HANDSHAKE ACROSS THE NIGER: IGBO AND YORUBA IN FRESH SEARCH FOR COMMON GROUND. By Law Mefor.

“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it” Frantz Fanon

The‘Handshake Across the Niger’ project, that noble initiative of an Igbo sociocultural and professional organization, Nzuko Umunna, may turn out to be the missing link in binding Igbo and Yoruba relations in Nigeria. I understand it is aimed at remembering the late head of state, Major General JTU Uguiyi-Ironsi and his host killed along with him in the countercoup of July 29th 1966, the late Col. Francis Adekunle Fajuyi. History records it that Fajuyi opted to die with his guest, Ironsi, who the mutinying revenge soldiers, led by then Major TY Danjuma, had actually come for.

Giving the option, most men would save their own lives. But not Fajuyi thus his has come to be regarded as a rare demonstration of courage. The Igbo and the Yoruba share that culture where a host is required to defend his guest with his own life if need be. Remembering the duo that stood such courage of conviction cannot but be admitted as an epochal historical necessity.

Beyond remembering the inimitable twosome who remained inseparable even in death, the handshake programme is capable of revamping relations between the two major ethnic groups, which went icy after some historic epochs.

The Igbo and the Yoruba have come a long way in the Nigeria project, each ethnic group, however, pursuing their own survival, growth and development with little or no recourse to the other. Individually, each has fared fairly well but many believe not working together, especially politically, has robbed both the bountiful yields of political economies of scale.

Someone said: if you want to walk fast, walk alone; if you want to walk far, work with someone. These two major ethnic groups have walked alone and fast, but not far enough, and it is time to try a new symbiotic tactic and that appears to be what the handshake project is offering.

Historically, efforts have been made by Igbo and Yoruba political leaders to work together, but somehow, such efforts did not prove sustainable as each attempt was truncated by some exigencies in the cataclysmic Nigeria politics.

The beginning of Igbo –Yoruba understanding dates back to the formative and early days of NCNC -National Congress of Nigeria and Cameroons(later changed to National Congress of Nigerian Citizens when the Southern Cameroon left Nigeria and joined their kin in Cameroon). Olayinka Herbert Samuel Heelas Badmus Macaulay and Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe were the two of a kind who provided the great party the lofty and purposeful leadership it needed to dominate the nation’s political landscape.

Macaulay was engaged in a national tour for the party in 1945, when he was taken ill. Returning to Lagos, he died in the same year. Nnamdi Azikiwe naturally became the party’s National President after him and led the party to victory in the Eastern and Western Regions in the General Election. Were it not for the cross-carpeting, which occurred in the Western Region, NCNC would have formed government with a strong possibility of Nnamdi Azikiwe becoming the Premier of Western Nigeria, having secured majority of the seats in the Western House.

The cross-carpeting caused much bad blood between the NCNC and Action Group and by extension, between Igbo and Yoruba and sort of severed the otherwise healthy political relationship that hitherto existed between them.

But soon after, it became quite clear again to both that none can get far in Nigeria politics the way the nation was configured from its colonial foundation, working alone. This gave rise to the formation of a political alliance between the Action Group led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo and NCNC led by Nnamdi Azikiwe in 1965. Due to resentment of and the need to wrestle power from the Tafawa Balewa led government, a coalition called the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA) was birthed. The alliance comprised Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group, Nnamdi Azikiwe’s National Council of Nigerian Citizens, Joseph Tarka’s United Middle Belt Congress and Aminu Kano’s Northern Elements Progressive Union. The NPC did not relax to watch the display of mergers.

Though this alliance soon broke down for reasons of trust, it underscored the inescapable need for the two to forge a common front for easier pursuit of common goals, akin to the psychological strategies referred to as Superordinate Goals by Social Psychologists.

Then, the Nigeria Civil War came and went. Evidently, Emeka Ojukwu who led Biafra, had counted on the leader of the Yoruba Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who did not see the expediency in supporting Biafra and forfeiting the Vice Chairmanship of the Supreme Military Council and Minister of Finance, which he held or was offered, and the near limitless opportunities the displacement of the Igbos in the looming war offered him and his people.

Many Igbos have interpreted Awo’s action as treachery, but in politics of survival, one’s ethnic group comes first. Ojukwu admitted this much while conceding the right of Awo to choose in the circumstance. Even Nnamdi Azikiwe left Biafra when the circumstances dictated. Rightly or wrongly, all these historical figures have played their roles and departed, leaving the stage for the living. One thing no one will be able to take away from them: they left their large footprints on the sands of time.

I recall my arguments with my father on what I called ‘the mistakes of Ojukwu and Zik’. My old man’s answer remains instructive; for he said: ‘You call it their mistakes. Now, you have the chance to correct the mistakes or even make your own if history will ever remember you’.

Yes, men of the future must not only understand their past but also the forces that forge the present. It is time for the present generation to right the wrongs (assuming there are) and make their own mistakes if need be.That, to me, is the real meaning of this handshake across the Niger.

The over 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria are ironed together by the common colonial fate and have to work out their future, somehow. Impliedly, the six geographical zones in the country are real and none has the capacity to get its way at national level on any issue, especially on issues captured in the 1999 Constitution. Nigeria as a country has a lot of structural defects, which have not allowed the country to make any progress, fueling the current agitations for restructuring. The structural imbalances are fixated in the constitution, and altering any of them would require at least 4 zones working conscientiously together.

For the avoidance of doubt, alteration of any clause in the 1999 Constitution or insertion of any new clause would require 2/3rds of the members of the National Assembly and 24 States’ Houses of Assembly voting affirmatively.

The three zones in the Southern Nigeria agree on restructuring and favour the return to the true federal system agreed between the nation’s founding fathers and departing colonial masters. Handshake across the Nigeria will help build that bridge to permit better crosspollination and actualization of such ideas along the southern flank and make incursions into the north feasible. More importantly, it will help cure the mutual suspicions often bedeviling the relations between the Igbo and the Yoruba groups and blighting their future.

That is why when people ask: can the Igbo and the Yoruba ever agree? I answer: yes, they can, and may I add, the day they do, the salvation of Nigeria begins. There is no rule in book that says that today’s generation cannot agree where Zik and Awo generation disagreed. Perhaps it wasn’t the right time then. The die is cast again. Let there be that handshake across the Niger indeed.

• Law Mefor is an Abuja based Forensic and Social Psychologist and Journalist;

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