Special Report

May 2, 2014

Roots of Igbo-Yoruba conflict in Nigerian politics

Roots of Igbo-Yoruba conflict in Nigerian politics

Awolowo: Founded Action Group and Azikiwe: Succeeded Macaulay as NCNC president

Zik, Ndi-Igbo and their southern neighbours: Charting a new political direction for Nigeria (4)

Yesterday we presented in details how Awo stopped Zik from going to the Central Legislature via the Western Region. Today, we publish the origins of Igbo-Yoruba conflict in Nigerian politics and linkagers to the NNDP, NYM and NCNC. Read on…

ROOTS of Igbo-Yoruba conflict in Nigerian politics

The first point to be noted is that the appearance of ethnic conflict in Nigerian national politics especially as it relates to the Igbo and the Yoruba actually masked a more complex struggle between interests that were non-ethnic in nature.

In this study, it will be shown that although the political mechanics of anti-colonial nationalism first ignited tension and defined the parameters of Azikiwe’s face-off with the leadership of the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM), in the end, class and personal interests became the dominant factor that deepened that face-off and have foisted the persistent Igbo-Yoruba conflict in Nigerian politics. Before I delve into the issue or origins of the said Igbo-Yoruba conflict, I would like us to ponder over these general observations about politics and its nature;

1. In every clime, political leaders exercise authority and dispense patronage to build support for themselves and discourage or repress opposition.

2. In liberal democratic theory, the interests of a class are represented in different ways by rival political parties. Conversely, every party represents a variety of class interests and hence its membership will be drawn from different classes.

Social deference

3. Party leaders and many of those who benefit from the party’s activities usually become part of a privileged class that enjoy social deference, power, and wealth regardless of the party’s official doctrine and programme.

4. Many people who espouse or practice ethnic solidarity in politics are not traditionalistic and may adopt ethnic-based strategies in their pursuit of personal and class-based goals.

5. Finally, while class interests may be asserted by electoral means, party competition, as such, should not be mistaken for class struggle—See, R. L. Sklar, Op cit.

For a fuller appreciation of the above assertion and its applicability in the analysis of the roots of Igbo-Yoruba conflict in Nigerian politics, let us go a little way back to historical developments in Nigerian politics starting from the time of Herbert Macaulay.

The era of the NNDP: Herbert Macaulay founded the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) on June 24, 1923. The party was basically for the propagation and defence of the interests of the residents of Lagos notwithstanding its “Nigerian” appellation.

The NNDP was until 1938 the major force in Lagos political life. Its candidates were victorious in the Legislative Council elections of 1923, 1928 and 1933, always winning all the three legislative seats allocated to Lagos.


The chief sources of Macaulay’s strength were his newspaper, the Lagos Daily News; the party; the support of the highly organised Lagos market-women, the House of Docemo and its supporters; and his unique ability to fire the imagination of the semi-literate and illiterate masses of Lagos. Macaulay was reputed to be ruthless in vilifying his opponents in his paper and on the rostrum.

For nearly four decades he did more than any other person to divide and polarise the educated elements of Lagos leaving deep and unhealed wounds that definitely influenced later developments within the nationalist movement. But whatever his motivations for the different actions and political battles he fought, he consistently espoused and defended the cause of Africans and was therefore regarded as a great nationalist.

Two currents of opposition to Macaulay and the NNDP in the 1920s are discernible. One was a group of conservatives led by Dr J K Randle which revived the Peoples Union, a political association that was formed in 1908 and became defunct in 1916. The Peoples Union expired after the death of its founder, J K Randle, in 1928. Ernest Ikoli was its last secretary. The other was a group of young progressives who organised the Union of Young Nigerians in 1923. It was led by Ayo Williams, Dr J C Vaughn and Ernest Ikoli. Although the party expired after only five years, it may be regarded as the forebear of the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM).

Awolowo: Founded Action Group and Azikiwe: Succeeded Macaulay as NCNC president

Awolowo: Founded Action Group and Azikiwe: Succeeded Macaulay as NCNC president

The NYM era: In 1934 however, leading young critics notably, Ernest Ikoli, Samuel Akinsanya, H O Davies and Dr J C Vaughn—formed the Lagos Youth Movement, which in 1936 changed its name to Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM) upon the advice of the editor of the Lagos Comet. The highly intellectual H O Davies became its General Secretary (1937-1941). According to Coleman, apart from occasional outspoken criticism of government policy by individual members, the policy of the movement was moderate:

Long live our Prince and Long Live their majesties. The Nigerian Youth Movement will never fail to cooperate with . . . the governor. (Coleman, Nigeria, p.218)


In 1937 the NYM was strengthened by the return of Nnamdi Azikiwe, after nine years sojourn in the United States and three years as a newspaper editor in the Gold Coast. In the same year, H O Davies also returned from overseas studies in England and re-joined the organisation. With the hyper-activity of these two, NYM became within the next three years the first Nigeria-wide multi-ethnic political organisation in Nigerian history. Events during these three crucial years however laid bare certain underlying factors which were to shape the subsequent course of nationalist movement in Nigeria.

Coleman writes, during the fifteen-year period 1934-1949, Nnamdi Azikiwe was undoubtedly the most important and celebrated nationalist leader on the West Coast of Africa, if not in all tropical Africa. To the outside world “Zikism” and African nationalism appeared to be synonymous. (Coleman, op. cit., p. 220)

A brief review of Azikiwe’s background and the influences that shaped his ideas is essential. Azikiwe was born in Zungeru in northern Nigeria in 1904, the son of an Ibo clerk in the Nigerian regiment.

He attended mission schools in Onitsha, Calabar and Lagos and lived in Accra briefly before sailing for America in 1925 for further studies. “Azikiwe spent his first seven years in America at segregated Negro colleges in the Southern atmosphere of discrimination and caste. Profound changes were occurring in the character of protest activity among American Negroes; the growth of a militant press, the emergence of a ‘Negro Renaissance’ with a new emphasis upon the rediscovery of Africa, the ‘Black Nationalism’ of Garveyism . . . As a result of his experiences in the United States . . . Azikiwe was determined to be a leader, with the West Coast of Africa as his arena, in the world-wide struggle to emancipate the Negro race”. (Coleman,op. cit., p. 222) His first two books, Liberia in World Politics and Renascent Africa, were written with the basic preconception that the struggle of the future was going to be racial, between black and white. Given this background Zik tended to think and act along Universalist and racial lines.

He was just as much at home in Accra, Lagos, or Onitsha. The sensationalism and pugnacity of American yellow journalism also helped shape his outlook and journalistic style, particularly the obsessive race-consciousness of American Negro newspapers. In his Renascent Africa, Zik advised that “there is no better means to arouse African peoples than that of the power of the pen and of the tongue”.

Azikiwe arrived Nigeria in time to carry on the traditions of Jackson and Solanke (two strong ideological firebrands and activists of bygone era). And he came properly equipped for the task. Thus when he arrived, he found waiting not only a large number of young Yorubas and non-Yoruba Lagosians who were dissatisfied with the conservatism and moderation of their traditional Lagosian leadership, but also all the educated elements of one of the largest tribes of Nigeria, the Igbo, which until then had had no spokesman. Azikiwe brought three new elements to Nigeria and the Nigerian Youth Movement: militant racial consciousness; an expanding sensationalist press; and a large number of educated Nigerians that were previously politically un-mobilised or excluded. With H O Davies, they enlivened the NYM. In the 1938 elections, the NYM defeated the NNDP, winning all the three seats in the Legislative Council as well as those of the Lagos Town Council.

Restrictiveproperty franchise

But it should be noted that the results did not reflect popular opinion because of the restrictive property franchise used in compiling the voters’ list. Only 792 persons voted in the elections, but the result did reflect the political inclinations of the upper strata of the Westernised Lagos elite.

However, because the old established leaders of the movement were conservatives and moderates, and were more inclined to ‘cooperating’ with the colonial government of the day to effect ‘mundane’ reforms for the betterment of the society at large as well as creating lucrative opportunities for its members and leadership, they did not quite welcome Azikiwe’s militant and uncompromising tactics. They certainly found Azikiwe’s extremely impetuous, highly personalised militant attitude and incessant attacks on the British unpalatable.

How NYM leadership saw Zik: The NYM leadership probably saw Zik as a radical and feared that he could put all of them into trouble with the British or colonial authorities or perhaps frustrate their individual and class interests that were partly dependent on the goodwill of the colonial government. They therefore began to distance themselves from Zik. The first outward sign of this resolve was the NYM’s tactical decision to distance itself from Azikiwe’s

West African Pilot newspaper, which was the main organ of Zik’s apparently worrisome attacks. Although Azikiwe’s Pilot newspaper espoused the cause of the Nigerian Youth

Movement (with obvious embarrassing radical and militant colouring from Zik) the NYM leaders decided to publish an official organ. In June 1938, they launched the Daily Service newspaper, advertised as “the official journal of the Nigerian Youth Movement”, with Ernest Ikoli, Vice President of NYM and acknowledged dean of Nigerian journalism, as publisher and editor, and H O Davies as business manager.

From that moment Azikiwe’s enthusiasm for the movement reportedly cooled. The action was perhaps a confirmation to Zik that his contributions and apparent attempt to alter the vision of the NYM, however devised, were not appreciated or welcome to the NYM leadership. Azikiwe’s critics alleged that he bitterly resented the competition from the Daily Service.

But the Daily Service was not the only newspaper competing with the West African Pilot; there were others. In an editorial, according to Coleman, Ernest Ikoli rejected the suggestion and accused Azikiwe of being a megalomaniac. That accusation in itself was a confirmation that Ikoli and his peers in the organisation were not exactly well disposed to Azikiwe and his contributions in the movement; in fact that they must have regarded him as an upstart.

In any event, you can well imagine the fierce counter-attack that must have come from Azikiwe’s West African Pilot! Thus began a breach within the NYM which was never successfully closed.

Zik resignsfrom NYM

Shortly afterwards, Zik resigned from the executive committee of the NYM citing preoccupation with business affairs. In February, 1941, the Legislative Council seat held by Dr Kofo Abayomi, then president of the NYM, became vacant following his resignation from the Council and ultimate appointment to the governor’s Executive Council.

Abayomi’s resignation precipitated within the movement’s leadership – and ultimately within the membership – a struggle over the selection of his successor. The principal contestants for the office were Ernest Ikoli (Ijaw) and Samuel Akinsanya (Ijebu Yoruba).

The selection of Ikoli by the leadership led to allegations of intra-tribal discrimination. Akinsanya and Azikiwe charged that the former (Akinsanya) had been rejected only because the dominant group of Lagos Yorubas who formed the bulk of the movement’s leadership would not want an Ijebu Yoruba.

This was how the ‘Ijebu ke’ syndrome or slogan was coined and used to attack those that rejected Akinsanya.

Richard L. Sklar had this to say of the episode: Certainly there had been a tendency on the part of the Lagos elite to look down at their brethren from the provinces, a kind of snobbishness that elicited resentment.

But Ikoli was an Ijaw, not a Lagos Yoruba, and his candidature was supported by another prominent Ijebu Yoruba, Obafemi Awolowo, then secretary of the Ibadan branch of the NYM and assistant (to Akinsanya) of the Motor Transport Union. Adamantly

Azikiwe and Akinsanya insisted that anti-Ijebu prejudice was the underlying motive at play, and they resigned from the movement. (Sklar, op. cit., p. 54)

A press war between the West African Pilot and the Daily Service ensued. Akinsanya contested against Ikoli as an Independent, with Azikiwe’s backing, and lost. Of course you can see that the old quarrel between Ikoli and the other leaders of the movement on one hand and Azikiwe on the other was taking a deeper shape and must have contributed to Azikiwe’s response.


James S. Coleman offered a more detailed insight. His words: The Akinsanya crisis was the first major manifestation of a tribal tension that affected all subsequent efforts to achieve unity [in the NYM]. From the beginning the mass membership of the Youth Movement was predominantly Yoruba in origin. Because of certain historical factors many Yorubas were prejudiced against the Ijebu Yoruba. The Ijebu had never come completely under the old Yoruba kingdom at Oyo. During most of the nineteenth century the Ijebu controlled the main trade routes into the interior, and they had acquired the reputation of being the Jews of Yorubaland. Situated as they were on the edge of the Lagos Lagoon, they had supplied most of the middlemen in the slave traffic. Yorubas from Oyo, Ibadan, and the Egba kingdom tended to look down upon or dislike the Ijebu. Akinsanya, an Ijebu, felt that he had been discriminated against on the basis of this prejudice when Ikoli won over him. It mattered little that Ikoli was an Ijaw. It is not known whether Azikiwe quit the movement because of intertribal antagonisms, or because he was dissatisfied with his role. (Coleman, op. cit., pp. 227-228)


Well, I personally think that Azikiwe’s resignation must have been informed by the later reason. He had resigned from the executive committee in 1939, I imagine, because his aggressive militant approach in the fight against colonialism was frowned at by the NYM leadership. This was a deep matter that suggested very serious ferment as would exist when strange bedfellows cohabitate. His remaining a member of the movement at the time meant that he only adopted a wait-and see attitude. His next line of action no doubt would depend on how the leadership’s attitude to his style, tactics and overall anti-colonial philosophy developed. If he perceived a change or a more accommodating attitude from the leadership, he would have stayed. But this never happened nor did Zik want to mellow down and become another middle roader in order to fit in. A complete break with the group was therefore inevitable, if Zik was to continue the anti-colonial struggle in his own way. Otherwise, he risked being sacked from the group for ‘incompatible or anti-NYM’ stance. Of course, if the leadership began to imbibe his methods, even after his resignation, a rapprochement would or could happen. And this was why Zik continued to parley with the NYM leadership all through the years, even after the formation of the NCNC, as you would see below. I think the Akinsanya crisis only served as the last straw in Azikiwe’s decision to quit the Nigerian Youth Movement.

Sklar was right when he wrote thus: It is not at all likely that a nomination controversy alone could have produced as grave a consequence as actually followed. The NYM was a turbulent party and controversy among the leadership was nothing new. Thus Dr K. A. Abayomi, President of the Youth Movement after its reconstruction in 1938, was replaced a year later and is reported to have resigned from the Legislative Council partly as a result of having fallen from favour within the party. In 1941 the split might easily have been averted since the death of Olayinka Alakija had created a second vacancy in the Legislative Council that was contested that same year. Obafemi Awolowo has [in his The Autobiography of Chief Obafemi Awolowo (1960)] reviewed the controversy from a partisan standpoint and attributed the fall of the NYM mainly to the tactics of Nnamdi

Azikiwe. (Op. cit., p. 54f)

In any event, Azikiwe’s break with the NYM leadership set the stage for the political fusion of the Igbo, southern minority elements and the Yoruba masses of Lagos, which took organisational form in 1944.

Post-Akinsanya crisis and the emergence of the NCNC: Shortly after the Ikoli-Akinsanya episode of 1941, most of the leaders of the NYM became disenchanted or distracted by war-time changes and turned to other things. Azikiwe had resigned, of course. Dr Abayomi joined the governor’s Executive

Council in 1943; H O Davies, the General Secretary withdrew to serve as a government marketing officer; Akinsanya went home to his village and became the Odemo of Ishara, a chief; and others drifted away. The one exception to the process of disintegration of the movement was a development in the period 1941-1944 in Ibadan. Under the leadership of

Chief Obafemi Awolowo, then an Ijebu cocoa trader, a group of traders and intellectuals made efforts to reform the movement.

Indeed, Awolowo had become wary of the lethargy in the NYM during this period. He organised two Western Regional conferences of the NYM between 1942 and 1944 in Ibadan, where he was based, to rejuvenate the organisation.


According to Coleman, the last of the conferences which held before Awolowo’s departure for London for further studies passed a resolution of no confidence in the Lagos executive of the movement, and established a provisional committee to conduct the affairs of the movement during the interim period before the planned All-Nigeria Representative Council scheduled to hold in June 1944. Before the council could meet however, Awolowo left for further studies in England, and the movement for reform and rejuvenation of the NYM which he started was largely abandoned.

It should be noted however that until 1938, although the various political organisations that emerged frequently referred to “Nigeria” in their names and stated objectives, their activities hardly went beyond Lagos. But between the period 1938-1941 when H O Davies and Azikiwe were active in the NYM, branches were established in Ibadan, Ijebu-Ode, Warri and Benin City in the west; Aba, Enugu, Port Harcourt and Calabar in the east; and among southern expatriate groups in Jos, Kaduna, Zaria and Kano in the north.