An alliance between the Southwest and Southeast seeking to remove old animosities and rivalries between the two geo-political zones of Nigeria could be the first step towards finding a common front in the search for solutions to the myriad of problems facing the nation.
Today, leaders from major ethnic nationalities in the southern part of Nigeria are in Enugu under the auspices of ‘Handshake Across the Niger.’
Although it was a political strategy enunciated by the late Dr. Chuba Okadigbo, the historical underpinning of what is taking place in Enugu, is the bond of friendship between late Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi and former Military Head of State, General J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi, who simulated the loving relationship between two Shakespearean characters, Romeo and Juliet, in death at the hands of vengeful and murderous coup plotters in the Nigeria army.
Although not many at the Enugu confabulation would understand the historical background of the occasion, prevailing socio-political circumstances in the country give it relevance. However, in examining the politics behind the ontological recapitulation of Okadigbo’s pragmatic dictum, the unstated worry among even the promoters revolves around its sustainability.
At its inaugural media briefing, the planning committee for the event had explained that the epoch making occasion “opens a new vista in Igbo-Yoruba relationship within the Federal Republic of Nigeria as we remember the labour (of love) of our heroes past in reconstructing the narratives of our existence.”
Both men, Aguiyi-Ironsi and Fajuyi, were murdered at the Government House, Ibadan in the late hours of July 29, 1966. And ever since that horrific incident that culminated in serial military interventions in the political administration of the country, relationship between Southwest and the Eastern region had remained in suspense, and defined by mutual suspicion and antagonism.
Apologists of unquestioning unity of the country have always worked hard at encouraging and feeding the rift and fault lines between the two southern regions. But at the palace of the Ooni of Ife, where he made that pedagogic remark, Okadigbo underscored the fact that genuine unity could only come if citizens refrain from emphasizing the things that divide but those that unite.
Nonetheless, in the present national political circumstances, including the 97 percent versus five percent derogation of leadership and draconian opposition to citizen discussion and possible review of the structure of the Nigeria platform, the first stage of Okadigbo’s position holds true.
Enunciating the crucial necessity of understanding and active collaboration of east and west, by implication, the handshake across the Niger comes out as a pragmatic socio-political strategy to counterbalance the possible northern hegemony through southern solidarity.
It is against that auspicious background that examination of possible roadblocks to enduring handshake becomes imperative. Left as an isolated vehicle for political action, the handshake stands the risk of evaporating as an emotive outburst or reaction to the present political realities on ground.
Recently Nigerians witnessed a massive crusading from the eastern flank for secession and self-determination, which from all intents and purposes emanated from the perceived imbalance in the national structure as well as frustrations at the unbending indifference to change by the northern political leadership.
The Nigeria state has always been troubled by the social dichotomy between the north and ethnic nationalities in the south, which were cemented together at the amalgamation by colonial overlords. Ever since the bloody coup that removed Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa from power, the impression that leaders from the north parade inferior educational and social credentials to foster an egalitarian country governed by merit and equal opportunity was sustained.
That first coup therefore seemed to accentuate that perception the north was using its advantage of quantitative uneducated population to lord it over the comparatively better educated and socially gregarious south.
Despite Aguiyi-Ironsi’s intention to mend the distraught emergent country, the coupists that came for him in Ibadan, where he was visiting his friend Fajuyi, were not only incensed by the removal of Balewa and slaughter of other northern leaders, but above all griping at the demeaning adjectives employed to that describe the citizens of the northern region.
Not that alone, the northerners sustained the inward angst by driving the wage against southern solidarity between the east and west, in a cheap parody of the divide and rule applied by the colonialists before the country’s flag independence. Part of the strategy was the instrument of blackmail that the Yoruba of west betrayed the Igbo of east in the civil war that trailed the attempt by the east to secede.
But assimilating that later development, the east and west buried the memory of great show of solidarity and amity demonstrated by Fajuyi and his guest at the final moments. Accounts of that sordid passage revealed that Fajuyi had told JTU: “I am with you, soul, spirit and body; whatever happens to me, I am your true friend dear JUT, like the dove and the pigeon. And by the grace of our good God, so will I humbly, yet proudly remain till the very end.”
In response, JTU was quoted as saying: “Yes, Francis, I retain my absolute confidence in you; I have never for once doubted your integrity.” Both guest and host were killed and buried in a shallow grave at Lalupon.
But as political rivalry and petty jealousy drove the east and west apart, the uncommon bond of enduring friendship between the two former military leaders was lost. In attempting to rekindle that rich narrative through a long anticipated handshake, east and west place themselves at history’s judgment. Would the understanding last long and bear socio-political fruits?
Huddles and ambush
No doubt, the chasm between east and west was accentuated by politics and economy. The acrimony was made worse when what used to be the east was further balkanized to ensure that the wealth from oil did not benefit the region in such a way that secession would be impossible to attempt again.
Therefore given that state of affairs, the military, which took over governance structures, continued the subdivision of the country and regions with state creations and anomalous constitutional provisions. To worsen the domination of the south, the mainly northern military leaders delved into economic dispossession of the ethnic nationalities, such that the oil that was prospected from the Niger Delta could not leave commensurate dividend in terms of infrastructure and socio-economic empowerment.
Strengthening the strangulating over-centralization of socio-political forces, what used to be the eastern region, including the oil bearing Delta, was forsaken. But Lagos survived due to its strategic location as access to the sea. As the Lagos and Apapa ports were developed, similar international gateways in the eastern flank were denied of federal government attention.
In the ensuing competition for economic empowerment and access to national wealth, the east and west found themselves in competition as they sought alliance with the conservative north. But while the west, aided by the crucial economic position of Lagos, tended towards regional harmony, the east became marginalized as the place was devoid of factors of economic development. The mass exodus of its productive population further polarized the east, such that in demographic terms, it ranked lower than other regions.
Not withstanding the economic achievements of its citizens, the east could not fare well in politics as it continually fails to form a bloc with its South-South neighbours. And while the west achieves regional cohesion for national relevance, the eastern flank could not, thereby making it impossible for the entire south to cry with one voice.
Political reality in the restructuring debate
Although the east and west seemed to live with the status quo, the political reality that came on the scene with the present dispensation awakened the two regions to what clout they have lost by playing disparate politics. While it is easy for the north to coast home in presidential elections without the input of either region, the south saw through the tricky scenario.
Having assisted the north in regaining political power, which it lost though a coincidental breach in the power sharing arrangement within the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the west expected to join hands with the north in mandate delivery got shortchanged.
And nothing brought home the political awakening home to the west than the current demand for restructuring of the country for greater efficiency and balance in the distribution of economic opportunities. It became crucial therefore for the ethnic nationalities in the south to come together and activate the Okadigbo paradigm of handshake across the Niger.
Although he was a chieftain of the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN) when he made that immortal statement, the political theorist and strategist saw the impossibility of the south making a mark in good governance or holding political offices at its own terms without cooperation.
That thought reverberated in 2003 when Okadigbo paired up with General Muhammadu Buhari on the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP’s) Presidential ticket. According to Okadigbo, his decision to accept to be running mate to Buhari was “a sign of political sagacity to understand political arithmetic in order to achieve political strategism to be able to bring together brothers and sisters vertically and horizontally for the purposes of achieving political victory.”
Though Okadigbo and Buhari lost the 2003 Presidential election, it was obvious that the failure to consummate the handshake across the Niger would have made him ineffectual as a Vice President. Because, even when he maintained that the ticket was a short cut to the Presidency (for the east), the present experience of west has shown the futility of his optimism. The promise of Buhari doing just one term in office would have proved illusory then, as it is now.
But as the major blocs in the south gather in Enugu to strengthen the handshake across the Niger, all eyes would be on the east to see what issues would redefine its political relations with the politically savvy west.
That concern was actually voiced by the Lower Niger Independence Movement (LONIM) in a statement it made available to The Guardian. Wondering what the Igbo would be bringing to the table in the handshake, LONIM noted that “while the Yoruba position on the Nigerian question in terms of the minimum conditions for mutual coexistence in the union had been made abundantly clear to the whole World in 2017, especially the June 24, 2017 Yoruba National Assembly Declarations and the September 7, 2017 Yoruba Solemn Assembly, the same cannot be said of the Igbo side where there seems to be an unwritten code to evade the making out of an Igbo Position.”
Although LONIM expressed fears as to the real objectives of the Igbo side of the conveners, the meeting underscores Okadigbo’s summations of the Igbo problem. Speaking at the Igbo Summit in Enugu on January 19, 2001, Okadigbo had contrasted the Nigeria problem with the Igbo problem.
He said: “There exists an intricate dialectic between the Igbo problem and the Nigerian problem. After all, what affects a part does affect the whole. When you point a finger at someone, four fingers are pointing at you. When you denigrate hard work and thrift by or in one section, it rubs off adversely on the whole.
“If you dehumanize a part of Nigeria, the country suffers the impact. A nation in quest of progress and development must not cheat itself by deliberate neglect of any sector. This is what the whole human rights movement throughout the world is all about. And Nigeria must be in sync with universalism.”
Against that background it would be left to Nzuko Umunna and Ohanaeze Nd’Igbo to reach out to the Yoruba with concrete agenda, including the LONIM’s demands for an unambiguous statement on the status of the 1999 Constitution as the basis of Nigeria, the 2019 election, which would be premised on the said Constitution.