Yinka Odumakin is the spokesperson for Afenifre, the pan-Yoruba social-cultural group. He shares his thoughts in this interview with NATHANIEL AKHIGBE on how a formidable alliance between the Yoruba and the Igbo can rescue Nigeria from the current leadership crisis and onto a path of sustainable development.
Q• There is a recent development which many people have termed ‘handshake across the Niger’ between the leaders of the South and Middle-Belt. What is it all about?
A• The South and the Middle-Belt come under what is called the South and Middle-Belt Leaders’ Forum, but the ‘handshake across the Niger’ is a project between the Ohanaeze and Afenifere to which we have invited all of our friends from the South-East and Middle-Belt. And from January 11, 2018, we want to celebrate the last moments of Fajuyi and Ironsi, how Ironsi came to Ibadan, finished his assignment and retired to his own house in Ibadan and the culprits came and assassinated him. In the final hour, Fajuyi displayed the characteristic ‘Omoluabi’ trait of the Yoruba. When Ironsi expected him to flee, he hung unto him and called him, ‘My brother, my boss, whatever happened to you now will happen to me. I will not desert you.’ And the culprits came in, took both of them to a place where they were murdered and buried in shallow graves. This eternal bond built between Fajuyi and Ironsi is what ought to have defined the relationship between the Yoruba and the Igbo who, interestingly, share a common origin. If you listen to both languages, there are so many words which have same connotations and meanings which show that these two groups must have, at one time or the other, shared a common origin. And when you look at the features of the Yoruba and the Igbo, hardly can you see any difference.
Over the years there have been some scripts to play the Yoruba against the Igbo so that the wrong narratives have characterised their relationship, especially during the civil war. There is an Igbo think-tank called Nzuko Umunna (they are world-wide). They are the ones that came up with the idea that we have to change the story from the wrong narratives. Over the years the Igbo have celebrated Ironsi in the East, and the Yoruba have celebrated Fajuyi in the West. But there is nowhere you mention Ironsi’s last moment without mentioning Fajuyi and vice versa. There is an eternal bond between these two and this should cement our people to open a new vista of relationship and understanding. So, Nzuko Umunna came to Ohanaeze and Afenifere with this mandate and we accepted it. And that is what we will be celebrating come January 11 in Enugu. The occasion will be under the joint chairmanship of Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe and General Oluleye, with the Ooni of Ife and the Obi of Onitsha as royal fathers of the day. The governors of Ekiti State (Fajuyi’s home state) and Abia (Ironsi’s home state) are also expected there, as well as governors from the South and Nigeria generally. We are inviting our friends from the South-East, the Middle-Belt, the North and everywhere to come and celebrate this unique friendship that has become a generational bond between the two leading groups in Nigeria who have not really worked together the way they should because of manipulation over the years. So it is a new chapter in Yoruba-Igbo relationship and an example for the rest of Nigeria on inter-ethnic harmony coming up in Enugu on January 11, 2018.
Q• Do you see this kind of relationship taking away the mutual suspicion that seems to have characterised the relationship between these two ethnic nationalities?
A• Oh yes! The event is to build a new bridge – the East-West bridge. The Federal Government has failed to build the bridge physically, but we are going to build it spiritually. The East-West bridge will be constructed in January, and we hope that from then on a new chapter will be opened in terms of throwing away the old animosities and to know that we share a common origin. A book will also be presented on that day and the book will be talking about Fajuyi-Ironsi and the shared origin of the Yoruba and the Igbo. We are about to rewrite our history.
Q• Talking about mutual suspicion, there is this common notion among some Igbo people that the Yoruba are not reliable; they say one thing and do another. They believe that the Yoruba are more comfortable playing second wife to the Hausa man than standing on their own and rallying around the Igbo. What do you make of this perception?
A• You find same story when you talk to the Yoruba about the Igbo. They believe the Igbo are not reliable, so don’t have any dealings with them. We are programmed to have these narratives. I remember in 1999, there was an Igbo man that came to Senator Adesanya’s house with a bus branded in Imo AD and said, ‘I bought this bus on my own, and I will use it to campaign for AD free of charge. I am doing this because it is a payback time for me. During the civil war I left Lagos for the East and rented my houses here. When I came back, I thought my houses would have become abandoned properties. Not only were my houses handed back to me, my Yoruba neighbours collected the rent for the three years the war lasted and gave it to me.’ You don’t hear this kind of story all the time. These are the kind of stories we should celebrate. In a way, for as long as we are locked up within this limited space called Nigeria, there is bound to be rivalry between the Yoruba and the Igbo. Why is it so? We are fishing in the same pond; we are looking for the same thing. There is no skill you find among the Yoruba that you don’t find among the Igbo. If you have a properly federated country, the Yoruba and the Igbo will be engaging in positive competitive jealousy such that when the Yoruba make a new discovery, the Igbo will want to do likewise, leading to a healthy and competitive interaction existing between these two skilled groups who have the knowledge, industry and brain. But because we are locked in the new Nigeria where everything is about sharing, it is who controls power that controls the sharing of money and opportunities. That is why those who don’t wish us well now treat us the way a brutal polygamist will treat his wives. You court the Yoruba now to deal with the Igbo; when you want to deal with the Yoruba, you court the Igbo to come and deal with the Yoruba.
Q• You said the reason the Yoruba and Igbo have not looked at the things they have in common is because of a script written of them. Who are the designers of this script?
A• The British. It was designed by the British.
Q• How do the British benefit from playing the Yoruba against the Igbo?
A• Before independence these were the two most educated groups. These were the people who led the march for independence. Part of the things the British did was to punish those who were asking for independence, to ensure that when they eventually got independence, power did not come to them. Secondly, they created artificial boundaries. The natural boundaries which are River Niger and River Benue that divide the North from the South were by-passed. Niger State is bigger than the entire South-East. Bida town in Niger State is bigger than the whole Netherlands, but the Netherlands today is the world’s second-largest exporter of agricultural produce after the United States. So what are you doing with the land in Niger State? At the end of the month, you want to use this factor to share money. This country has been programmed wrongly, we have to de-programme. Hence, building this kind of relationship puts us in a better place to know who we are. When Yoruba and Igbo understand themselves, we can then explain to our partners across Nigeria that we don’t need to fight, we just need to understand who we are. Let us be constituted in such a way that we are all able to fulfil our special abilities within the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Q• What do you think will be the impact in the long run of this new relationship you are building?
A• The impact in the long run will be, first, we will remove the animosity between the Yoruba and the Igbo. Second, we will be able to cooperate. You see, Nigeria will not move forward until the Igbo and the Yoruba work together. The solidarity of the Yoruba and the Igbo will impact seriously on the South-South. And once we have a formidable South, we can then build further understanding with our brothers in the North about how to build an inclusive and bigger Nigeria, not on the basis of cheating, oppression or one group lording it over another. We can have a salad-bowl country. Within a salad every ingredient has its own identity but a combination of all the ingredients makes up the salad. Nigeria should become a salad-bowl country.
Q• You have talked about the similarities between the Yoruba and the Igbo. Given the entrepreneurial spirit of the Igbo and the academic drive of the Yoruba, can you paint a future of the Nigeria you see in the next 10 to 20 years if these two ethnic groups are able to form an alliance?
A• If the alliance happens, this country will be transformed greatly. When you combine the entrepreneurship spirit of the Igbos with the skills, knowledge and industry of the Yoruba people, that is dynamite. You will have a country better than Dubai in a very few years where we are able to fulfil aspirations. Our future will be bright; our children will not be dying in the Mediterranean Sea, being treated as sex slaves or being auctioned in Libya. We will create opportunities for people at home. Go to American universities today, you see thousands of Yoruba professors all over the place. Go to their innovation and technology industries, you see the beautiful work the Igbo people are doing there. We need to bring all these skills back home to transform our land and to rewrite our story as a country. The new vista being opened between these two groups will positively affect us and Nigeria will move forward in leaps and bounds. Good enough, the Yoruba and the Igbo are on the same page on the need to restructure Nigeria to form a productive country and we will make this country better. We can rescue this country from disintegration and reposition it to fulfil its global mandate not only to the black people but to the world at large.
Q• Under this administration the Igbo have complained of marginalisation; they have complained that attention is not being given the region. For instance, we have Innoson Motors that is doing very well. In a just society, Aba probably would have been producing weaponry for the Nigerian government. Give us your assessment regarding the South-East under this government. Do you think the cry of marginalisation is justified?
A• It is not only the Igbo that are marginalised, most sections in Nigeria today are marginalised. Nigeria has 17 service chiefs, 16 of these chiefs are from one section of the country. This marginalisation is pushing Nigeria down the drain. There are a lot of things you can borrow from the South-East. During the civil war the Igbo were refining petroleum for their use. Fifty-seven years after independence Nigeria cannot refine petroleum for its domestic consumption. Once we put aside all these negativities and go back to productivity, a lot will flourish from this group which will impact the rest of Nigeria. We can rub on each other positively and put an end to the fighting and killings.