Understanding Igbo-Yoruba Unhealthy Rivalry


By Abdul-Rahoof A. Bello

Apart from leadership challenges, interest aggregation has  also been identified as Nigeria’s bane, retarding her potential greatness while efforts at forging national unity and integration since the 1914 amalgamation have continued to be futile.  Barely two years to the centenary anniversary of the ‘marriage of convenience’ and 52 years after her ‘flag’ independence, Nigeria is yet to overcome the discontentment over the ‘mistake of 1914’ and the country’s development is arrested.

Instead of prompting the virtues of unity in our diversities, it is the diversities in unity and rhythms of dichotomy that are accentuated by the political and educated class. The latest of such is the controversial book, There Was A Country, this paper intends to critique using content analysis of mass media reports and literature review on the Nigerian Civil War. I intend to examine the veracity of the allegations levelled against Obafemi Awolowo and the Yoruba race by the author who inferred that:

a) Awolowo’s  role was influenced by tribal interest for political advantage over Igbo

b) Starvation strategy advocated by Awolowo and the £20 pro rata monetary policy was genocidal.

c) Yoruba betrayed Igbo by supporting the federal side during the civil war instead of declaring independence as promised by Awolowo.

While many commentators, especially from Igbo ethnic group, commended the author for speaking the truth, some others condemn it as containing falsehood, believing that there are some facts either inadvertently or deliberately left out by Achebe. Thus, Femi Okunnu, a Federal Commissioner in Yakubu Gowon’s military administration (1966-1975), describes the work as ‘intellectual dishonesty’ by an individual who does not subscribe to the idea of a Nigerian nation. He gave detailed explanation to debunk each of the allegations, especially, that Obafemi Awolowo conceived and introduced starvation policy to federal government during the war. His words:

We discussed air corridor, we discussed land corridor; we discussed sea and river corridors, no holds barred. But unfortunately, the various proposals, which we brought forward were turned down by the other side. We couldn’t reach any good conclusion. So, to say that there was deliberate policy of the Federal Government, initiated by Chief Awolowo, is at best intellectual dishonesty. That is not the true position of the Federal Government at the time. And certainly, that was not our position during the peace talks. (See The Nation, Wednesday, October 17, 2012, p.51).

Similarly, the wartime Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, has also put a lie to the allegation of genocide (through starvation) against Igbo as claimed by Prof. Achebe. He stated that such was not the policy of his government but blamed the Biafran leaders for refusing to create a corridor for movement of food and medicals to the civilian population: He asserts, “The federal troops used neither hunger and starvation nor any means to prosecute the war. Rather, it was Igbos that objected to creation of corridor for the movement of Medical Aids and food items to the civilian population at the period” (Nigerian Compass, Sunday, October 28, 2012, p.2). Corroborating Gen. Gowon, Robert Goldstein Public Relations Representative of Biafra in the US, in his open letter of resignation sent to his boss then, the Biafran warlord, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, he had this to say:

It is inconceivable to me that you would stop the feeding of thousands of your countrymen (under auspices of world organizations such as the International Red Cross, World Council of Churches and many more) via a land corridor which is the only practical way to bring in food to help at this time. It is inconceivable to me that men of good faith would try to twist world opinion in such a manner as to deceive people into believing that the starvation and hunger that is consuming ‘Biafra’ is a plot of Britian, Nigeria and others to commit genocide. (First published in the Morning Post, Lagos, August 17, 1968, reproduced by The Nation, Saturday, October 20, 2012 p.60).

In due course, we shall be looking at such other claims and allegations contained in the book that tend to pervert the historical records of the challenge of Biafra in the Nigerian contemporary politics.


Professor Albert Chinualumogu Achebe’s latest literary work entitled “There Was A Country” is viewed in many quarters to have contained some venoms and polemics capable of heating up the polity. The wavelength of the tirades seems to have refreshed a wound already healing between the Ibo and Yoruba ethnic nationalities in particular and Nigerians in general. With the avalanche of challenges facing Nigeria ranging from nationwide insecurity caused by Boko Haram; to kidnapping and high robbery incidence; from unsafe aviation to fatal road accidents; from high unemployment rate to high poverty profile; from dwindling and hopeless economic fortunes to the catastrophic deluge of flood currently ravaging the country.

The timing of the book and the motive of the author became suspect to Nigerians at a time when every hand must be on deck to address the myriad of contentious issues in the country. Not a few Nigerians, even from Igbo ethnic stock, believe that the book is capable of heightening the tension in the country and whip up some negative sentiments against Igbos. Perhaps, this explains why the Emeritus Gov. of Anambra State, Dr. Chinwoke Mbadinuju expresses his concern that the verbal warfare generated by the book could jeopardize on-going efforts to unify the people of the South (see Vanguard, Monday, October 8, 2012 p.8).

Perceived Flaws in the Book

The erudite scholar no doubt, is one of world’s literary giants whose assertion emanates from the abundance of his intellectual arsenals and can hardly be faulted in any academic discourse. He has authored many books and hardly could anyone (especially in Africa) pass WASCE English Literature without reading one of his numerous works, especially Things Fall Apart. However, in the controversial book, he seems to have allowed his ethnic sentiments (which could be acceptable in fiction writing, anyway) to enter his work. He seems to have sacrificed the ethics of balancing and neutrality on the altar of emotional attachment, which make the book lacking in reliability and credibility and eventually defeated the ‘overall goal’ that the book set out to conquer. A popular newspaper columnist Haruna Mohammed captured this inference lucidly when he asserts that:

Reading the book, it seems to me the great writer has failed his own test of challenging stereotypes and myths about, and images of, the various nationalities that make up our country. Instead, he seems to emerge at the end of the book as an Igbo supremacist at worst, or its apologist, at best (see The Nation, Wednesday, October 24, 2012, Back page).

One of the perverted realities of history contained in the book is the insinuation that Igbo started the nationalist struggle in Nigeria. Achebe stated that, “The original idea of one Nigeria was pressed by leaders and intellectuals from the Eastern Region” (see London Guardian, October 5, 2012). This historical fallacy should not go unchallenged as the author knew that before Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, there were nationalists/politicians of Yoruba ethnic extraction like Herbert Macaulay, Sir Adeyemo Alakija, Sapara Williams (the first Nigerian to practice Law), Sir Tom Jones, Kitoyi Ajasa, etc. who wanted the colonialist to leave.

Insinuating ethnic motive into the role played by Obafemi Awolowo as the Federal Finance Commissioner and Vice-Chairman of the Federal Executive Council during the civil war could also be regarded as a fundamental flaw in the book. The celebrated author would have been excused for blaming Awolowo for canvassing and defending starvation as a weapon of war. However, it is sheer prejudice for the author to have imputed a motive to the actions of the late sage by concluding that, “Chief Obafemi Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself in particular and for the advancement of his Yoruba people in general.” This overreach could best be described as a figment of the author’s imagination since he fails to discharge himself of the onus of proof. Aside of all these, for any literary work on the Nigerian civil war to pass the test of public confidence and reliability, it would be based on empirical studies, which could only be obtained by a writer who was either an active participant or a participant observer such as the Red Cross Group, UN observers, etc.

Nigeria became a federal state through series of Constitutional conferences, especially, those of 1957 and 1958, in London and Ibadan. However, Macpherson’s Constitution of 1951 was the first attempt at federalism but Oliver Littleton’s Constitution of 1954 came to entrench federal principles in the Nigerian polity. The theory of Federalism advocates principles of dividing powers between a central authority and the federating units and common institutions. In contrast to a unitary state, sovereignty in federal political order is non-centralized, often constitutionally, between the levels of government, so that units at each level enjoy autonomy and can be self-governing in some legislative sphere of influence.

The power sharing between the federating states and central authority varies but typically, the centre has powers regarding defence; currency; international trade and foreign relations with the decision-making bodies of member units also having to participate in central decision-making bodies. Literature is replete with contributions to address the dilemmas and opportunities facing Canada, Nigeria, Australia, Russia, Iraq and Nepal, to mention just a few countries where federal arrangements are seen as interesting solutions to accommodate differences among populations divided by ethnic or cultural cleavages yet seeking a common, often democratic, political order.

Nigeria is a federation that was signed, sealed and delivered by the British colonial government and has continued to be an issue of national discourse on whether or not the Nigerian people should restructure the polity through a national conference to determine the basis and terms upon which the people should co-exist. Many scholars have explained the central terms ‘federalism’, ‘federation’ and ‘federal systems’ (see Wheare 1964, King 1982, Elazar 1987, Elazar 1987a, Riker 1993, Watts 1998).

Watts (1998:120) defines a federal political order as “the genius of political organization that is marked by the combination of shared rule and self-rule” but Elazar (1987) and Watts (1998), opine that Federalism is the theory or advocacy of such an order, including principles for dividing final authority between member units and the common institutions. This opinion concurs with the division of powers in Nigeria into the three Legislative Lists viz: Exclusive, Concurrent and Residual among the Federal, State and Local Government Councils respectively (see Section 4, Second Schedule of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, as amended).

A federation is one species of such a federal order; other species are unions, confederations, leagues and decentralised unions such as the present African Union (AU), European Union (EU) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and even the United Nations (UN). A federation in this sense involves a territorial division of power between constituent units, which sometimes are called provinces, cantons or states with a common government. In contrast, ‘confederation’, in the opinion of Watts (1998:121), is a political order with a weaker centre than a federation, often dependent on the constituent units. It enshrines the following elements, among others:

• the central authority only exercises powers delegated by component units

• the central authority is subject to member unit veto on many issues

• decisions taken by the central authority bind member units but not citizens directly

• the central government lacks an independent fiscal or electoral base

• member units reserve a right to secede

The foregoing are direct opposite to the elements of federal union. Two quite distinct processes that lead to a federal political order may be identified (Friedrich, 1968; Buchanan, 1995; Stepan, 1999) among others. Independent states may aggregate by ceding or pooling sovereign powers in certain domains for collective good, which otherwise unattainable as units, such as security, foreign relations or economic prosperity. Such coming together federal political orders are arranged to constrain the center and prevent domination of minorities by the majority groups. Examples are the USA, Canada, Switzerland, and Australia but unlike these federal unions, the British government through the 1914 amalgamation of diverse ethnic nationalities, foisted the Nigerian federation on the people without their consent either expressed or implied but for the British economic and administrative convenience.

The Nigerian federation did not evolve in such a way that governments could devolve authority to alleviate threats of domination, unrest or secession by territorially clustered ethnic nationalities. The British perfidy in the Nigerian project could be seen in the structural imbalance between the Northern and Southern regions, which gives the North a political advantage over the other two Southern regions put together. To worsen the situation, the British never ruled Nigeria as a single entity until 1946 when Sir Arthur Richard became the Governor and divided the country into three autonomous regions with a Central Legislature, which for the first time, brought Nigerian leaders from the North to meet with their Southern counterparts to discuss the affairs of their country.

From 1861 when Lagos became the British Crown Colony to 1913 (the eve of amalgamation), Nigeria was ruled and administered as two separate and distinct colonial territories viz: the Colony and the Protectorates of Southern Nigeria, and the Protectorates of Northern Nigeria. When Sir Clifford became the Governor in 1922 and up to 1946, there were two different Legislative authorities. The Nigerian Council on the one hand,  legislated for the Colony and the Protectorates of Southern Nigeria whilst the Northern Nigeria was ruled directly by the Governor on the other (see Awolowo, O., 1966:5; Akinyemi, et al, 1979:95). As a result, Nigerians failed to fully understand and appreciate their different cultural, religious and social backgrounds before the granting of independence and thus, mutual suspicion and ethnic chauvinism were promoted. These were specifically so, given the fact that important political departments in the Southern and Northern administrations remained separated so much so that the administrative officers were hardly ever transferred from the South to the North and vice versa (Akinyemi, et al, 1979).

Unfortunately, the British isolationist policy did not allow the political firmament to be extended to Northern Nigeria and such prevented the people of that part of the country from having early exposure to western education and western democracy like their southern counterparts. Sir Theodore Adams remarked in 1941, that the Emirs regarded the Northern provinces as a separate country and that enforced co-operation with the South would lead to demand for a “Pakistan” (see National Archives, Kaduna file). Therefore, it became obvious that the British did not intend the country to be united from the outset and thus, planted the seeds of disunity by the deliberate policy of never allowing Nigerians to freely interrelate with one another. Harold Smith a former colonial officer in an exclusive interview corroborates this fact where he reveals:

The British expected Nigeria to break up, I just hope that when Nigerians learn that they are not to blame for a lot of bad history and that, left alone, it could have been fine, they will be more hopeful, too” (Tell Magazine, No. 12, March 21, 2005, p.28).

In the same vein, Chief Mbazulike Amechi, a frontline pre-independence nationalist leader and member of Zikist Movement had this to say:

The British colonial authorities did not allow themselves to trust the Igbo man or Yoruba man. The Hausa/Fulani was the man they could trust. And so, they gerrymandered the constitution that brought independence in such a way that made sure that the North had all the powers (Sunday Vanguard, February 13, 2010).

In the light of the forgoing, one should be able to situate the source(s) of the tensed relationship between the majority ethnic nationalities in Nigeria, especially between Igbo and Yoruba who were not only vocal but active in the struggle against colonialism and dominated the political scene from 1900 to 1951.

 •Bello is of the Political Science Department, School of Arts & Social Sciences, National Open University of Nigeria.