By Douglas Anele
For the first time in the twenty-two years I have been writing for Sunday Vanguard, I will do what I have never done before, namely, publish verbatim a reply from one of the teeming readers of “Perspectives,” Mazi Chike Chidolue. Because a large percentage of Ndigbo have an unfavourable view about late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the riposte by Mazi Chidolue should be given thoughtful consideration by the Igbo as we continue to grapple with contending narratives concerning the defining events in Nigeria’s political history.
Inasmuch as I agree that Chief Awolowo played a morally reprehensible role against Biafrans during and immediately after the civil war notwithstanding the exculpatory hot air by Yoruba revisionist commentators who want to deodorise the putrid stench of his endorsement of Operation Starvation and the Twenty Pounds policy, Ndigbo should also realise that in spite of his legendary status Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was largely responsible, directly and indirectly, for the plight of Ndigbo from 1960 to date. Let me allow Mazi Chidolue to speak for himself.
In the first instalment of your article “The unending quest for the sovereign state of Biafra”, on page 18 of the Sunday Vanguard of June 7, 2020, you blamed Zik and Awolowo for failing to forge a united front during the independence struggle, which made it easy for the colonial master, Britain, to hand over power on a platter of gold to their well-nurtured obedient children, Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto and Tafawa Balewa who contributed nothing, absolutely nothing but delays and obstructions to the struggle.
You spoke the mind of Ndigbo when you said, “As an Igbo, I feel deeply about Biafra, because, inter alia,—it is impossible to erase completely, the horrendous memories of that conflict. Besides, there is hardly any family in Biafra, Igboland particularly, that did not lose a loved one and property during the war….Therefore, for anyone affected by the Biafran war, May 30, 1967, is in an important sense equivalent to 1939 to the Jews or Israelites who, rightly, have continued to commemorate the Nazi Holocaust on Jewish people during World War II.
Accordingly, notwithstanding the federal government’s irascible attitude to the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) led by Nnamdi Kanu, one must commend the organization for instituting May 30 annually as a day of remembrance for Biafrans killed during the civil war. A people that forget the defining moments of its past would eventually go into oblivion. Still, you do not have to be an Igbo or belong to the defunct eastern region to understand the significance of the very day that Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu declared the independence of Biafra from Nigeria.—” I am with you all the way until you came to blame Zik and Awolowo.
It was Zik who refused to accept Awolowo’s handshake across the Niger since after the 1951 parliamentary elections to the three regional Houses of Assembly, namely, Eastern, Northern, and Western Houses of Assembly.
Before that election, some concerned Yoruba and thoughtful members of the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons (NCNC) had advised Zik to allow Alhaji Adegoke Adelabu, the iron man of Ibadan, the thorn in the flesh of the enemy, to be the leader of the NCNC in Western Region while he remained the national leader of the party; because, when the NCNC would have won the election which it would win, it would leave a sour taste in the mouth of Yorubas to have Zik, a non-Yoruba, not even a westerner as the leader of parliament in the Western House of Assembly.
Zik flatly rejected this wise advice, claiming that he was free to lead his party in any part of the country. My impression is that Zik’s reason which he did not make public, was that Lagos, where he had his parliamentary seat, being part of the Western Region then, he would serve under Alhaji Adegoke Adelabu if he accepted that strategic arrangement. Again, unknown to his colleagues, Zik had probably made a secret vow, that having served under Herbert Macaulay, a situation he could not help, he would never serve under another person again no matter the circumstance.
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The NCNC won the election as expected. But before the parliament was convoked, Awolowo summoned the Yoruba Obas and the elites of the Yoruba nation to a meeting. He told them that he was not worried that his party, the Action Group (AG) lost the election. He said that what worried him was what future Yoruba generations would say about their own generation for allowing Zik, an Igboman, to rule them in their own land considering that the Yorubas were exposed to western civilization and Christianity before the Igbos! A shout of “otio,otio” the Yoruba word for no, exploded in the meeting.
The Obas asked Awolowo what he wanted; he told them to order six Yoruba NCNC parliamentarians to cross the carpet and join the AG when the House of Assembly was convoked. Carpet crossing is a legal and constitutional feature of parliamentary democracy. The Obas gave the order and the Action Group formed the government with Awolowo, a westerner and a Yorubaman becoming the Leader of Government Business in the Western House of Assembly just as a northerner and an easterner held that office in their respective house of assembly.
Zik and the NCNC lost. Had Zik accepted the wise and strategic advice of his colleagues, Awolowo could not have succeeded because Alhaji Adegoke Adelabu was a Yoruba man. Awolowo acted as a Yoruba/Western patriot, pure and simple. Because of this event, Zik regarded Awolowo as an enemy and decided he would never cooperate with Awolowo in politics even though it is said that in politics, there is no permanent enemy, only permanent interests.
After the federal elections that ushered in independence, Awolowo saw that the combined seats of the NCNC and the AG gave them the majority in the Federal House of Representatives. He offered Zik the post of Prime Minister while he took the post of Minister of Finance. Had Zik accepted the offer, Ahmadu Bello would have made good the repeated threat of the North to pull out of the federation. Britain might delay granting the South independence.
Independence would eventually come and independent Southern Nigeria would be better off without Ahmadu Bello’s north! This would have spared us the January 1966 coup, the counter-coup and the catastrophic civil war. The only remaining struggle would be, to free the Middle Belt Region from Ahmadu Bello’s grip.
Awolowo repeated this offer several times and even after the civil war while Zik rejected them all. I am happy that Zik lived long enough to see how his northern feudalist political friends, agents of neocolonialism wasted and are still wasting the fruit of independence struggle. Maybe he was probably satisfied that as long as he kept Awolowo out of Federal Government power, he enjoyed the vacuous post of Governor-General and ceremonial President in which he was of no use to southerners.
But history has a way of compensating people. According to Chinua Achebe,” Awolowo had been a steadfast Yoruba nationalist from the 1940s to date. He had no record of betrayal, double-talk or even indecision in the pursuit of his goals. But above all he had in recent years as the leading civilian member of Gowon’s administration presided over a monumental transfer and consolidation of economic, bureaucratic and professional power to his home base. This singular achievement secured for Awolowo for the first time in his political career something approaching 100 per cent support among the Yoruba.”
The deliberate misinterpretation which was given to this straightforward parliamentary practice of carpet crossing by Zik, the NCNC and the vast majority of the Igbo nation was unfortunate, regrettable and very mischievous. It sowed the seed of friction which thankfully did not germinate between the Igbos and the Yorubas.
Awolowo adroitly secured for the Yoruba nation and Westerners what rightly belonged to them. It must be noted that nearly all the money that the Igbos made which made others envy them was made in Yoruba land. What is more, since the first Igboman set foot on Yoruba land till date, the Igbos never went to bed any night fearing if their heads will be on their necks at daybreak! This is not so in the north.
To be concluded…