Understanding Igbo-Yoruba Unhealthy Rivalry (2)


By Abdul-Rahoof A. Bello

The Nigerian contemporary politics started with nationalists struggle against colonialism but in the early 1920s, nationalist movements graduated to the first political party, Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) under the leadership of Sir Herbert Helaas Macaulay with Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe as Secretary-General of the party. This was in response to the elective principle provided by the 1922 Clifford’s Constitution. The party won all the seats in the newly created Legislative Council in 1923, 1928 and 1933 (see Falola, T., et al, 2012). With the exit of Herbert Macaulay in 1946, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s personality and his political party – National Council of Nigerians and the Cameroons (NCNC) – dominated the Lagos politics (the only area, which comprised of Lagos Colony and the Southern Protectorates where Africans were allowed to exercise the limited franchise granted by the 1922 Constitution).

The only ideology then was anti-colonialism, which Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe symbolized and which endeared him to the educated elites as a heir-apparent to Herbert Macaulay who was regarded as the father of Nigerian nationalism. Many educated elites across ethnic divide in the then Lagos Colony and the Protectorates of Southern Nigeria were members of Zikists movement, which was formed in 1944 with M. C. K. Ajuluchukwu and Dr. Kola Balogun as President and Secretary-General respectively. Not only because the ‘Zik of Africa’ (but sadly, he was later in life to become the Owelle of Onisha) had the African Pilot newspaper to fight the colonial government. They were also impressed by his charisma and erudition in the deployment of ‘new’ grammar of politics such as ‘economic positivism’, ‘political Risorgimento’ and many other ‘isms’ that was the craze of the moment. According to Bola Ige (1995:19), whenever he rolled out those long words or phrases, even though most of the crowd did not understand, the roar of “Akwukwo” or “Igi Iwe” or “Igi Ege” rent the air.

By this time, Obafemi Awolowo’s political profile was in obscurity until the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM) was formed in 1933 to challenge the NNDP/NCNC domination of Lagos politics.  His political ascendancy into the limelight did not come until the large chunk of Egbe Omo Oduduwa (a pan-Yoruba Socio-cultural Association) formed by him in London in 1948 formed the Action Group (AG) in 1951. This was the political party he used to contest the federal elections and became the first Leader of Government Business and later the Premier of the Western Region (1952-1959).

The Lagos Youth Movement became the vehicle of intellectuals and professionals to participate in the political process. Membership was composed mainly of the most politically conscious segment of the population and stood in the vanguard of the nationalist movement. In 1933 Dr. James Churchill Vaughan, Ernest Sisei Ikoli, Samuel Akinsanya (Odemo of Isara) were brought into the fold by Eyo Ita and in 1937 the name was changed to Nigeria Youth Movement (NYM) with Barrister Hezekiah Oladipo Davies as the Secretary. The crisis brewed in 1941 when Dr Kofo Abayomi resigned his seat on the Legislative Council and the Movement (NYM) had to select between Ernest Ikoli and Oba Samuel Akinsanya through a primary election. Ernest Ikoli (an Ijaw) who was supported by Obafemi Awolowo defeated the Odemo of Isara (a Yoruba) who was supported by Nnamdi Azikiwe.

Although Oba Akinsanya immediately congratulated Dr. Ikoli, he later reneged and contested as an independent candidate but lost the seat with all the support of his primary backer (see Obafemi Awolowo, 1960). Consequently, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe left the Movement and was followed by all Igbo members, perhaps because the West African Pilot, which was the real Bible of the Nigerian masses at that time, touched upon it in terms of ethnic struggle between Awo and Zik (see The Guardian, Sunday, October 14, 2012, .19). This was seen as the catalyst of ethnic politics in Nigeria because Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was supposed to be the leader to everyone, not only Igbo (Al-Bashir).  The ethnic rivalry, which began in 1941 between the Ibo and Yoruba members of the Nigerian Youth Movement over the Ikoli-Akinsanya crisis, resulted in the Igbo members leaving the party en mass and thus, reducing the NYM to a Yoruba organization. This, in the opinion of Schwarz Jr., (1965:51), was the beginning of the plague on Nigerian politics ever since. Between 1941 and 1950, the unhealthy rivalry between the Ibo and Yoruba became so intense even beyond the political turf that by 1948 Azikiwe had ceased to be Zik of Africa but Zik of the Ibo Nation. (Oyediran, O., 1979:7).

Another charge of ethnic politics being held against the Yoruba by the Igbo was the event that surrounded the 1952/53 elections, which led to the emergence of Chief Obafemi Awolowo becoming the first Premier of the Western Region, in spite of the good electoral performance of Azikiwe’s party (NCNC). From Lagos, the NCNC put up four candidates: Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ibikunle Olorunnimbe, H. O. Davies and Adeleke Adedoyin to defeat the Action Group with a comfortable majority in the Western House of Assembly. The 1951 Constitution provided that the Leader of the party with the majority in the House would be the Leader of the House, and later designated Premier of the Region. The Igbos felt that if not for ethnic conspiracy, which saw some Yoruba members in NCNC crossing carpet to AG, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe should have been the Leader of the House and the first Premier of the region. The three major political parties that contested the 1952 elections – AG, NCNC and NPC were ethnically based both in texture, culture and character because they metamorphosed from socio-cultural associations. For instance, the Egbe Omo Oduduwa formed the Action Group (AG) while the Jammiya Mutainen Arewa formed the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) and members of Igbo State Unions was one of the founding organizations of the NCNC. Zik encouraged all Igbos, whatever their clan or interest affiliations, to sport it (Ige, Bola, 1995p.29).

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In addition, the 1952/53 elections were contested by many independent candidates and tribal unions such as Ibadan Peoples’ Party and Otu Edo Political Party; Ilorin-Talaka Parapo in the North, Ibibio State Union etc. In fact, Bola Ige (1995:69) insists that nobody throughout Nigeria was elected on a political party platform except the five members from Lagos. Therefore, it is not impossible that political horse-trading (lobbying) based on ethnic persuasion that turned the table against the NCNC took place. However, Odia Ofeimum, a poet and literary critic, citing the Western House of Assembly Hansards, submits that the allegation of tribal politics by Igbo against Yoruba over 1952 elections was baseless. He added that ‘none of the three people who crossed carpet on the floor of the Western House of Assembly was Yoruba’ but because those lies were told repeatedly, they formed the basis for the demonology that has encompassed the relationship between Awolowo and the Igbo. He concludes:

If an Igbo, Ekwuyasi, who the Edo trusted enough to vote for on the platform of Otu Edo, Nnamdi Azikiwe an Igbo, did not stop Lagosians from voting for him. The fact that a city predominantly Yoruba could vote a party led by an Igbo person into the House of Assembly ought to have suggested that, actually, the Yorubas who cast their vote were not tribalistic (see The Guardian, Sunday, October 14, 2012, p.19).

Let us assume, without conceding, that an ethnic card had played out in the Western House of Assembly against Igbo, the Igbo nation was equally culpable of tribal politics at its ugliest against a minority ethnic group in the Eastern region. It is on record that instead of Dr. Azikiwe to take his defeat (in the West) in good faith like a democrat, he left Ibadan bitter, very bitter and found an Onitsha constituency to put him in the Eastern House of Assembly, which led to a crisis between Igbos and Efik of Prof. Eyo Ita who was forced to resign. Bola Ige (1995:79-80), further explains:

A campaign of hate and abuse was launched against these men (Eyo Ita; Okoi Arikpo; A. C. Nwapa) inside and outside of the House of Assembly at Enugu. Professor Eyo Ita hurriedly formed a new party – United National Independence Party (UNIP) made up largely of legislators and non-Igbos. Zik pressed on the NCNC members in the House, especially the Igbo members, to vote out the government on a motion of confidence. Prof. Ita was forced to dissolve the House and go for elections. Zik returned in triumph with overwhelming majority.

It would be noted that the 1952 episode has continued to recur like a recurrent decimal in the political mathematics between Igbo and Yoruba. Even among the educated elite, hardly would any Igbo man write without a reference to the ‘cross carpeting’. The Igbo psyche has been stereotyped into believing such falsehood woven around the misconception that “Nigerians will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo” (Chinua Achebe, 1983, p.45).

According to A.H. M Kirk-Green (See Kurfi, 1983:23), the tragedy of 1967 (civil war) is that many of its seeds were not, as is often claimed, sown in October or even July 1966, but in the 1950s or, as some see it, in 1914 or may be even in 1900 itself. There were remote as-well-as immediate factors responsible for the military coup of 1966. However, shortly after her independence in 1960, Nigeria was faced with a number of challenges. First was the protest against Anglo-Nigeria Defence Pact led by the University of Ibadan students and followed in quick succession by: 1963/64 census crisis; the 1964 federal elections imbroglio and the Western Region 1965 election that led to operation ‘we tie’ in the region.

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