In the first place, Zik never wanted to assume the position of Head of Government Business in the Western Region in 1952 as alleged. Evidence abound that all that Zik wanted was to install an NCNC government in the Western Region and then proceed to the central (national) Legislature in Lagos as decided by the NCNC national executive committee.
Secondly, the “famous carpet-crossing saga” is usually somewhat over-stretched and has been used to foist inter-ethnic misunderstanding between the Igbo and the Yoruba. It is not true that Yoruba NCNC parliamentarians abandoned Zik on the floor of the Western House of Assembly and crossed over to Awolowo’s side as often painted.
The truth is that five members of the six elected parliamentarians from the Ibadan Peoples Party, IPP, led by Adisa Akinloye (and some other fringe groups) tilted the balance in Awolowo’s favour by teaming up with the Action Group, AG; the sixth member, Adegoke Adelabu, joined forces with the NCNC to form the NCNC-Mobalaji Grand Alliance.
For too long, many Igbos have been deceived into believing that the Western NCNC abandoned Zik and that the Yoruba are therefore a bunch of shifty, non-trustworthy people that are unworthy of strategic (political) alliance. Far from this, the Western NCNC stood solidly behind Zik to the bitter end.
Even after the AG had taken the reins of power in Ibadan, the Western NCNC insisted that Zik and Prince Adeleke Adedoyin were to proceed to the central legislature. Dr Olorun-Nimbe, who disobeyed party directive to step down for Zik earned the wrath of the party and was eventually expelled from the NCNC and soon sank into political oblivion.
Now to the matter of Zik-Eyo Ita face-off: On the eve of the 1951 elections in which Azikiwe contested for a seat in the Western House of Assembly from his Lagos base, Zik declared that he was not going to accept a ministerial post in “an inferior legislature of the colonial type”.
In other words, he was not prepared to serve as minister (premier or prime-minister) at regional or national level in the then premature Nigerian political system. His object, he said, was to achieve an NCNC majority in the regional and central legislatures that would act to “paralyse the machinery of government” and lead to a reformation of the Constitution. The Macpherson Constitution had provided for “semi-responsible government” at the centre and in the regions.
The official phrase was “responsible government within defined limits”. Zik did not accept this. He wanted total independence. This was what informed his declaration above. It was a grand tactics for national independence that the Action Group later imbibed.
After the upheavals in the Western House of Assembly, Zik began to rally his partymen to the achievement of the above-stated objectives. This took some time. Eventually, however, the NCNC resolved and called its central ministers to resign in order to actualise the above independence strategy.
But these ministers were now enjoying their new stations in life, the perquisites of ministerial office. Some of them did not, therefore, want to give up the positions. In so doing, they were undoubtedly sabotaging and delaying the independence struggle that had already got them to where they were.
Three NCNC central (national) ministers were the first culprits and were summarily dismissed from the party. They were A.C.Nwapa (Igbo), Eni Njoku (Igbo) and Okoi Arikpo(Ogoja).
Only Dr Endeley (Cameroun) was supportive of the tactics. Eyo Ita, the Head of Government Business in Eastern Nigeria and some of his ministers kicked against the policy and were flabbergasted when the central ministers were dismissed by the party. Of course, when the party asked them to resign, they equally rebelled against the party and refused to comply. They became known as ‘sit-tight ministers’.
Amongst them were Eyo Ita (Ibibio), E.I.Oli (Igbo), S.J.Una (Ogoja), R.I.Uzoma (Igbo), S.W.Ubani-Ukoma (Igbo) and S.J.Koripoma (Ijaw). Those who complied with party directive and resigned were Dr.M.I.Okpara (Igbo), M.C.Awgu (Igbo) and S.T.Muna (Bamenda, Cameroun).
With the above ‘sit-tight’ attitude of some of the ministers, it behoved the legislature to orchestrate the requisite action to paralyse government business, which was practically in the hands of the British Lt. Governor.
In the Eastern House of Assembly, the NCNC majority subsequently succeeded in paralysing the constitutional system by voting to defeat or defer every bill before the House.
As a last resort, the Lt. Governor was obliged to use his reserve power of legislation, the ultimate proof of colonial rule and subjugation in a politically advanced dependency, to pass the Regional Appropriation Bill into law.
On adjournment day, the expelled ministers (Central and Regional) joined with a few other legislators and supporters who had resigned from the NCNC to form a new party, the National Independence Party, with Eyo Ita as president.
Some 10 weeks later, the Eastern parliamentary crisis was resolved by dissolution of the Eastern House of Assembly following the enactment of an amendment to the Constitution permitting the dissolution of the legislature of a single region.
During this period, according to Sklar, the strain on the Constitution was not confined to the Eastern Region, as events of a less dramatic but nonetheless fateful character transpired in the West. Action Group’s hostility to the Constitution was scarcely less than that of the NCNC.
Ultimately, the Macpherson Constitution proved unworkable and collapsed as Zik had planned after 15 months of its operation and was replaced with a new Constitution (the Lyttleton Constitution of 1954) that granted residual powers to the regions and provided that apart from the Regional Governor, colonial officials of the administration would be excluded from the Executive Council of the Eastern and Western Regions, amongst other favourable provisions.
Meanwhile, with the collapse of EyoIta’s government in May 1953, a new election was conducted to elect new members to the Eastern House of Assembly. Azikiwe was elected from Onitsha; NCNC dominated the House and its leader, Azikiwe, assumed the office of premier or head of government.
Eyo Ita as leader of the minor party in the House became leader of Opposition. For details of these historical facts, see Richard L. Sklar, Nigerian Political Parties (1963), pages 115 – 140. Amplifications of particular points can also be gleaned from James S. Coleman, Nigeria: Background to Nationalism (1958).
Given the above prognosis, would it be wise and correct for anybody to claim that Zik or the Igbo conspired to oust Eyo Ita from power? Or that the constitutional crisis that terminated Eyo Ita’s government was tribally motivated? But this is the verdict or notion that has been transmitted from generation to generation in the South-South.
Finally, let me recap that in October 1959, Professor Eyo Ita, Head of Government Business and Minister of Natural Resources of Eastern Nigeria from 1952 to May 1953, resigned his leadership and membership of the United National Independence Party, UNIP and re-joined the NCNC.
He had formed the National Independence Party which later merged with Alvan Ikoku’s United National Party to become UNIP. Eyo Ita proclaimed that he was re-joining the NCNC in accordance with the dictates of his conscience and in obedience to the chiefs and members of his Calabar constituency. These events indicate that the problem between Azikiwe and his compeer, Eyo Ita, was somehow resolved in their lifetime.
Or that Eyo Ita personally resolved that what happened in 1953 did not warrant his taking steps that tore the party and the people apart. Hence, he talked about the “dictates of his conscience” as he returned to the NCNC.
Mr. UCHENNA NWANKWO is chairman, Ndigbo Council for National Coordination, NCNC.