Chido Onumah, a Nigerian author and journalist, calls on his countrywomen and men not to dwell on the so-called “Igbo question”, but rather focus their attention on seriously addressing the “national/Nigeria question” before it destroys the whole country.
First, a confession. I am Igbo, whatever that means! I was born in 1966, a year before the Nigerian Civil War that lasted for 30 months, from July 1967 to January 1970. And depending on who is counting, or writing the history, the casualty figures in that internecine war could be anywhere between two and three million or more.
I can’t believe am posting this, 105 years after amalgamation and the creation of Nigeria, almost 60 years after independence, 49 years after the civil war ended and the country proclaimed, “no victor, no vanquished,” and embarked on the 3Rs: Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction.
Once again, the “Igbo Question” rears its ugly head. The logical question would be, how do we deal with a “problem” like the Igbos? I shall return to this.
But if I were an aged bigot and quintessential newspaperman who has trained many journalists and shaped the future of journalism in Nigeria, an educated “Yoruba” man and “putative lover of Igbos,” how would I answer this question?
I would start by saying, “I attended the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria between 1974 and 1978 for which I owe the Igbos gratitude for this opportunity. It wasn’t that I could not have studied in Lagos, Ibadan or Ife. I wished to be far away from home to detach completely from the city boy life of clubbing and all that in which I was engulfed for five years despite finishing higher school certificate education in record one year with three A level papers at one sitting, a feat in those days. There were fears in my family that a war (1967-1970) had just ended, four years earlier in the East and the people may be hostile to immigrants whose people partook in the war against them. But I was a rebellious young man, and believe I still am at close to 70. At 16, when the war broke out, I was fascinated by Lt Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu’s oration and Okokondem on Biafra Radio. I didn’t understand what the issues were. So, off to the East I went to Nsukka, the land of the folding hills.
“I made many Igbo friends, maybe because I learned to behave like a Roman in Rome. One day, one of my Igbo friends and I went to his village. Surprisingly, I wasn’t frightened by stories I had heard in the West that I could be killed and eaten like bush meat. Everywhere I went, the visitor was treated like a tin god. They brought out the kola and the pepper. There were cultural shocks, though. One day, an 11-year-old boy stretched out his hand to greet me. In Yorubaland, that was an abomination. The older man could deal such a “rude” boy a knock on the head to teach him to respect his elders. But that was republican Igbo culture for you. Without qualms, I took the hand he offered to me in pure love and shook hands with him. If you respect your hosts and do not try to impose yourself on them, they would love you.
“My relationship with the Igbos goes beyond Nsukka. Two of the editors who gave me a sound professional foundation in journalism are Igbos. The first was George Okoro, who was chief sub editor of the Daily Times when I was brought before him on 8 March 1971, to start work as trainee subeditor. The other was Angus Okoli. He was acting editor at the Lagos Weekend where I was posted after I completed my training under Okoro. He was like a big uncle to me. At that time, Alhaji Babatunde Jose, later chairman/managing director of the Daily Times group of companies, was trying to bring to the newspaper people with higher school certificate, but the G4 and “O” Level men were resisting. They were Yorubas. Okoro and Okoli were Igbos. Okoro would spend his money to buy us foreign newspapers to train with. He would take us at his own cost from club to club to knock journalism life into us. Sometimes, we ended up at his flat in Johnson Street, near Pedro in Somolu. Okoli would teach you how to write.
“Maybe these men influenced my decision to go to Nsukka without knowing it. If I didn’t take a wife from the East, it was probably because I did not have money for the dowry or because I was faithfully committed to a young adolescent’s promise I did not wish to break. But the Igbos continued to trudge on my paths. No fewer than four of them married my sisters and cousins. They are among the best husbands I have seen in Nigeria in terms of their commitment to the concept of one-man-one-wife, which my family values and their love and commitment to the extended families of their wives.
“I remember an incident at one of the wedding engagements. The Igwe who accompanied the groom-to-be said it was against Igbo custom for an Igwe to prostrate when he was asked to prostrate before the parents of the bride-to-be. All members of the family felt affronted. Otunba Olufemi Deru, chairman of the event and a former chairman/managing director of the British Ever Ready Electrical Company and former president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria, rose and asked everyone to go home. Luckily, there was a member of my faith in the Igbo entourage. I didn’t know him, but he recognised me, came over and whispered to me that we should rescue the event from intransigence or rigidity on both sides. So, I announced that maybe the Igwe did not wish to soil his dress and called for a mat. The Igwe agreed to prostrate and actually did. Today, this couple have four beautiful children who are a pride not only to their father’s family but to ours as well. From this preamble, I will proceed to voice my opinion on the Okota question with all sense of responsibility.
“I am Yoruba, and I condemn all forms of electoral malpractice, including ballot box snatching on Election Day. The Yorubas are an intelligent people with their own fair share of rascals. There are many intelligent and creative ways open to the Yorubas to deal with the Igbo question in Lagos or elsewhere.
“Chief Obafemi Awolowo dealt with it when Nnamdi Azikiwe abused the generosity of the Yorubas and attempted to take over their land as the Dutchmen took over Southern Africa. The Yorubas also dealt with this question intelligently when Biafran soldiers tried to invade the West from Ore, after overrunning Bendel State with the aid of Igbo connections there. At different fora where the Igbo question in Lagos comes up, I always invite the Igbos to remember that the Yorubas have always been their best friends in Nigeria. The Yoruba leader of the 1950s, Herbert Macaulay, founded the National Council of Nigerians and the Cameroons (NCNC)
“When Macaulay died following an illness during his nationwide campaign for independence, wasn’t it the Yoruba NCNC leadership, which invited Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo, to return home from Ghana and lead their party? And when he held their hand in the soup pot, to bar them from having the meal they prepared, didn’t they peacefully and intelligently show him the way back to the east? Yorubas were generous and trustful. Azikiwe insulted their sensibility, abused their generosity and trust. Why would he, an Igbo, wish to be premier of the West and then install an Igbo, as premier of the East when the Yorubas at that time had more literate people than the Igbos? That was cunning, greed and betrayal of trust to say the least.
“We were all fighting to send the white man away and, after we had succeeded, you wished to impose local Igbo colonialism on a better educated Yoruba race. Who would have accepted that? Secondly, I remind my Igbo friends that, after the civil war, their properties in the North, Port Harcourt, Cross River and Akwa Ibom States, their present political allies, were seized from them as “abandoned” property and handed out to the aborigines. But in the latest, Igbo property was all returned with all the rent, which accrued to them. Were the Yorubas stupid or merely civilised, honest and friendly or, if you like, God fearing?”
Okota ballot box
“As I said in the first part, the snatching of ballot boxes after all the warnings by government was unnecessary, crude, condemnable and punishable. If the Yorubas condemn it elsewhere, they should condemn it also in Okota. But after the condemnation and necessary punishment under the law, it will not be right for all of us to not get to the bottom of why it happened and the bigger problems, which are brewing beneath this cause if the surface and deep-lining causes are not addressed.
“The major problem, in my opinion, is the Igbo penchant to wish to take over another person’s land. I say this with all sense of responsibility. Recently, Mofe Oyatogun of Star 101.5FM Radio Station in Lagos played during her Early Rush Show, a 1952 audio clip of an interview with Ahmadu Bello, Premier of Northern Nigeria. He said unequivocally that the North would not employ Igbos in its civil service because if you gave them an inch, you will not know when they would take a mile. That was way back in 1952, about 67 years ago. Is this not what is still playing out today in South Africa, Benin Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Libya and China, to mention a few countries?
“In the recent presidential election [23 February 2019], President Muhammadu Buhari probably won landslide victories in Northern states because that Ahmadu Bello radio interview clip went viral in that political landscape. Peter Obi, an Igbo, was vice presidential running mate to Alhaji Abubakar Atiku, a Fulani from the Northeast. It was possible the North still lived in fear of the Igbo man as Ahmadu Bello had taught them to do and as they were reminded in that audio clip replay.
“In Yorubaland, we are a society governed by laws. That is why we have ministries of chieftaincy affairs. All the land in Lagos has owners. Lagos was either a colony or part of Western Nigeria. But because of the generosity of Yorubas, and the foresight of their forefathers, which made this region the star region in West Africa, the Igbos would like the Yorubaman to believe that “Lagos is no man’s land.” Can anyone say that of Benin without eating his pounded yam as raw yam? Can the Igbos say that of Kano and Jos? The people there know how to make themselves husbands of the mothers of the territorial expansionist.
“Everywhere on earth, we have seen that territorial expansion ends in chaos. In recent history, we can pin the two world wars to it. What about the war in Liberia between the aborigines and the settled slaves? What about Rwanda? What about Hitler’s war on the Jews? What about the liberation wars in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique? Why did General Idi Amin of Uganda chase away the Asians? Why did Bangladesh separate from India, Eritrea from Ethiopia and Senegal from Senegambia? What about the communal clashes over land in Nigeria?
“Recently, almost 100 Fulanis were killed in Kaduna. We cannot forget the Zango-Kataf problem. So, we should be careful when you come to settle on my land and say you must represent me in the Nigerian Senate or the House of Representatives, or the Lagos State House of Assembly, taking away from me my aboriginal right to have my kith, kindred and blood represent me, while back home you are being represented in the Senate and House of Representatives. When you insist on becoming a commissioner in my state or a deputy governor, or a local government chairman, when you try to govern me in my own land as Nnamdi Azikiwe once tried to do, all because I was generous to let you become in my land what you couldn’t become in your land, simply because you believe you have the numbers, I will tell you that is greed and unnatural irrespective of the backing of the law you may think you have.
“Think, for example, about an Igbo becoming the chairman of Lagos Island Local Government and arrogating to himself the right under the laws of Nigeria and of Lagos State to issue instructions to the Oba of Lagos about how the Kabiyesi should conduct himself and govern his people. What will this breed?
That is what has been happening in countries from where the Igbos are being sent back home. It happened once in the North as Ahmadu Bello said in 1952. And seriously speaking, I believe this is why the North rejected Atiku Abubakar. The Igbos should reflect on this...Why does everyone tend to (hate) us?”
“The Igbos should be wary of Jimi Agbaje and Afenifere. They are politicians who are looking for ethnic heads to break coconuts on. The Igbos are hardworking and resourceful and should try to overcome ethnic politics as the Yorubas have done. They should learn from immigrants from other lands worldwide. The Indians do not trouble their hosts or try to take over their lands. They make their money quietly and take it back home to develop their own land. That is why India has been able to lift herself from poverty. In contrast, the Igbos do not develop their own lands. All they do is largely to make money from abroad through whichever or whatever means and buy up property which other people have built and then claim they own the land without remembering that they can never hold aboriginal rights to the land in their hands whenever the chips come down.
“Meanwhile, their land back home is languid, crying and shouting for investment and development and they begin to talk about marginalisation. Did they not flower and fruit under Obasanjo and Jonathan’s administrations? What happened to Igboland in those 16 years that they were not marginalised? What happened to Yorubaland in those 16 years that the Yorubas were marginalised and that Yorubaland still continued to be a honey pot for the Igbo? I would go any day with Chief Emeka Anyaoku who looks at the world with universal spectacles. Succeeding Lagos governments have beautifully held the ethnic balance in Lagos and prevented ethnic disturbances. Igbos should stop saying they own Lagos or that they built Lagos or that Lagos is a “no man’s land”. Only a bastard Yorubaman will not feel affronted by such statements. And in spiritual terms, the man or woman who cannot defend his land is not fit to live. Wasn’t this the failure of the sons of the Incas?
“It is good news that the leaders of the Igbos and other nationalities in Nigeria have met with the traditional leaders of the Yorubas in Okota and Oshodi areas to avert a backlash in respect of the 23 February’s events. As I said earlier, Agbaje and Afenifere are outside the mainstream of Yoruba politics. They are trying to take control of it. And they have the right to so aspire, being Yorubas. What is objectionable to the mainstream Yoruba is their attempt to knock the heads of the Igbo against the head of the mainstream Yorubas.
“They remind the Yorubas of a similar affront by Afonja, the Yoruba army commander in Ilorin who was sent there by the Alaafin of Oyo to stop jihadist expansion. Afonja betrayed the Alaafin and invited the jihadists to defend his betrayal. They did and Afonja triumphed momentarily only to be killed afterwards by the jihadists who took over the land. The perception in Yorubaland today is that the Igbos, in Lagos especially, are the modern jihadists and that Agbaje and Afenifere are the modern Afonjas. This is the underlying perception, which, in my opinion, triggered the surface reaction in Okota on 23 February. The Yorubas remain an accommodating people. But they never fail to rise in their defence when they have to, as they did in the 1950s in respect of Azikiwe’s blatant attempt to usurp their land and as they also did at Ore during the civil war.”
As an educated, proud “Yoruba” man and ethnic chauvinist, I hope am only speaking my jaundiced mind.
This is not a call to arms, but interventions like the one above signal the crisis confronting us as a people and the great danger we face trying to gloss over it.
So, how do we deal with the “Igbo Question” in Nigeria? Perhaps, there is no “Igbo Question.” What we have is a “National/Nigeria Question” that is real and smouldering. It is time we took on this hydra-headed problem before it consumes us all.
Was there ever a country?
* Chido Onumah is a Nigerian/Canadian journalist, author, blogger and rights activist.