(Excerpted by Casimir Agbakaja from the book, Zik, Ndigbo & their Southern Neighbours by Uchenna Nwankwo)
Igbo relationship with the Eastern Minorities was largely defined by Azikiwe’s relationship with Professor Eyo Ita, the foremost political practitioner from the area at the time. Eyo Ita was a vice president of the NCNC and the leader of the party in the Eastern Region, actually, in Calabar. Following NCNC’s victorious outing in the December 1951 Eastern Regional elections, Prof Eyo Ita became the Head of Government Business in Eastern Nigeria [on Azikiwe’s recommendation or backing] in early 1952 when the Eastern House of Assembly commenced business. Things went on smoothly until 1953 when a constitutional crisis erupted in the Eastern Region. The crisis pitched Zik against Eyo Ita, his foremost lieutenant in the East. What actually happened?
As Richard Sklar had observed, the bizarre episode in the Western House of Assembly had resulted in the National President of the NCNC being pigeon-holed as the unofficial leader of Opposition in that House. According to him, ‘but the real victim of circumstance was the Constitution; for it was covered with ridicule by the NCNC militants who resolved with greater determination than ever to break it.’ (Sklar, op. cit., p. 117-118) In October 1952, the NCNC Central Working Committee summoned a meeting of the National Executive Committee in Port-Harcourt, to which all NCNC parliamentarians were invited as ex-officio members. The National Executive favoured a declaration of non-cooperation with respect to the Constitution, but they were voted down by a majority of the 115 parliamentarians under Barrister A. C. Nwapa’s leadership. Nwapa was one of the party’s four central ministers. The decision was endorsed by the party’s regional conference in the East but repudiated by a later conference of party leaders in the West. In December, a special convention of the party was summoned in Jos to review the Port-Harcourt decision. Only two members of the Eastern House of Assembly attended the convention despite the fact that the NCNC claimed the allegiance of 74 members of that House. Of the 9 Eastern ministers, only Mr M C Agwu, Minister without Portfolio, attended. Similarly, three of the party’s four central ministers stayed away from the convention; apparently they were sticking to the Port-Harcourt decision and did not see any reason for a review. As a consequence, they were all expelled from the party, leaving only Dr E. M. L. Endeley (Cameroon) as the party’s minister at the centre. The expelled ministers were A. C. Nwapa (Igbo), Eni Njoku (Igbo) and Okoi Arikpo (Ogoja). On the constitutional issue, the convention reversed the Port-Harcourt decision and ruled that the Constitution deserved no further trial, and that positive action should be taken to effect its collapse.
This decision was of course in line with Zik’s original thinking and position quoted above, whereby he had declared, on the eve of the 1951 elections, his non-interest in serving in a ministerial position in “an inferior legislature of the colonial type”. In other words, he was not prepared to serve as minister (Head of Government Business, premier or prime-minister) at regional or national level in the then premature Nigerian political system. His object, he had 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. It was obvious that opposition of the three central ministers stemmed from the fact that they were now enjoying their new stations in life, the perquisites of ministerial office. In adopting this position the ministers were no doubt sabotaging and delaying the independence struggle that had already got them to where they were. And this was why the party took the drastic step of sacking them from the party.
When the outcome of the Jos convention reached Enugu, Eyo Ita, the Head of Government Business in Eastern Nigeria, and some of his ministers kicked against the policy and were flabbergasted that the central ministers were dismissed by the party. Eyo Ita then called a meeting of the Eastern Parliamentary Committee to decide on what to do. Obviously he wanted to challenge the national leadership. But Azikiwe seized the moment and summoned a joint meeting of the Parliamentary Party and the Central Working Committee for the same time and place as the Ita-arranged meeting of the Eastern Parliamentary Committee. Fewer than half of the NCNC Eastern legislators attended, the Regional ministers included; Zik’s right to preside over the joint meeting was upheld and in the end, the Jos decision was endorsed. When the party asked the Eastern ministers to resign in line with the objective of paralysing government and demolishing the subsisting Macpherson Constitution, some of them rebelled against the party and refused to comply. They became known as ‘sit-tight ministers’. Amongst them were Eyo Ita (Ibeno, Akwa Ibom), E I Oli (Igbo), S J Una (Ibibio), 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 Agwu (Igbo) and S T Muna (from Bamenda, Cameroun).
With the above ‘sit-tight’ attitude of some of the ministers, it behoved the Legislature to orchestrate the requisite action to paralyze 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 paralyzing 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 ten 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 Lyttelton 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 Eyo Ita’s government in May 1953, a new election was conducted in December, 1953 to elect new members to the Eastern House of Assembly. Azikiwe was elected from Onitsha, displacing Mbanefo of the United National Party; 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, op. cit., p. 115-140. Also relevant in this regard is James S. Coleman. 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. I leave the answer to those questions to the reader’s assessment. For my part, I have no doubt that even if it was an Igbo that was at the head of Eastern Nigeria government business at the time, he would still have been asked to resign by the party and that if he had resisted, he would have met the same fate that befell Eyo Ita and the other Igbo and non-Igbo ministers at both the Centre and in the Region.
It is surprising that the liberal and accommodating quality or attitude of the Igbo who way back in the early 1950s allowed a minority element to, in the first place, head the government of the region in which the Igbos were in the majority is hardly appreciated. The Igbo majority in the House installed Eyo Ita Leader of the Eastern Parliamentary Party or Head of Government Business to rule over the Igbos and the entire East, without prompting from any quarters. They had no compelling reason to do so; there was no special calculated advantage to be garnered from the gesture. The Igbos obviously saw Eyo Ita as a good material and did not bother about where he came from, in much the same way they twice elected a Fulani, Malam Umaru Altine, Mayor of Enugu, an Igbo city, in the 1950s.
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. So, why do people continue to make capital out of this ancient matter that ought, indeed, to have been categorized as `old wives’ tales’ – to borrow a critic’s apt phrasing?