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The Igbo Nation Within A Federal Nigeria




Odia Ofeimun



culled from THE VANGUARD of  Tuesday, October 21, 2003

The most recalcitrant are the ones that emanated from the skirmishes of 1941 and 1951. They are based on sheer folklore and poorly connected anecdotes, some of which are to be found in some of the foundational texts of Nigerian politics like James Coleman’s seminal, Background to Nationalism, and, later, Chinua Achebe’s highly influential pamphlet, The Trouble with Nigeria. Many Nigerian children are taught early in their lives to believe that it was all tribalism at work in the many situations that tore the peoples apart. The truth, however, is that the 1941 and 1951 episodes prove the alternative point that those who do not take their country seriously begin by not taking their own history seriously.

To begin with the 1941 episode. It happened that Awolowo, who was not a Lagosian at that time, supported Ernest Ikoli, an Ijaw, against Samuel Akinsanya from his own Ijebu-Remo community in the elections into the Legislative Council. Akinsanya was Zik’s candidate. If anything was guaranteed to have laid a solid foundation for Nigerian Nationalism, this was it. But Ikoli’s victory did not sit well with the foremost nationalist of the time. Ikoli was Zik’s competitor in the world of newspapering. So those on Ikoli’s side automatically became Zik’s competitors. This was turned into a fight between Igbo and Yoruba at a time when the West African Pilot was the very Bible of the Nigerian masses. 

The charges and counter charges of those times were mixed up with the folklore of everyday market situations in ways that have literally framed the psychology of whole populations on both sides of the divide. Ten years later, in 1951, another incident occurred which was easily turned in the same way into an ethnic fracas. It was the election into the Western House of Assembly. Zik claimed to have won the election. Zik’s story, as retailed on a radio programme on December 18, 1978 is that his party, the NCNC, won "43 members out of 80 but within 24 hours, 20 of them had crossed carpet." And, he was left "with only twenty three members." This story has formed part of the mythology (and demonology) activating the antagonism between Zik and Awo and between the Igbo and the Yoruba. It has been sold to successive generations of Nigerians who, not having the ready means to decide between history and fiction, have been plodding along as permanent hostages of contemptible prejudices." 52 years later, many kobo and penny columnists still manage to repeat the loaded untruths in spite of the overwhelming information available that there was no way the NCNC could have won that election. Azikiwe’s own newspaper, The West African Pilot, claimed after polling day that the NCNC won 25 seats while the Action Group won only 15 seats and the rest went to independents. 

This was not the case. But even if we accept that this was true, how could 25 seats in an 80 seat Assembly be regarded as a victory? The intriguing part is that thereafter every Igbo indigene was made to believe that the defense of the untruth is a matter of ethnic honour. Those who opposed Zik were to be treated as being against the Igbo. In essence, every Igbo person was made to feel that they had been short-changed by the Yoruba. Tribalism was easy to fling at other people, as it is still being done today. That tribalism was everybody’s cup of tea was proved by the Port Harcourt episode, brilliantly reported by G.O.D Dawodu, in which Dr. Adesokan who was the NCNC Deputy Chairman of Branch was summarily thrown out as a candidate in favour of MCK Ajuluchuku in the same 1951 election. Because Adesokan never became a big politician nobody talks about it. Thereafter, however, when you read or hear it said that carpet crossing wiped out NCNC victory on the floor of the Western House of Assembly, tribalism is hoisted in a one directional tilt of the pole. 

What ought never to be allowed to be forgotten, because too many lives have been wasted for it, is that what happened in the West bears little resemblance to the dominant folklore. As against the argument very well documented in Zik’s biography that more than 17 people crossed carpet, the truth is that only three legislators crossed carpet on the floor of the Western House of Assembly. This is contrary to all the folk history that tells it otherwise. 

As Bola Ige has written in his book, People, Politics and Politicians of Nigeria(1940-1979) what could be said to be damaging about what the Action Group did to Azikiwe happened later when the AG-dominated House, which was the electoral college for the Central Legislature, did not vote for Azikiwe to lead his party to the Central Legislature in Lagos. But that was only possible because other NCNC legislators from Lagos, who should have stepped down for their leader, contested against him. I would hazard the point that Zik failed to get AG endorsement to go to the Legislative Council more because they feared him for his oratorical skills and his capacity for political footwork, rather than because he was not Yoruba. One speech by Azikiwe, as mythology has it, could have sent all of them scampering for cover in every debate. At any rate, Zik’s partymen who ran against him were from determinate Yoruba homesteads that they could mobilize across party lines to defeat their leader. 

Still I would argue that what was most significant about that election, was not that Azikiwe’s party lost but that an Igbo leader who was a known President of the Igbo State Union could win an election in Yorubaland up to the point of wanting to be a Premier. More significant is that the NCNC actually defeated the Action Group in the Western Region in the 1954 election to the Federal House, four years after the Regional elections which Zik claimed that the NCNC won. 

Unfortunately, by this time, Zik had perfected his return to the East to drive out the Efik stalwart who was leading, by an earlier agreement, a predominantly Igbo region. Everyone who cares about good human relations must agree that what the Yoruba and other ethnic groups in Southern Nigeria gave to Azikiwe was a committed followership that their leader did not reciprocate. Which makes it particularly odd to hear it being said that when the people turned away from Azikiwe they were showing hatred to the Igbo. The truth is that the Igbo who identified with Azikiwe and therefore could not raise a finger of protest at his toying with the support that other nationalities gave to him, must bear a lot of responsibility for what happened. Since I come from what was a predominantly NCNC family, I can tell how deep is the disappointment that Zik’s followers felt when he abandoned them, so to say, in the cauldron of Awolowo’s dictatorial insistence on compulsory education.

Unfortunately, it is on the basis of the fictions of the fifties that the stratachy of Igbo leaders have failed to work with the Yoruba even when their lives depended on it. To be fair, there was one critical moment when Igbo leaders actually chose to work with Awolowo. It was after the 1959 Federal election into the first independence parliament. Although, they did not appear to know how much the British had invested in ensuring that neither of them would win the election, there was a chance that if Zik and Awo worked together they would be able to reach a solution with the North on a fairer way of running the Federation. Zik’s later reason for jettisoning the AG proposal for a coalition is interesting because it was against the advice of many Igbo stalwarts in his party. Zik argued that it would have led to the break up of Nigeria. But that was not on the cards at all as anyone could have foreseen who knew, not only of Ahmadu Bello, Ribadu and Tafawa Balewa’s good sense, but the need for Britain to keep Nigeria together. 

All the same, under pressure from the British who had set up the Western arm of the NCNC to revolt against Azikiwe if he dared to shake hands with Awolowo, the great man buckled. The charge was later made that the NCNC refused to work with the AG because of Awolowo’s double dealing between the NCNC and NPC. This was simply a red herring thrown into the fray to make compromise look good. The majority of Igbo leaders were actually quite disappointed at what happened although the share out of largesse at the Federal level managed to assuage many frayed nerves. Part of that share-out was the agreement to smash the Action Group. The NCNC plan, as Billy Dudley has revealed, was to win the Western region over the dead body of the Action Group and then confront the NPC with a solid Southern solidarity. They did not reckon with the resilience of the AG and the capacity for wheeling by the Ladoke Akintola’s faction of the AG which moved closer to the NPC, much closer than the NCNC could afford. And so the story of the smashing of the Action Group actually was the beginning of the smashing of Azikiwe’s legendary capacity for political gamesmanship.

This became quite obvious with what every serious student of Nigerian politics must see as the first coup in Nigeria’s history. It took place in 1964; before the big one of January 15, 1966. It was a coup serviced by the British Head of the Nigerian Army, Welby Everard, who would not obey Azikiwe, the commander in chief of the Army forces. As it happened, an advance copy of Zik’s national broadcast had already been published in The West African Pilot saying that he would not call Balewa to form a government because the election had been massively rigged. But soldiers took over the state house, putting the Governor General, so to say, in protective custody . Zik was obliged to re-write the speech which he actually delivered calling on Balewa to form a government. Officers loyal to the Governor General, mainly of Igbo extraction, had wanted to carry out a coup to save Zik’s good name. But Zik would not oblige. He went for a sea cruise and another group of mainly Igbo officers carried out the January 15, 1966 coup. The real leader of the coup, Emmanuel Ifeajuna, before he surrendered, wrote about their plans in a still-unpublished manuscript made famous by Olusegun Obasanjo in his book, Nzeogwu. 

The plan was to release Obafemi Áwolowo from Calabar Prison, and if he refused to be their leader, they would lock him up in the State House and issue decrees in his name. Obasanjo’s book gives no credence to the plan perhaps because it tends to shock many Nigerians who are drowning in their culture-clash ethnicity. It still shocks many when they are told that Igbo officers could carry out a coup in 1966 for the purpose of making Awolowo their leader. But anyone genuinely familiar with the goings-on in the early years of independence would not be surprised. The faith in Awolowo stemmed from the discovery not only that he was more sinned against than sinning, but that only he of his generation had the moral savvy, intellectual rigour, and ideological acumen to set Nigeria right. In short, more than any other Nigerian in the twentieth century, he was one leader who took Nigeria seriously. But the January 15 coup was hijacked by a different echelon of Igbo officers who did not know or care about the mission of the original coup makers.

 They would not release Awolowo from jail. More critical is that it became forbidden to even suggest that Igbo officers carried out a coup with the intention of handing it over to a Yoruba enemy of the Igbo people. No one can tell whether the release of Ifeajuna’s manuscript in those gory days of crisis in 1966 could have doused the impression that was thereafter created that the January 15 coup was purely and simply an Igbo coup. Incidentally, the manuscript has still not been fully published apart from the snap quotations made from it by Obasanjo in his book. It tells of one golden opportunity that was lost. Surely, it was time that the manuscript saw the light of day for all Nigerians to see. The reason is not only that what one prime actor in our history has to say is important even if it is about the bare bones, but because we need a re-interpretation of the events that took place if we are not forever to allow the costly silences, and the falsehoods peddled in the heat of the moment on all sides, to go on over–determining our history. We need to do more than re-interprete. For the sake of younger generations being thoroughly misled by self-serving folklorists, it is important to ask the right questions; if only to help us deal with the kind of situation we have had on our hands since the 4/19 elections in 2003.

The elections provide an angle to the matter of taking Nigeria seriously which we need all to pay attention. I want to take it from the part that, in the past few weeks, especially as a result of the crisis in Anambra State, many columnists of Eastern extraction have mounted a common plank in the narration of Nigeria’s history to explain how the Igbo got to where we are today. The Anambra saga hit the media with a bolt after Dr. Chris Ngige, as the elected Governor of the state, was put under protective custody by an Assistant Inspector General of Police. The Governor had been forced to sign cheques running into billions of naira and a letter of resignation. He had been made to read his letter of resignation on a yet to be shown video film. Acting on the letters, the House of Assembly had colluded with the Deputy Governor, his personal friend and bestman at his wedding, to give him the coup de grace. The act of protective custody, a virtual attempted coup, sanctioned by yet to be properly identified powers from above, hit the rocks when media exposure made unscripted entrance into the scenario. It shocked a supposedly unshockable nation when it was discovered that the supposedly elected Governor Ngige was considered fit for dumping because he was not loyal to Chris Uba, the young godfather who had boasted that he was responsible for the election of the Governor, the Senators, members of the House of Representatives, and House of Assembly members from the state. Still awaiting full confirmation, although already partially exposed by the election tribunals, is that the accredited candidates of the ruling PDP in Anambra State were displaced, after polling, in favour of a new list of names provided by the godfather. 

The stronger claim, being made at the electoral tribunal by the supposedly defeated candidate of APGA, the opposing party, is that even Governor Ngige did not win the election but was declared winner as part of the general cook-up that enabled non-candidates to be given victory certificates. The evident contempt for universal adult suffrage is goring. It tells the story of an election for which, on a nation-wide basis, there was no respectable electoral register; and police commando units and private armies exercised unbridled powers over electoral logistics, and electoral officers were granted discretion to allow or disallow voters whose names did not appear on the roll. There was no chance that the electoral commission could have an independent existence outside the whims of godfathers empowered from above. To put it another way, the Anambra episode is merely the tip of a national circumstance that points to the untold stories of many other states in which opponents and monitors have virtually argued that there was no election.


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