‘The belly of the beast’: Ethnic hostilities peak on social media ahead of 2023 guber polls

Dennis Da-ala Mirilla
The belly of the beast; Ethnic clash hit boiling point on social media pre-state election

All through this election cycle, an ethnic clash has dominated social media.

By Monday evening, the Wikipedia page of the Labour Party gubernatorial candidate for Lagos had been altered. His name, Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, had been changed to Chinedu Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, describing him as “a politician of Igbo extraction.”

By Tuesday, the same had been done with the APC’s candidate, the incumbent governor Babajide Olusola Sanwo-Olu. His name was altered to Babajide Chukwudi Eze Sanwo Olu. By Wednesday, Wikipedia had locked editing on their pages until after the election, which would have been this Saturday but swiftly postponed by a week to 18th March.

The idea is that including Igbo middle names on their Wikipedia pages would weaken their campaigns to be governor of Lagos, an indigenous Yoruba state that has become the commercial capital of West Africa.

On Twitter, debates about the legitimacy of the two candidates who have become the front runner in the race to govern Lagos have been reduced to who is more indigenously Lagosian.

“Lagos is NOT no-man’s land. It belongs to the Yoruba,” the Twitter influencer Femi Fani Kayode blasted just this week, describing one of the candidates as “The Labour Party candidate, Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, whose mother and wife are Igbo and who is running a patently anti-Yoruba and pro-Igbo campaign.”

How did we get here?

Lagos was the capital city of Nigeria from 1914 until 1991. As it started attracting different Nigerians from the rest of the country and abroad in the 20th century, the state gradually began to take up a new identity. People who had migrated to Lagos started to establish permanent roots, buy lands, build headquarters for their multimillion-dollar companies in the city, and pay taxes to the state government.

And so, years later, as Lagosians prepare to head to the polls to elect a governor, social media has become awash with the ethnic differences that led to the rise of Lagos as the commercial seat of power in the first place.

This culture clash is playing out in real-time on the internet, where users have taken to using strong language like “xenophobia” and “real Lagosians,” taking the world to the belly of the beast of the residue of the long-standing national disunity at a time when the Nigerian political arena is starved of any form of guiding moralistic principles whatsoever.

Read also: Social media birthed a youthful ‘Obidient Movement’; it may have changed Nigerian politics forever

That Nigeria is a society deeply divided along ethnic lines is not a novel discovery. But what this debate on the internet is bringing to the fore is that stale wounds from a half-a-century-old civil war are gradually coming to a boiling point as those who fought in the war themselves die off.

After years of silence and whispers, the descendants of the war victims are beginning to seek recompense, a seat on the table, and a new uncomfortable conversation from a country that has for long turned away from that chapter of its history.

'The belly of the beast': Ethnic hostilities peak on social media ahead of 2023 guber polls

This is why in the run-up to the gubernatorial elections, ethnic rhetoric has proliferated to the top of the Twitter trend table. For a western company with algorithms created to pick up racist slurs but not offensive ethnic remarks from West Africa, this content has all but gone unnoticed by Twitter.

A barrage of disinformation

The barrage of attacks, disinformation and dubious portrayals of the gubernatorial contenders as anything other than legitimate Lagosians, in a bid to outline their illegitimacy to seek the highest office in the state, in itself ushers in decade-old sentiments around who deserves to live and be and own property in Lagos.

It could be the precursor to a dangerous xenophobic attack in the country that increasingly seems to be on the brink of carnage.

This underscores in no way surprising the failures of the so-called “de facto public town square,” (Twitter) to meet the tailored needs of its users at a tenuous time in Nigeria’s history as this election cycle. The algorithms are not trained to detect the unique xenophobic speech that has dominated Twitter in the past few days.

With the Twitter West African team once camped in Ghana, which could have risen to the occasion all but gutted in the wake of Elon Musk’s takeover, the Nigerian cyberspace is left alone and abandoned at the very end of the world.

This immediately shifts the responsibilities of deciding what constitutes hate speech from the shoulders of an independent, nonpartisan body to a group of well-meaning Twitter users who have taken to reporting tweets they find offensive.

'The belly of the beast': Ethnic hostilities peak on social media ahead of 2023 guber polls
Image source: The Baffler

The tipping point

Ethnic and religious fuelled agitations soared to the top only a few days after the presidential election, leading politicians to call for calm.

“Dear Lagosians, We have seen emotions arise across the country and in our melting pot, Lagos. I acknowledge these feelings because this is the beauty of true democracy—we all have different views. However, we accommodate those differing views thoughtfully and peacefully,” the incumbent governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu tweeted.

Regardless of the election outcome next weekend, glasses have shattered, and Nigerians are in the belly of the beast. If conversations to resolve and heal the ethnic divide remain unremitting, we might be here for a while.

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