By Obi Nwakanma
President Goodluck Jonathan’s government published the list of individuals it honored to mark Nigeria’s centenary and not unexpectedly it roused serious public umbrage. This administration is just simply plodding from one misstep into another, for in releasing that list, the Jonathan administration showed a total ignorance of history and the symbolism that accompanies every historical proclamation. Again, here, the president was offered poor guidance in the choices that he announced publicly.
Normally, Nigeria’s centenary celebration should be a period of true stock-taking; a celebration of this nation and its accomplishments through this stretch of time. From its amalgamation to the present, Nigeria has struggled to become. Indeed there are many who feel that the amalgamation of the three entities the Northern and Southern Nigeria, and the colony of Lagos was a categorical historical error given that the disparate and atomized entities that came to be forced together have thrived more as crabs in a bucket rather than a community of people who feel their destinies tied together. Indeed, the making of Nigeria these past hundred years has been an act of faith, and there are those who embody and reflect that faith in far greater measure than others. No single group has carried the weight of Nigerian nationhood and unity – the building of the modern Nigerian nation – far more than the Igbo group of Nigerians.
In fact as J.S. Coleman notes in that eponymous book, Nigeria: A Background to Nationalism: “One of the most provocative features of the emergence of the Ibos (in Nigeria) has been their role in political activity and in the nationalist movement. Post-war (WW11) radical and militant nationalism, which emphasised the national unity of Nigeria as a transcendent imperative, was largely, but not exclusively, an Ibo endeavour.” To paraphrase the historian Professor Tekena Tamuno, an Ijaw, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, and one of Nigeria’s most formidable intellectuals, the Igbo were Nigeria’s nation builders, and this fact of course is writ large not only in history but even in contemporary Igbo activity and diffusion. But that overwhelming fact did not stop the centenary committee established by President Jonathan from embezzling the facts of Nigeria history.
Their list of those to be honored as makers of modern Nigeria reads mostly like a list of antinomes – the racist privateer Lugard, Abacha, the British Empire – and hardly acknowledges the fact of Nigeria’s authentic history. Let me dispel a myth: Alhaji Ahmadu Bello was not a Nigerian nationalist. He made that clear in his writings, utterances, and policies, and these are in the public domain. He was not active in the anticolonial nationalist struggle. In 1954, Sir Ahmadu and his party rejected independence to Nigeria, and preferred British rule, if certain agreements were not reached and incorporated into the decolonization agreements. On the president’s list of “Heroes of Nigerian struggle” are included Ahmadu Bello, Tafawa Balewa, Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo, and so on. In 1945 as a law student in London, Awolowo was a card carrying member of the British Labour Party.
He was no Nigerian nationalist. He was a Yoruba fundamentalist who had been inspired and had bought into the separatist argument of a Pakistani politician and intellectual during the Indian partition. The British colonial office and its intelligence services funneled money through their local agents in Nigeria, to organize the Action Group and the Northern Peoples Congress, and tried to midwife an early political alliance between them in 1947, as a means of undermining the radical anticolonial nationalist movement that was demanding freedom and independence on their own terms. Mbonu Ojike – the radical nationalist intellectual was in fact to address Awo as a “British mole” in one of his columns in the West African Pilot, in 1948, much of course to Awo’s chagrin. Mbonu Ojike would know such matters. As Marika Sherwood, Nkrumah’s biographer, has quite clearly revealed in her essay, “There is no New Deal for the Blackman in San Francisco,” three radical African students, Mbonu Ojike, Nwafor Orizu, and K.O. Mbadiwe, were critical in lobbying for the adoption of the Atlantic charter under the new UN protocol at the meeting towards its founding in San Francisco in 1945. In other words, while Ojike, Orizu, and Mbadiwe were graduate students at the University of Columbia, New York and at the University of Chicago, respectively, at about the same time as Awo was a student in London, but they were busy lobbying and pushing hard for West African independence and freedom, while Awo was cavorting with the British Labour Party.
The three had been invited, as a result of their radical stances on decolonization, by Eleanor Roosevelt to the White House, and through her doubtlessly convinced President Roosevelt on the necessity to press the Atlantic charter to cover the colonized nation, even though Churchill argued that the charter covered only European countries under Axis domination. When they reportedly met aboard the Augusta to discuss the Atlantic Charter, Churchill allegedly said to Roosevelt, “Mr. President, I believe you are trying to do away with the British Empire,” to which Roosevelt responded that the United States would not aid Britain “so that she will be able to continue to ride roughshod over colonial peoples.”
America’s post-war support for the anti-colonial movement was critical to the independence of the colonies, largely through the work done by Ojike, Nwafor-Orizu, and Mbadiwe by 1945, yet, the president’s list does not acknowledge them, nor does it honor Michael Imoudu, who actually went to jail, and Zikists like Raji Abdallah, Fred Anyiam, Smart Ebbi, or even the surviving Mbazulike Amechi, all of whom actually went to jail for Nigerian freedom. Nothing was said of Kola Balogun, Adegoke “Penklemes” Adelabu, Olu Akinfosile, Michael Okpara, Denis Osadebe, Akanu Ibiam – missionary doctor and public servant – true heroes of Nigerian freedom. The most egregious of course was the left-handed honor to General Ironsi, who was murdered for his attempts to unify Nigeria.
He was just simply honored for being a pioneer, but not as an “outstanding promoter of unity and national development.” That list includes T.Y. Danjuma, who murdered Ironsi in Ibadan alongside Francis Fajuyi, who ought by the way to be honored for his sacrifice. Danjuma ought on the other hand to have suffered the fate of other coup plotters who failed and not be on the nation’s honor roll.
The killing of Ironsi led to Nigeria’s civil war, and it is ironic in fact that those who killed Ironsi for trying to create a “unitary state” now bear the ironic honor of “unifiers.” What a country – where two of its greatest poets – Okigbo and Okara – never had a chance at honors, nor some its greatest public servants: Sir Samuel Manuwa, Pius Okigbo, and Abdulaziz Attah. What an ignorant country indeed.