Between Zik and Obi: Lessons of history
By Jide Oluwajuyitan
History often repeats itself. The trending videos of Obi’s angry supporters threatening expulsion of anyone who fails to vote for their principal from the east, mob action against Tinubu’s supporters in Alaba Market in Lagos added to shameless assault on the person of Asiwaju Tinubu through hate songs by Seadog confraternity, during their public procession are all but sad reminder of the past when Lagos Igbo urban immigrants were mobilized to buy off all the cutlasses in Lagos market in readiness to battle their Yoruba hosts, labelled enemies of Igbo by leaders they looked up to for direction.
Perhaps we again need to return to history to remind our angry youths where we are coming from and how the seed of today’s mutual suspicion was sown by self-serving Igbo political leaders especially since the late president, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and Peter Obi share some parallels.
They were both beneficiaries of Lagos benevolence. It was in Lagos that they had their professional, financial and political breakthrough. The former, fresh from Ghana, first “elezikified’ the Nigerian press in Lagos before establishing his newspaper chain across Nigeria cities. The latter started as Alaba trader graduating to importer of everything including wines before becoming a bank owner. They both built their political fortunes in Lagos as leader of Igbo urban immigrants that needed a spokesman in a stranger’s land. They both freely deploy rhetoric to confuse their largely uninformed Igbo youths and unquestioning Nigerians.
For his oratory and brilliance, Zik was loved by the Yoruba. As an adopted son of Herbert Macaulay, he could do no wrong among the Lagos white cap chiefs and Imams who saw him as their son. Although NCNC was a Yoruba party with only one Igbo man during its inauguration, he became an unchallenged leader of NCNC after Herbert Macaulay’s death. And before the party was hijacked by his Igbo supporters, Zik was winning all elections in Lagos, Ibadan, Ilesha, Akure and Ondo among other Yoruba towns.
Like most young men of his generation. Awo used to follow Zik to his lecture venues. But he was the first to discover Zik was a fake god in spite of his rhetoric and endless railing against the imperialists. Awo also discovered that sometimes nationalism may not be driven by altruism.
He gave reasons in his autobiography. Zik was using his paper to promote interest of Igbos while downplaying achievement of others especially Yoruba. His devious role in the collapse of Nigerian Youth Movement after fraudulently labelling Awo a tribalist for supporting Ernest Ikoli, an Ijaw easterner from today’s Bayelsa against Oba Akinsanya, his fellow Ijebu man. He went on to form Egbe Omo Oduduwa in London in 1945 along with the Akereles, Ayo Rosijis and Akintola Williams..
Unlike Awo, it took the Yoruba Lagos aristocrats of the period, including Sir Adeyemo Alakija, Dr Akinola Maja, Sir Kofo Abayomi, Chief Bode Thomas, Chief H. O. Davies and Dr Akanni Doherty, among others, much longer time to see clearly. In 1948 however, they launched Egbe Omo Oduduwa in Lagos around the same period similar group like Jamiyyar Mutanen Arewa (Northern People’s Congress) was formed in the north.
Zik and his supporters’ attack on the Egbe promoters was vicious. The West African Pilot editorial September 8, 1948 said “Henceforth, the cry must be one of battle against the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, its leaders at home and abroad, uphill and down dale. In the streets of Nigeria and in the residences of its advocates. The Egbe Omo Oduduwa is the enemy of Nigeria. It must be crushed to the earth. There is no going back until the fascist organization of Sir Adeyemo Alakija has been dismembered”. This was followed by physical assault on the persons and the leaders of the Egbe and damage to houses and properties of some of them”. (Awo: The Autobiography of Obafemi Awolowo page 171]
Then followed Zik’s Freudian slip during his 1949 presidential address to Ibo State Union, formed since 1943. According to Zik: “It would appear the God of Africa has specially created the Ibo nation to lead the children of Africa from the bondage of the ages…The martial prowess of the Ibo nation at all stages of human history has enabled them not only to conquer others but also to adapt themselves to role of preserver… the Ibo nation cannot shirk its responsibility. He went on to complain about Ibo non-representation at the executive council and complain Ibo taxation was being used to develop other areas.
That was the impetus Yoruba political elite needed to shift their support to Awo and his Action Group in 1952 thereby frustrating Zik’s attempt of becoming the premier of the West. Of course, the Yoruba did not regret it as the West became the pacesetter between 1952 and 1959. But for preventing Igbo internal colonialism, Awo and Yoruba were labelled tribalists by Igbo political leaders who tolerated no opposition in their own strongholds. The fallout was that Awo did not get any support from the east where his helicopter was stoned by fanatical Zik supporters during the 1959 election.
The north at independence constituted five–eighths of the entire territory of Nigeria with 56 per cent of the entire population. Their system according to Awolowo, “was feudal and autocratic; at best oligarchic and authoritarian and completely antithetical to liberal tradition of the Western Region and egalitarian beliefs of the Eastern Region”. He believed “the problem of Nigeria “cannot be solved until the problem of the north has been solved”. His solution was the west and the east with some support from middle belt taking over power.
But greed-driven Igbo political elite preferred an NPC and NCNC coalition. While ordinary Igbo on whose back they rode to power got nothing, Igbo elite secured all important appointments in Balewa’s government from finance, to external affairs, agriculture, control of University of Lagos, University of Ibadan, Yaba College of Technology, Nigerian Airways Nigeria Railways forcing Akintola to ask Ikejiani: Iketaani, Ikerinani, where is the one for Yoruba? (Meaning Igbo shared all available positions leaving nothing for Yoruba).
The blame for secession and civil war was put on Awo and Yoruba and not Ojukwu and Igbo leaders who seceded with 16 riffles (Ojukwu) while declaring “no power in Africa can subdue us.” Of course that was also an excuse to justify Igbo NPP’s ill-advised coalition with NPN with Ojukwu who later became Abacha’s ambassador to Europe to de-market MKO Abiola returning from exile to eat with his former enemies. It is on record the 1979 alliance like that of 1959 collapsed over sharing of spoils of office.
For the same reasons, Igbo political elite mobilized their people to support NRC’s Bashir Tofa in the 1993 election and when MKO Abiola won a landslide despite securing only one Igbo state, leading Igbo politicians joined Babangida in annulling the election.
In 1999, Igbo political elite rejected the Yoruba candidate and supported Obasanjo who also rewarded them abundantly with positions after his victory. It was all about the interest of Igbo political leaders.
As a heterogeneous society, Igbo elite consensus with the northern political leaders with whom they share a common worldview of exploiting the innermost fears of their people for political gain is not unhealthy for democracy. But conscious of the cost of how past fraudulent claims and political subterfuge have haunted us for over 70 years, I don’t think abusing Yoruba and blaming their leaders for Igbo leadership failure is helpful for Peter Obi who, I am not sure, can freely campaign in Anambra where he ruled for eight years and where eight security officers made the supreme sacrifice as ransom for Senator Ifeanyi Ubah’s life last week.