By Uche Okoronkwo
The narrative that the Igbo and Yoruba had never worked together politically is false and could harm the efforts at nation-building, especially being peddled at the time of the 2023 general election. Such tales take little account that among the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria, the Yoruba and Igbo are the only two groups that have never directly engaged in military or ethnoreligious conflict, either during the pre-colonial or post-colonial era.
It is important to mention that of all the foremost nationalists, Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo, inherited the NCNC’s vision of a nationalist, independence struggle from a Yoruba, Herbert Macaulay and pursued that vision to its logical conclusion on October 1, 1960. And in the process, conceded to a northerner, in the person of Tafawa Balewa, the office of the Prime Minister ahead of himself, to assure that part of the country of the viability and inclusivity of the independence project.
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Besides that, Azikiwe’s NCNC on several occasions extended the hand of fellowship to Obafemi Awolowo of the Action Group before and the during the turmoil of the Western Region crises and the ‘Operation Wetie’ that ensued. That solidarity was a major buffer against the Ladoke Akintola-led NNDP/NPC persecution of the Awoists in the Western Region, the NCNC/UPGA alliance of the Eastern Region of Michael Okpara, the Premier of Eastern Region, gave Awolowo all the support he needed.
On one occasion, when the NNDP threatened to use thugs to disrupt Okpara’s solidarity visit to his brother, Awolowo in Ibadan on June 3, 1964, he remained undeterred. He did visit Ibadan, where he encouraged Awolowo, his wife HID, and his supporters amidst their travails. His famous handshake with Awolowo and the political chants by the Awoists and Zikists are eternal symbols of Nigerian political history.
Okpara later declared to the crowd, “for more than a decade, the imperialists, the reactionaries and the neo-colonialists ‘had succeeded in driving a knotty wedge between the NCNC and the Action Group.
“Both the NCNC and the Action Group have fought on different planes to achieve our national independence, we must now come together to build a prosperous nation where oppression would be unknown.”
When he travelled back to the East, he said, “In the end, I did go to the West and was very well received by the people of western Nigeria, thanks to the vigilance of the police who foiled all attempts to disrupt the tour and even do us harm.”
When the NNDP/NPC alliance incarcerated Awo following treason charges, Zik insisted he be transferred to the Eastern Region for his safety. He was eventually kept in the Calabar Prison. Indeed, when facts about the bloody coup of 1966 emerged, which was allegedly done by young military officers, mainly of Igbo extraction, it was found that they had a stated objective to make Awolowo Prime Minister because of their belief in his leadership qualities.
Fast-forward to M.K.O. Abiola’s election victory and its nullification in 1993. Many Igbo sons and daughters fought for Abiola and paid the price in the struggle. Apart from hundreds of souls who were killed in the crossfire of the pro-democratic agitation and road crashes, Igbo sons like Ebitu Ukiwe, Ndubuisi Kanu, Arthur Nwankwo, Olisa Agbakoba Chima Ubani, Emma Ezeazu, to name but a few, were harassed either with detention or other forms of abuses by the military during the crisis.
When democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999, it is on record that two Igbo sons conceded their seats for the greater national interest of producing a president from the western part of Nigeria. Dr Alex Ekwueme, who led the G-34 that transformed to the PDP, and Dr Ogbonnaya, who won the nomination of the All People’s Party (APP) as the presidential candidate. The former produced Olusegun Obasanjo as the PDP candidate, who the Igbo voted for to eventually become the president, while the latter produced Olu Falae as the APP/AD candidate.
It is the truth that Awolowo’s perceived role in the Nigeria-Biafra war caused serious disaffection among the Igbo due the impoverishment and mass deaths suffered by Igbos, the entire picture of the Igbo-Yoruba political relationship has not been all gloom and doom.
It is in this light that the principled action of the foremost pan-Yoruba organization, the Afenifere in galvanizing other socio-cultural organisations in Nigeria to insist that the South East be allowed to produce the president of Nigeria in the 2023 general elections is salutary and healing. It puts a lie to any perceived Igbo-Yoruba animosity and imbues the hope that indeed, Nigeria is salvageable.
Okoronkwo writes from Abuja