… Warns of an impending danger
By Nehru Odeh
Nnamdi Azikiwe was a politician who had a global perspective about life. He had his eyes so focused on the skies that he didn’t know what was going on on the ground or around him. So, rather than settling down for micro-politics he went for macro-politics. Rather than narrowing himself to his primordial roots, he opted for a nation where different ethnic groups could coexist. And rather than consigning himself to national politics, he opted for African unity.
No wonder he was called Zik of Africa. If he had made a different move, he could have changed not just the political dynamics and equation in Nigeria, but also its history. And we are still feeling the ripple effects of the choices he made till this day.
But Azikiwe shot himself in the foot and shortchanged not only himself, but the rest of his party members in the National Council of Nigerian Citizens, NCNC and the peoples of the south in the days leading to Nigeria’s independence in 1960 when he opted to align with the Northern Peoples Congress, NPC, rather than with the Action Group, AG, because he thought the Yoruba were too educated and would compete with the Igbo when it came to getting jobs and contracts.
Odia Ofeimun, Nigerian writer, poet, scholar, public intellectual and polemicist made these claims recently in an exclusive interview with TheNEWS as part of activities lined up to celebrate his 70th birthday, when he was celebrated by friends, family and scholars from across the globe.
According to Ofeimun, when the NCNC and the NPC reached an agreement to make Azikiwe Governor-General without executive powers he didn’t know he was being hoodwinked to accept just a ceremonial position. And before he realized he had made a mistake it was too late.
“The Governor- General thing was an annoying thing for the great Zik of Africa. No. It wasn’t what many people expected. But worse than that was that they had to find a way of explaining it away. He did not want to form an alliance with the Action Group because Awolowo deceived him once. That was not part of the reason. The other one was that he wanted a united country and therefore he needed an arrangement that would make it possible for the north to feel part of it. That is also not part of it,” Ofeimun said.
By the time Azikiwe realized he had made a mistake and wanted to make a U-turn, the British placed a Forster-Sutton sword of Damocles over his head if he refused to play according to the rules. This according to the highly respected writer who was once private secretary to Chief Obafemi Awolowo was when Nigeria started sowing the seeds of its own destruction that led to the civil war. This was also what was about to lead to what could have been the first coup in Nigeria had Chukwuma Nzeogwu and the majors not struck on 15 January 1966.
“But you see that coup was anticipated by the January 15 boys. They got to know that the coup was going to take place. So they moved their own coup back to 15th to preempt the January 17th coup that could have been Ahmadu Bello’s coup. You can say that many of the ill-fitting things that happened in the January 15th coup began with that moving back to preempt the 17th. Because, obviously, so many things could not be fitted together properly. Any time you are discussing Nigeria, it is always good to remember those little things that stood in the way. The truth is that by the time January 15 happened, all the political parties were actually preparing for war. As we are in 2020.”
Ofeimun then concluded by comparing the situation then to what is going in the country and the similarities. He then had a word of caution for Nigerians:
“Today, many people are pretending, but everybody knows that there is a war in the offing. And that unless care is taken, it will happen. That was the way it was in January 1966 before the coup took place,” Ofeimun warned.
“Once the NCNC and the NPC reached that agreement in 1958 to make Nnamdi Azikiwe a Governor-General without executive powers, that was it. Zik did not quite know that he didn’t have as much powers as he later discovered. Although he was a very well educated man, he was a thoroughly illiterate man politically. He was so easily outsmarted by the British and by Northern politicians. And sometimes you sit down and ask yourself: How did he manage it? It is true that in 1959 the British were hanging a Foster-Sutton sword of Damocles over Azikiwe’s head. If he refused to play according to their rules, they would send him to jail.
“According to the Foster-Sutton probe. Zik was prepared to play according to the British rule so that by the time the results of the election were announced, Zik would have been Prime Minister. But by 1958 he had already sold off his prime ministership, sold it off in my view to accept a pure pig in a poke.
“The Governor- General thing was an annoying thing for the great Zik of Africa. No. It wasn’t what many people expected. But worse than that was that they had to find a way of explaining it away. He did not want to form an alliance with the Action Group because Awolowo deceived him once. That was not part of the reason. The other one was that he wanted a united country and therefore he needed an arrangement that would make it possible for the north to feel part of it. That is also not part of it.
“Azikiwe was already in coalition with the Northern Elements Progressive Union, NEPU, Aminu Kano’ party. Awolowo said ‘I am prepared to serve under you as a Minister of Finance.’ The United Middle Belt Congress. UMBC, wanted to join that coalition. The minorities of the East were in coalition with Awolowo. The Bornu Youth Movement was well disposed towards this coalition. So properly speaking, virtually all parts of the country would have been represented by the coalition that was proposed.
“But because Zik did not have the – well, I don’t know whether to call it the stamina or courage or whatever, he allowed it to flag. And he accepted an arrangement which said, “Look the Yoruba are too educated, they are as educated as you Igbo people. You will be fighting so much for jobs and contracts. That is not a good coalition for you. The position that Zik then accepted was the one that said since the north does not have any educated people to take over most of the jobs that the oyibo man will be leaving, the East can hold most of those jobs. And life would go on extremely well.
“Azikiwe actually believed that that was a genuinely good position but it was a good position that required the knocking aside of the Action Group. So that the idea of the Action Group/NCNC coalition wasn’t there for him. But it was there for majority of the Igbo stalwarts in the NCNC. They wanted a coalition with the Action Group and those other people against the NPC. But their leader was a very well respected leader. They followed their leader. And so what did they get? They got all the strategic jobs in the federal public service, whether it was education, railways, Port Authority, just name it. They took over the jobs,
“In my response to Chinua Achebe’s There was a Country, I say that was what made it possible for Chinua Achebe, just fresh from the university, getting a job as Director of External Broadcasting. That was what gave very many of the young people fantastic big jobs like that. But this was what happened after.
“Four years later, in 1964, the NCNC and the Igbo echelon who took most of those jobs discovered that, one, although the Igbo dominated the railway, all the railways extensions were in the north. All the military installations were in the north. Kainji Dam, for electricity, was in the north. Then the iron and steel industry, which an external consortium had said should go somewhere near Onitsha, was also knocked aside because Balewa set up another International consortium which said it should go to the north. It was at that point that an election took place in 1964 and Azikiwe refused to call Balewa to form a government because he said the election had been rigged.
“It was an election in which 86 candidates returned unopposed in the north for the NPC. So that to prove rigging wouldn’t have been difficult. But there was nothing in the Nigerian constitution which said that the President of Nigeria had the powers to refuse to call the Prime Minister to form a government if he believed there was rigging. There was nothing in the constitution that said he could. Because one way or the other, he could take decisions, no question. But Balewa and Azikiwe immediately sought legal opinions from across the Commonwealth and they all told Azikiwe that there was only one man in Nigeria the army could obey. And that was the Prime Minister.
“But in our kind of parliamentary system, the army could not respond to the crown. It is the Prime Minister who commands the army. I am sure the day Zik discovered that thing was the day he realized that when he accepted the job of Governor General he had thrown away something very valuable. That was the day that Zik discovered it. He started the day by making a very big speech in which he refused to call Balewa to form a government. And the speech was published in the West African Pilot of that day. Later in the day, after they had all sort of crash opinions, Azikiwe discovered that the situation was very, very different. First,Balewa sent soldiers to surround the State House, putting him in protective custody. Then somebody leaked the information that only two medical opinions were required to prove that Zik was not in the right frame of mind to take a decision. Actually Billy Dudley puts that in a footnote in his book, Instability and Political Order. But it is a powerful footnote.
“Because Zik realized how that could actually happen. To do it was just to get the opinion of two medical doctors and to get two medical doctors in Lagos for that purpose was very easy – he decided to give up opposing the Prime Minister’s reinstatement. And he wrote another speech. If you go to the newspaper library – if it is a good one – you will have Zik’s first speech saying “I won’t call the Prime Minister to form a government (first edition), then you will have another one calling the Prime Minister to form a government” because we need unity and the rest of it. Now, when you take Nigeria’s story from that point on, you would have to agree that by the time Zik was forced to change his mind, a coup had taken place. A coup is a change of government that does not follow the rules. And so, properly speaking, that was the first coup in Nigeria’s history.
“Since that had happened, Zik was looking for a place to spend a holiday. Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti was the one who gave him an holiday cruise. But by this time it was clear all hell had broken loose in Nigeria. Because, you see, every political party was training people either to stop others from harming them or in order to harm others.
“The NEPU looked like a very small party, but it was the party that was helping to ferry revolutionaries against the Cameroonian government to Eastern Europe for training. They too were training their own people to resist NPC’s thugs who were called Dan Mahaukata, sons of madmen.
“We were just heading towards war, as if we had no sense. The following year, of course, the Western region election was rigged in the same way, but it exploded. From that moment until 1966, all you had in Nigeria was just a waiting for something to happen. The NPC leader, Ahmadu Bello had planned his own coup in order to deal with all these characters in Shagamu who were causing troubles for his people.
The night before the January 15th coup, Akintola, who was generally carrying a machine gun around for the purpose, went to visit Ahmadu Bello. That night of 15 January, C.B.D. Gomwalk, a Per manent Secretary, who would later become the General Secretary of the Unity Party of Nigeria, had gone to the Premier to say he was travelling for a family purpose in Lagos. And that one being his generous self, just said, ‘But you can travel with the Premier. He is going to Ibadan. So you can fly to Ibadan with him and then go to Lagos from there.’
“As they were entering the plane, Ahmadu Bello told Akintola that his men would be there on the 17th and they would raze every goat and chicken and whatever moved in that place. C.B.D. Gomwalk, when he got to Ibadan, started rushing to go to Ikenne, to plead with Mrs Awolowo to take her people away, that they were coming to destroy Shagamu and its environs. On the way to Ikenne, he put on the car radio and they heard that there was a coup and that Ahmadu Bello had been killed. He said when the radio was telling the story, it was as if he was going mad. How can Ahmadu Bello die?
“But you see that coup was anticipated by the January 15 boys. They got to know that the coup was going to take place. So they moved their own coup back to 15th to preempt the January 17th coup that could have been Ahmadu Bello’s coup. You can say that many of the ill-fitting things that happened in the January 15th coup began with that moving back to preempt the 17th. Because, obviously, so many things could not be fitted together properly. Anytime you are discussing Nigeria, it is always good to remember those little things that stood in the way. The truth is that by the time January 15 happened, all the political parties were actually preparing for war. As we are in 2020.
“Today, many people are pretending, but everybody knows that there is a war in the offing. And that unless care is taken, it will happen. That was the way it was in January 1966 before the coup took place.”
Read Ofeimun’s full interview here: Odia Ofeimun at 70: My Life, Literature and Struggle