Peter Obi and the Civil War Syndrome 

By Akin Osuntokun 

“Nigerians will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo.” – Chinua Achebe.

Another characterisation of what the great scholar, Chinua Achebe, is saying above is what I call the ‘civil war syndrome’ in which the rest of Nigeria banded together to engage in hostilities against the Igbo from 1967 to 1970. Delving deeper, Anthony Kirk Green observed “The tragedy of 1967 is that many of its seeds were not, as is often claimed, sown in October or even July 1966, but in the 1950s or, as some see it, in 1914 or maybe in 1900 itself.”. Inferring from Achebe, S.K Panterbrick noted that “The Ibo seemed to be unaware of the degree of hostility which they inspired in others. Tactlessness in high places was paralleled by insensitivity among the masses”.

Given the Northern minority identity politics of the United Middle Belt Congress, UMBC, it is difficult to estimate the degree of intra Northern regional integration prior to the chain of reactions unleashed by the January 15th 1966 coup. Such uncertainty was dashed by the precipitous ethno-regional lopsidedness of the execution of the coup (of the executors on one hand and the casualties on another). It was certainly not the intention of the coup makers, but the January 1966 coup fostered a renewed sense of Northern regional political unity. They exercised no distinction between Northern Moslem and Northern Christian in the choice of their victims. John Walsh Pam, Abogo Lagerma, Zakariah Maimalari and Kur Mohammed were united by their fate at the hands of the coup leaders.

Harold Smith offered a controversial perspective that “There is little evidence of Igbo responsibility and none of Dr Zik’s. Each assertion of Ibo involvement can be countered by a counter-argument. For example, the young Majors were largely Ibo? Yes, but the many more NCOs and ordinary soldiers were Northerners. Given the scenario of 15 January and hindsight of a civil war that cost up to one million lives, I regret that Zik and the Eastern Region Prime Minister were not assassinated. Had they been killed, a million other lives might not have been lost, for the plot was perceived as an Igbo conspiracy”. 

Ruth First elaborated “The bulk of the riflemen in the Army-some say as many as 75 percent-were Northerners, but mostly from the Middle Belt. There was also heavy enlistment from among men from Bornu, and from Niger and Chad, who crossed the border into Nigeria so as to join the Army”. With this configuration, no further explanation was needed for the upper hand of the North in the ensuing balance of terror power politics, which was put to devastating effect in the counter coup of July 1966.

The Western region input in the civil war syndrome centred on the role of Chief Obafemi Awolowo upon his release from the Calabar prison. The January 1966 coup amounted to a vindication of sorts for him. The vindication consisted of the resumption of his political career at a higher level including a Yoruba political martyrdom. There was also the credible speculation of the desire of the coupists to appoint him the Prime Minister of Nigeria. For authentication, read Emeka Ojukwu “dont forget that the political purpose of the coup, the Ifeajuna coup that began all this, was to hand power over to Awo”.

It is an irony of fate that the Northern/Western regional power politics alliance that orchestrated the incarceration of Awolowo, was largely the same political constituency he found himself in warm political embrace after his release from prison. His proxy political party, the Igbo personified United Political Grand Alliance, UPGA, had reemerged to become his civil war foe. The open secret is that more than any personal desire, Awolowo wanted to be the President of Nigeria. With this desire in view, it makes practical sense for him to make the best of the circumstances and seek political rapport with the Northern political power brokers. 

The philosophy of the civil war, (as encapsulated in a Northern-writ-large Nigeria nationalist ideology) was that might is right. That, henceforth, any Nigerian who wishes to become Nigerian President must do so on the terms of the conquerors. It is an ideology that has been long in coming. “In the early 1950s the North tried to retard progess towards independence. But when it became evident that the demands of the Southern politicians could no longer be contained the Northerners joined them, intending not to be co-equal partners in the Federation but to be dominant over them”. 

Staying true to the reputation of being ‘clever, sensible and moral whom the British had cause to fear would upset the Northern bandwagon’ it was an ideology Awolowo did not buy into. He was given an opportunity to prove himself to the contrary in his appointment as the Chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University, ABU. He did not. To begin with, Awolowo was not likely to fancy himself as a functionary of an institution named after the personification of Northern hegemony and a bitter rival. 

He had to draw a line in the sand of the extent he would go in seeking the kingmaker favour of the North. 

He ended up calling their buff by floating an exclusive Southern Presidential ticket in the general elections of 1979. There was an element of political blindness in taking recourse to this flight of fancy. First, it was a non-starter in the numbers game. Were he to surmount the implausibility of securing all the votes of Southern Nigeria, he will still fall short of winning the majority votes. Second, if he was a hard sell to the Igbo before the civil war, he was much more so after the tragedy. 

Against the background of the role he played in the civil war, the war had deepened the political schism between the South West and the South East. Given the conspicuous role, Awolowo readily became a convenient scapegoat for the Biafran tragedy. Waiting in the wings to cash in on this resurgent bad blood was their mutual foe which has a vested interest in the near perennial Yoruba/Igbo estrangement.

Truth is said to be the first casualty of war, (because war is a continuation of politics by other means). Accordingly, what Awolowo supposedly pledged to Ojukwu concerning the position of the Yoruba on the civil war has remained contentious. Not given to political controversy, I was taken aback to find the reputable international technocrat, Ngozi Okonjo Iweala in the ranks of Igbo vs Yoruba propaganda warriors. She authoritatively asserted “The Igbos had made the secessionist move with the promise from Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the Southwest that the Yoruba would follow suit. Awolowo, however, failed to honour his pledge” 

With a total lack of restraint, Chinua Achebe hammered “It is my impression that Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself and for his Yoruba people. In the Biafran case, it meant hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation – eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generations.”. In demonstrable capacity for Awolowo vilification and demonisation, Ojukwu did not follow suit. His attribution of what Awolowo said was “that if the Igbos were forced out by Nigeria that he would take the Yorubas out also. I don’t know what anybody makes of that statement”. 

This recurring theme of Awolowo/Yoruba betrayal was not consistent with what Awolowo said. Neither was it in sync with the subsequent disposition of one who had just betrayed the Igbo (reference his 1979 Presidential ticket). At the occasion of the celebrated Awolowo-Ojukwu summit of May 1967 in Enugu, he was on record not urging the Biafran leader to war but counselling Ojukwu against secession. “I think it is generally agreed that some units have done more for the unity of Nigeria than others. The East certainly have not yielded first place to anyone in that regard. I would like you to consider that aspect very seriously”.

Predictably, Awolowo (the Yoruba/Igbo Presidential ticket) lost the 1979 Presidential election which effectively marked the end of his Presidential ambition. “Why, wondered S.K Panterbrick, have the Ibo and Yoruba been so unsuccessful in combining against the fulani, allowing the latter to play one off against the other”?. 

At the Northern end, there ensued an escalating deterioration in the social and political relationship between the dominant conservative wing of the Northern political establishment and the subordinate Christian minority, aka, the Middle Belt. Just like the January 1966 coup fed the “one North’ ideology, nothing has categorically unravelled this myth than the contemporary genocidal assault of a fulani militia against the Middle Belt community.This dramatic reversal is best illustrated in the political/military career of General Theophilus Danjuma (from been a leader of the 1966 counter coup to finding himself and his people on the run from the Nigerian army in 2022). 

Addressing himself to the Taraba people some years back, Danjuma lamented, “You must rise to protect yourselves from these people; if you depend on the armed forces to protect you, you will all die…,” Just like he was a ringleader of the Northern army mutiny of 1966, so has he become the defacto godfather of a recrudescent Middle Belt resistance politics. In a major breach of the civil war syndrome, Danjuma was the chief facilitator of Peter Obi’s triumphalist incursion into the middle belt in the 2023 elections. 

Were Peter Obi to have gotten the full measure of his votes in Lagos state alone, he would have won the majority votes in the South West and go on to win the entire South. The singular lesson of the 2023 elections was that it was one thing to win the elections, it was entirely another to be so declared by the INEC. Peradventure, were Obi to have found himself sworn in as President in May, last year, I’m not so sure whether he would have surmounted the civil war syndrome. My speculation is that the National Assembly (consisting of the same members as we have today) would have paralysed his government with implacable hostility which will quickly snowball into a credible impeachment threat.The best bargain, he would likely get, would be an invitation by the Muhammadu Buhari led North to commit himself in letter and spirit to become a proxy President.

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