Before the Nollywood blockbusters and the glitterati, were the situational comedies of the post-Biafran war Nigeria, which unbeknownst to the Millennials and Gen Z, was how their parents, uncles and aunts stayed entertained back in the days. The New Masquerade, one of Nigeria’s longest running sitcoms that aired on Tuesday nights, from 8:30pm – 9:00pm during the 1980s until the mid-1990s was one of such. It was created by the veteran actor and scriptwriter, James Iroha who also played the role of a houseboy called Giringori Akabogu. Though a comedy, it sometimes comes with a melodramatic twist meant to instill morals as well as highlight the relationship between cause and effect.
In one of the episodes, Ovularia (Lizzy Evoeme) insisted on punishing her husband, Chief Zebrudaya Okoroigwe Nwogbo (Chika Okpala) for his infraction but in the process, ended up hurting herself very badly. Zebrudaya in his characteristic way of literally translating Igbo into English language, described his wife’s action as a case of “Oduma-do-bodi” which is to say that in trying to hurt someone, she suffered the unintended consequences of her action. I will come back to that in a bit.
Olayinka Herbert Heelas Macaulay, the grandson of Samuel Ajayi Crowther, was born in Lagos on November 14, 1864. Lagos, a colony of the British at the time was a segregated town where Europeans occupied the best neighbourhoods and native Africans stayed elsewhere. The young Herbert hated the colonial authorities and made no pretense of his contempt for the oppressive system they championed. But it was not until 1893, however, that his political activism took off like a rocket ship, having returned from Plymouth, England where he had gone to study Civil Engineering. He wrote series of scathing essays, critical of Her Majesty’s government in his Lagos Daily Times weekly column and organised protests against the colonial plans for land reforms among others.
When in 1922, a new Nigerian constitution was introduced providing for limited elections in Lagos and Calabar, he quickly seized on the opportunity, organised and formed the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) a year later. Between 1923-1938, Macaulay’s NNDP won all the elective seats in the Nigerian legislature but his dominance was cut short when the Nigerian Youth Movement won elections for the Lagos City Council against his party.
Macaulay, who up until then had concentrated his politics in Lagos, decided to adopt a more nationalistic approach and saw a kindred spirit in Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. They joined forces to form the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC)in 1944 with Macaulay becoming the first president, while Azikiwe was its first secretary. It was the collaborative effort of these two forward-looking men together with the sacrifices of many others that in large part set the stage for dismantling colonial rule in Nigeria. Of course, doomsday prophets would rather have you believe that any prospect of an alliance between a Yoruba and an Igbo under any guise is well-nigh impossible. How did we end up here? It turns out that the dominant narrative which gets handed down from one generation to another, plays a very crucial role in the evolution of relationships between people and groups.
Growing up in Eastern Nigeria after the Biafran war, we were made to believe that a political alliance between the Yorubas and Igbos is a non-starter, known to be dead on arrival. Why? Well, there is this prevailing narrative that Awolowo betrayed Ojukwu and by extension Ndigbo for not going along with declaring an Oduduwa Republic when Biafra attempted to end her marriage with Nigeria, even when they both had agreed to do so earlier. We were also reminded of the ignoble role Chief Awolowo played as the architect of hunger as a weapon of war that saw to the crippling of the Biafran war effort and the death of millions of Ndigbo. Not that the story is totally untrue, but as painful as it was, dredging it up every single time as a reason why Igbo-Yoruba alliance shouldn’t see the light of the day is as short-sighted as it is retrogressive. Oduma-do-bodi!
You need to explain to me that at the time, Awo convened a meeting of all Yorubas following which the people voted overwhelmingly to target and punish Ndigbo. Other than that, someone need to find a better reason to convince us why the sin of one man should be visited on an entire tribe. Accepting that skewed logic means that every other good deed by a Yoruba man shouldn’t count since it’s already eclipsed by the supposed misdeeds of one of their own, more than 50 years ago. Toxic? Of course, but this is not just an Igbo problem. It is about Nigeria and our often-misguided anger as a people.
Those who adopt and are willing to propagate the broad-brush strategy are perpetually guilty of telling a single story (apologies to Chimamanda). While we were inundated with the tales of Awo’s infraction, somebody conveniently forgot to mention that whereas Igbos suffered the abandoned properties saga in the hands of their kit and kin in Port-Harcort, Lagos was magnanimous enough to hand back to Ndigbo whatever belonged to them prior to the war. Yorubas could have chosen to act otherwise. In fact, legend had it that Otunba Subomi Balogun was among the first set of Nigerians to get a banking licence, in part because of former Vice President Alex Ekwueme.
There are more reasons than one, why this much desired marriage between the two tribal groups hasn’t been consummated since the days of Awolowo and Azikiwe. From unscrupulous politicians and special interests who plant differences where there is none for parochial gains to the likes of Adeyinka Grandson, the leader of the so-called Young Yoruba for Freedom, who once gave Ndigbo 48 hours quit notice to leave Lagos or face dire consequences. The leader of IPOB has also not spared the Yorubas in his caustic rhetoric, though he seemed to have toned it down recently, even prior to his arrest. There is also a section of the Yorubas that are perennially suspicious of Igbos. They see the people as unworthy of trust and with territorial expansionist agenda. Of course, the brashness and noisy ebullience of some Igbos could be pretty exasperating and sometimes come across as totally disrespectful of their host communities.
Ndigbo bemoan the uncharitable role the late Ken Saro-Wiwa and few other South-south leaders played, fighting alongside Nigeria forces during the Nigerian-Biafran war, even when one of their own, General Phillip Effiong was Ojukwu’s second in command. Niger Deltans on the other hand will not stop railing against Ojukwu and how he was instrumental to the arrest, subsequent trial of Isaac Adaka Boro, the hero of their struggle for freedom, when he declared the ill-fated Niger Delta Republic on February 23rd, 1966. As the bickering continues and the people see no reason to go beyond a challenging past, both groups continue to suffer the same fate in the hands of the northern oligarchs.
The relationships between tribal groups that make up a nation or even interactions between nations have always been complicated at best and is determined to a large extent on alignment of interests. They don’t materialise as an emotive response to do good or evil. This means that there may be a situation where Igbos may favour joining forces with the Hausa-Fulani power structure but at a different time, gravitate towards the Yorubas, as was the case between Azikiwe and Macaulay in the run up to Nigeria’s independence. To the extent that interests align, that’s how alliances get built each time and the group mutual interests advanced. With the passage of time comes re-alignment of interests. New alliances get built and old ones may wither away. Awolowo’s Action Group (AG) was never philosophically aligned with Sarduana’s Northern People’s Congress (NPC) and the man hated the feudal north but when an opportunity presented itself to give Yorubas a head start over the rest of the country, he grabbed it with both hands and became General Gowon’s Finance Minister. What became the unfortunate lot of Ndigbo under his direction was consequent upon a Machiavellian political plot to secure his Yoruba tribe a competitive economic advantage.
To change our situation demands that we radically change your mindset. If an Igbo man sees a Yoruba man as an enemy rather than a competitor, he may have inadvertently closed the door for any form of collaboration, present or future. If a Yoruba man sees a Niger Deltan as a competitor rather than an adversary, it means that he has made room for both parties to work for a common goal or is open to pursue mutual interest, no matter how far apart their positions are or how unsavory their past relationship was.
By building the bridge of unity across its constituent parts, Southern Nigeria would be making a bold statement that though there are unique differences between us, we acknowledge that what holds us together is far stronger than that which separates us and that our fate is intricately woven.
While receiving the Lagos State president of Ohanaeze Ndigbo who paid a courtesy visit to his Ile-Oodua palace, Ile-Ife in April 2019, the Ooni of Ife, Enitan Ogunwusi Ojaja 11, reiterated his position that ties of consanguinity exist between Igbos and Yorubas, insisting they are members of the same family. Even those who are not fully convinced of the fraternal ties as stated by the royal father, will not fail to notice that the two tribes share a whole lot in common, certainly more than any of them does with the north. The World view in terms of education, social outlook and the place of religion in politics is strikingly but unsurprisingly similar. Both Yoruba and Igbo languages share the Kwa-group Niger-Congo origin. Lately, inter-marriages between the two groups have become so commonplace.
There is no doubt that the Igbos, Yorubas, Niger Deltans working closely together will create the kind of synergy needed to lift Nigeria out of her current economic doldrums, position the regions on the path of sustainable development as well as provide a counterweight to Northern hegemony. Today, we applaud the governors for leading this charge. It’s better late than never.
•Dr. Agbo, a public affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]