The second is the Nation State or Country, resulting from a political arrangement at a point in history, usually bringing a number of ethnic nations together by force in most cases, to form a country. In this category falls Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan, Tanzania, South Africa, Ghana, Senegal, France, United Kingdom, China, India, Canada and the United States of America.
The third is the Continental Nation, grouping various ethnic and nation states to form a continent such as the African, Asiatic and the European continental nations. Each citizen of today’s world belongs concomitantly to these three national definitions. I am therefore proudly an Igbo, a Nigerian and an African. Thus, the ethnic unit is the original building block, the basic infrastructure whose solidity determines the eventual soundness and stability of the country and continental super structures.
Thus for our country, Nigeria, the ethnic nation is the nursery and primary school for the upbringing of good citizens imbued with the cherished, time-honoured traditional values of respect for the elders in the family, law and order in the community, integrity as a virtue and a cultivated predisposition to serve the community dutifully and selflessly.
For our country, with its colonial stamp of “made in England”, the three hundred odd ethnic and sub-ethnic units in this land have good cause to thank God for the astonishing abundance of human and material resources bestowed on us. We are still in the process of nation building, struggling to blend and harmonize our various traditions, customs and cultures. Although, this is by all accounts a herculean task, it is both achievable and supremely worthwhile, as a successful fusion of so many valuable elements is bound to bring forth a unique socio-economic product that could astound the world.
This was, indeed, the focus of the vision of Nigeria’s founding fathers that we must keep constantly in view. The recognition of the significance of ethnicity was clear at the birth of an independent Nigeria in 1960. The larger ethnic units of Hausa/Fulani-Igbo- Yoruba formed the basis of the three Regions North, East, and West. Ethno-based agitations sprouted in the three Regions. These include the United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC) Movement in the North, Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers (COR) State Movement in the East and the Midwest Movement in the West.
The current concept of six geo-political zones is ethnically based, with three zones accorded to the larger ethnic groups and, to balance them out, three to conglomerate the smaller ethnic units. The simple lesson from this arrangement is that the ethnic units are recognized and adopted as the building blocks in the on-going construction work and nation building process in Nigeria.
In our socio-political and economic intercourse, all ethnic units (big or small) must be allowed free-play and equitable access to our country’s resources. The stability of our country can be affected positively or otherwise by the perception of these various ethnic units as to their rights and fair share of the proverbial ‘national cake’.
Sustained inequity could conceivably induce in those units aggrieved a rethink of the value to them of unity, which otherwise we all so much cherish and are anxious to preserve. The break-up of countries, some very powerful and prosperous, like the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, took place along ethnic lines. They are examples that we must eschew in Africa, already over-fragmented.
It is in the light of the supreme importance of sustainable unity in our country that I would like us all to recall and retain in our minds the preponderant contribution of the Igbo Nation to the quest for unity in Nigeria’s nation building enterprise.
Today, there is the feeling that the Igbos, as a people, are being deliberately sidelined, especially in the sphere of political leadership of the country. No Igbo person is deemed good enough or trusted enough to be put at the helm of affairs, at the apex management position of Nigeria. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s pioneer titular head of state, took a shot at the real thing the executive presidency, in 1979 and 1983. In spite of his nationally acknowledged role as the foremost crusader for our nation’s independence, he scored abysmally in both electoral tests.
Dr. Alex Ekwueme fared no better, even as he teamed up with a scion of the northern oligarchy Alhaji Shehu Shagari. Their joint ticket under the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) won the presidential slot in the successive elections of 1979 and 1983.
Like today’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the NPN was the dominant political party at the time. Securing its presidential candidate’s nomination was as good as clinching the presidential position. Dr. Ekwueme was poised to replace Shagari at the impending end of his second tenure, as the party’s flagbearer come the next election. He was eminently qualified and was favoured by Shagari himself for the presidential job ahead. He had to be stopped, hence, the coup of 31st December 1983, which traded in the remaining three years and nine months of Shagari’s second and final term, with all its democratic restrictions, for an eventual collective northern rule of some fourteen years of absolute power, under the successive military governments of Buhari, Babangida and Abacha.
Indeed, Alhaji Umaru Dikko, former Transport Minister in Shagari’s administration said this much in an interview he gave in London, before his attempted kidnapping, commando style, drugged and gagged in a cage loaded as cargo aboard a plane bound for Nigeria, on the presumed orders of an embarrassed and angry Buhari-Idiagbon government.
Subsequent revelations by former senior northern military officers have since confirmed Umaru Dikko’s candid assertion.
This event denied Ndigbo, perhaps the largest ethnic group in Nigeria, their ‘federal character’ chance of producing an executive president and their constitutional right to exercise presidential powers for a possible eight-year period of two terms.
This callous and contemptuous treatment meted out to Ndigbo is in clear and cruel contrast with the compassionate concession, massively supported by Ndigbo, given to the Yorubas in 1999 to field the two Olus- Falae and Obasanjo, for the presumed presidential slot missed by their kinsman, Chief M.K.O Abiola, in 1993. Surely, what is considered political sauce for the aggrieved Yoruba goose, and rightly so, should equally be tendered to the politically famished Igbo gander.
In the thirty odd years of military rule of our country, apart from the six months stint of General Aguiyi Ironsi, who was officially and formally invited by the civilian remnant of the toppled Balewa Administration to assume office as head of state in January 1966, the closest an Igbo officer got to governance was the appointment of Navy Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe as his second in command by the then military president Ibrahim Babangida in 1985. He was summarily removed in humiliating circumstances early in the life of that Administration.
Sometimes, too much is being simplistically made of random appointment of talented Igbo technocrats to high profile positions, where demonstrable competence is usually required to tackle certain specific and difficult national tasks.
What has been critically absent for decades, and still missing today, is fair and effective Igbo participation in the national decision-making process, which is entirely political. Appointees, no matter how highly positioned, only implement decisions already packaged and handed down to them. They are hired and fired at will. Considering their manifest multi-faceted contribution to Nigeria’s political and economic development, Ndigbo deserve better than political crumbs from the master’s table.
At the current foundation laying stage of our national development, control of vital decision-making positions and organs easily determines who gets what. If at this critical stage in our nation building enterprise, the Igbos continue to be excluded from such positions, in this case, by discernable design, then no matter how much they struggle, their political marginalization, with all its negative consequences will endure.
No doubt, the Igbo people themselves have their share of the blame in this unsavoury saga, especially given the individualistic and blindly opportunistic attitude of some Igbo politicians, scrambling for the crumbs of public office in total disregard of legitimate Igbo collective interest within the Nigerian family.
The perceived overall aggressiveness of the Igbos in social and business intercourse creates fright among their competitors who tend to gang up against them. However, the core problem for the Igbos today is clearly traceable to the immediate events that preceded the civil war, 1967-70. The military coup of January 1966 is central to it all. It created fear and distrust of the Igbos that are yet to be purged from the national political system.
It is for this reason that I have chosen to base my talk today on the central theme, ‘Ndigbo: Nigeria’s Nation Builders’ in order to highlight the enormous contribution of Ndigbo to the building and sustenance of the Nigeria project. The aim is to help reassure ourselves, especially the young up-and-coming generation of Igbos, that in spite of a few hitches, Ndigbo have, over the years, borne the brunt of the onerous task of nation building in Nigeria and have good cause to feel truly proud of their achievements in that regard.
Igbo political role in Nigeria has been consistent in the pursuit of national unity and inter-ethnic cooperation. Under the leadership of the late Owelle of Onitsha, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Igbos played the role of bridge builders in the fledgling Nigerian nation. Zik, as he was fondly called, accepted the leadership of the legendary Yoruba political activist, Herbert Babington Macauley to form and direct the first truly significant national political party National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon (NCNC).
With respected and nationalist Yoruba leaders like Dr. Ibiyinka Olorun-Nimbe, the first and only Mayor of Lagos, Sir Odeleye Fadahunsi, the first national vice-president of the NCNC and second indigenous Governor of Western Region, Alhaji Adegoke Adelabu, the lion of Ibadan politics, and others including Chief Adeniran Ogunsanya, Chief Mojeed Agbaje and Otunba T.O.S. Benson, the then Igbo leadership forged a political alliance which cut across ethnic boundaries. Such was the extent of their success that Zik was poised, after the regional election of 1951, but for a last minute hitch, to become the premier of the Western Region, the home ground of the Yoruba nation.
The party, which he led, the NCNC and its allies won a majority of seats in the Western House of Assembly. In the Eastern Region, the Igbo-dominated NCNC, true to its pan-Nigerian orientation and commitment, elected as the first mayor of Enugu metropolis, Mallam Umoru Altini, a Moslem from Katsina in Northern Nigeria.
Again, in 1957 when the British Colonial Government, under intense pressure from Southern politicians pressing for independence, attempted to uncouple the union between the North and the South, forged through Lord Lugard’s Amalgamation of 1914, with the offer of Independence to the three Regions individually, provided any two accepted the offer; a political crisis loomed large on the national horizon.
The Northern Region, led by the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) took the position that the North was not ready for that level of political and economic independence. The Western Region, led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group (AG) promptly declared its readiness to accept the offer. It was the Igbo-Ied NCNC that held the balance. It was an issue that could make or break Nigeria, if Ndigbo, Nigeria’s Nation Builders, if the three Regions chose to go their separate ways to Independence.
The NCNC leader, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, took the stand that although the Eastern Region was ready to assume the responsibilities of Regional Independence, its attainment without the North would lead, in his own words, to the “Balkanisation of the Nigerian Nation” and conceivably a break-up of the country. The Eastern Region would rather suppress its appetite for Independence and the obvious gains it would entail until the Northern Region was ready.
That was how Nigerian Independence was delayed until 1960. In short, the Igbo-Ied Eastern Region would rather forgo the advancement of its own political and economic interests than risk the break-up of Nigeria.
Had the Eastern Region opted for Independence at that time, the territory under its control would have comprised in today’s terms the following nine States with their enormous human and natural resources: Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Anambra, Bayelsa, Cross River, Ebonyi, Enugu, Imo, and Rivers of Nigeria. It would also have included in all probability, as was the case with the then Northern Cameroon which became today’s Adamawa and Taraba States, what was then Southern Cameroon with the oil rich Bakassi Peninsula well in the middle of a distinct, sovereign and independent Eastern Nigeria.
By 1960, the three Regions would have become separate sovereign states and there would have been no question of Biafra’s attempted secession in 1967 from a non-existing Nigerian federation and the devastating civil war fought to stop it.
Similarly, when Zik moved to the Federal scene as Governor-General and later titular President of Nigeria, the NCNC, under the leadership of Dr. Michael Okpara, of blessed memory, continued faithfully in his giant and indelible footsteps, the political bridge-building and nation building enterprise of the Igbos.
At independence, the Igbo-Ied NCNC, shunned the attraction of being the senior partner in an East-West Alliance with Chief Awolowo’s Action Group (AG) and chose to team up instead as the junior partner, with Sir Ahmadu Bello’s Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) in order to consolidate the frail and insipid attachment of a wary and skeptical North to Southern Nigeria.
At that time, Chief Awolowo’s Yoruba-dominated Action Group (AG) was viewed with considerable suspicion by the Hausa Fulani-Ied NPC for its ambition and role in the then Middle Belt, under the ebullient, intrepid and anti-feudalistic leadership of J.S.Tarka’s United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC). However, when the Yoruba Leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was accused of treason and incarcerated in 1963, on charges which many Nigerians believed were trumped up to silence him politically, the Igbo leadership of the NCNC switched sides and came to his rescue.
Dr. Michael Okpara teamed up with Alhaji Dauda Adegbenro, the acting leader of the Action Group, to fight what the Igbos perceived as political injustice that could threaten the unity of Nigeria. They formed the United Peoples Grand Alliance (UPGA). The leadership, suspicious of NPC’s conceivable dark intentions, insisted that Chief Awolowo must be transferred from Kaduna to Calabar for his physical safety. The reason was that considering the overwhelming popularity of the Yoruba leader in the Western Region, the stability and unity of Nigeria could face jeopardy if something untoward happened to him. The Igbos were not ready for that risk. For them, the unity and stability of Nigeria was paramount.
The military intervention of January 1966, which was to a considerable degree, a consequence of the persisting political turmoil in Western Nigeria, put an abrupt end to the political activities of the various parties. That coup, most regrettably, took the lives of many prominent national leaders, both military and civilian. Behind the façade of general jubilation, which greeted the January coup among the progressives in the country, particularly in the South, there was the ominous reality of an embittered North, the most powerful region in the Federation, whose overall representation in the army itself kept good pace with its political dominance in the country.
Northern interests had suffered heavily both in the political and military spheres. Once it recovered from the shock, the North was bound to reassert itself in both domains. This, it did brutally in July 1966, sweeping General Ironsi, who was murdered at Ibadan, out of power. Some 214 Igbo officers and men were reported killed across the nation in a wholesale massacre, which also took the life of Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, the popular Yoruba military governor of Western Region, an articulate Ironsi confidant, known to be a sympathizer of Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
Thus, the circumstances of the January event and the largely one-sided killings that marked the bloody aspect of that coup, practically made such a vengeful situation inevitable. For the Northern political leadership, the January 1966 coup was a plot conceived and hatched by the entire Igbo nation to seize political power in Nigeria.
Yet, the stark reality of that historic episode is that, as the British writer, Walter Schwartz put it succinctly in his classic book ‘Nigeria’ that appeared at the time, “… the coup was lbo-led, but national in objective”. Many prominent Igbo officers, starting with the head of the Army, General Aguiyi Ironsi to Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who was the commanding officer in Kano, were not involved.
Indeed, Col. Arthur Unegbe, the Quarter-Master General, was killed in Lagos for refusing to cooperate with the coup makers, who came to him and demanded the keys to the armoury.
This very act on the part of Col. Unegbe, a thorough-bred Igbo patriot, of giving his life for Nigeria and his absolute loyalty to the northern NPC controlled Balewa Administration, played a decisive role in bringing about the collapse of the coup in Lagos, itse1f the very seat of the Federal Government. Unable to secure the armoury, the coup leaders were automatically denied control of the most important means- arms and ammunition of carrying out their plan in the supremely strategic Lagos area.
It was, indeed, exactly this situation that gave a loyal General Ironsi his chance on that fateful night of 15th January. The troops he rallied at dawn to thwart the coup had the arms and ammunition to support him. Such was the extent of active and effective opposition mounted by high ranking Igbo officers to ensure the failure of the most unfairly branded ‘Igbo coup’ of January 1966.
The putsch was aimed at dislodging those who held the levers of federal power and their allies in the Regions. Most unfortunately, in Lagos, it took the lives of the NPC Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and his close confidant, the Finance Minister from the Mid-West Region, Chief Festus Okotie Eboh of Zik’s NCNC party. In the Regions, the NPC Premier of the North, Sir Ahmadu Bello, was killed. So also was the Premier of the Western Region, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola, an ally and protégé of the Balewa government and a bitter political enemy of opposition leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, then languishing in prison.
In fact, informed rumours at the time had it that the young officers, with a clear patriotic national perspective, had in mind to release the Yoruba leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, from detention and install him as head of an interim government, pending a constitutional review and elections.’ Indeed, the renowned educationist and civil rights activist, Tai Solarin, came close to confirming that view in an interview he gave to a national daily a few years before his death.
Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, the widely acclaimed coup leader, himself put the record this way in an interview he gave to the magazine ‘Africa And The World’ in May 1967, “our purpose was to change our country and make it a place we could be proud to call our home. Tribal considerations were completely out of our minds. But we had a set back in the execution.”
In other words, the intervention of this group of idealistic young officers, which included many Igbos, was to help build a better, united and prosperous Nigeria for all its citizens, totally regardless of ethnicity or other affiliations. In relevant retrospect, the similarity between the Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu led coup of January 1966 and that led by Major Gideon Orkah in April l990 against the government of General Ibrahim Babangida stands out in astonishing relief.
Both coups were carried out by young and idealistic middle-ranking officers, intent on transforming what they sincerely believed was a rotten Nigerian society. Neither coup was prompted or supported by senior officers of their respective ethnic groups. However, there is a painful difference in their socio-political aftermath. Nzeogwu’s coup was branded an ‘Igbo’ coup, for which the entire Ndigbo must pay a heavy and recurrent political price. Orkah’s coup was not seen as a ‘Tiv’ coup and justly so, and has no perceivable penalizing political price tag for the Tiv ethnic group.
For this clearly discriminatory attitude towards Ndigbo, and in sharp contrast with the unanimous national political concession given to the Yorubas over the M.K.O. Abiola case, cited earlier, it is only right to assert that our beloved co-citizens of Nigeria owe the Igbo Nation unreserved fraternal apology for visiting an unjust and sustained capital political punishment on the entire Igbo nation, vis-à-vis their constitutional right to exercise executive power as president bf our country. This is a fundamental right already too long denied, for which Ndigbo gburu-gburu, no matter their individual political differences, must now unite to fight and secure.
On the socio-economic front, the Igbos played and are still playing a leading role in the promotion of national integration. Today, there are several millions of Igbo people living, working and helping to develop significantly parts of Nigeria outside Igboland. They are in remote villages and towns nationwide.
Be it our country’s commercial cities of Lagos or Kano, heavy Igbo presence attests to Igbo people’s belief and commitment to pan-Nigerian nationhood. For the Igbos, anywhere in Nigeria is home. Indeed, as recently as a year or so ago, the former FCT Minister, Mallam Nasir eI-Rufai, was quoted as saying that Igbo investment in indigenous private property development in the Federal Capital Territory, accounted for some seventy percent of the existing structures. Clearly, the Igbos put their money where their heart is - Nigeria’s centre of unity.
It is therefore clear that all this long, since the British colonial administration put together this vast country, the evident role of Igbo people in the political, economic and social history of Nigeria has been that of bridge builders and nation builders.
The desperate resort to Biafran secession in 1967, following successive massacres and tearful exodus of Igbos from Northern Nigeria the previous year, and its subsisting residual echo in the emergence of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), are clearly an aberration, not an Igbo hallmark, emanating from a sense of perceived rejection and persecution of a people who have given their all, in spirit and material resources to the concept and construction of a truly united, prosperous Nigerian nation.
By all accounts, the Igbo people deserve and richly so, much better understanding and demonstrable appreciation from their fellow citizens of their spirited and consistent role as nation builders and committed custodians of Nigerian unity.To the Nigeria project, the Igbos have given a great deal yesterday, are still doing so today and have a lot more in store for a much greater tomorrow.
God bless the Igbo nation! Long live our great country, Nigeria! God bless Africa!
(An address he delivered at the "Igbo Day 2009" celebration in Owerri, Imo State on November 14, 2009)