BY GODWIN NZEAKAH
What a cursory look into history has revealed and which many people probably failed to appreciate is that Chief Awolowo’s ambition to be Minister of Finance or even President of Nigeria did not start with the war. As far back as 1959 when British intrigues aborted a potential NCNC/AG coalition, Chief Awolowo had nursed the ambition to be a Federal Minister of Finance, under Azikiwe.
Thus his appointment eight years later into the federal office was far from a deliberate attempt to ensure anti-Igbo policies, if we must be fair to him.
In fact, his actions and policies as Minister of Finance should be seen as those of a nationalist and faithful functionary who never approached any office or responsibility half-heartedly in order to leave indelible and credit-worthy impact.
Come to think of it, must he hate a people who in the first place had no hand in the Action Group crisis – a people whose son, Azikiwe, as ceremonial President, had to intervene to ensure that instead of Kaduna he served his prison term in any other place of his and not his enemy’s choice in Nigeria, and he chose the Eastern Region, Calabar precisely, where he, Dr. Michael Okpara, Alhaji Dauda Adegbenro et al held regular meetings in a serene environment leading to the birth of UPGA and a whole novel blueprint that would have enthroned Chief Mrs. H.I.D Awolowo as Nigeria’s first female Prime Minister.
The idea, as Chief Awolowo himself was to explain many years later, was for “my wife, in that capacity to release me from prison and eventually resign from the office in favour of Zik”. That was in 1964. The plan certainly would have worked out perfectly if you recall that the A.G and the NCNC combined had comfortably won majority of seats during the 1959 general election, and would therefore have repeated the same feat in 1964 but for the frustrating antics of their opponents as well as the rash boycott of the exercise by the East. Not even Chief Akintola’s “stay out” order could stop Okpara and UPGA’s formidable campaign machine from a tour of the West.
In fact, beyond the NCNC/AG abortive alliance of 1959 as well as a subsequent UPGA rapport, evidence abound that Chief Awolowo was a highly misunderstood friend of Ndigbo. Did you know that his first family doctor in the 1950’s was Dr. Okechukwu Ikejiani, an Igbo? If the man hated Ndigbo would he have entrusted the healthcare of his family in the hands of an Igbo physician? Did you know that Awo once decided to delay the launch of the Action Group in order to work with Zik, a decision that resulted in their first meeting in Zik’s house?
Because Dr. Ikejiani captured the event vividly in his autobiography, The Unrepentant Nationalist, let me quote him in extenso: “In order to form a united front against imperialism and secure freedom for Nigera from Britain… a meeting of all the groups and nationalist movements was summoned at Glover Memorial Hall in Lagos… in attendance were Sir Adeyemo Alakiji, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief H.O Davies, Chief Obafemi Awolowo… Zik, H.O. Davies, Chief Awolowo and others addressed the meeting.
Awolowo and I did not stay till the end of the meeting as we had to return to Ibadan that day… As I and Chief Awolowo drove towards Ibadan from Lagos, Chief Awolowo told me that he was impressed with Zik’s address and would like to work with him. I was elated and told him that it would be in the best interest of the country… He informed me that he was planning to launch a party to be named Action Group but in view of what he had witnessed that day at the meeting, he would delay the formation of the Action Group and work with Zik. He asked me to arrange for him and Zik to meet. “On the appointed day I and Chief Awolowo travelled to Lagos in my car. I left him and Zik and visited my friends and came back later to pick up Awolowo… he described the meeting as friendly, cordial and useful…They both felt that there must be unity in their fight for independence”.
Unfortunately, however, Awo and Zik couldn’t meet again, let alone work together as they had agreed to. Why? Ikejiani explains: “A few days after Chief Awolowo and I returned from our visit to Zik, an article appeared in the West African Pilot… written by Mazi Mbonu Ojike, virulently criticizing Chief Awolowo … and charged that it was wrong for Chief Awolwo to write in his book Path To Nigerian Freedom that Nigeria was not a nation, but a collection of many ethnic nationalities.
The whole column was devoted to a harsh critical appraisal of The Path to Nigerian Freedom which castigated the book as the work of an ethnic nationalist and an imperialist stooge.” It was later confirmed that Zik, as the Editor-in-Chief of Pilot, did not know about Ojike’s article before publication and reprimanded him severely when it was eventually brought to his attention.
In my view, however, Zik was partly to blame concerning Ojike’s unwarranted attack on Awo because he hoarded information regarding their cordial meeting and the agreement to work together. The damage had been done, and every attempt to explain Zik’s innocence proved abortive. Thus on October 15, 1951 Tribune retaliated with a megaton bombshell published on its front page, directed at Zik, Ikejiani at al and entitled “fraudulent saints of Africa”.
Thenceforth a battle line was drawn between two foremost Nigerian nationalists of southern origins, and up till today the ripple effect is yet to disappear. The current press war as it were is one too many. The feud of the fifties clearly affected their interests during the constitutional confabs of 1954 and 1957, in which the North got all its demands while the minorities lost the battle for more states and the Western Region lost Lagos, as well as a demand for a crucial boundary adjustment that would have returned the 14 or so Yoruba speaking local government areas in today’s Kogi and Kwara States to the Southwest. Once again Nigeria is on the threshold of history. Therefore, the current recriminations, to my mind, represent a luxury we cannot afford. If there are statesmen in the two geopolitical zones, now is the time for them to stand up and be counted.
They should impress upon the feuding camps the need for restraint. They should shun emotionalism and rashness because tomorrow is yet unknown. Nigeria in its present form is still redolent of uncertainties for progressive forces who must always wear their thinking caps. Being largely an avoidable tragedy of monumental proportion, the war was clearly a provocative imposition on the East. It could happen to any other federal unit tomorrow.
What this dictates is that in their post-war relations, the East and West ought to exhibit wisdom and maturity, because having regrettably returned to square one, Nigeria can hardly be said to be out of the woods, especially so when it still exhibits, even in astounding proportions, all the evils that caused the 1967 – 1970 holocaust. Concluded. Nzeakoh writes from Lagos.