned out, we could only get to Redemption Camp at 11.09 am, after covering a distance of less than 30km!

There have always been gridlocks on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. These gridlocks surfaced at the start of reconstruction of the road some eight or so years ago when the then Jonathan Administration terminated the Obasanjo Administration’s concession agreement with Dr. Wale Babalakin’s Bi-Courtney, a construction firm, and re-awarded the road project directly to Julius Berger, the German construction giant. (Coincidentally, Berger had done the road up to the exact same Redemption Camp before the Jonathan Administration left office in 2015). But five hours in a gridlock for such a short distance was simply unexplainable. Just what was the problem?

Simple: the Yoruba were travelling. They were travelling to Abeokuta, Ijebu-Ode, Shagamu, Osogbo, Ede, Ilesha, Ibadan, Oyo, Ado-Ekiti, Akure, Ilorin, Igbomina, Kabba, Shaki, Fiditi and many other Yoruba towns and cities with large Muslim populations. Needless to say, they filled the roads—in cars, buses, trucks et al—in what was really a mass movement of this nationality, something that one had hitherto not experienced.

It used to be thought—or said—that only the Igbo travel home en masse to celebrate some religious or cultural festivals in their villages. To be sure, the Igbo massively travel home from wherever they are in the world to celebrate Christmas, Easter and, to a lesser degree, New Yam festivals. For them, those are the times that they take deserved breaks from their work and businesses to touch base with their kith and kin at home in the villages. But rather than see that as an imitable social inclination by which, through periodic reconnection with their roots, the Igbo promote social cohesion and cultural reawakening among themselves, in a world seized with a consuming ambition to digitize humanity and blunt our distinct cultural lines, many non-Igbo would rather sneer at it as another one of those ‘clannish’ characteristics of the Igbo for which they must be attacked.  After all, the argument often goes, why all the ballyhoo, as the Igbo tend to bring to bear on their celebration of ‘foreign’ religious festivals such as Christmas and Easter? Indeed, one gets the feeling that the whole furor over the propriety or otherwise of Christmas is targeted at making little of anything the Igbo hold dear in Nigeria.

But that myth has now been exploded: the Yoruba, not only the Igbo, also travel in their numbers—to celebrate Sallah, an Islamic festival. In fact, Rashidi told us that thousands of people must have left their homes as early as 4am on Thursday to go to nearby motor parks and board vehicles to their different destinations. Which means the gridlock could even have been worse had more travellers waited for the day to fully break before taking off to their destinations.

For me, this ‘Sallah mass movement’ of the Yoruba is really an interesting discovery. But, what is even more interesting is the debate likely to ensue as to the number of Muslims versus their Christian counterparts in Yoruba land and how that may be a factor in political calculations that make much of Southern Nigerian solidarity in the context of national politics. Would a Yoruba Muslim, for instance, rather support say an Igbo Christian presidential candidate, in fidelity to the geographical unity of the South, than a northern Muslim or any Muslim for that matter, with whom he can connect more psychologically and spiritually? Would equity and fairness as a basis for supporting an Igbo presidential candidate weigh more in the mind of a Yoruba Muslim for whom any other Muslim is a brother through and through?

This dilemma is made worse by the fact that whereas group think based on religion may not matter much to Christians, it does matter a lot to Muslims. Pray, would Nigerian Muslims have voted for a Christian-Christian presidential ticket, for instance, as Christians willingly voted for the late Abiola and Kingibe? On the other hand, Pastor Adeboye, one of the most powerful Christian leaders in the world openly and enthusiastically campaigned for Buhari, a Muslim fundamentalist, against Jonathan, a very moderate Christian.

I hold the view, in the light of the foregoing, that religious considerations largely explain why attempts at forging southern solidarity often come to grief. How can we convince a Yoruba Muslim that he is better off with a non-Yoruba Christian than with a non-Yoruba Muslim? And how can we convince their Christian parts to do away with the herd instinct often noticeable in Yoruba voting pattern, and vote for a non-Yoruba Christian when such a need arises?

That is the challenge campaigners for Igbo or non-Muslim ‘southern’ presidency must rise to as the jostle for 2023 presidency intensifies: they must look for another David Axelrod (of the ‘Clueless one’ fame) to devise another powerful message that would resonate with the Yoruba other than religious or southern solidarity.

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