If you are a newcomer to Nigerian politics, you should be forgiven for thinking Igbo are sworn enemies of northerners (and I mean the “core north” by that, and hereinafter). Since the 2015 presidential electioneering, there has been no love lost between the two big power blocs and erstwhile political allies.
Agitations for Biafra, which were dormant under President Goodluck “Azikiwe” Jonathan, have been magnificently revived, and in an unprecedented development, an Arewa youth coalition has issued an October 1 deadline to Igbo to quit the north. Although there are efforts to douse the tension, the rhetoric has only softened. The damage has been done.
The north and Igbo were political partners for decades, right from 1960s, so I am sitting here today asking myself: what went wrong? Many will trace the turning point to January 1966 when northern leaders and their southern allies were killed in what was termed — rightly or wrongly — an “Igbo coup”. There was a revenge coup by the north in July 1966. The end product of the coup and countercoup was the civil war of 1967-1970. But the north and Igbo appeared to have only briefly separated — their political romance resumed in 1979.
Things went awry, though, in the 2015 electioneering, probably not helped by President Muhammadu Buhari’s “97% vs 5%” Freudian slip.
However, shifting alliances and coalitions are part of our politics. An excursion into our history will offer some illumination — and, if you will, a bit of consolation — that the north and Igbo are not mortal enemies and reconciliation should not be ruled out. If anything, it is the Yoruba and Igbo that have never managed to befriend each other, politically. It is somewhat an irony that the north and Yoruba are today locked in a political embrace after what appeared to be an eternal enmity, while Igbo are the outsiders, as it were. The basic truth, then, is that there are no permanent friends or permanent foes in politics: it is all about interests.
Let’s step back in time. In the 1959 general election which ushered us into independence in 1960, the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) won the most seats in the federal legislature. Under the parliamentary system that we operated then, NPC was in the poll position to form government and appoint a prime minister. But there was a snag: they won only 134 seats. In the 312-member parliament, that was not enough. NPC needed a minimum of 157 seats to have the simple majority, and so it needed a coalition to control power. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) won 81 seats, while Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group (AG) got 73.
Actually, NPC and its allies had 148 seats, NCNC and its allies 89, and AG and its allies 75. Awo and Zik could have “stolen” power from NPC if they had joined forces: their total of 164 seats would have surpassed the 157-seat target. But in reality, Awo and Zik (you can say Yoruba and Igbo) were no political allies. They seemed to have mutual respect as well as mutual distrust for each other, certainly not unrelated to Awo’s controversial upstaging of Zik to become premier of the western region in 1952. But they had a history: in 1941, both men took opposing sides in the by-election to elect the president of the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM). Awo and Zik could never align.
We had a first republic where the north and Igbo were in a live-in relationship — even if you would call it “marriage of convenience”. Zik became the governor-general of Nigeria (and, in 1963, the ceremonial president) while NPC’s Alhaji Tafawa Balewa became prime minister. NCNC also produced the senate president: Prince Nwafor Orizu. Awo, or should I say the Yoruba, played the role of opposition in the parliament. The Yoruba prided themselves as progressives, and it was unimaginable for them to work with the conservative NPC. The more pragmatic Zik chose to play mainstream politics, hence the coalition with NPC.
Fast forward to 1979. Despite the civil war, Zik’s new party, Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP), still chose to work with the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), preferred by the conservative north (or the “northern oligarchy”, as the Yoruba mainstream loved to call it). Ironically, yet again, while NPN won 5.6 million votes in the presidential election (we had ditched the Westminster parliamentary system), Awo’s Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) scored 4.9 million and Zik’s NPP had 2.8 million. Now, look at those figures again. If Zik and Awo had worked together, they would have polled 7.7 million votes and NPN’s Alhaji Shehu Shagari would not have been elected president.
In the national assembly, NPN could not control either chamber — it had only 36 out of the 95 senators (there were five senators from each of the 19 states in those days) and only 165 out of 433 members of the houses of reps. The way out? A north/Igbo alliance again! NPP, with its 16 senators and 78 reps, went into an “understanding” with NPN, even producing Chief Edwin Ume Eze-oke as the speaker. It was not the best of marriages, but at least they co-habited until the next election. By the way, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, an Igbo, was twice elected vice-president to Shagari. Even if the nation was fractured along ethnic lines, there were still handshakes across the fence.
In the third republic, Igbo again aligned with the north. In the famous June 12 election, the National Republican Convention (NRC), fielding a northern candidate, Alhaji Bashir Tofa, won in three of the four Igbo states, namely Imo, Abia and Enugu (where NRC had also produced governors), while the Social Democratic Party (SDP), fielding a Yoruba, Chief MKO Abiola, won in Anambra (with a sitting SDP governor). Interestingly, although Tofa polled 756,142 votes in the four south-east states, he had a mere 16,394 votes more than Abiola. Perhaps with Awo and Zik out of the way, Yoruba and Igbo were beginning to flirt with each other. It was a shift, even if not wholly significant.
In 1999, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), a strong congregation of mainstream northern, south-east and south-south politicians, fielded Chief Olusegun Obasanjo in the presidential election that birthed this dispensation. The Alliance for Democracy (AD), in a partnership with the All Peoples Party (APP), fielded Chief Olu Falae, the “official” Yoruba choice. The Igbo kept faith with their historical alignment with the north, and voted for Obasanjo, the choice of the north. They also supported Obasanjo in 2003 and Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2007, despite the candidacy of Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu on the APGA platform in both elections. Ojukwu was not an ordinary Igbo.
What then? I have gone into this historical voyage for two reasons. One, I have noticed that many members of the younger generation are taking 2015 as the starting point of Nigerian history and I consider this to be very dangerous. Our history is filled with shifting alliances: those who play in the mainstream today could be on the margin tomorrow. In fact, the Niger Delta aligned with the north from 1959 till the bad blood generated by Jonathan’s ascendancy to power in 2011. Before then, both blocs got along quite well. As things heat up today, it may be helpful to remember where paths crossed in the past. Burning the bridges should not be fanciful.
Two, Nigeria needs all the stability it can buy so that development issues can take the centre stage. While other African countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana and Rwanda are confronting their demons and making steady progress, some Nigerians are massively obsessed with ethnic warfare as if that is what will construct the roads, equip the hospitals, reform the schools and put food on the tables of the helpless millions. I insist that political differences are inevitable in a country of three major ethnic groups with fiercely competing interests in the midst of scarcity. Differences can be better managed, and no part of the party must be deliberately isolated from power.
I’m sufficiently aware that many separatists believe that Nigeria cannot progress until it is broken up. Maybe this is true, but in the absence of compelling evidence, I am forced to stick to my suggestion that we try out development-obsessed leadership — and then see how far it can take the country. Political alliances will form and dissolve, coalitions will appear and disappear. Our political history is filled with shifts in flings and marriages. That is the nature of our politics. We should never allow that to get in the way of development, justice and equity. Let the professional politicians politick, but the leaders must centre their heart on Nigeria’s progress. Focus.