This essay is a rebuttal to the recent publication by Dr Nwankwo Tony Nwaezeigwe making the rounds in the social media. In his write-up, he made several mendacious assertions, which I consider a calculated attempt to deride the Igbo nation and bring its past leaders into disrepute. My task is to clarify and put the records straight.
On self centeredness of Ndigbo and their Past Leaders
The claim that Ndigbo and their past leaders, particularly Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu, were self-centered is really absurd and depicts lack of historical knowledge or a deliberate attempt to ignore the historical truths behind the events he cited.
Dr Nnamdi Azikwe was a highly respected Igbo elite whose contributions to the development of the Igbo race cannot be swept under the carpet. Prior to the advent of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe in Nigerian journalism and politics, the Igbos had lacked a symbol and spokesman to articulate their views; this explains why they largely remained at the periphery of the nationalist struggle that was virtually dominated by their Southern rivals the Yorubas. He was instrumental in mobilizing the Igbo into a unified, cohesive and political bloc. Igbo politics during the period coalesced around the influential and charismatic figure Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe. Dr Azikiwe was also an African leader who towered ahead of his contemporaries like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Sekou Toure of Guinea among others.
Generally speaking, though the Igbo are adventurous and outgoing, they are not known to be imperialistic or to covet the fortunes, stations or places of other people. Harold Lasswell (American Political scientist) reputably defined politics as a competition of who gets what, when and how. If this definition of politics is anything to go by, then the argument that Dr Azikiwe attempt to take up the leadership of the Legislative House instead of presenting one of Yoruba lieutenants for the position does not hold water. Besides, his eligibility was not in question as Dr Azikiwe had his base and business in Lagos. It would also interest you to know that the first elected Mayor of Enugu in 1952 Mallam Umaru Altine was from the North.
It is a misnomer to link the rivalry between the Igbo and the Yoruba in Lagos to self-centeredness of the Igbo. Rather it should be viewed from the lens of the deep seated hatred and animosity towards the Igbo during the colonial era due to the inequality of modernization between the Igbos and other ethnic nationalities in Nigeria.
It would be recalled that based on its egalitarian, individualistic and republican nature, the Igbo reaction to British colonial domination was not only expressed in terms of complete rejection and opposition, it was also militantly anti-colonial. However, the Igbo settled into the system once colonial rule took root. The formal establishment of colonial rule in the East spawned an enterprising tendency among the Igbos as they became mobile, receptive and nationally oriented than other ethnic nationalities in Nigeria.
It was observed that by the end of World War II the Igbos had constituted a considerable minority group in every urban area in the country and had amounted to ‘more than one-third of the non-indigenous population of the urban centres in the Northern and Western regions’, and by 1952, the Igbos constituted forty-five percent of the total non-indigenous metropolitan population of Lagos. They also formed mutual benefit associations, credit societies and ‘improvement’ organisations which maintained ties with their rural homelands. These developments led to frictions between the Igbos and the indigenous populations of these regions. The enmity between the Igbo immigrants and the Northern indigenes led to the Jos riots 1945 and Kano riots in 1953. The Report on the Kano Disturbances described it as ‘so spontaneous, so violent and so widespread that no thinking person could assign to them short-term causes’.
The rise of Yoruba nationalism was also intended to serve as a bulwark against these perceived threats and stem the tide of Igbo nationalism.
Although, the Igbos migrated into urban areas as traders, shop-keepers, clerks, skilled workers and domestic employees, they soon began to acquire white-collar jobs and began to cultivate intellectual elites comprising educators, journalists, professionals and businessmen. This was attributed to the level to which they responded to Western education in their bid to catch-up with the Yorubas who by virtue of their early contact with Western education had an advantage over other ethnic groups in Nigeria.
By the late 1940s, the disparity between the Igbos and Yorubas in terms of Western education had virtually diminished. We can illustrate this with the situation at the University College Ibadan, where they had as many Igbo students (115) as Yoruba students (118) in 1952. By regions of origin the distribution of students expected to graduate from Nigerian universities in 1965/66 academic year was stated as follows: East: 2,031, West: 1,728, Mid-West: 380 and North: 369. More so, Igbos headed the Universities of Ibadan and Lagos as Vice-Chancellors, and with the expected retirement of the foreign Vice-Chancellor at the University of Nigeria, an Igbo was positioned to take-over. In due course, the educational and economic advancement of the Igbos positioned them as administrators, managers, technicians and civil servants in the country, and they began to occupy senior positions disproportionate to their size.
This was particularly evident in the Federal Public Service and government statutory corporations where accusations of Igbo monopoly of essential services to the exclusion of other ethnic nationalities held sway. All these raised smacks of an Igbo agenda for domination. The aggressive rise of the Igbos and the perceived threat by other ethnic groups provides the backdrop against which the plight of the Igbos in the Nigerian nation will be understood.
On the Creation of Midwestern State
The notion that Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe’s support for the creation of the Midwestern State in 1963 was informed by his self-centeredness is incorrect. This is based on the following reasons. First, the agitation for the creation of Mid-Western region began in 1948 with the formation of the Benin community under the leadership of Oba Akenzua II of Benin. The organization had demanded for the creation of a Benin- Delta or Mid- Western region. In 1951, Chief Anthony Enahoro, a member of the Action Group called a meeting of Mid- Western leaders at Sapele on the creation of the proposed state. Second, the motion for the creation of the Midwestern State came from a Yoruba member of the House of Representatives. Precisely, on the 14th of June, 1955, an Action Group member of the then Western Region House of Assembly, Honorable M. S. Sowole tabled a motion at the sitting of the house. The motion reads: “I beg leave to move that this house prays Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom to make necessary constitutional arrangements at the proposed conference for a separate state of Benin and Delta provinces.
The region that was born on August 9, 1963 as a result of the July 13th plebiscite remains the only major administrative unit of Nigeria created by due constitutional process. The total number of eligible voters, being persons whose names appeared in the Federal Electoral register of 1959 was 654,130. Of this number the percentage that voted in the affirmative was 89.07%, well in excess of the required 60% (or 392,478) for the creation of the Mid-West region.
Results of the Midwest Referendum, 1963. July 18, 1963.
No. District Votes Scored by Eligible Voters
Affirmative Answer “YES” Negative Answer
1 ABOH 33,072 722
2 AFENMAI 76,998 1,260
3 ASABA 68,637 365
4 BENIN 130,562 2,081
5 ISHAN 73,088 563
6 URHOBO 150,382 273
7 WARRI 30,703 1,377
8 WESTERN IJAW 15,635 577
Total 579,077 7,218
Finally, it also interesting to state that the then Premier of the Western region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo justified the creation of Mid-western region on the ground that the exercise would lead to even development pattern in the country.
The question now is, where did Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe go wrong. All parties involved were satisfied with the whole process. The support for the creation of the Midwestern region was NCNC party decision and not a personal ambition of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe to create a political empire for himself out of Chief Awolowo’s sphere of influence.
The Igbo and the January 1966 Coup and its Aftermath
The interpretation of the January 1966 Coup as self-centeredness on the part of the Igbo is contestable. The coup plotters had good intentions; a nationalist effort on the part of the nationalist army to end the instability of the country. One curious feeling particularly among the northern military that heightened suspicions was the lush coincidence that no top Igbo military officer or politician died. Somehow, circumstance took them to safe environments from the centre of attacks. These included Nnamdi Azikiwe, Michael Opara, K.O. Mbadiwe etc. A coup in which three northerners, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Sir Ahmadu Bello and Zakariya Maimalari; three Yorubas, Brig. Samuel Ademulegun, Col. Raph Shodeinde, and Chief Samuel Akintola; one Midwesterner, Festus Okie-Eboh were murdered without a single easterner, was thought to be too faultlessly coincidental as not to be without a grand design. Nnamdi Azikiwe was sick and Okpala was not around. This was the ethnic dimension of thought. From this point, the coup was given a different interpretation that of an Igbo power play to smash the Northern grip of the country. Nevertheless, Lt. Fola Oyewole (Rtd) who was linked for being close associate of Major Ifeajuna, and one of the coup plotters, in an interview, believes, it could still be a coincidence because military intelligence is shrouded in secrecy until minutes to execution. Again, some of the coup plotters were Yorubas namely Major Ademoyega and Lt. B. O. Oyewole. It was also revealed that the coupists had the intention of handing over power to Chief Obafemi Awolowo after a successful execution of the coup.
This is an indication that the coup was not ethnic but a noble attempt to move the nation forward. One would have raised eyebrow if there was an intention to hand over to Dr Azikiwe or any other Igbo man.
Besides, the decision of Major- General Aguiyi-Ironsi led military government to move away from federation towards a unitary state was desirable at the time. It was informed by the need to nip in the bud ethnic politics in Nigeria. His administration claimed that the federal system had forced politicians at the time to play on tribal passions to cement their supporters thereby creating divisions between the country’s regions. In fact, Ironsi led the government which was able, when things looked very bad to keep semblance of normalcy to get government restored.
Again, the killing of Igbos during the period can be located within the context of the inveterate hostility towards the Igbos by other ethnic nationalities.
Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu and the Aburi Accord
The notion that Chief Ojukwu should be blamed for the Biafran war due to his self-centeredness quest for power is totally incorrect. The truth of the matter is that there should have been no war if Gowon had adhered to the agreements reached at Aburi, which he was a major signatory to. Ojukwu was very prepared for the Aburi. Ojukwu attended the meeting with a battery of permanent secretaries and one of the most formidable intellectual this country has ever produced, Dr Pius Okigbo. On the converse, Gowon did not attend the meeting with his technocrats. When it became clear that the Aburi Accord was a major victory for Ojukwu and the Eastern province, Gowon decided to abandon the agreement because according to him, Ojukwu went to Aburi prepared while others were not.
The question is should we blame Ojukwu for attending the meeting well prepared?.
Thereafter, Prince Akenzua along with top permanent secretaries including Alhaji Yusuf Gobir, Phillip Asiodu, Ime Ebong, B.N. Okagbue and Allison Ayida deconstructed in Lagos, all that was agreed in Aburi. On arrival in Lagos, Prince Akenzua discussed with General Yakubu Gowon and raised objections to what was agreed in Aburi, Gowon asked him to raise a memo which he did. I am sure a copy of the memo is with General Gowon today while a copy is in the archives in the Presidency. Civil servants are to be seen and not heard and that is why Prince Akenzua never released a copy of the memo to the world. The memo dated January 8, 1967 began with: “Your Excellency, in view of my discussion with you last night, I am raising this memo in the interest our fatherland-Nigeria.” Prince Akenzua traced the long hard road that Nigeria has travelled and stressed on the need to keep a United Nigeria. In his view, he said in the memo that Gowon has given too much away in Aburi and that it will lead to the destruction of the country. He further added that Gowon has “legalized” total regionalism which “will make the centre very weak.” Prince Akenzua alluded in his memo that a weak centre will lead to confederation and total disintegration of the country. It was the memo that prompted Gowon to summon a meeting of the secretaries to the military governments and other officials which was held in Benin City between February 16 and 18, 1967.
If you look at the minutes of the Benin meeting presided over by Mr. H. A. Ejueyitchie, Secretary to the Federal Military Government, you will discover that it was a total rejection of what was agreed upon in Aburi. The Benin meeting interpreted in its own way the agreement reached in Aburi. After the Benin meeting, Lt-Col. Ojukwu started the “on Aburi I stand” slogan. The British High Commissioner Sir David Hunt also advised General Gowon against implementing the Aburi Accord. Thereafter, the Federal Government promulgated Decree No. 8 of 1967 which gave total powers to the centre. What then is the self-centeredness in Ojukwu’s action?
The Biafran war could have been clearly prevented if the agreements of the Aburi Accord were adhered to. Ojukwu’s selflessness was recently affirmed in a TVC station interview with the Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka, where he made it clear that based on the circumstances of the period, no Nigerian would have done better than Ojukwu in the prosecution of the Nigerian Civil War.
Again, it is also wrong to say that Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu for his selfish reasons was instrumental to the removal from office of two retired Generals; Major General Chris Alli and Admiral Allison – Madueke by the late Head of State General Sanni Abacha . The works of these two illustrious and courageous sons of Nigeria – The Siege of Nation by Chris Alli and Riding with God in my Sails have vindicated Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu of any complicity in their removal as they did not blame Ojukwu for inciting Abacha against them.
Identity Crisis: A Terrible Disease
The idea of reducing all Igbo actions in their relations with other ethnic nationalities on the one hand and among the Igbos (between East and West Niger) on the other since the colonial period as self-centered is totally unacceptable to me. What this assertion suggests is that other ethnic groups such as the Yoruba and the Hausa/Fulani have been altruistic in their actions, which, of course, we know is not true. The Yoruba ethnic group is also facing serious identity crisis today. Clear evidence is the recent rivalry between that Oba of Lagos and the Ooni of Ife over who is superior to the other. In as much as I understand that human nature is devoid of mistakes and this why I would not disprove the fact that our past leaders may have made some mistakes while in office. But disparaging their actions as self-centered is absurd and tantamount to fanning the embers of disunity among the Igbos.
Historians have analysed the origins of the Igbo people. They have come to the conclusion that that there have been both consaguinal and affinal relationships between the Eastern and West Niger Igbos. Several traditions of origins of the Igbos attest to this. These traditions of origins particularly the Umu Eze chima tradition suggest the complex of causes and interrelationships that helped to bring about the constellation of culture traits that establish the identity of the Igbos that distinguish the Igbo from their immediate neighbours. The Igbo identity has been sustained by the Igbos in diaspora. The Igbo nation is one group where the whims and fancies of one person or a few clique of individuals cannot prevail. Rather, the Igbos (East and West Niger) have always banded together to achieve a common goal. Several examples will suffice to prove the unity among the Igbos. During the Biafran war, Ojukwu did not discriminate against the West Niger Igbos. Rapheal Uwechue, from West Niger Igbo emerged as one of the most effective Biafran diplomat. Uwechue successfully negotiated for the majority of weapons supplied to Biafra from France, Portugal, and Sao Tome and Principe. He was also the President General of Ohanaeze Ndi Igbo for four years. Similarly, the gallant role played by Achuzie in preventing the Nigerian forces from crossing the River Niger in 1967 and the Abagana ambush of March 1968 cannot be overemphasized. Dennis Osadebey from West Niger Igbo, in tandem with other Igbo personalities made efforts after the Biafran war to resurrect the Igbo Progressive Union, which was proscribed by Aguiyi Ironsi in 1966. Osadebey was also a founding father of Ohanaeze Ndi Igbo. The establishment of University of Nigeria Nsukka in 1962 where most Igbos received their university education including Dr Nwankwo Tony Nwaezeigwe, who also lectures there, was the brain child of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe.
The identity crisis facing some West Niger Igbos like Dr Tony Nwaeziegwe can be traced to the activities of Chief Asiodu following his support for the Nigerian government during the Biafran war. His action was understandable because he could not afford to lose his job as a super permanent secretary under General Gowon regime. The good thing about him is that he did a turnaround as he joined other prominent Igbos in 1992 to demand for the creation of Anioma state for the Igbo speaking areas of Delta state. The lesson that can be gleaned from Asiodu’s turnaround is that identity denial is just for a while. Not too long you will be reminded that you are omo ibo.
Identity crisis is a terrible disease. Whoever disparages his ethnic group for cheap political gains is suffering from that disease. The greatest political strength of Barrack Obama is his very early decision to be African American and nothing else. He knew where the father came from and where his mother came from. Even though you understand and speak Yoruba. You are not a Yoruba man. We need to be proud of being Igbo. The identity crisis has also becloud Dr Nwankwo Tony Nwaezeigwe sense of reasoning to understand that the renewed tensions, anxieties and agitations by the Igbo draws from a history of complete alienation from the Nigerian nation state project since the end of the Civil war and not a self-centered project.
I am deeply concerned that Dr Nwankwo Tony Nwaezeigwe has failed to learn from the lessons of the plight of those who denigrated Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe. For instance, after Dr Chuba Okadigbo, the then political adviser to President Shehu Shagari described Dr Azikiwe’s speech as the ‘ranting of an ant’, Dr Azikiwe released a statement titled ‘History shall vindicate the just’ where he pronounced curses on his abusers;
May I now recount the disputations of those who are using the print and electronic media to make a mockery of old age.
Here I kneel to pray to Almighty God, the Creator of the universe, my Maker, who knows why I was created and what is my destiny, to demonstrate to infidels and miscreants that they will not live to be old. And I trust that they will die unwept and unsung, like a flower that is plucked in its bloom, as an example of the vanity of human wishes and the futility of insulting old age. Veritably, it is un-African and inhuman to make a mockery of old age, because Africans and all human beings pray to God to prolong their life span. Nevertheless, those Nigerian politicians who indulge in this abomination shall not live to be old. They shall die before their allotted span, and they shall suffer for vilifying the root of the tree from which they sprouted
My candid advice for Dr Nwaezeigwe is that he should desist from disparaging Dr Azikiwe to avoid being a victim of this curse and stop parading himself as a renowned public intellectual in the Southeast while at the same time protecting the interest of the Yorubas.
Dr Ben Nkem Oramalugo PhD, FSHCM, FCPA, FCIA
Nkenke Enyi na Inyi