THE EAST-WEST DICHOTOMY
BY AKIN OSUNTOKUN
I have never had the impression that the Yoruba are particularly keen in securing the occupation of the Nigerian Presidency – certainly not at the expense of returning Nigeria to the practice, in letter and spirit, of federalism-(as the Yoruba faction of the All Progressives Congress, APC, implicitly proposes). This indifference was further bolstered by the indisposition of President Olusegun Obasanjo towards viewing his incumbency as an obligation to give preferential treatment to his ethnic kith and kin. Other than serving a vicarious compensation for the annulment of 1993 presidential election won by Chief Moshood Abiola, I doubt the Obasanjo Presidency meant little else to the South-west region. The relative irrelevance of the Vice Presidency of Yemi Osinbajo, more or less, reinforces the Obasanjo precedence.
Against the immediate backdrop of Nigeria’s dysfunctional political syndrome- exemplified by the disastrous outing of the Muhammadu Buhari Presidency, the desire and demand for the restoration of Nigerian federalism now borders on an article of faith for the South-west zone. Extrapolating from this background, I projected that the choice of a running mate from the South-east by the presidential candidate of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, would not elicit a sense of deprivation from the South-west political elite. Although it was temporary, I was nonetheless taken aback at the sense of disappointment I got in random inquiries from Yoruba political leaders when the announcement was made.
In addition to the attribute that the South-west seldom looks upon the federal government with covetousness is the question of equity and fairness. Love your neighbor as you love yourself; do unto others as you wish done unto you, admonishes the scriptures. Given the combined 12 years tenure of Obasanjo and Osinbajo in the Nigerian Presidency (and virtual absence of same for its Southern rival in the fourth republic) is it really morally defensible to see this moment as another antagonistic instance of the South-west ‘gain’ corresponding to a loss for the South-west? Didn’t President Obasanjo interpret the Nnamdi Kanu secessionist gambit as tantamount to seeking better accommodation within Nigeria? Is this a valid interpretation? And if it is, should we not perceive the Peter Obi choice as a positive development and timely intervention to assuage political alienation and boost the prospects for national integration?
Moments and occasions like this constitute a vital test of our resolve to advance the project of Nigerian nationhood and halt the momentum of a deepening ethno-regional schism and antagonism. How far we can go on the ascending ladder of nationhood will be determined by our ability to forge a golden mean between real politik and aspirational politics. Individually and collectively, we must strive to transcend momentary anxieties and short term concerns to do that which is right and leave the rest to God and providence. It is the recurrence and multiplication of this kind of attitude that will, in time, work together to propel Nigerian politics beyond the regression and morass of the political status-quo.
Yes it takes two to tango and (without any interest whatsoever in playing the blame game), the Yoruba can come up with a thousand and one reasons to view the Igbo as a Cain rather than an Abel; and vice versa. The adversarial relationship has long taken a life of its own and become a vicious cycle to our mutual detriment. Each side holds fast to its self-righteous obduracy even when there is little or no factual basis for such.
In one instance of the Igbo narrative, my father, the late Oduola Osuntokun, was supposed to be one of the elected six National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), parliamentarians who cross carpeted to the Action Group, AG, (to deny the status of majority party to the former) and thereby preclude the Party leader, Nnamdi Azikiwe, from becoming the first Premier of the Western region in 1951. The truth of course is that Osuntokun was elected as an independent candidate from the Ekiti division and not as a member of the NCNC and so did not defect from one Party to another, let alone on the basis of Yoruba parapo. Yet as recent as a year ago, a group of political leaders from the South-east would not let this inconvenient fact stand in the way of the preferred narrative when I stood on the authority of my father’s memoirs-‘My view of the coin’ to correct the mistaken notion. It bears reiteration that the other five parliamentarians (so accused), similarly contested and won elections on the platform of the Ibadan Peoples Party not NCNC.
Unfortunately, it is this troubled and muddled relationship that the South West faction of the APC has elected to exploit. Their response to the choice of Obi as potential Vice President of Nigeria was a doubling down on crass Yoruba irredentism-to the effect that the Yoruba/Buhari proprietors of Nigeria would reward the South-west with the Nigerian Presidency in 2023-thereby sentencing other Nigerian stakeholders to the status of spectators. At the vanguard of those deploying this poisonous gambit is a friend I hold in high esteem, triple headed ministerial holder, Babatunde Fashola. How crass and insensitive can our political leaders get? Where we should be pulling together, they have chosen to tear Nigerians apart. This is nothing short of a 21st century exhibition of the scriptural Rehoboam complex-‘My father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will make it even heavier, my father scourged you with whips; I will scourge with scorpions’. In the fullness of this segregationist political culture, is there still any basis for the Igbo and similarly repressed groups to remain in the APC? Pray, how does this emergent political apartheid serve the cause of Nigerian nationhood?
THE CIVIL WAR BACKGROUND
Nothing better illustrates the poverty of the history of Nigeria than the absence of a comprehensive and fairly balanced accounting of the Nigerian civil war. The attitude that has been fostered and taken by many Nigerians ranges from indifference, dismissive ignorance to a general interpretation of the war as a typical rebellion of the bad guys against the good guys wanting to preserve the precious unity of Nigeria. The latter is the dominant narrative and bears out, once again, the universal observation that history is as written by the victors. To the post-civil war generation and a large chunk of the unthinking consumerist Nigerian elite, the civil war is akin to the order of Adam and Eve rebellion in which the rebels were subversive villains and violators of the idyllic setting of the Garden of Eden. In this analogy, it is a given, that all rebels are deemed outcasts, who, haven failed in their insurrection, should duly cultivate guilt conscience and remain eternally apologetic.
If a poll is conducted in Nigeria today, majority of Nigerians (in their fixation on the Igbo as sinners) are likely to express the opinion that Nigeria has been generous and magnanimous to the former Biafrans. Like many things Nigeria where cacophonous obsession with superficial understanding has become second nature, it is a herculean task trying to wean people away from this received wisdom. Let me just say, with my arm across my chest that in so far as it is amenable to logic, the underlying premise of the civil war was nothing nobler than the survival of the fittest within the context of balance of terror. The outcome was not a vindication of any ennobling virtue or the triumph of good over evil.
Nonetheless, I have sympathy, not exculpation for the Biafrans. At the minimum, they were vicariously responsible for setting in motion the chain of events that culminated and stampeded them into a secessionist recourse for which they were ill prepared. There is, however, the extenuation that, in 1966, all the three regions were, for different reasons, in a secessionist frame of mind as clearly attested in their separatist posturing and vocabulary. Were the Western region not lacking in sufficient boots on the ground capacity, it is doubtful the region would not have seized the opportunity and follow suit on a confederacy proposal as its inflexible position. On account of this vulnerability, its options were limited to the choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. On the contrary, the Northern region had the freedom and latitude, secured by its superiority in the balance of terror context, to pick and choose what it intended to do with Nigeria. Persuaded not to exercise the secessionist option, the region ultimately chose to remain in Nigeria but on its express terms.
A lot of propaganda capital had been made of standing for the political correctness of keeping Nigeria one as against a disintegration minded Eastern region. This is not an entirely correct rendition. According to the Aburi peace accord, to which all attendees subscribed, the Eastern region also had a vision of one Nigeria but lacks the wherewithal to impose and enforce the choice. We are all mostly wiser for it after the privilege of hindsight-which is why we can now categorically say that the Biafran leader, Odumegwu Ojukwu made a number of cumulative poor choices that precipitated and compounded the civil war tragedy.
First and perhaps most consequential was the precipitate declaration of war that was long on hot airs but defective in real time combat readiness. Second was the rigid posture on the total implementation of the Aburi accord especially when a compromise might have averted war and afforded a constitutional federalism whose only shortcoming was that it fell short of a confederal arrangement. Third, a year into the civil war and dramatically exposed as lacking in fighting fit capacity (resulting in unspeakable human carnage and lacking momentum) a sober and prudent warlord would have contrived a truce-and live to fight another day. In the end he staked all and lost all and bequeathed an outcome that degenerated into a permanent subversion and strangulation of federalism. It is an outcome that has cast a permanent political pall on the South-east and one in which the North/South-west victorious alliance are never far from pulling ranks on their defeated compatriots. To have a sense of what the civil war portends for Nigeria, we need not look beyond the apt title of Alabi Isama’s war memoirs-‘The tragedy of victory’