“Èmi l’ókàn” and the Tinubu Phenomenon

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“Èmi l’ókàn” in the Yoruba language simply means, “It’s my turn”.  This is a phrase that has been in our political vocabulary since the first general election of 20th September 1923, following the Clifford Constitution of 1922.  It is a phrase that has come to dominate and direct our development path as a country.  The phrase Èmi l’ókàn, of course, has its Igbo equivalence of “Mukolu” and in the Hausa language, “Komai Na Zuwa Dadai Lokacin Shi”-  all meaning, “it is my turn”.  This phenomenal phrase, which paradoxically has been both a bane and a blessing to our dear country in our effort to build a nation out of many nationalities, has gone through many official manifestations over the years. 

The Yoruba language is a tonal language and the undeniably rich culture of the Yoruba people both combine to make it easy for Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu to find this enduring phrase and cadences to deliver his persuasive argument effectively – Èmi l’ókàn.  Having lived in Lagos most of my adult working life, the Yorubas have another aphorism which says “èlà l’òrò” (meaning you have to make your requests clear). They even have a song to support it that if you are asking the gods for children, you should specify the type of children you want.  The potency of the phrase from President Bola Ahmed Tinubu is his awareness of this aphorism as a Yoruba man as he went ahead and specified – Èmi l’ó kàn, èmi náà fé di President” (It is my turn, I also want to be President).

Quite fortuitously, I wrote a 3-part article in April 2021 with my dear friend, Akin Olukiran, titled, “My Turn to Chop, Not to Fix Nigeria”.  That is where Èmi l’ókàn has been the bane of our development over the years where it has become a negotiating tool along religious, ethnic, gender, and even age lines, at the expense of competencies.  The quota system that was badly abused became a form of “Èmi l’ókàn”.  Muslim/Christian tickets, rotation of offices and appointments along local government origin, state, faith, gender, geo-political zones, etc. all glaringly bore the “Èmi l’ókàn” mentality.  Amidst this chaos of misapplication of a poetic phrase, deeply embedded in Yoruba culture, is a term that transcends the political turmoil, which when elucidated, can be a force for good, a blessing  – “Èmi l’ókàn, èmi náà fé di President”.

No one can deny the fact that the Yoruba people are very respectful and they don’t joke with that.  In Yoruba culture, greetings are not mere pleasantries but an integral part of every event, incident, occurrence, and situation. Whether standing, sitting, celebrating success, or facing failure, there is a unique Yoruba greeting for each circumstance. Imagine greeting somebody for just standing – “E kú ìdúró o”. The Yoruba language thrives in its ability to encapsulate the nuances of life through its diverse greetings.  With this, you will agree with me that it is only in the Yoruba language that you can get a good expression of the word “it is my turn” (“Èmi l’ókàn”). Songs have been written and plays have been staged using this poetic phrase.  

It took the president, His Excellency Bola Ahmed Tinubu as a master of the language to make “Èmi l’ókàn” his campaign mantra, through his assertiveness, resilience, and political sagacity.  This man was a former National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) leader who was almost killed by the military for fighting for democracy, he was a two-term governor of Lagos State and was able to fund Lagos state without federal allocation, for years and also he was a party leader and played a very big role in the ascension of former President Muhammadu Buhari to the presidency. After three unsuccessful attempts at the presidency by Buhari, Tinubu strategically threw his weight behind him for the fourth time, recognizing the need for a change in leadership. This move proved successful and made Buhari a two-term president.

A consummate political strategist, in his presidential election, while other aspirants were busy looking for delegates for their party’s convention, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu was busy mobilizing his fellow aspirants for their delegates.  Again applying the Yoruba aphorism of “eni t’ó l’erú, l’ó l’erù” (the slave owner also owns the slave’s possessions).  The only man in the history of Nigeria who became a president with the Muslim-Muslim ticket, for all this and many more, he was criticized but it all worked in his favor, instead of bringing him down. “Èmi l’ókàn” was his winning language which he sold not only to the country but beyond. 

Just like Afrobeats’ global fame, despite its local origin, “Emi l’okan” has transcended geographical boundaries and become a globally recognized phrase. Its literal meaning, “It is my turn,” has taken on political significance, especially with its association with the president. Despite interpretations, misinterpretations, songs, and theatrical portrayals, “Èmi l’ókàn” has become a widely recognized global slogan. The last time I boarded a flight, I was graciously invited to the front of the queue, (maybe because of my age), but that didn’t go well with one of the passengers who shouted “Èmi l’ókàn” (it is my turn), and everybody laughed.  This incident happened outside Nigeria.

The “It’s My Turn” Mentality:

Just to reiterate that “Èmi l’ókàn” has been with us for a very long time, “Èmi l’ókàn” is a Quota system, “Èmi l’ókàn” is geographical spread, “Èmi l’ókàn” is you chop I chop. The same “Èmi l’ókàn” mentality has killed the four refineries all over the country, the six steel mills factories, the pulp and paper mills, the motor assembly plant, Nigeria Airways, the petrochemical plant, and the aluminum smelter all over the country. Those were the industries that were started in the 70s to put Nigeria on an industrial revolution and take Nigeria from underdevelopment to a developing country, but with all these industries dead, Nigeria as a nation has remained underdeveloped for over fifty years.  The “it is my turn” has entrenched itself in Nigeria’s societal fabric, perpetuating a culture where positions of power are seen as entitlements rather than earned responsibilities.  This mentality disregards the principles of meritocracy and leads to a situation where the most capable and skilled individuals are sidelined in favor of those with the financial means to secure their positions.

From President Tinubu’s perspective, one still needs the “Èmi l’ókàn” assertiveness and resolute doggedness to wrestle power from a seeming group of self-perpetuating politicians who have been enabled by the same focal player – President Tinubu himself.  Given the President’s antecedents, being the only governor in the country that functioned for years without federal allocation (a feat no other governor ever attempted), his policy decisions, decisive actions since coming into office, and his body language thus far, it would appear that Nigeria is at last beginning to see the inherent blessings in “Èmi l’ókàn” rather than the bane it’s been on our development and democracy. If the President is genuinely concerned with using “Èmi l’ókàn” as a catalyst for change to demonstrate what good governance is all about, then the hope of our nation will indeed, be renewed and put Nigeria back where it belongs as the giant of Africa globally.


One comment on ““Èmi l’ókàn” and the Tinubu Phenomenon

  1. Thank you for this extensive and explosive elucidation of emi lo kan. It is actually my turn….. to do what?

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