Igbo-Yoruba Affair: A Mistrust Carried Too Far

• Awo, Zik. Two political leaders from the two divide

• Awo, Zik. Two political leaders from the two divide

There is a mistrust in the way the Igbo relate with their Yoruba compatriots. But analysts say the premises are faulty

The past 18 months or thereabout have yielded bountifully, elements that have inflamed tempers among the Igbo and Yoruba, as it usually plays out when members of the two major tribes have cause to discuss who did or did not do what in Nigeria’s pre- and post-independence era politics. This happens through street corner arguments, newspaper articles and even more significant nowadays, in online discussion forums. For one, there was the death, after months on sick bed, of Dim Chukuwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the leader of the defunct Biafra Republic in November 2011 which, as was expected, resulted in fresh debates about who played what role in the 30-month failed effort of the Igbos to pull out of Nigeria.

There was also the publication of There Was a Country, the last book of Nigerian and global literary icon, Chinua Achebe, followed by the death of the writer last March. And lately, there was the relocation of some indigent persons of South-East origin to Onitsha by Lagos State government, an act interpreted by some of their kith and kin as another demonstration of general hatred for the Igbo. At the height of one of such Igbos-Yoruba spats, a Kenyan, alarmed by the ease with which the two major tribes of southern Nigeria threw insults at each other on the basis of their ethnic affiliation, posted a picture of a dog and cat lying side by side on an online forum, urging the two groups to take a cue from the animals on peaceful coexistence.

The good thing, however, is that the seemingly age-long duels have so far been devoid of wielding and using cudgels, daggers and guns. But it has not been short in verbal assaults, with some of the participants seeming to compete in seeing who can do the most denigration of the other person’s tribe. Such spats, borne out of age-long rivalriy between the two groups for domination of Nigeria’s political and economic space, actually date back to pre-independence Nigeria.

Colonial Period

In his autobiography, A Measure of Grace, Professor Akin Mabogunje, the first Nigerian professor of Geography, recalled one of such rivalries that played out at the campus of Nigeria’s premier tertiary institution, University of Ibadan, in 1950, over the invitation of Nigeria’s first president, Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe. The Progressive Party which the Geography Professor served as Secretary had mandated him to invite the late nationalist, popularly known as Zik, for a lecture in the run-up to the introduction of the McPherson Constitution in 1951. The Constitution, for the first time, provided for election into the houses of assembly of the regions, rather than appointment of official representatives stipulated in the constitution it was replacing. The Students’ Progressive Party had actually invited Zik for a lecture designed to give further enlightenment on what the new constitution portended for the country. The Progressive Party had perfected the invitation and received assurances that the leader of the then Nigeria’s foremost political party, the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons, NCNC, would be available for the lecture.

Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe
Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe

But just as the Progressive Party members were getting ready to receive their august guest, they received information that not to be outdone, the Dynamic Party, with membership made up predominantly of the Igbo, did not like the idea of an Igbo leader coming to address a union of another ethnic group..

As recalled by Professor Mabogunje, the real drama played out on the day the NCNC leader arrived the university for the lecture. “As soon as the motorcade arrived, I went to the motorcade conveying Dr. Azikwe and introduced myself as the representative of the Students’ Progressive Party that had invited him to give lecture. An Igbo student representing the Dynamic Party jumped into the car and started talking to Dr. Azikwe in Igbo. Realising what was happening, Zik told him: ‘Speak the language the other person understands!’ Whereupon, he pushed him out of the car,” the Professor of Geography wrote in the book. The struggle for under whose banner Zik would deliver his lecture between the two students’ parties snowballed into a minor crisis necessitating the intervention of the university authorities. The lecture was eventually held under the auspices of the Students’ Union as advised by the University Warden, thus preventing the situation from ballooning into a full scale crisis. Of course, Zik also handled the situation with grace and impartiality.

However, in spite of such rivalry, the Igbo and Yoruba, to a great extent, were able to work together in the pre-independence era, especially in the fight to see the back of the British colonial rulers.

Herbert Macaulay, a detribalised Yoruba Lagosian, worked with Zik to establish the NCNC, regarded as Nigeria’s first truly national party because it was made up of many groups and associations across the country in 1944, for example. Macaulay was the party’s first president, while Zik served as the secretary. Despite the preponderance of other equally competent Lagosians in the party, Macaulay did not entertain any doubt handing over the leadership of the NCNC to Azikiwe on his death bed two years later. Zik spoke Yoruba with effortless grace and even gave his children Yoruba names to further demonstrate his affinity with the part of the country he lived in throughout his active years, economically and politically. On the other hand, Yoruba politicians like late Chiefs Theophilus Benson, Adeniran Ogunsanya, among others, also pitched their tent with Zik and remained in the camp of the Owelle of Onitsha in all their active years in politics.

In spite of such few bright spots, the mistrust between the Igbo and the Yoruba has endured over the years. Ironically, analysts situate the beginning of the enduring mistrust between the two tribes in the rivalry between late former Premier of the defunct Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Zik. Awo and Zik started off as members of Nigerian Youth Forum, regarded as the pre-eminent nationalist organisation of the period.

The two leaders, arguably, had their first major clash in the run-up to the 1941 election to fill a seat vacated by the late Sir Kofo Abayomi in the Lagos Legislative Council. In the election, Awolowo, an Ijebu, backed Ernest Ikoli, an Ijaw man; Zik threw his weight behind Samuel Akinsanya, the late Odemo of Isara, an Ijebu man. Many believed that Zik’s lack of support for Ikoli was an extension of the competition between the duo for control of newspaper business in which they were major stakeholders. Zik however resigned from the NYM with the claim that Akinsanya’s loss was due to a tribal gang-up by the Yoruba.

Many Igbo members of NYM accepted this explanation. Consequently, they also quit the party alongside Zik, who they regarded as their foremost leader in Lagos at the time. The outcome of 1951 Western regional assembly election in which Zik had contested on the platform of the NCNC with the aim of becoming the Premier of Western Nigeria further deepened the bitterness between the two tribes. Given the immense popularity enjoyed by the NCNC in the West and wide acceptance of Zik, the task was not a totally impossible one. But then, the NCNC had as opponent in the election the Action Group, established just a year before the election by Awolowo – who had by then become one of the prominent Nigerian political figures – and his associates. Awo, who had also by then become a lawyer, had returned to Nigeria in 1947 after his education at University of London to, in the words of Achebe, “found the once powerful political establishment of Western Nigeria – sidetracked by partisan and intra-ethnic squabbles”. The late writer observed that consequently, “Awolowo and close associates reunited his ancient Yoruba people with a powerful glue – resuscitated ethnic pride – and created a political party, the Action Group in 1951, from an amalgamation of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, the Nigerian Produce Traders Association and a few other factions.”

Chief Obafemi Awolowo
Chief Obafemi Awolowo

During this period, Awo was accused of sending Zik away from the West. In a past interview with TheNEWS, Odia Ofeimun explained that Azikiwe’s West African Pilot reported after the 1951 parliament election in the West that Azikiwe’s party, the NCNC, had 25, the Action Group had 15 and Independents 40. Anybody who knew the Western Region, according to Ofeimun, knew there was something wonky with that way of presenting the results, because that particular election was run on the basis of very many ethnic organisations.

“People ran on the platform of Otuedo in the Benin-Delta area, Ibadan Peoples’ Party in Ibadan, Ondo Improvement League and so on and so forth. The only part of Nigeria where political parties existed properly was Lagos. NCNC swept all the five seats in Lagos. But it was because the NCNC swept all the five seats in Lagos, and journalism and communication was strong in Lagos, that almost all the Lagosians and, therefore, supposedly Nigerian public opinion, came to believe that Azikiwe won. The truth is that if you win in Lagos, you did not win in the Western Region,” Ofeimun added.

But that belief that Azikiwe won, in spite of what his own newspaper reported, became folklore. Odia continued: “And people forgot that among the 40 people, whom Azikiwe’s paper regarded as independents, were people who said they owed allegiance either to the NCNC or the Action Group. The Action Group was just being formed as a party and the NCNC was entering regional party politics for the first time. So you had these big political parties on which platforms candidates did not run because their people did not know them. So it was after the election that many of them were coming out.”

But something, according to him, happened. Before the election, the electoral officer insisted that the two political parties that were claiming candidates should bring a list of their candidates. Only the Action Group published a list of their candidates before the election. And it was on the basis of that list that the Action Group was claiming that it had won. So, because the NCNC apparently did not present a list, it could claim seats that it did not win. That was where the problem is.

And what was interesting is that Zik, as Odia put it, never stopped repeating it that he won, but that it was on the floor of the House that people cross-carpeted. No, it was not on the floor of the House.

Odia explained. Between November 1951 and January 1952, when the House actually met, where all the candidates belonged to had become well known and obvious. “But you know political parties never stop asserting strengths that they may not possess. So you had a situation where the newspapers were wrangling over who had moved to this side or who was moving to the other side,” Odia argued. Many of the candidates moving this way and that way, of course, were being lured by many things. Some of them, as he put it, had been members of Egbe Omo Oduduwa. Naturally, they were close to the organisation that Awolowo led. There were those who did not care about any ethnic organisation. The individual party members were simply looking for their own deal. The six members who came from the Ibadan People’s Party were shifting this way and that way, as the wind blew them. Most of the people who won on the platform of the individual parties wanted to know which of the two parties was likely to form a government.

Odia argued further:”Akinloye, after zigzagging, stood with the Action Group because the Action Group was particular about one thing: it wanted the brightest and the best. Akinloye had just come with a first class degree from Europe and, therefore, they wanted him at all costs. Awolowo just wanted the best in the place and offering Akinloye a job was one easy winner. And by the time Akinloye was offered a job, it was already clear that the Action Group had more seats in parliament than the NCNC.”

•Ojukwu: Led Biafra
•Ojukwu: Led Biafra

On the day the parliament actually met, Odia explained that the Action Group – and anybody who knows how Awolowo organises would understand that – moved to the House of Assembly as one team. They worked as one team, all of them brandishing Action Group plaques on their chest. Awolowo was their head; they followed him. When Awolowo got to the door and discovered that all the NCNC members were scattered all over the place, he said: “No, we shall not enter until they move to one side.”

The pattern in any serious parliament, as per the traditions of the House of Commons, is that parties stay on their side of the House. So, as Odia narrated, Awo insisted they must do so before they would enter. The traditional rulers came there and begged, saying: “Please, not in this new dispensation. Don’t let’s spoil it with rancour.” Awolowo never listened to such debates. He told them that until they moved, he and his men would not enter.

Awolowo’s chances of emerging the Premier of West with the regions becoming self-governing in 1952 was further boosted when elected members of Ibadan People’s Party, IPP, which was not affiliated to NCNC anyway, joined forces with AG members on the floor of the House.

“The IPP took its independent decision to join the Action Group to form the government in good conscience, based on the sentiment of the people they were elected to represent, and that is what republican democracy is all about,” Bari Salau, political consultant for Movement For Progressive Change In Nigeria, said in article he published in 2009 to commemorate what should have been the 100th year birthday of Awolowo. The late Chief Adisa Akinloye, a leader of IPP, actually said he led members of his party to join the AG which won the highest number of seats in the House when Zik refused to step down for a Yoruba man within the NCNC to be Premier of Western Region.

“What swelled the majority of the Action Group was not as a result of any ‘carpet-crossing’ from the NCNC to the AG but the declaration of support by most of the small parties for the AG,” noted S. Kadiri who challenged those who hold such opinion to publish the result of the election in an article published on a popular website. Kadiri further noted that even the charge that Awolowo had on ethnic grounds prevented Azikwe from leading the Western House of Assembly, the AG leader would have been acting in tune with principles enunciated by the leader of NCNC in an address to Igbo State Assembly at Aba on 25 June, 1949.

Zik had told his audience, as reported in compilation of his selected speeches published in 1961, that: “The keynote in this address is self determination for the Igbo. Let us establish an Ibo State, based on linguistic and ethnic factors, enabling us to take our place side by side with other linguistic and ethnic groups which make up Nigeria and the Cameroons.”

Chimamanda Adiche, award-winning author, had in an essay, “We Remember Differently”, published in November 2012 to celebrate Achebe’s clocking of 82 years, noted that Igbo children are raised on such anti-Awolowo staples. “I grew up hearing, from adults, versions of Achebe’s words about Awolowo. He was the man who prevented an Igbo man from leading the Western House of Assembly in the famous ‘carpet crossing’ incident of 1952.”

Even then, rather than stay in the Western House of Assembly as leader of opposition, Zik returned to the East to chase out and to take the position of the non-Igbo leader of the Eastern House of Assembly, Professor Eyo Ita, thus becoming guilty of the same accusation his supporters charged the AG leader with. An action which, according to Achebe, “compounded his betrayal of principle by precipitating a major crisis which was unnecessary, selfish and severely damaging in its consequences”.

Post-Independence Era

The rivalry between Zik and Awo persisted till the post-independence era, though there was a thaw when the duo worked together – AG-NCNC alliance which crystallised into the formation of United Progressive Grand Alliance, UPGA.

•Achebe: Accused Awolowo of genocide
•Achebe: Accused Awolowo of genocide

However, the interpretation of events of the Nigerian Civil War and Awo’s role in it has been another major cause of distrust between the two major Nigerian tribes. Adichie, in the article quoted above, listed the other crimes of the late AG leader, as related by Igbo parents to their children till today, to include “He (Awo) was the man who betrayed Igbo people when he failed on his alleged promise to follow Biafra’s lead and pull the Western Region out of Nigeria.” She quoted an unnamed uncle telling her that Awo “made Igbo people poor because he never liked us.” This was because at the end of the war, every Igbo person who had a bank account in Nigeria was given £20, no matter how much they had in their accounts before the war, an act which Chimamanda herself said she has always regarded as “livid injustice”. Many Igbo regarded Awolowo, who was the finance minister during the civil war, as the architect of this policy.

Achebe also averred in his last book that Awolowo had during the war deliberately initiated schemes to starve the Igbo, with the aim of eventually killing them and reducing the voting population of the group for his own political end, thereby committing genocide. The writer said Awolowo based this policy on a statement “credited” to him that, “…All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder.”

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Former Minister of Aviation, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode however described such claims as just one part of the story.

The bitter truth, according to him, is that “If anyone is to be blamed for the hundreds of thousands of Igbo that died from starvation during the civil war, it was not Chief Awolowo or even General Yakubu Gowon but rather, it was Col. Odumegwu-Ojukwu.” The former minister recalled that the Federal Government had asked Ojukwu to open a road corridor for supply of food to the civilian population during the war as part of a deal that was brokered by the international community, but the Biafran leader turned down the offer. Instead, Ojukwu had insisted that the food should be flown into Biafra by air in the night, a demand that was unacceptable to Federal Government out of fear that such night flights could be used to smuggle arms and ammunition for use of rebel soldiers: “That was where the problem came from and that was the issue. Apart from that, Ojukwu found it expedient and convenient to allow his people starve to death and to broadcast it on television screens all over the world in order to attract sympathy for the Igbo cause and for propaganda purposes.

“This, however, worked beautifully for him,” said Fani-Kayode.

A secret United States dispatch made public recently supported these assertions. In the dispatch, it was noted that disagreement on the form of transportation to be adopted for supply of food to hundreds of thousands of starving Biafrans between Gowon and Ojukwu, were the chief reasons for hunger that claimed the lives of many in the rebel territory. It was specifically stated in the cable that Gowon stopped air shipments of food to the rebel territory at the height of the civil war in 1968 despite pressure from the United States and the Red Cross, because of fears that the transport airplanes were being used to supply arms to Biafra. While Gowon was willing to allow land shipment, the Biafran rejected it with claims that the food might be poisoned, and that such route would be corridor for federal soldiers.

Awolowo himself was confronted with the same charges in a radio interview during his electioneering campaign as the presidential candidate of Unity Party of Nigeria in 1983. According to him, the decision to change the currency which many Igbos said was aimed at preventing Ojukwu from using money looted from the Central Bank of Nigeria branches in Benin, Port Harcourt and Calabar by rebel soldiers to buy arms abroad: “We discovered he looted our Central bank in Benin, he looted the one in Port Harcourt, looted the one in Calabar and he was taking the currency notes abroad to sell to earn foreign exchange to buy arms.” He also said the policy to limit withdrawals to £20 was because depositors could not show proof of what they had as deposits, as Biafran soldiers burnt bank documents during their raids on the banks. While reiterating that he was a friend of the Igbo, Awolowo recalled that he saved the accrued revenue for the East Central State during the period the war lasted and gave it back to them at the rate of £990,000 as monthly subventions.

The late sage also said he ensured that the houses owned by the Igbo in Lagos and in the other parts of the country not affected by the war were kept for them: “I had an estate agent friend who told me that one of them collected half a million pounds rent which has been kept for him. All his rent were collected, but since we didn’t seize their houses, he came back and collected half a million pounds.” Segun Adeniyi, Chairman, Editorial Board of ThisDay newspapers, actually recounted the instance of Reverend Moses Iloh in his column titled “Memories of Biafran Nightmares” published in January this year. The reverend gentleman not only met his property as he left it, he also received help from friends like the late Ambassador Segun Olusola to kick off a new lease of life in Lagos. Adeniyi recalled in the column that Iloh told him how Olusola and another Yoruba friend, Dapo Gbalajobi, helped him with funds that enabled him participate in buying a company when the indigenisation policy was introduced, an act which eventually made him a very wealthy man.

“I remember a friend’s uncle in Lagos who collected and saved up the rent on two houses belonging to his Igbo colleague who had been forced to flee as a result of the war. When he came back three years later, after the war, haggard and mercilessly dispossessed and his colleague handed over his bank account, he was frozen with gratitude,” Professor Niyi Osundare also recalled in an interview published in The Guardian.

Though there may be few exceptions, the situation in the West was far better than in Port Harcourt where, in the guise of abandoned property, the indigenes proceeded in taking over the property of the Igbo at the inception of the war. Ironically, Senator David Mark who presided over the abandoned property saga as an army officer in Port Harcourt, has not come under serious attacks over his role in the civil war from the Igbo as had Awo. Analysts wondered why the supposed sin of one man is attached to his people.

The Igbo had also accused the Yorubas of betrayal. The allegation is that the Yoruba reneged on the promise of declaring an independent Oduduwa Republic in response to the declaration of Biafra. The late sage, claim those who hold this view, said this at a meeting between him and Yoruba leaders in May, 1967.

But in a recent interview with this magazine, Professor Ropo Sekoni recalled the exact words of Awolowo on the issue: ‘By act of commission or omission, if the East left, that the West would follow suit.’ In other words, the Professor said while interpreting the statement, said what Awo implied was that ‘circumstance that allowed the East to go might also push the West out.’ He added that the statement can also be interpreted to mean ‘Look, let us make sure that they don’t go.’ In addition, the fact that the AG leader led a delegation of Western and Mid-Western leaders to Enugu on 6 May 1967, to dissuade Ojukwu from seceding, as has been recounted in many accounts of the war, indicated that Awolowo was not ready for the potentially bloody adventure.

Second Republic

In the Second Republic, the then National Peoples Party, NPP, led by Zik, and Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, led by Awo, had also mooted the idea of working together in the 1983 elections but the arrangement did not eventually work out.

The Deportation Saga And The Status of Lagos

The latest act that brought the distrust genie out of the bottle was the relocation of some Igbo destitute from Lagos. Lagos State government said the relocation was part of its programme of taking homeless people, beggars and urchins from the streets. It added that a large number of “area boys” who are mostly Lagos Island indigenes have been taken off the streets by its Kick Against Indiscipline, KAI Brigade, while it has also sent over 3,000 of such destitute individuals back to states in northern and south-western Nigeria.

The state also said it transported the destitute persons, whose number it put at 14, to Onitsha after the Anambra State government refused to respond to its letter urging it to prepare to receive them. Lagos State government claimed that states like Akwa Ibom and Katsina had made proper logistic arrangements to receive destitute individuals it relocated to their states in the past.

But this explanation was not acceptable to many Igbo, who accused the Lagos State governor of driving Igbo people out of Lagos through “brazen deportations and repatriations”. Former Abia governor, Orji Uzor Kalu, soon weighed in, accusing the Lagos State governor of working against the Igbo who contributed 55 per cent to the economy of Lagos. He also declared that Lagos was a no-man’s land, a view that received the support of some Igbo.

“In today’s world, cosmopolitan cities like Lagos are located in a specific place but usually transcend primordial ownership criteria,” said Chidi Amuta in an article published on the ThisDay issue on 13 August.

However, this logic was challenged by C. Don Adinuba, a public commentator of South-east origin. In his words: “There are so many investments in Lagos because Lagos has for long welcomed the Igbo people, enabling Ndigbo to prosper in Lagos more than in any other state. And no governor in Nigeria’s history has demonstrated as much affection to our people as Fashola. Commonsense dictates we protect in a strategic manner the interests of our people and reciprocate the friendship of well-meaning individuals and groups.”

He concluded that if the Yoruba hated Igbo, the Igbo would not be thriving in Lagos.

According to a US based academic, Dr. Wale Adebanwi, in a paper, “The City, Hegemory and Ethno-spathal Politics: The Press and The Struggle for Lagos in Colonial Nigeria,” agitation against Lagos started in the colonial period when there were plans to relocate the seat of Colonial government to Mount Pattle behind Lokoja [Kaduna or Abuja now].

However, the Governor General, Sir High Clifford, in his address to the Nigerian Council on 29 December 1919, argued for the retention of Lagos as headquarters for commercial reasons. But Adebanwi added: “Clifford was also concerned about the government moving far away from the articulation of dissent,” and that the colonial government ” would suffer in its execution if it moved away from critical appraisal that was evident in Lagos… Where activities of critical elements are exposed to the closest scrutiny and criticism.”

In fact, Adebanwi quoted H.O Davis as saying that Lagos contained “the genius of the country.” Adebanwi added that the matter was raised in the 1940s and 1950s.

The fight over Lagos also involved the media, especially Zik’s West African pilot and Daily Service. Adebanwi, apart from the origin of Lagos, traces the fresh clash over Lagos to the advent of Zik. Before that, Lagos was inhabited by what he describes as “closed aristocracy of the Yoruba and Yorubalised Creoles.” They were Yoruba or Creole families who, apart from Ernest Ikoli, an Ijaw, controlled the press.

The war between the Yoruba went deeper. As Adebanwi writes: “Azikiwe had earlier protested the domination of Lagos politics by the Yoruba who were also discriminating against non-Yoruba, particularly in the area of housing but his presidency of the Ibo state Union did not help matters. He had said while addressing his ibo constituents that it would appear that God of Africa had created the Igbo nation to lead the children of Africa from the bondate of ages.”

The conflict, as Adebanwi posits, ran deeper with the creation of Egbe Omo Oduduwa. In fact, a member of the Egbe, Oluwole Alakija wrote: “We were bundled together by the British who named us Nigeria. We never knew the Ibos, but since we came to know them, we have tried to be friendly and neighbourly. Then came [Zik] to sow the seeds of distrust and hatred.”

At a point, Zik’s NCNC argued that Lagos be separated as a federal capital from the rest of the West, “while the Action Group, led by Awolowo, rooted for the retention/merger of Lagos with the Yoruba West.” Zik held this opinion “for the sake of unit.”

When the Macpherson Constitution merged Lagos with Western Region, Zik’s pilot argued that it had “given us a country without a capital.” The newspaper fought the Macpherson constitution until, as Adebanwi put it, ” it way abandoned.

When the war became hot, the Service in 1953 wrote that the Yoruba “are not compelling the whole country to make Lagos their capital. But at least, it is the duty of the Governor to make it clear that the only alternative to the present situation of Lagos is for the people of Nigeria to buy a piece of land and establish on it a federal capital independent of the three regions.”

General Ibrahim Babangida fulfilled that when he moved the seat of government to Abuja!

An analyst of Igbo origin who resides in Lagos but declined to be named, reminded everyone that if the Yoruba hated the Igbo, would Lt.Col. Adekunle Fajuyi have defended to the death, his supreme commander and guest, General Aguiyi-Ironsi, who was assassinated during the July 1966 counter coup. “How come this has not been a major plank of this debate? Fajuyi’s wife, Eunice, recently died in Ado-Ekiti, how many Igbo leaders went there?”

Analysts believe that, given the long history of intermarriages between the two tribes, with many prominent Igbo men like Chief Emeka Anyaoku and Professor Chukwuemeka Ike married to Yoruba women and vice versa, the rivalry should by now be a thing of the past.

—-Ayorinde Oluokun

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