The months preceding elections are busy periods in Nigeria. Thousands of candidates, representing tens of parties, vie for the attention and votes of millions of voters. In Nigeria’s mosaic of ethnic and religious groups, the electoral season invigorates identity politics and fuels narratives and counternarratives. Amid this season’s cacophony, a simple phrase—emi lokan—has risen above the fray. In direct translation, it means ‘it’s my turn’ in Yoruba, a language spoken largely among the Yoruba people of South Western Nigeria. Emi lokan owes its immortal place in the modern political discourse to Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
In early June 2022, Tinubu, a key political figure and now the official presidential aspirant (Nigerian for candidate) of the All Progressives Congress (APC), one of Nigeria’s two big political parties, gave a speech (more like a rant) to a gathering of APC politicians in Ogun State, a Yoruba heartland. Delivered ahead of the APC’s presidential primaries held the same month, the speech was likely intended as Tinubu’s pitch for why he should be the bearer of his party’s ticket, and if elected in February 2023, lead Nigeria for the next four years. His unique selling point in the speech, which was deliberately delivered in his native language and on Yoruba land, comes down to a simple message: it’s my turn, bring the presidency to me. He pared it down to the most essential bit, which he emphasized throughout the speech: emi lokan (it’s my turn).
Nigerian airwaves vibrated with frenzy when Tinubu’s pitch spilled beyond his intended audience, provoking a range of reactions among a population exhausted by the malign combo of a plague, economic decline, and growing insecurity. These reactions range between awe, derision and perhaps a collective sigh. Together, the significance of these responses have prompted Tinubu to double down, justifying his choice of phrase, location and language, and playfully citing its resonance with, and appropriation by, many (particularly by expectant Christians praying for divine intervention; Nigeria is a very religious nation).
Viewed superficially, the claim of emi lokan is a facile discourse of an entitled politician that merits nothing more than a disdainful dismissal. Many people have justifiably responded in this manner. A closer look, however, of Tinubu’s manifesto of entitlement, as I call it, reveals interesting insights about the logics of the claim and how they are entwined with a particular form of ethnic politics. This ethnic reading, based on factional struggles and interests, negates certain achievements in order to pursue and legitimize others. Moreover, responses to emi lokan—largely through humor and ridicule—suggests an active civic use of levity in critiquing the state and powerful elite. The use of such tactics (and also engaged silence) was common in Nigeria’s dark days of military rule. Although important, the resort to ridicule signals a persisting lack of substantive avenues through which Nigerians assert democratic citizenship and shape the issues that affect their lives.
Emi lokan, in its literal meaning, is decidedly an individual stake: bring it to me, it’s my turn. But in the broader speech, as well as the deliberate accompanying choices of language and location, Tinubu carefully unites his personal ambition and pursuit with that of the Yoruba nation (hence Yoruba lokan). Understanding the reasons for this deliberate fusion requires a brief foray into history and elite power politics.
Start with Tinubu’s well-documented career history (readers unfamiliar with this story can find an overview here and here). It is no secret that Tinubu has had a “lifetime’s ambition” of ruling Nigeria. For him, the presidency is a fitting coda to an impressive political journey. This began with pro-democracy activism against the tyrannical rule of Sani Abacha. Incidentally, Abacha’s rule had curtailed Tinubu’s senatorship that had begun only a year before Abacha seized power in 1993. To escape the routine assassination the tyrant meted out to dissidents, Tinubu undertook activism against Abacha while in exile, including living in the US.
Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999 was also Tinubu’s return to politics, this time as powerful governor of Lagos State, Nigeria’s economic capital. His eight-year stint as governor transformed Lagos into a viable political entity capable of extracting taxes but with garnishes of crony-capitalism. Following that, Asiwaju, as he is popularly known, set his sights on the presidency by forming a streak of parties that despite sizeable political significance could not dethrone the erstwhile dominant rival, People’s Democratic Party (PDP). This adventure of losses ended in 2015 after Tinubu strung together a formidable opposition for the APC to wrestle power from its old rival. Yet the informal dynamics of zoning—a practice where parties balance tickets by choosing candidates across geographical, ethnic, and religious divides—prevented Tinubu from standing as Muhammadu Buhari’s vice presidential candidate in 2015. This journey of fights and failures, of sacrificing to gain in future, underlies his claims of why it is his turn to be president. This is a claim he buttresses with his contributions to the careers of many politicians, including the current president.
The story of Tinubu’s pursuit and its overlap with that of the Yoruba nation makes sense in similar lines of ambitions and lost opportunities. The analysis I make here relies on insights from Wale Adebanwi’s trenchant book, Yoruba Elites and Ethnic Politics in Nigeria: Obafemi Awolowo and Corporate Agency.
Taking the elite group Afenifere (meaning “lovers of what is good”) as his empirical referent, Adebanwi analyses the intricate power dynamics within this group and suggests that Tinubu is in a long line of successors to claim the mantle of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Awolowo was a key political figure from the mid-20th century, whose ambition to rule the coming independent Nigeria never materialized. Within this elite group, Tinubu is the closest Yoruba politician from the Awoist faction (a name for followers of Awolowo) to come to the presidency. This is how he makes the claim of Yoruba Lokan, that it is the turn of the Yorubas to take the presidency.
But how do we explain the glitch that an ethnic Yoruba and a powerful one at that, has already ruled both as a military head of state and a democratic president? That is the distinction of General Olusegun Obasanjo, whose notable “transition” presidency from 1999 to 2007, is a constant reference point in Nigeria’s present republic. In Tinubu’s schema, Obasanjo, his politics (he was a member of the PDP), and presidency do not count towards the political gains of Yorubas. This is because within the Awoist worldview, as Adebanwi reveals, Obasanjo is not considered a “proper Yoruba.” The logic of “proper Yorubaness,” at least within this group, rests on intra-ethnic solidarity and support of one’s own. Obasanjo is considered by the Afenifere as an “enemy” of a Yoruba “ancestor”: Awolowo.
Obasanjo’s actions—from support for and promotion of some politicians to alleged sponsorship of election rigging in the 2007 election, Adebanwi finds, were deemed as assaults on Awolowo’s legacy. These allegations and perceptions are salient because the Afenifere considers Awolowo as the modern incarnation of Oduduwa, the progenitor of Yoruba people. This was a privileged comparison that Awolowo himself encouraged and basked in. Is it against this backdrop that Tinubu advances his claim of Yoruba lokan, a claim that superficially suggests a generality of the whole Yoruba but when scrutinised against specific history, beliefs, and power struggles, reveals a political project that advances a unique version of identity politics and its goals. Consequently, Tinubu’s lifelong ambition of leading Nigeria, if attained in February 2023, will reflect a fulfilment of the dreams that eluded Awolowo, the modern ancestor of the Yorubas. This is why the ambitions of the individual are fused with that of the collective and also why emi lokan is followed by Yoruba lokan.
Countering emi lokan: The power and limits of ridicule
For some observers of Nigeria’s current political landscape, the weakness of the PDP makes the upcoming election a contest between the APC and itself. Consequently, it is significant to analyse the APC in depth: its record, its candidate and programmes. Given how Tinubu has doubled down on his claim and how it is being echoed and used on posters (see image here), it is fair to assume that emi lokan is a key message of the APC candidate (as well as shouting about a “broom broom” revolution—for context a broom is the APC’s symbol). Even by standards of programs in Nigerian and, more broadly, African elections, Tinubu’s “manifesto of entitlement” pathetically falls short.
Political scientists Nicolas van de Walle and Jamie Bleck have argued that while African parties and politicians rarely propose contentious, ideologically-driven policies on issues such as abortion and gay rights, they make “valence” appeals. Valence policies are those proposals with broad social-political consensus in areas such as education and healthcare, “development,” human rights, and constitutional change. Such appeals allow contenders to compete without alienating sections of the electorate and, importantly, to win broader support for governance once elected. In the face of Nigeria’s present challenges, as one columnist, Tayo Oke, observes, the country needs serious thought and action, hence his question, “it is Tinubu’s turn to do what?” That question is no doubt on the minds of his compatriots.
The APC leader’s attempt to answer this question has left observers with more doubt than hope, due to the weaknesses of his proposed policies, which came limping after emi lokan and have yet to be communicated with the energy he staged and justified his entitlement to the presidency. As such, in the minds of many Nigerians, it is fair to say that emi lokan is Tinubu’s key electoral message. The absurdity and the palpable emptiness of this claim has been responded to with a plethora of songs, parodies, and jokes (some produced by both notable celebrities and ordinary citizens can be found here, here, here, and here).
Humor and laughter, Nigerian sociologist Ebenezer Obadare observes, is a powerful medium for (un)organized civil society engagement in Nigeria’s closed politics, particularly during the repressive periods of military rule. The sword of levity, sharpened by the internet, provides a platform, a “means of escape” and “coping mechanisms” for battered citizens to enact “vengeance” and “subversion” against the powers that dominate and demean their existence. True to these ends, those wielding levity as a political weapon have expressed disgust, made counterclaims about Tinubu’s wealth, his health, and controversies surrounding his age. For others, the mere shaking of heads and inaudible sighs speak the volumes that words fail to express. Good as these strategies are in the repertoire of political agency, scholars writing about the values of democracy do not count the development of endurance and subversive capacity among the noble ideals of liberalism.
Despite its many imperfections, democracy can generate intrinsic, constructive, and instrumental values that deliver to its participants and believers relative human dignity and goods that make life liveable. In the words of many Nigerian writers, these promises remain unfilled if not squandered in their nation. These observers believe they have been “duped“; that electorates have been “abrogated” from elections, the tool for democratic collective decision-making; and that political practice in Nigeria’s democracy resembles life in a Hobbesian state of nature: nasty, brutish, with unrealized potentials. Similarly, the brutal treatment of peaceful #EndSars protesters, in which Tinubu is seen as complicit, lend credence to the belief that Nigeria is trapped in a military democracy. It is against this dire background that another Nigerian writer, Dafe Oputu, prompts us to think of citizenship and representation not just as nice ideas to discuss at conferences, but as life-determining values that hold the keys to citizens’ dignities or deaths in Africa.
In this sense the reactions to Tinubu’s emi lokan claim—largely through parody, memefication and humour—are telling of the stifled avenues through which citizens can meaningfully hold leaders to account and assert political agencies. They index democracy’s stagnation and its failed promises of transformation. Hopefully February 2023 will bring better things, because the turn of Nigerian and African citizens, and the substantive representation of their democratic rights, is long overdue.
Awa lokan: it’s our turn, every one of us.