The Igbos, Yorubas & History

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The Igbos, The Yoruba and History


By Sanusi Lamido Sanusi

sanusis@ubaplc.com

Every moment in life is a moment of history. Every present action
immediately becomes past and roles played today will be remembered tomorrow
with pride or shame, satisfaction or regret. Yet some moments are clearly
more momentous than others, and represent far greater opportunities and
dangers. These are often moments of crisis, a word which in its Japanese
form is written with two characters, the one representing danger, the other
opportunity.

The deaths of 'Yar Adua, Abacha and Abiola plunged Nigeria into a crisis.
That  is, a period portending great danger for the corporate body called
Nigeria as well as near limitless opportunities for progress, for a
departure from the tension, the stagnation, the corruption and the
injustices associated with the dark period known as the Abacha days. For the
leaders of Southern Nigeria and, in particular, the two dominant tribes, the
Igbo and Yoruba, it represented an opportunity once more to make a move for
the presidency, and shift power (whatever that means) away from the North
which has come to be portrayed as the source of all the problems of the
nation. The desire to win over power is the natural goal of political
activists. The use of propaganda, blackmail, lies, bribery, deception, even
threats of secession has been the hallmark of many an astute political
strategy aimed at attaining set goals. Yet the choice of which method is
appropriate to a specific polity in a specific historical context is a
difficult one, requiring a high sense of perception, a knowledge of history,
a natural intelligence and political sophistication. In choosing the path of
black-mail and ethnocentric diatribe, the leaders of the South have once
more displayed to the world their political naivete, and set the stage for
another defeat that may see them remaining in opposition for the next four
years.

One marvels at the never-ending cycle which sees Southern Politicians play
into the hands of their northern counterparts.  For a people who take pride
in the depth of their Western Education and who have often expressed
contempt for the "backwardness" and "illiteracy" of their northern brothers,
southern politicians have presented to the world the ever-present proof that
"book - knowledge" and intelligence are not necessarily correlated. One
recalls Chief Awolowo's description of Shagari as a "glorified Grade Two
Teacher". It was missing on Awolowo' that the more contemptible the
adjectives he used to describe Shagari, the lower he sank in the eyes of
perceptive watchers, as the man he was describing had clearly shown that he
was better by defeating him in a race both participated in from start to
finish.

Western Liberal Democracy is a product of the nation-state. It takes as
given, the corporate existence of the state and establishes institutions and
the rule of law such as to ensure that the system, rather than an
individual, is relied upon for safeguarding individual rights and societal
values. To the extent that Nigerians have decided to pursue the path of the
Western Nations (or at least those in power have decided that this is the
way to go) participants would do well to bear this fact in mind. A
democratic system is primarily about Institutions and the rule of law. It is
not about individuals. We need a system, based on laws and a constitution
agreed upon by all, that guarantees each and every Nigerian wherever he is
from the right to full political participation and unfettered expression. A
system that protects each and every one of us from the tyranny of an
individual. A system in which our dignity and liberty are not protected only
when the president comes from our own part of the country.

Abacha was a corrupt, ruthless dictator - period. Where he was from is
immaterial. All Nigerians, Northerners and Southerners, Muslim and
Christians, suffered from the corruption and injustices of his regime with
the exception of a small band of family members, sycophants and traitors who
joined him in looting  the coffers of our nation. Those who stood against
his tyranny and spoke out for freedom and equity suffered: among them
Obasanjo, Yar Adua, Abiola, Rimi, Ige, Lamido, Nwakwo and Ken Sarowiwa. A
cursory look at the list of those detained, framed, murdered, lied against,
pauperized and otherwise abused in the last five years will prove to honest
persons that Abacha was no respecter of region or religion and that he
represented the least form of humanity degenerating dangerously close to
bestiality, which is why, like Pharaoh, he is remembered today for his evil
rather than his good, for no good of his can obviate the memory, etched in
the individual and collective consciousness of Nigerians, of what  it is
like to live in an environment of terror, not knowing who next will be
struck with impunity.

In pretending that these are not the issues, in teaching their followers to
oppose Abacha not for his corruption, greed and cruelty but for his ethnic
origins, in portraying the annulment of the June, 1993 election as an act
against the Yoruba, in  pretending that Abiola's death in prison was in some
way different from 'Yar Adua's death in prison, in claiming that the
solution to this country's predicament lies in changing the ethnicity of the
president and producing a "Southern" President: in all this, the political
leaders of the South have displayed the highest degree of naivete, the
lowest sense of responsibility and the crudest  application of their
intellectual faculties. Worse than all this, they have played straight into
the hands of their political rivals, the Northern Politicians.

The history of Nigeria since independence is too recent, too many real-life
participants are still alive, for it to be rewritten with impunity as a
political strategy. It was only in the 1960's that the Nigerian Army's
officer corps was predominated by officers of  Igbo extraction. It was only
in 1966 that a group of such officers decided to destroy the peace of this
nation and wage a war against other tribal groups. That was when the five

majors decided to eliminate the Premiers of the North and West while letting
the Igbo Premier go scot-free, to assassinate the Prime Minister who was a
northerner after having advised the Igbo  president to flee and letting the
Igbo Senate leader go scot-free. To execute the Minister of Finance who was
from the Mid-West; to execute the most senior military officers from the
North and the West while letting the most senior military officer and army
commander who was Igbo go scot-free. Not one prominent Igbo leader, military
or civilian was touched . All the prominent civilian and military leaders
from other regions were executed. The Igbo senate leader, acting for the
Igbo president in his absence was, by the constitution, mandated to swear -
in the most senior NPC minister as Prime minister. He did not. Instead,
having consulted his Igbo President, and the president alone, he handed over
power to the Igbo GOC in flagrant disregard for the provisions of the
constitution. The speech of Nzeogwu, the magazines and newspapers published
in the six months of the Ironsi government, his declaration of a unitary
state, the provocation of northerners by Igbo traders who laughed at them in
Sabon Gari markets, all of these are too recent, too well-documented to be
rewritten.

The Igbo people were responsible for the first military coup in this
country; They were responsible for the first attempt at ethnic cleansing;
They were responsible for the first violation of constitutionally laid down
succession procedures; they were responsible for the destruction of the
federation and the creation of the unitary system of which they are now
victims (since the initial objective was for the Igbos to dominate the other
groups); they were responsible for Nigeria's first civil war.

It makes no sense, in the face of these facts, repeat facts, for the Igbos
to shed tears today and claim to have always been an aggrieved party. It
will convince no one. Granted, the Igbo people as a whole must not be
punished for the action of some. Granted, there can never be full
reconciliation without justice and equity. Granted, the Igbo people, like
all Nigerians, have the right to fight against perceived injustices. The way
to do this is by integration into the country, by joining broad-based
parties and establishing a system that guarantees all individuals and groups
their rights and liberty. It is not by crying  Biafra again. It not by
following the man who led them to defeat and ran away to come back later and
enjoy his wealth. The Igbos have always had alliances with other parts of
the country. The astute political strategy is to go into one now. Tribalism
will lead to defeat, once more, and even more humiliation.

As for the Yoruba, they have not been known to call for secession or the
break-up of the country until recently in the aftermath of the June 12
crisis and Abiola's death. One may not agree entirely with their description
of themselves as peaceful people, but they clearly are a peace -preferring
people, consistent with their well-known nature of seeking maximum enjoyment
from life at minimal personal cost. The Yoruba instinctively know that more
can be gained in peacetime than in war. Being business people, they have an
acute sense of the risks of war and its implication in terms of destruction
of accumulated wealth and property.

Yet in spite of this, the Yoruba have in their politics displayed two
consistent streaks that have consistently kept them in opposition and cost
them  opportunities for coming to power. The first is vanity - a dangerous
state of self-delusion borne of imagined intellectual and academic
superiority over opponents  and rivals alike. Thus, Yoruba politicians have
consistently underestimated their northern opponents who thrive on wily
intrigues and far-sighted manipulation of the political process. They have
also assumed to their peril that other southern tribes would naturally
acquiesce to their leadership and be lured into a southern alliance whose

objective is to help secure supremacy and power for the south - west. Even
the so-called Oduduwa republic assumes that the people of the former
mid-west who had fought for an independent region in the sixties will
willingly resubmit themselves to Yoruba domination. This is all in addition
to the recent utterances of Afenifere calling for excision of the Yoruba of
the north from Fulani domination, a call dismissed by a prominent northern
Yoruba leader, Sunday Awoniyi, for its banality and presumptuousness.

The second streak is self-centredness. Of all the tribes in Nigeria who
sometimes fight for parochial reasons, the Yoruba are the only group who
clearly believe they are Nigeria. When they have what they want, Nigeria is
good. Otherwise it is bad. When a Yoruba candidate loses an election (like
Awolowo did in 1979 and 1983) it is rigging. When he wins (like Abiola in
1993) it is a landslide victory in a free-and-fair election. When Buhari
overthrew a democratically elected and sworn-in government headed by
Shagari, he was hailed as a reformer who came to fight corruption. When his
tribunals jailed 'progressive' Yoruba governors for theft he became
unpopular. When Babangida dissolved the election of Adamu Chiroma and Shehu
'Yar Adua as flag-bearers of NRC and SDP the decision was hailed as
patriotic and courageous even though it led to an extension of military
dictatorship. When the same man annulled Abiola's election it was a travesty
of democracy. The list is too long to go through.

As a result of these two characteristics, the Yoruba have tended to be
received by all other groups in Nigeria with one sentiment: mistrust. The
Igbo people believe to this day that the Yoruba led them into the war
pretending to be with them and dumped them at the last moment. During the
Second Republic, a grand alliance of four opposition parties capable of
winning power from the NPN achieved nothing when it became clear that for
the Yoruba the issue was not one of supplanting a conservative government
and installing a progressive one, but of securing the presidency for a
Yoruba candidate - Chief Awolowo.

NADECO, whose members had been strident opponents of Abiola branding him
Babangida's boy, suddenly look up June 12 and tribalised the cause.
Subsequent to Abiola's death, the memorandum NADECO submitted to the
Government of Abdulsalam Abubakar was such a comical exercise in vain
hallucination and nave optimism that one wonders if those that drafted it
were in complete possession of their mental faculties.

The Yoruba have become Nigeria's wailing tribe, detaching themselves from
the rest of the country and alienating the people they hope to rule; abusing
other Nigerians through their vociferous media and hoping for votes from the
same Nigerians on ballot day.

The lesson in all this is that the Igbo, Yoruba and all Nigerians must learn
by now that no one can win a national election on a tribal platform. Those
clamoring to join Ojukwu's Igbo party, and those attempting to transform
Afenifere/NADECO into a tribal party are heading for a resounding defeat at
the polls.

The presidency can, and perhaps should, move to the south. But it will be to
a southerner who contests on the platform of Nigeria, not of his tribe. A
southerner committed to the system, to the rule of law and to the principles
of peace, justice, equity and freedom, not of avenging real or imagined
wrongs; a Southerner like Chief Abiola who stands the chance of winning.

This is an opportunity to make (or unmake) history. But, sadly, it is being
thrown away once more in what may be the commencement of a new cycle of
defeat, frustration and wailing.

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This page was last updated on 10/27/07.