Igbo, Yoruba seek to erase age-long distrust close political gap

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The distrust between the Yoruba and Igbo is not only age-long but deep-rooted. The subdued animosity dated back to the pre-independence era but was aggravated during the unfortunate civil war (1967-1970) and the perceived role the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, played during the war. The South-Easterners believe (till date) that Awo’s primed ingenuity gave the Nigerian forces the edge to scuttle their secession bid.


Recently, however, there has been a rapprochement between the two regions and other like-minded groups in the country to close ranks and confront some of the obstacles hindering the progress of the country.

In this report, SUNDAY PUNCH recalls the roles of the principal actors of previous working agreements between the Yoruba and Igbo, the perceived role of the late Awolowo in the civil war era, how past working agreements collapsed and the recent ‘handshake across the Niger’

ADELANI ADEPEGBA reports that the Igbo/Yoruba summit meant to cement the friendship between the two major ethnic groups in Nigeria may have come and gone, but its echoes and political impact would continue to reverberate for years to come

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If the texture and tenor of the communique issued at the end of the programme were anything to go by, political analysts say this may mark the beginning of a new dawn in the relationship between the Yoruba and the Igbo and by extension, the nation.

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The summit, which held in Enugu late last year, was conceived by an Igbo think-tank, Nzuko Umunna, in collaboration with the Yoruba socio-cultural group, Afenifere.

Tagged ‘Handshake Across the Niger: A Celebration of Igbo/Yoruba Friendship Beyond Brotherhood’, it was meant to unite the Igbo and the Yoruba by highlighting the unity and sacrifice that resulted in the deaths of Maj. Gen. Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi and Lt.-Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, who were killed together during the July 29, 1966 coup.

Fajuyi was said to have resisted the killing of Aguiyi-Ironsi, who was his guest on an official visit as Head of State, but he was subsequently killed by the coup plotters. It was an act of courage and loyalty that was acknowledged and celebrated decades after Fajuyi made the supreme sacrifice for his military supremo.

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The appreciation of Fajuyi’s steadfast loyalty to his Commander-in-Chief, Ironsi, and the celebration of the friendship between the two men symbolises the new partnership between the Igbo and their Yoruba brothers and opened a new vista of political realignment and cooperation for the development of the country. But while the political leaders from the two groups are constructively engaging one another, many Igbo and Yoruba youths had yet to grasp the unfolding reality as they are still filled with the bile of false history regurgitated in books, statements, and blogs by political demagogues. The credulous youth are still fixated on the colourful tapestry of venomous tales about Yoruba hatred for Igbo told with perfidious delight by those who do not want the two tribes to work together.

A peep into history revealed that before the war, the Igbo had no problem with other zones or ethnic groups as they entered into alliances with different groups, particularly the North, at different times as it suited them. The younger generation may not know that the Igbo political elite had always been chummy with the North; they were political partners for decades, right from 1960s. The relationship soured in January 15, 1966, when northern leaders and their southern allies were killed in what was termed an Igbo coup which was led by Aguiyi-Ironsi. There was a revenge coup by the northern military officers in July 1966 leading to the civil war of 1967-1970. The political romance between the two regions (North and South-East) however resumed in 1979.

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In the 1959 general elections which ushered the nation into independence in 1960, the Northern Peoples Congress won the majority seats in the federal legislature. Under the parliamentary system that was operated then, NPC was in the pole position to form the government and appoint a prime minister. But there was a snag: they won only 134 seats and needed a minimum of 157 seats to have the simple majority, and so the party needed a coalition to control power. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s National Council of Nigerian Citizens won 81 seats, while Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group got 73.

Following a bit of horse-trading and new alliances, NPC and its allies had 148 seats, NCNC and its allies 89, and AG and its allies 75. Awo and Zik could have taken power and formed the government if they had joined forces with a combined 164 seats, they would have surpassed the 157-seat target. Zik threw in his lot with the NPC and became the governor-general of Nigeria and, in 1963, the ceremonial president, while Alhaji Tafawa Balewa became prime minister. NCNC also produced the Senate President, Prince Nwafor Orizu. Awo and by extension, the Yoruba, played the role of opposition in the parliament.

In 1979, Zik’s new party, Nigerian Peoples Party, still chose to work with a northern party, the National Party of Nigeria. In the presidential election, NPN won 5.6 million votes, the Unity Party of Nigeria led, by Awo scored 4.9 million, and Zik’s NPP had 2.8 million votes. If Zik and Awo had worked together, they would have polled 7.7 million votes and Alhaji Shehu Shagari would not have been elected president.

In the National Assembly, the NPN could not control either chamber — it had only 36 out of the 95 senators and only 165 out of 433 members of the House of Representatives. Again, the Igbo went into an alliance with the North. NPP, with its 16 senators and 78 reps, allied with NPN, and produced Chief Edwin Ume Eze-Oke as the speaker.

Fast forward to the Third Republic and Igbo continued their romance with the North again. In the June 12, 1993 election, the National Republican Convention candidate, Alhaji Bashir Tofa, won in three of the four Igbo states, namely Imo, Abia and Enugu, where it had also produced governors, while the Social Democratic Party flag-bearer, Chief MKO Abiola, won only in Anambra which had a sitting SDP governor.

In 1999, the Peoples Democratic Party fielded Chief Olusegun Obasanjo in the presidential election. The Alliance for Democracy in a partnership with the All Peoples Party, supported Chief Olu Falae, the Yoruba choice. The Igbo kept faith with their historical alignment with the North and voted for Obasanjo, the choice of the North. They also supported Obasanjo in 2003 and Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua in 2007. This was despite the candidacy of their hero, Ojukwu on the All Progressives Grand Alliance platform in both elections.

The Igbo are always quick to describe their Yoruba neighbours as betrayers for allegedly failing to secede from Nigeria as purportedly agreed during a meeting between Awolowo and Ojukwu. This hackneyed narrative had been told and retold over the years and had become a lore in Igboland. This has succeeded in further alienating the Igbo and Yoruba, making the prospects of a beautiful political union more distant than ever.

Speaking during the presentation of a book, ‘The Untold Story of the Nigeria-Biafra War’, written by Dr. Luke Aneke in 2013, a former President-General of Ndigbo, Lagos, Prof. Anya Anya, submitted that “the Igbos were only standing up against the injustice meted against them, but the fact remains that we wouldn’t have gone to war.”