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Published On: Sun, Jan 7th, 2018

Afenifere, Ohaneze to raise the stakes at Enugu Unity rally


.           It is the beginning of a new era – Pa. Adebanjo, Uwazurike, Awolowo-Dosunmu, others

By Obinna Ezugwu

It is being promoted as handshake across the Niger. On Thursday, January 11, leaders of the apex Yoruba socio-cultural group, Afenifere and their Igbo counterparts, Ohanaeze Ndigbo will converge in Enugu in what will be a historic meeting aimed at finding common ground between two of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, and many say it is a move that could not have come at a better time.

Relationship between the Igbo and the Yoruba, right from the pre-colonial times, have always been a mixed bag; a tale of love and hate, friendship and perceived betrayals. Overall, it has often been dominated by the negatives. This, Igbo think tank group, Nzuko Umunna says they hope to change by putting together the Thursday event.

In 1951, a dominant narrative had it that an attempt by the late Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe of the NCNC to lead the Yoruba dominated Western Nigeria, having allegedly won an earlier general election, was truncated by the famous carpet crossing in the Western Nigeria House of Assembly. It was said to have been engineered by the late sage, Obafemi Awolowo leader Action Group and later Premier of the Western Region and Zik, the famed leader of Western Nigeria became an opposition overnight.

It is however, a narrative that has been disputed in many quarters, especially within the Yoruba intelligentsia. The idea here, nonetheless, is not to add to the argument, but to point out how and when the event that would largely define the Igbo and Yoruba relationship, and indeed that of the entire Southern Nigeria, happened.

Feeling let down, Zik an Igbo from Eastern Region returned to dismantle Eyo Ita, a minority from the region who was already the leader of government business, and was poised to represent it at the centre. The two scenarios triggered chain of events that not only divided the East and the West, but also pitted the Eastern minorities against the majority Igbo. And ever since, the South had remained a divided house.

In the First Republic, Zik was said to have pitched tent with the North and worked with the then Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa to undermine Awolowo in the West with the creation of the Midwestern region, whilst resisting clamours by both the Eastern and Northern minorities for separate regions.

With the outbreak of Biafra war in 1967, Awolowo joined the Northern led Federal government as Finance Minister against the secessionist Biafra made up of the then Eastern Region and with the defeat of Biafra, the relationship between the East and West never got better.

Interestingly, while these negatives seemed dominant, there was one historic show of courage that is largely ignored. In the counter coup of July 1966 carried out by mostly Northern officers, then Head of State, Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi had visited the governor of Western Region, Col. Adekunle Fajuyi in Ibadan when the coup plotters struck. Although Ironsi was the prime target, Fajuyi was said to have refused to give up his guest and therefore paid with his life. Both men were killed in the encounter.

This i a a courageous act by every standard but one largely dwarfed by the negative narratives. But this, the Thursday event aims to highlight. It would be in honour of Ironsi and Fajuyi, an anniversary of sorts, of their deaths. And for many, it is very timely, if not long over-due.

“It is an attempt to forge unity across the Niger,” said Dr. (Mrs.) Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu, Nigeria’s former Ambassador to Holland and daughter of the late Chief Awolowo.

“It is another attempt to forge unity which is something that had eluded us for a long time. There is always this divisive tendency between the East and the West,” she noted.

But things have improved greatly of late. Both groups have largely found common ground on the need for restructuring which has led to several meetings, including the famed Ibadan Declaration last year. An umbrella body for leaders of the entire Southern Nigeria, the Southern Leaders of Thought (SLT) has been formed. And this has received further boost by the joining of leaders of the Middle Belt to birth what is now known as Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum.

Nigeria is a country on edge. Mass poverty, terrorism, frictions between the North and the South and lately increased attacks by the notorious Fulani herdsmen mostly in the Middle Belt and across the South has led to desperate calls for structural reforms in the form of restructuring. Last week, over 50 people were gruesomely murdered in Benue. On Christmas Eve, similar figures were killed in Southern Kaduna by same suspected herdsmen.

Last year witnessed a bloodbath in Agatu, Benue; Southern Kaduna, parts of Adamawa, Plateau, Uzo Uwani in Enugu and indeed across the South and Middle Belt, leading to loss of hundreds of lives and livelihoods. Communities were sacked and displaced by the herdsmen rated fourth most deadly terrorist group by the United Nations.

But the real anger has been about government inaction. The administration of President Muhammadu Buhari who himself is a Fulani, has been proactive in calling out the military to quell mere protests- hundred of pro-Biafra youths have been killed in the South East by the army, while the massacre of Shites in Kaduna drew national outrage, yet the same army have failed to confront the marauding herdsmen. At the moment, none have been arrested, leading to suspicions of complicity in some quarters.

Calls for reforms have been resisted by Buhari and the Northern political establishment. In his New Year speech, Buhari insisted that there won’t be restructuring as according to him, process and not structure was the country’s problem.

It is an assertion that many have faulted and accused him of arrogating himself the power to decide for others what they want. His opposition to restructuring means it won’t come easy by any means, and for many, it is only unity between the Igbo and the Yoruba that can help rally the entire South and Middle Belt and force the president and the “unyielding conservative North” to concede to reforms.

“Ohanaeze and Afenifere, the two cultural groups and by extension, the nationalities are the largest in Nigeria, and are certainly the most sophisticated, the most educated and the most progressive in the country. They should use such supremacy of ideas and knowledge to exert influence on Nigeria,” said Chief Tola Adeniyi veteran journalist, columnist, administrator and prominent Southern leader.

“They should also condemn in strongest terms, the killings, the arson, the maiming and the barbarity of the Fulani herdsmen.” Adeniyi expressed hope that the coming together of the two groups will achieve results.

“We are excited because we know that if the two groups could come together in unison and with sincerity of purpose to achieve something in the country, they will do so because of their large numbers and because their knowledge and intellectualism are unassailable in the country.

“Like I said, they should come together and stop allowing themselves to be treated to second fiddle by the Fulani internal colonialists.  They should also go beyond talking and try strategic actions by which they could get their wishes done.

“When you say you have a country or a nation, it should be the aggregate of the people’s wishes and the two groups are so formidable that they should not continue to allow themselves to be dominated by forces of reaction. They should also make sure they end this unitary system of government that we have in the country today,” he concluded.

It is a view shared by many. “The coming together of the Igbo and the Yoruba can always be a good thing for Nigeria as a whole,” noted Dr. Awolowo-Dosunmu who has been at the forefront of calls for restructuring.

Chief Goddy Uwazurike is the president emeritus of Igbo think tank group, Aka Ikenga and a prominent member of Ohanaeze Ndigbo. He noted that the meeting in Enugu has been in the making and is the beginning of many to come. According to him, there is no going back on restructuring.

“This meeting has been in the planning,” he said. “First, in the minds of great men and women from both the South East, South South, South West and the Middle Belt. It would have held long before now, but there were always 5th columnists who made sure that it never held.

“But now, that level has been overtaken, and I speak to you, this is the culmination of several meetings we have been attending both in Lagos and in the North. It is a meeting that will be the icing on the cake for the movement started by both Ohanaeze and Afenifere, and then of course, the South South. If you notice, the Southern Leaders Forum, whenever we have a meeting, we always have leaders from the three zones. So it is the culmination of all the efforts we have been making.”

There are however, concerns about the ability of the two groups to stick together given the history of sometimes instigated divisions between them, but for Uwazurike, such fear should no longer arise as it will not be a flash in the pan.

“It is definitely not a flash in the pan. More than 20 years ago, remember, the great Ikemba Nnewi, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu called for a handshake across the Niger. So, it has been on, the only thing was how to get it done. This is not a case of building a relationship around one strong man, no; it is about building it around several strong men from all the three zones in the South to make sure that the Middle Belt comes on board.

“At the National Conference, it was also the basis of our relationship. The Middle Belt, the South West, South East and South South, met regularly. The meeting in Enugu on the 11th is actually a continuation of such meetings. I believe that we have this new thinking that this country must move forward.”

The country has gotten to a point where many believe structural reforms are the only way out. For Pa Ayo Adebanjo, an Awoist and notable leader of Afenifere, it is only a matter of time before such happens.

Adebanjo noted that the Enugu meeting is a continuation of the consultations between the South East and South West as well as South South and Middle Belt and for him, Buhari can only continue to oppose restructuring if he wants the country to break apart.

“It is a continuation of the good relationship we have been having with the Igbo. General Ironsi was killed in Fajuyi’s house. Fajuyi said he can’t be killed in his presence and they dragged both of them and killed them. That was how Fajuyi died in that coup. It is more of consolidating the unity across the Niger, it is not a new thing,” he said.

“We have already extended it to Southern and Middle Belt Forum before now, so it is not a new thing, but this one has its special significance. It is part of the greater one. It is a commemoration of that day when Fajuyi sacrificed his life to save General Ironsi.”

Addressing Buhari’s opposition to restructuring, he said: “That is the problem of Nigeria, if Buhari does not understand that structure is the problem of Nigeria, if he doesn’t accept restructuring, there will be no Nigeria. I tell him that. If he loves Nigeria, and wants the country to remain united, he must do restructuring now.

“His rejection of that shows he does not know the people he is governing. All across the South and the Middle Belt, everyone is talking about restructuring and you are saying no, all because you have your own private agenda.

“Those who love Nigeria should persuade him and convince him to fall in line. The side he is taking will lead Nigeria to nowhere; it is evidence that he wants the country divided. For a person like me, it only confirms my view that he is a dictator; a dictator and an unyielding conservative.

“If not, a leader listens to the people he governs. The noise about restructuring is loud enough for even a stubborn mind to change, but because he has a private agenda, he is stubbornly sticking to the status quo. He is talking about process, which process? How can you have a problem and you are looking for a short cut? It is a misfortune, and very unfortunate.”

The meeting in Enugu is one many are looking forward to, and BusinessHallmark would be present at the venue to bring you on the spot stories on proceedings.




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