18th December, 2013
By Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema
After reading through Femi Fani-Kayode’s article titled ‘Olunloyo and the Wild, Wild West’ in the December 8 edition of ‘Sunday Vanguard,’ I came away with the impression that, as far as the former Minister of Aviation is concerned, the more things change the more they remain the same.
I have nothing against Kayode’s bid to project himself as the arch-defender of the Yoruba, whether within the Nigerian federation or as an independent entity. Self-determination is no sin and there is nothing to be ashamed of in forging a pan Yoruba nationalism. As an Igbo, I would be dishonest if I claim to love Nigeria at the expense of my ethnic group.
But what bothers me are the foundations of Kayode’s nationalism. Although dressed in robes of intellectualism and historicity, a close examination reveals they are inaccurate. They do not belong to the realm of verifiable history Kayode lays claim to. In a deeply divided society like Nigeria where many people lack the ability or inclination to access the facts for themselves, Kayode’s assertions may be taken as gospel.
The Awolowo-Akintola feud is not over in 2013. Among contemporary political elite of Yorubaland can still be found those who defend each gentleman’s principles. Whether they have coalesced to speak with one voice is doubtful. The current ping-pong among Yoruba leaders over the National Conference proposed by President Jonathan is noteworthy. My study of the Olunloyo interview in the November 30 edition of ‘The Punch’ gave me the insight that the rumble might just be taking new forms. Kayode’s thesis is that Akintola’s pro-Northern Nigerian romance was right while Awo erred in seeking an alliance with the Igbo who hate him so much.
This article is written, not to quarrel with Kayode’s position, but to interrogate what he wrote about Awo, the Igbo and the politics of Nigeria.
Kayode has always argued that Azikiwe’s speech before the Igbo State Union sowed the seeds of tribalism in Southern Nigerian politics and laid the foundation for the NCNC’s loss of Western Nigeria to Awo’s Action Group in the 1951 Regional elections. In Kayode’s words: “…in 1947…Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s famous speech about the ‘god of the Igbo’ who he believed would eventually give them leadership over Nigeria and Africa. These were the deeply offensive sentiments of those that belonged to the Igbo State Union which was the umbrella organization of all the Igbo at the time and which spoke for every single Igbo in the country. It was this rabid and violent expression of Igbo nationalism and intention to take control of the levers of power in our country at all costs, even at the early stage that created all our problems in the South.”
Having read these assertions in an earlier essay by Kayode, I decided to dig out this speech by Zik. It is published in a book written by Azikiwe titled ‘Zik: A Selection from the Speeches of Nnamdi Azikiwe.’ (Cambridge University Press, 1961). The speech was delivered at the Igbo State Assembly, Aba in present day Abia State on 25 June, 1949. The more I studied it, the more I wondered whether it was the same speech Kayode read. Permit me to quote the ‘damning’ lines about the ‘god of the Igbo’ mandating them to subdue other ethnic groups in Nigeria:
“It would appear that God has specially created the Ibo people to suffer persecution and be victimized because of their resolute will to live. Since suffering is the label of our tribe, we can afford to be sacrificed for the ultimate redemption of the children of Africa. Is it not fortunate that the Ibo are among the few remnants of indigenous African nations who are still not spoliated by the artificial niceties of Western materialism? Is it not historically significant that throughout the glorious history of Africa, the Ibo is one of the select few to have escaped the humiliation of a conqueror’s sword or to be a victim of a Carthaginian treaty? Search through the records of African history and you will fail to find an occasion when, in any pitched battle, any African nation has either marched across Ibo territory or subjected the Ibo nation to a humiliating conquest. Instead, there is record to show that the martial prowess of the Ibo, at all stages of human history, has rivaled them not only to survive persecution but also to adapt themselves to the role thus thrust upon them by history, of preserving all that is best and most noble in African culture and tradition. Placed in this high estate, the Ibo cannot shirk the responsibility conferred on it by its manifest destiny. Having undergone a course of suffering, the Ibo must therefore enter into its heritage by asserting its birthright without apologies.”
Does this sound like an Igbo blueprint to take over Nigeria? It was a ringing and rousing call to the Igbo to counter British oppression. Zik was seeking self-determination for the Igbo within the context of an independent Nigeria.
By the time this speech was made, the British had successfully inserted tribal politics among Nigerian nationalists. The Richards Constitution of 1945 sowed the seeds of regionalization which gave official approval to tribalist suspicions raised by the new world order of colonial rule among the formerly independent ethnic groups. This extract from Dennis Osadebey’s biography ‘Building a Nation’ sets matters in proper perspective:
“Although the Richards Constitution did advance Nigeria some steps further in the journey to democratic autonomy, Nigerian nationalists did not like it….Their fears were strengthened when it was learnt that in making his constitution, Sir Arthur Richards had ulterior motives. …He wanted to disperse the concentration of political agitation in Lagos and send the agitators and ‘hot heads’ back to their own regions, where they could be contained by the British Chief Commissioners and their British administrative officers, while he took care of Lagosians.’ Zik’s party, the NCNC, fought unsuccessfully against the constitution.
If Kayode was not in a hurry to engage in his pastime of Igbo bashing as a prerequisite for his brand of Yoruba nationalism he would have referred to the NCNC-Action Group alliance that backed the Enahoro motion for self-rule in 1956, moved in 1953 in the legislative chambers in Lagos. This was just a couple of years after the 1951 elections. Till date the tactics that gave the Action Group victory is controversial. But the NCNC had a lot going against it: its weakness as a rallying-point for radical nationalism with the collapse of the Zikist movement; the nature of the 1951 constitution which decisively ethnicized the anticolonialist movement; and subterranean moves by the British which are best left unmentioned in the interest of Nigeria’s fragile situation. It is to Awo’s credit that in spite of the regionalist approach of his party, he ardently fought for Nigeria’s independence unlike his pro-British contemporaries of the Northern People’s Congress.
The Igbo have been generally blamed for the non-manifestation of an NCNC-Action Group alliance following the 1959 elections. But in his book ‘Awo: Unfinished Greatness,’ Olufemi Ogunsanwo reported that ‘Zik’s Yoruba partners would not hear of any arrangement inclusive of Awo, the man. He must not be accommodated in the federal government.’ (p.66). The tactic of negotiating simultaneously with the NCNC and the Northern People’s Congress cost the Action Group its chance when both parties discovered its game.
Some of Kayode’s ugly remarks about the Igbo’s perceptions about Awo even in death are sufficient to start a bloody conflict. His article is available so I will not mention them, unless necessary in countering the fallacies they contain.
If he would take out time to find out what is being taught in History, Political Science and allied departments in tertiary institutions in the South-East, he might not have written that the Igbo hide the facts about the UPGA Alliance, essentially between Awo and the Igbo. I am a proud product of one of these universities and the facts about the UPGA alliance is taught in relevant courses. It is even in Senior Secondary School syllabi for Government and History used throughout Nigeria.
The backhanded insults on Awo’s memory should bring Kayode before the elders of Yorubaland for thorough drilling and possible sanctions. Awo’s natural death in 1987 is not hidden, unless Kayode knows something his fellow citizens are ignorant of. Prominent Igbo leaders paid moving tributes to him at his funeral and afterwards. These are well documented. Anyone who wants to read some of them can see Ogunsanwo’s book and Ojukwu’s ‘Because I am involved.’ Interestingly the plotters of the January 1966 coup have declared, both in books and interviews that Awo was their hero and they planned to install him in power. Whether Awo, then jailed by the Balewa government, would have accepted their offer, is another matter. But it is significant that both Igbo and Yoruba soldiers were united in putting their lives on the line for Awo and sacked a regime led by an Igbo president, Zik. Space does not permit quotes from Ifeajuna’s unpublished manuscript that show what they thought of Zik and how much they respected Awo. This should not be read as a justification of that coup.
Awo’s role during the war is at the heart of his less than cordial relations with the Igbo. Whether there was a pact between Awo and Ojukwu on secession, and whether Awo went back on it, is still being hotly debated. My research on the subject remains open-ended. But there is evidence about Awo’s position about starvation as a legitimate weapon of war against Biafra. As the Vice-Chairman of Gowon’s Federal Executive Council he took positions and initiated policies that undermined Biafra. Repugnant though these positions may be to ex-Biafrans who bore the brunt, real politik and the realities of the conflict made Awo take the position he did. In spite of his explanations he paid a stiff political price for it in the East in the 1979 and 1983 elections. But it is not factual that there was a wholesale Igbo demonization of Awo. He had staunch Igbo lieutenants like MCK Ajuluchukwu who abandoned Zik for the Yoruba leader. Awo’s choice of Philip Umeadi, an Igbo, as his running mate in the 1979 elections reportedly angered General Obasanjo, the Head of State that he initiated the machinery that put paid to Awo’s ambition.
Achebe’s book ‘There Was a Country’ is not a conclusive history of Biafra, in spite of its title. It is just one man’s testament about the road Nigeria took and continues to take with attendant tragedies. That it was written by Achebe does not make it scripture. But the book’s vision goes well beyond the ethnicity-tinted glasses of those critics who focus on only a few lines in the book or politicized reviews. Damilola Awoyokun’s superbly written articles serialized in ‘The News’ magazine early this year took Biafra, Ojukwu and Achebe to the cleaners but they define only one perspective on the subject matter. ‘There Was a country’ should be read in such light.
•Henry C. Onyema is a Lagos-based historian, writer and teacher. Email: [email protected]