…. Consolidating the Handshake across the Niger
After the 1979 general elections in Nigeria which brought Alhaji Shehu Shagari to power, the relationship between the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and the Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Unity Party of Nigeria was at its lowest ebb. The UPN believed, rightly or wrongly that it was robbed the presidency to favour the north. And so a reconciliatory meeting was called at the palace of the Ooni of Ife. It was at this meeting that the elegant and cerebral Chuba Okadigbo, in trying to underscore the need and urgency for unity in Nigeria, coined the phrase “Handshake across the Niger”. The thesis of this philosophy by Okadigbo is located on the need to de-emphasize the things that divide us along our worst seams but rather to emphasize the things that unite us and at the same time preserve our diversity. Chuba Okadigbo was a true apostle of this philosophy and it formed the fulcrum of his political engagements. His traducers seemed to have ignored this fundamental aspect of his political philosophy. Today, that philosophy has resonated with greater intensity and we are faced with the reality of a “Handshake Across the Niger” if there must be a tomorrowfor Nigeria.
This piece is not about Chuba Okadigbo but we cannot deny him of his due in history. He was an orator and as Sidi George remarked, “All great orators of the world had similar fate” in dying at the hands of those who do not understand them. For instance, Socrates was killed by his people in 400 BC; Abraham Lincoln was killed in 1863, Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, J.F. Kennedy in 1963 and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967. These men were great orators and philosophers; they were all great speakers, and they all had similar fate- murdered and assassinated by their own people. And in Nigeria, Chuba Okadigbo gave us a unique weapon of choice to use in shaping the destiny of Nigeria.
It is in this context that we have to decide whether we will use Chuba Okadigbo’s words to underscore our resolve to work together and therefore act decisively on his philosophy of “handshake across the Niger”. This philosophy is stewed in history. Its history is the history of Nigeria; a history anchored on colonial treachery; a history premised on shared destiny, mutual love and trust and the resolve to pay the supreme price for the preservation of this trust and confidence.
We all know the significance of October 1 for Nigeria. It was on this date in 1960 that Nigeria became an independent State. I was in a preparatory class to primary school in 1960. The night before October 1, there was excitement in the air. Our parents discussed excitedly about the impending lowering of the Union Jack and the hoisting of the Green-White-Green. The next day our teachers marched us out to share in the excitement. So many cultural dance troupes performed and songs of nationalism were rendered with intensity and patriotic zeal; all extolling the virtues, astuteness, sagacity and heroism of our foremost nationalists like Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Alhaji Ahmadu Bello. The names of these icons were discussed with great awe as the harbingers of freedom sent by the Almighty to salvage Nigeria from the shackles of British colonialism.
As children we also partook of the excitement. For instance, we were given food and drinks. We were also given plastic cups with the map of Nigeria printed on them; even more gratifying were the small-sized Nigerian flags given to us. On our way back, we waved these flags excitedly. Back home we cherished these flags. They were our symbol of freedom. A lot of hopes were raised about the true meaning of independence. We were meant to believe that with Nigerians at the helm of their own affairs, the long expected Eldorado would be attained in no distant time. It was jubilation galore.
But like the Bible said in Psalm 11:3 “If the foundation be destroyed; what can the righteous do? The truth is that Nigeria’s foundation was faulty and it was a deliberate ploy by the departing colonial masters. The Colonial masters saw the north as a willing tool in the furtherance of its neo-colonial agenda and that the south. The south could not be trusted. So if power must be bequeathed to the north, there must be structures on ground to sustain it in power at the departure of the colonial masters. The first was to plant the seed of mutual suspicion and perpetual subversion between the east and the west. The second and most fundamental strategy was to ensure that the north had 50percent of the membership of the national legislature. Both missions were accomplished. Both the east and the west never came to agreement. The leaderships of both regions were always courting the northern leadership. The north regaled in playing both regions against each other.
To ensure that power was bequeathed to the north as planned, the colonial masters that managed and organized the elections openly rigged the 1959 election that ushered Nigeria’s political independence in 1960, thus effectively bequeathing a culture of election rigging in Nigeria’s political process. It was that election that threw up Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa as the Prime Minister and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe as the Governor-General in 1960 and later the President in 1963. Harold Smith, in theLubertas Homepage, stated that “the British government was less than honest in dealing with Nigeria”. He added that “the British perpetuated all forms of electoral fraud to enthrone political advantage of the North over the South of Nigeria”.
According to him, “the colonial office laid a very weak and crisis-prone foundation for democracy in Nigeria- a malaise which has been crying for not only justice but urgent redress”. Smith informed that the greatest act of political gerrymandering featured in the deliberate allocation of more federal constituencies to Northern Nigeria. In summary, the colonial masters had sewn a seed which has festered into a wild tree of mutual suspicion, hatred, corruption and political instability in Nigeria. According to Omotunde of the Tell Magazine, the political elite of the time was obsessed with the independence mantra and preferred to play along, believing that with political independence every other thing will be sorted out with time.
The second national election was in 1964 under the leadership of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa as the Prime Minister. The build up to the 1964 election was characterized with all forms of crises including the contentious census figures of 1963; the creation of Mid West; the imprisonment of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the Tiv uprising, etc. The United Peoples Grand Alliance (UPGA) led by Dr M I Okpara protested vehemently against the poor leadership in the country. The climax was the boycott of the 1964 election in the East and partly in the West and even at that, the Nigerian National Alliance (NNA) led by Alhaji Ahmadu Bello declared that the sixty-one candidates of the Northern Peoples’ Congress for the House of Representatives were returned unopposed in the Northern Region. A repeat election in the West on October 11, 1965 was met with bare faced rigging, arson, murder and other forms of brigandage best described as “OperationWetie”. This was a Yoruba resistance against the injustice by the Balewa leadership. The country became ungovernable and in less than three months after, a group of young officers of the Nigerian Army led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu staged a coup and took over the reins of power on January 15, 1966; killing several political leaders in the exercise. For us as children and to millions of Nigerians of the time, the coup was a major relief.
It was in such crises that Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi Ironsi, a well-bred soldier and perfect gentleman, intervened and seized power from the young army officers. General Ironsi appointed four military governors, namely Lt. Col. Hassan Katsina for the Northern Region; Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu for the Eastern Region; Lt. Col. David Ejoor for the Mid Western Region and Lt. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi for the Western Region. General Ironsi was on a stabilizing mission, trying to maintain peace in the polity with a visit to his long time friend, Col. Fajuyi when the young Northern army officers led by Major Theophilus Danjuma staged a counter coup d’état on July 28, 1966. The counter coup began at the Abeokuta Garrison by the Northern officers of Nigerian army. The first casualties were Lieutenant Colonel Gabriel Okonweze, the Garrison Commander; Major John Obienu, Commander of the 2nd Reece Squadron; and Lieutenant B. Orok, also of the Reece Squadron. The coup was targeted at army officers of the Eastern Region, mainly the Igbo.
General Ironsi had learnt that the young northern officers were after him. Subsequently, the officers invaded the home of Col. Fajuyi and demand for his guest, General Ironsi. Fajuyi fiercely and courageously refused and stated: “He is my guest, before you kill him, you must kill me first” In a book, the Handshake Across the Niger- Building on the Legacies of Ironsi and Fajuyi by Professor Akinyemi Onigbinde and Ambassador Humphrey Orjiako, it was recounted that Col. Fajuyi told his guest: “I make bold to declare to you that I am with you, soul, spirit and body. And mark my words, whatever happens to you today, happens to me. I am your true friend, dear JTU, like the dove to the pigeon and by the grace of God, so will I humbly yet profoundly remain till the very end”. Ironsi on his side was said to have pleaded with his host to allow him face his destiny but his host, a man of honour and fidelity, Col. Fajuyi refused but preferred to pay the supreme sacrifice instead of betraying his friend.
This expository tried to delve into the bad leadership that precipitated the military take-over of January, 15 but does not explain the reasons for the counter coup of July 28 and 29, 1966; but in all the narratives about the Nigerian revolution, no mention was ever made about the involvement of either or both of the two soldiers that were gruesomely murdered by Major Danjuma and his team in the early hours of July 29, 1966. Both of them were perfect gentlemen whose preoccupation was the restoration of peace and reconciliation of various disparate groups that characterized the aftermath of 1964/1965 elections.
Going through history throws up the ineffectual leadership in the days of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) led by Alhaji Aliyu Shehu Shagari. The NPN, in an effort to “‘capture” many states by fair or foul means resorted to massive rigging of election across the states. Chief Akin Omoboriowo, like Chief S L Akintola in the1964 election wanted to subvert the Yoruba leadership to become the governor of Ondo state. It was again resisted with burning of houses, killings and uproars of all kinds. Again, the ineffectual leadership by the Shagari led government caused several deaths in the South. This was again followed by military intervention led by Brigadier Sani Abacha and Muhammadu Buhari on December 31, 1983. The likes of Dr. Alex Ekwueme were incarcerated for years in prison while his principal, Shehu Shagari and his wives were treated like kings in a putsch house in the name of house arrest.
In both and other instances cited above, the South bears the brunt of poor governance orchestrated by the feudalistic and nepotic northern hegemony. It pains that, in recent years, Nigerian policy makers attach little or no importance to history. It must be stated that to be educated is to have, among others, the knowledge of history. According to Robert Penn Warren, “history cannot give us a programme for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves and of our common humanity so that we can better face the future” The circumstance surrounding the death of Ironsi and Fajuyi is part of the sad history of Nigeria and a salutary lesson for the future generations. Upholding the profound mystery in history, George Santayana (1863-1952), stated that people who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.
I wish to salute the government of Oyo State and the Afenifere for the deep sense of history and promoting the core values of shared humanity by establishing a memorial park and garden in honour of Ironsi and Fajuyi at the site they lost their lives. The naming of streets, gardens, parks, buildings, schools, and public places after these great men is not just the objectification of history but a source of inspiration to the younger generation .To immortalize Aguiyi Ironsi and Adekunle Fajuyi is not just to share in the noblest of virtues but a promotion of ethical values and consciousness for courage, sacrifice, conviction, patriotism and fidelity in the daily conduct of our affairs. Adekunle Fajuyi in particular sacrificed the highly valued personal comfort, the allure of Ibadan government house and ultimately his precious life in defence of a true Igbo friend, leader and a superior officer, well-bred in the best military tradition. He preferred integrity and the sanctity of his soul to the tyranny and filthy dictates of the flesh. He rejected perfidy and treachery. I am convinced that it is in exalting nobility and virtues that the eternal vices are vanquished. For me, Fajuyi displayed the highest standard of honour and uncompromising dedication to transcendent principles and values.
I have often believed that there is an intrinsic and yet magnificent nexus between tragedy and triumph; only when it offers a salutary lesson to the future. Perhaps, the above scenario makes the hand shake across the Niger very imperative. I salute the Nzuko Umunna, an affiliate of Ohanaeze Ndigbo led by Ngozi Odimuko for willing into action the philosophy of Handshake Across the Niger at the Base Event Centre, Enugu on January, 11, 2018. The project attracted the attention and support of the South East governors especially the large hearted governor of Enugu state, Rt Hon. Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi; the South East Members in the National Assembly led by the highly focused exceptional visionary and democracy archetype, Sen. Dr. Ike Ekweremadu, CFR; the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Nnaemeka Alfred Achebe; Amb. Igwe Lawrence Agubuzu, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, Chief Olu Falae, Dr. Olusegun Mimiko, Lady Victoria Aguiyi Ironsi, Sen. Eyinanya Abaribe, Chief Femi Fani-kayode, the Afenifere spokesman, Dr. Yinka Odunmakin, Sen. Christ Anyanwu, Dr Ifeanyi Ubah, the Vice Chancellor, Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu, the Very Rev. Prof Christian Anieke; Prof Luke Agbo Anike, Prof Malachy Okwueze, women groups and several dignitaries from the South East, South South and Middle Belt. The President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Nnia Nwodo could not withhold his joy. Chief Nwodo, in his inaugural speech, had insisted on the need to restructure Nigeria; and to achieve the goal requires a hand shake across the Niger, the South South and the Middle Belt of Nigeria. Nwodo felt fulfilled that an acorn seed has become an iroko tree.
Fajuyi, no doubt, is dead but not forgotten. For me, Fajuyi represents the true soldier of my heart. Fajuyi represents the sublime Yoruba hospitality, love and sacrifice. He reminds both the Igbo and the Yoruba their shared cultural values in defending to the last blood, their guests. Perhaps, this accounts for the magnanimity displayed by the Yoruba to the Igbo after the Nigerian civil war. According to Onigbinde and Orjiakor: “It is on record that several commoners, ordinary people across the Yorubaland risked their own safety and those of their families to shield and protect their Igbo friends and neighbours during the latter’s exodus from various parts of Nigeria” Not only that, there was no issue of abandoned Igbo property in the various Yoruba communities at the end of the civil war.
As it stands, the Igbo are emotionally attached to Enugu as the headquarters of the old eastern region, the base of Ohanaeze Ndigbo and the seat of government that received the remains of Gen Ironsi in 1966. That Ibadan has immortalized these great men beckons on Enugu to fulfil this historical reality. Enugu state has not in any way, shirked in the responsibilities bestowed on it by the forces of history. It is in keeping with the Enugu tradition that I call on the governor of Enugu state, The Rt. Hon. Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi to set machinery in motion for the immortalization of Ironsi and Fajuyi in the streets of Enugu. The Abia State government led by Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu owes it a duty to create a memorial for Col Adekunle Fajuyi in Umuahia. It is hoped that all the governors in the South East Nigeria will heed this clarion call and initiate the processes to immortalize both men. Only by so doing can we truly declare that indeed the “handshake across the Niger” is alive and well.
Chiedozie Alex Ogbonnia
President, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Enugu State
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