Nigeria Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has warned that in the contest for power, the country’s elite must not toy with prejudices that alienate or divide any section of the country.
Rather, he said, the elite should conduct themselves with a high sense of responsibility in order to build a new Nigeria where there is justice, equity and shared prosperity.
Delivering a speech on Tuesday at the maiden Policy Making and Good Governance Lecture Series of the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS) in Kuru, Plateau State, the Vice President also submitted that deliberate efforts have to be taken to deal with ethnic profiling and prejudices before they influence political contests.
According to him, “the leadership elites have a duty to conduct themselves with a high sense of responsibility even as they prosecute their contest for power.”
He further noted that historically conscious and patriotic elites all recognize that, beyond what the letter of the law asserts, there are lines that cannot be crossed in the pursuit of political power.
“One of such lines is the willful exploitation of sectional sentiments and the invocation of ethnic antipathies to mobilize a political constituency. It is dangerous because it is an attempt that seeks to mobilize by fostering division and hatred”.
Osinbajo condemned reported attempts in some parts of the country that denied some Nigerians their right to vote in the last elections.
He said: “These elections witnessed the exploitation by political actors of the fears and anxieties of people about so-called outsiders. Any attempts to deny people the right to vote in any locality on the basis that they do not belong in that place is condemnable in the strongest possible terms,” he stated.
The Vice President also noted that “when ethnic or religious prejudices are weaponised for political purposes, we are confronted with a lethal potentially destructive situation.”
In a speech that also addressed the way forward in building a new Nigeria, Osinbajo noted that the most prosperous places are countries that have learned to harness diversity while building ever more inclusive institutions.
He observed that discrimination against people on the basis of their identity is explicitly condemned by most legal codes, including our own Constitution. But there is still a tension that exists between this new Nigeria and the old Nigeria as understood by a generation that is much more accustomed to political mobilization on the basis of identity. But we must ennoble and validate the Nigeria that our young people are consciously or unconsciously building. This is the future we want.
According to him, “let us never forget that although we may speak different languages, belong to different tribes and profess diverse creeds; we are bound, above all else, by the language of a shared hope, by our common humanity as Nigerians, and a supreme faith in the possibility of our country.”
Speaking further against any form of discrimination, the Vice President noted that “if we are truly committed to economic growth, then we must also be committed to creating inclusive communities and strengthening social cohesion. Put another way, the only thing that grows in a climate of tribal hatred is poverty. This is why justice, healing, and a stronger commitment to the ideals of integration are so important.”
Osinbajo also stated that where the forces of primordial division and polarization are harnessed for the sake of electoral gain, the venom of such devices remains and continues to poison communal relations, setting neighbour against neighbour. We have witnessed the catastrophic consequences of the political weaponization of prejudice in places such as Rwanda.”
Emphasising the role of political elites, Osinbajo asserted that elites have a responsibility to discipline themselves in the pursuit of their political ambitions and exercise of power to ensure that the fabric of our communities is not rent asunder.
“When elites fail to compete responsibly and moderately, they foster a sense that everything goes, which breeds instability. We have seen this dynamic play out time and time again in our history. A model of competition that recognizes no ethical limits or boundaries is a threat to our democracy. It is incumbent upon politicians to act and conduct their competition responsibly.”
Urging Nigerians to learn from the Rwandan genocide which claimed about a million lives, the Vice President also pointed out the lives lost in Nigeria’s civil war, which he observed was fuelled by bigotry, what he called the “exploitation of prejudice and the incitement of hatred against ethnic communities.”
According to him, “we talk about the civil war, but we seem to ignore the fact that it is the manipulation of ethnoreligious sentiment that eventually boiled over into that tragedy. The demons released by that bloody conflict among brothers are yet to be fully caged, and we pay the price of that healing process daily. This is not a chapter of our history that we should ever allow to repeat itself.”
Emphasising the need for inclusion and unity across tribes and political divides, Osinbajo said urgent steps must be taken by the country’s elites and citizens to avoid the tragedies fuelled by bigotry and prejudices.
Proposing the implementation of laws to safeguard society from the dangerous manipulation of ethnic sentiments, the Vice President noted that “the Rwandese took deliberate steps to ensure that that tragedy would never be repeated, including even a memorial to the dead.
“But more importantly, the strict enforcement of laws against the use of ethnically or religiously charged rhetoric, and a raft of laws that criminalize divisive attitudes and behaviour. We also must do the hard work of providing and implementing a framework for fair, just, and unifying dealings amongst our people.”
He also observed that people do not suddenly start hating each other during elections.
“While political actors may invoke ethnic or sectional sentiments in an election, these social and cultural antipathies exist, lurking beneath the surface. As we reflect on the takeaways from this election cycle going forward, we must also consider the prevalence of ethnic profiling and other forms of day-to-day discrimination that occur.”
Highlighting Nigeria’s uniqueness, Osinbajo noted that the country’s diversities should be harnessed for good and not for political gains and selfish motives.
“There is a recognition that sociocultural diversity while being a fact of life is neither a weapon nor a weakness. The most prosperous places are countries that have learned to harness diversity while building even more inclusive institutions.
“I believe that Nigeria is neither unique nor exceptional on account of her diversity. The genre of scholarship and public polemic that problematizes our country’s profusion of ethnicities and religions and characterizes it as a profound flaw is one with which I differ strongly. Our diversity is neither a liability nor a curse; it is, in fact, a blessing and an asset,” he said.
Osinbajo then called for a fair, just, and more inclusive society, noting that inclusion is essential to prosperity,”
“So, is it possible to conquer ethnic or religious prejudice and build a unified nation? Yes, it is, but it is a journey, not an event; and it is perhaps the most important issue in nation-building,” he further said.
The Vice President made reference to countries such as Singapore, Tanzania and Rwanda which have tackled and overcome national prejudices, noting that Nigeria can equally do the same to address the underlying challenges brought about by all forms of prejudices in our society.
According to him, “leadership has been critical in all the countries that have been relatively successful in the journey to overcoming prejudice. He highlighted particularly the conduct of the elites of these countries.
“The elites of both countries recognized that cohesion and peaceful coexistence have to be intentionally prioritized and pursued. This is the challenge of leadership in our country. Elites have a responsibility to discipline themselves in the pursuit of their political ambitions and their exercise of power to ensure that the fabric of our communities is not rent asunder.
“We must recognize that if peaceful coexistence is sacrificed on the altar of partisan politics, then all will be lost.”
Exploring further the nexus between a country’s diversity and shared prosperity, the Vice President observed that in the 21st century, the true wealth of nations is human capital.
“This means that places that have learned to attract and retain the most diverse pool of skilled human resources are easily winning the race for success.”
Osinbajo submitted that diversity also provides a broad range of cultural, philosophical, and intellectual approaches for solving problems.
“A state’s chances of growth will depend upon how much qualitative capital it can attract and the richer the human capital pool at its disposal, the more taxes it can harvest to fund governance and social services. In this scenario, the politics of division and tribalism will breed poverty because it can only alienate the human capital that a state desperately needs for growth.”
In proffering solutions, the Vice President noted that fairness and justice were crucial elements in moving the country forward.
Aside from the responsibility of the political elite in fostering unity, Osinbajo called on the media and civil society to act responsibly in projecting particular narratives.
“That burden is also on civil society, including and perhaps, especially the media. The media has a twofold responsibility. As an institution that is uniquely influential in shaping public perceptions and attitudes, it has to be extremely mindful of what sort of narratives it is projecting and how it frames disputes, especially in our multicultural and heterogenous contexts,” he stated.
He recalled the surgery on his right femur in July 2022, in a Nigerian hospital to buttress his point.
His words: “On the 16th of July 2022, I went in for surgery on my right femur at a hospital in Lagos. Of course, as I lay on the operating bed and I was about to be anaesthetised, a thought crossed my mind that I would be absolutely at the mercy of the surgeons, the paramedics and the anesthesiologist. I had to trust them with my life.
“One was from the South East, the head of the team was from Delta State, some were Muslims, some were Christians. In fact, I suspect one did not even believe in God. Yet it didn’t seem to matter. They were the experts.
“When we make the decisions that affect our lives and those of our children the most, somehow, we are able to ignore tribal or religious prejudices. This is the attitude we must adopt always to build the nation of our dreams,” the Vice President further said.
Deji Elumoye in Abuja