How Zik Stopped Nigeria From Breaking Up In 1957 -- Ralph Uwechue

Ralph Uwechue

As the president of Ohaneze Ndigbo what efforts are you making to unite Igbo in Rivers and Delta States some of who have openly denied their Igbo origin?

First of all it should be understood that these fractions who now deny the fact that they are Igbo did so only after the Civil War; take for instance the Ikwerre people and others fully identified with us during the pre civil war era but because the Igbo lost the civil war, a kind of stigma was smeared on them making a lot of people to start adjusting there names to sound less Igbo but this is natural. Notwithstanding it is important to note that those who say they are Igbo are more in number than those who deny their identity. To start with, I’m from Delta state, and 11 kings and 44 chiefs from Anioma came to identify with us at the last Igbo Day held in Owerri, so I feel that those who matter still identify with their true origin. So we must recognize the ethnic units as the foundation, the blocks that build our country

On the marginalization of the Igbo in Nigeria politics?

Even a blind political analyst will perceive the feelings that today, in the Nigeria polity, the Igbo, as a people, are being deliberately sidelined, especially in the sphere of political leadership of the country. No Igbo person is deemed good enough or trusted enough to be put at the helm of affairs, at the apex management position of Nigeria. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s pioneer titular head of state, took a shot at the real thing-the executive presidency, in 1979 and 1983. In spite of his nationally acknowledged role as the foremost crusader for our nation’s independence, he scored abysmally in both electoral tests. Dr. Alex Ekwueme fared no better, even as he teamed up with a scion of the northern oligarchy-Alhaji Shehu Shagari. In this fourth Republic, mention must be made of the efforts of Chief Orji Uzor Kalu the PPA presidential candidate, Prof. Patrick O. Utomi of ADC, Emmanuel Okereke of ALP, Godwin Nnaji of BNPP, Maxi Okwu of CPP, Sunny Okogwu of RPN, our reverend gentleman, Pastor Chris Okotie of Fresh Party Dim Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu of APGA and the highly respected Arthur Nwankwo of PMP. Igbo has always stepped out to give the nation a multiple opportunity to choose from the pool and corrected what seem like a perfectly scripted design to marginalize them from the polity. The Shagari –Ekwueme joint ticket was designed to make Ekwueme the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) presidential candidate after the tenure of Shagari in 1987, a vision which the military never allowed to materialize.

Like today’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the NPN was the dominant party at the time. Securing its presidential candidate’s nomination was as good as clinching the presidential position. Dr. Ekwueme who was poised to replace Shagari in 1987, was eminently qualified and was favoured by Shagari himself for the presidential job ahead. He had to be stopped, hence, the coup of 31st December 1983, which traded in the remaining three years and nine months of Shagari’s second and final term, with all its democratic restrictions, for an eventual collective northern rule of some fourteen years of absolute power, under the successive military governments of Buhari, Babangida and Abacha. Alhaji Umaru Dikko, former Transport Minister in Shagari’s government said this much in an interview he gave in London, before his attempted kidnapping, on the presumed orders of an embarrassed and angry Buhari-Idiagbon administration. Subsequent revelations by former senior northern military officers have since confirmed Umaru Dikko’s candid assertion.

The 1983 coup denied Ndigbo, the largest ethnic group in Nigeria, their deserved right and chance of producing an executive president and constitutionally exercises their presidential right for eight-year period of two terms. This callous and contemptuous treatment meted out to my people is in clear and cruel contrast with the compassionate concession, massively supported by Ndigbo, given to the Yorubas in 1999 to make up for the presidential slot missed by their kinsman, Chief M.K.O Abiola.

But, Your Excellency Sir, some notable Igbo son’s and daughters have been given notable appointments in the past…? (Cuts in)

Sometimes, too much is being simplistically made of these occasional random appointments of talented Igbo technocrats to high profile positions, where demonstrable competence is usually required to tackle certain specific and difficult national tasks. What has been critically absent for years, and still missing today, is fair and effective Igbo participation in the national decision-making process, which is entirely political. Appointees, no matter how highly positioned, only implement decisions already packaged and handed down to them. They are hired and fired at will. Considering their manifest multi-faceted contribution to Nigeria’s political and economic development, Ndigbo deserve better than political crumbs from the master’s table.

At the current foundation laying stage of our national development, control of vital decision-making position and organs easily determines who gets what. If at this critical stage in our nation building enterprise, the Igbo continue to be excluded from such positions, in this case, by discernable design, then no matter how much they struggle, their political marginalization, with all its negative consequences will endure.

Sir, don’t you think that the Igbo political leaders are to be blamed, therefore, the need for the Igbo to first of all look inward before pointing fingers else where?

No doubt, the Igbo people themselves have their share of blame in this unsavoury saga, especially given the individualistic and blindly opportunistic attitude of some Igbo politicians, scrambling for crumbs of public office in total disregard of legitimate Igbo collective interest within the Nigeria family.
The perceived overall aggressiveness of the Igbo in social and business intercourse creates fright among their competitors who tend to gang up against them. However, the core problem for the Igbo today is clearly traceable to the immediate events that preceded the civil war, 1967-70. The military coup of January 1966 is central to it all. It created fear and distrust of the Igbo that are yet to be purged from the national political system. It is for this reason that I chose to base by presentation during the Ohanaeze Ndigbo Day 2009, at Owerri on, ‘Ndigbo: Nigeria’s Nation Builders’ in order to highlight the enormous contribution of Ndigbo to the building and sustenance of the Nigeria project. The aim is to help reassure ourselves, especially the young up-and-coming generation of Igbo that in spite of a few hitches, Ndigbo have, over the years, borne the brunt of the onerous task of nation building in Nigeria and have good cause to feel truly proud of their achievements in that regard.

Your Excellency, Sir, don’t you think that our Igbo founding fathers are to blame for our present predicament, Awo to me was wise, he wanted to build a great nation from sub-ethnic nationality, while Zik tried to build a great nation from the centre to the sub ethnic level, in the long run the Igbo are worse off for it?

It was not a mistake from my own point of view because even long before independence the Igbo political and economic role in Nigeria has been consistent in the pursuit of national unity and inter-ethnic cooperation. The average Igbo trader or business person loves to spread his or her tentacle far and wide that is why you see them in Lome, Cameroun, Accra and all round the globe.

Politically, under the leadership of the late Owelle of Onitsha, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Igbo played the role of bridge builders in the fledgling Nigeria nation. The great Zik of Africa, as he was fondly called, accepted the leadership of the legendary Yoruba political activist, Herbert Macaulay to form and direct the first truly significant national political party, National Council of Nigeria and Cameroun (NUNC). With respected nationalist Yoruba leaders like Dr. Ibiyinka Olorun-Nimbe, the first and only Mayor of Lagos, Sir Odeleye Fadahunsi, the first national vice-president of the NUNC and second indigenous Governor of Western Region, Alhaji Adegoke Adelabu, the lion of Ibadan politics, and others including Chief Adeniran Ogunsanya, Chief Mojeed Agbaje and Otumba T.O.S Benson, the then Igbo leadership forged a political alliance which cut across ethnic boundaries. Such was the extent of their success that Zik was poised, after the regional election of 1951, but for a last minute hitch, to become the premier of the Western Region, the home ground of the Yoruba nation. The party which he led, the NUNC and its allies won a majority of seats in the Western House of Assembly. In the Eastern Region, the Igbo-dominated NUNC, true to its pan-Nigeria orientation and commitment, elected as the first mayor of Enugu metropolis, Mallam Umoru Altini, a Muslim from Katsina.

Again, in 1957 when the British Colonial Government, under intense pressure from Southern politicians pressing for independence, attempted to uncouple the union between the North and South forged through Lord Lugard’s Amalgamation of 1914, with the offer of independence to the three Regions individually provided any two accepted the offer, a political crisis loomed large on the national horizon. The Northern Region, led by the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) took the position that the North was not ready for that level of political and economic independence. The Western Region, led by Chief Awolowo’s Action Group (AG) promptly, declared its readiness to accept the offer. It was the Igbo-led NUNC that held the balance. It was an issue that could make or break Nigeria if the three Regions chose to go their separate ways to independence.

The NUNC leader, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe took the stand that although the Eastern Region was ready to assume the responsibilities of Regional independence, its attainment without the North would lead, in his own words, to the ‘’Baalkanization of the Nigeria Nation’’ and conceivably a break-up of the country. The Eastern Region would rather suppress it’s appetite for independence and the obvious gains it would entail until the Northern Region was ready. That was how Nigeria Independence was delayed until 1960. In short, the Igbo-led Eastern Region would rather forgo the advancement of its own political economic interests than risk the break-up of Nigeria.

Had the Eastern Region opted for Independence at that time, the territory under its control would have comprised in today’s terms the following nine States with their enormous human and natural resources: Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Anambra, Bayelsa, Cross River, Ebonyi, Enugu, Imo, Rivers state. It would also probably include Southern Cameroun with the oil rich Bakassi Peninsula. If not for Zik, by 1960, the three Regions would have become separate sovereign states and there would have been no question of Biafra’s attempted secession in 1967 from a non-existing Nigeria federation and the devastating civil war fought to stop it.

Similary, when Zik moved to the Federal scene as Governor-General and later titular President of Nigeria, the NUNC, under the leadership of Dr. Michael Okpara, of blessed memory, continued faithfully in his giant and indelible footsteps, the political bridge-building and nation building enterprise of the Igbo.

At independence, the Igbo-led NUNC shunned the attraction of being the senior partner in an East-West Alliance with Chief Awolowo’s Action Group (AG) and chose to team up instead as the junior partner, with Sir Ahmadu Bello’s Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) in order to consolidate the frail and insipid attachment of a wary and skeptical North to Southern Nigeria. At that time Chief Awolowo’s Yoruba dominated Action Group (AG) was viewed with considerable suspicion by the Hausa Fulani-led NPC for its ambition and role in the then Middle Belt, under Congress (UMBC). However, when the Yoruba Leader Chief Obafemi Awolowo was accused of treason and incarcerated in 1963, on charges which many Nigerians believed were trumped up to silence him politically, the Igbo leadership of NUNC switched side and came to his rescue.

Dr. Michael Okpara teamed up with Alhaji Dauda Adegbenro, the acting leader of the Action Group, to fight what the Igbo perceived as political injustice that could threaten the unity of Nigeria. They formed the United Peoples Grand Alliance (UPGA). The leadership, suspicious of NPC’s conceivable dark intentions, insisted that Chief Awolowo must be transferred from Kaduna to Calabar for his physical safety. The reason was that considering the overwhelming popularity of the Yoruba leader in the Western Region, the stability and unity of Nigeria could face jeopardy if something untoward happened to him. The Igbo were not ready for that risk. For them, the unity and stability of Nigeria was paramount.

Looking back, don’t you think the 1966 military coup led by Col. Nzeogwu was the greatest undoing of Ndigbo?

The 1966 coup was not an Igbo coup. The military intervention of January 1966, which was to a considerable degree a consequence of the persisting political turmoil in Western Nigeria, put an abrupt end to the political activities of the various parties. That coup, most regrettably, took the lives of many prominent national leaders both military and civilian. Behind the façade of general jubilation which greeted the January coup among the progressives in the country, particularly in the South, there was the ominous reality of an embittered North, the most powerful region in the Federation, whose overall representation in the army itself kept good pace with its political dominance in the country. Northern interest had suffered heavily both in the political and military spheres. Once it recovered from the shock, the North was bound to reassert itself in both domains.

This, it did brutally in July 1966, sweeping General Ironsi, who was murdered at Ibadan, out of power. Some 214 Igbo officers and men were reported killed across the nation in a wholesale massacre, which also took the life of Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, the popular Yoruba military governor of Western Region, an articulate Ironsi confidant, known to be a sympathizer of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Thus, the circumstances of the January event and the largely one-sided killing that marked the bloody aspect of that coup practically made such a vengeful situation inevitable. For the Northern political leadership, the January 1966 event was a plot conceived and hatched by the entire Igbo nation to seize political power in Nigeria.

Yet, the stark reality of that historic episode is that, as the British writer, Walter Schwartz put it succinctly in his classic book ‘Nigeria’ which appeared at the time, ‘’…the coup was Ibo led, but national in objective’’. Many prominent Igbo officers, starting with the head of the Army, General Aguiyi Ironsi to Col. Emeka Ojukwu, who was the commanding officer in Kano, were not involved. Indeed, Col. Arthur Unegbe, the Quarter-Master General, was killed in Lagos for refusing to cooperate with the coup makers, who came to him and demanded the keys to the armory.

This very act on the part of Col. Unegbe, a thorough-bred Igbo patriot, of giving his life for Nigeria and his absolute loyalty to the northern NPC controlled Balewa government, played a decisive role in bringing about the collapse of the coup in Lagos itself-the very seat of the Federal Government. Unable to secure the armory, the coup leaders were automatically denied control of the most important means- arms and ammunition of carrying out their plan in the supremely strategic Lagos area. It was, indeed, exactly this situation that gave a loyal General Ironsi his chance on that fateful night of 15th January. The troops he rallied at dawn to thwart the coup had the arms and ammunition to support him. Such was the extent of active and effective opposition mounted by high ranking Igbo officers to ensure the failure of the unfairly branded ‘Igbo coup’ of January 1966.

The putsch was aimed at dislodging those who held the levers of federal power and their allies in the Regions. Most unfortunately, in Lagos it took the lives of the NPC Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Balewa and his close confident, the Finance Minister from the Mid-West Region, Chief Festus Okotie Eboh of Zik’s NUNC party. In the Regions, the NPC Premier of North, Sir Ahmadu Bello, was killed. So also was the Premier of the Western Region, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola, an ally and protégé of the Balewa government and a bitter political enemy of opposition leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, then languishing in prison? Troops loyal to the plotters moved to Enugu, but the Eastern Region Premier Dr. Michael Iheonukara Okpara was speared because President Makarios of Cyprus, who had attended the Commonwealth prime ministers’ conference at Lagos was Okpara’s guest at Enugu.

In fact, informed rumuors at the time, had it that the young officers, with a clear patriotic national perspective, had in mind to release the Yoruba leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, from detention and install him as the head of an interim government, pending a constitutional review and elections. Indeed, the renowned educationist and civil rights activist, Tai Solarin, came close to confirming that view in an interview he gave to a national daily a few years before his death. Nzeogwu himself, the widely acclaimed coup leader put the record this way in an interview he gave to the magazine ‘Africa And The World’ in May 1967, ‘’Our purpose was to change our country and make it a place we could be proud to call our home. Tribal considerations were completely out of our minds. But we had a set back in the execution’’ In other word, the intervention of this group of idealistic young officers, which included many Igbo, was to help build a better, united and prosperous Nigeria for all her citizens, totally regardless of ethnicity or other affiliations.

In relevant retrospect, the similarity between the Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu led coup of January 1966 and that led by Major Gideon Orkah in April 1990 against the government of General Ibrahim Babangida stands out in astonishing relief. Both coups were carried out by young and idealistic middle-ranking officers; intent on transforming what they sincerely believed was a rotten Nigeria society. Neither coup was prompted or supported by senior officers of their respective ethnic groups. But there is a painful difference in their socio-political aftermath. Nzeogwu’s coup was branded an ‘Igbo’ coup, for which the entire Ndigbo must pay a heavy and recurrent political price. Orkah’s coup was not seen as a ‘Tiv’ coup and justly so, and has no perceivable penalizing political price tag for the Tiv ethnic group.

For this clearly discriminatory attitude towards Ndigbo, and in sharp contrast with the concession given to the Yorubas over the M.K.O Abiola case, it is only right to assert that our beloved co-citizens of Nigeria owe the Igbo Nation unreserved fraternal apology for visiting an unjust and sustained capital political punishment on the entire Igbo nation, vis-à-vis their constitutional right to exercise power as president of our country. This is a fundamental right already too long denied, for which the entire Ndigbo as one united and indivisible family, no matter their individual political affiliations, must come together to fight.

Are you still nursing a political ambition?

Certainly not

What are your reasons?

I have tried it twice and have seen what has happened

What happened?

The political elites are not ready to get people who they cannot manipulate

Your answer gives credence to the opinion that the political elites always look for some one they can easily remote control to hand over power to.

In what ways were you asked to compromise that made you relinquish your ambition of becoming president?

I was part of PDP and the process was on… and they all can testify that if there is one person who can not compromise his principles Uweche is the one. All the presidential aspirants paid a fee of 5 million and 10 thousand naira, we were all paraded that day and I remember one Mrs. Jubril who was begging for us to be allowed to address the people at the convention but they refused. Obasanjo personally and alone chose Yar’Adua from among us at the nomination level and there was no contest

But there was this rumour that you people were settled heavily to step down for Yar’Adua, is that not part of compromise?

It was certainly not Uweche, I was not settled and I don’t need to be settled either. They didn’t even apologize to us, and as for our financial losses, I didn’t get back my 5 million and I don’t think anybody did, and as far as I am concerned that nomination at Eagle Square was a personal thing by Obasanjo, he singlehandedly picked Yar’Adua. This is the truth, I can tell you more, in 1993 I contested for presidency under Humphrey Nwosu’s Option A4, and I was the SDP flag bearer for Delta state, Abiola was for Ogun state while Atiku was for Adamawa, we were only 30 who could be president but we decided to zone it to Southwest and Northeast that was how Abiola and Kingibe emerged. That election was perfect because one had to win first at the ward level, then the local government level, in Delta state where only one third of the population are Igbo I got 81 percent of the total vote cast; so if we could have a perfect election as far back as 93 what stops us from repeating it not to talk of improving on it. The last general elections were adulterated starting from the nomination of candidates at the party level. This is what I mean by manipulation.

Will there be Igbo President by 2011?

Well I don’t know yet how many Igbo people are interested in the presidency but the important thing is that we as Ohaneze want to see the rotation of power in a fair manner. Igbo have not had their fair share of power at the apex level

As one who served under President Obasanjo who some section of Igbo believe did not favour them, did you at any time find your self being instructed to work against the interest of Ndigbo in order to please the ex-president?

Obasanjo had Igbo in his cabinet outside myself, people like Okonjo Iweala, Soludo and others, so I feel that this idea of Obasanjo hating the Igbo could be a personal view of individuals. I don’t personally believe that Obasanjo singled out the Igbo to hate them, he may have had clashes with some Igbo but there are also Igbo who are his friends. As a matter of fact, I think Obasanjo’s regime favoured the Igbo in terms of appointment the way no regime have done in recent time. We can not single out one or two isolated cases and try to judge him from that.

What is your relationship with people like Chief Joe Irukwu who no longer identify with Ohaneze, what are you doing about this?

The issue of Joe Irukwu and his colleagues was that after the expiration of their tenure which according to Ohaneze’s constitution ought to be two years, Joe Irukwu and co demanded for another two years, and a committee headed by Iwuanyanwu supported this move but Ikedife vehemently withstood this, at the end Irukwu gave way though we had a kind of parallel administrations but the Southeastern governors stood for Ikedife who completed his tenure and handed over to me, and on the day of my installation Irukwu sent me a congratulatory message. You see people support Ohaneze in the way they deem fit, but I would want to see Ohaneze metamorphose into a more popular organization where the common people both show interest and contribute to her welfare. Presently, we are coming forward with a platform where people can make donations and their names and funds would be properly recorded and we’ll also issue receipts so as to be as transparent as possible. When this is achieved we’ll be able to achieve any project without financial constraints.

One of my pet projects is to build a multi national hospital in Igboland; it has been proved that 80% of what is spent by those travelling abroad for medical care is spent on transportation and hotel bills so I intend reducing the much talked about brain drain of our medical practitioners by encouraging our brothers who are rated very high in international standards to retire in Nigeria so when that hospital is built they will come with very high standards which our local medical doctors working in the hospital would be encouraged to maintain, when this is done we expect that one can spent just 20 percent of what is spent in America and get exactly the same treatment. If President Yar’Adua shuttles to Saudi Arabia for medical treatments what stops people from shuttling to Nigeria from other parts of the globe, this is what I wanted to do as Nigeria’s President but since I’m not, let me do it for those who have asked me to be their leader

How do you intend giving birth to such a gigantic dream without the y basic infrastructure in the country?

We are sure that this infrastructural decay would not continue for ever, look at me in my hometown today, I believe that when more and more knowledgeable people come home and start asking questions, things would change. For me what matters is determination and the project is as good as accomplished, things will come to a level where the governors would become afraid of the people and start working for them. In this house for instance, I have my generators which I use most of the time, I spend between 8 to 12 thousand naira daily on diesel, I was told that if I bought my own transformer I would be able to tap direct from the high tension wire so I bought one that cost me over 3.7 million but it is just there lying dormant; this would not remain forever, since I’ve been away in Britain and Abuja and just spend one or two weekends here it didn’t matter but I can’t afford certain things now so we’ll mount pressure on people to do something

During Ikedife’s regime we learnt that Ohaneze sat and urged the southeasterners not to vote for PDP, so now you’re talking of building Ohaneze are we going to witness the emergence of a body that dictates who become who in the Igbo community?

Not at all, Ohaneze is a cultural organization, I told you earlier that we received the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), but I told them that we do not agree with their idea. PDP has their own idea just like every other party but that is not Ohaneze’s interest, we are rather concerned about fielding the best candidates in the Igbo community. We would give our advises but they wouldn’t be partisan.

The well manicured flowers covering over 100meters before the main building makes the environment to look inviting, the Africa House, with a 2,000 capacity multi-purpose hall at Ogwasi-Uku has excellence clearly imprinted all over. The hall was structured in such a way that a visitor will not realize that over 2,000 other visitors are gathering at the same building unless you are informed of their presence.

It was a beautiful morning, over a cup of coffee when HIS EXCELLENCY CHIEF (AMB.) RALPH UWECHUE(OFR) Ogwuluzame of Ogwashi-Uku, Author, Publisher, two-time presidential aspirant under SDP in 1993 and PDP in 2007, and the President of the apex body of all Igbo socio-cultural associations, Ohaneze Ndigbo, sat defending and making case for the Igbo interest with Peter Agba Kalu. Probably, this is his hottest interview in recent times

You are seen in the international circle more as an activist because of your Pan Africanist crusade than a politician, can you please define the basis of your activism and the extent of achievement you’ve recorded?

As far as I’m concerned, I’m a pan Africanist, I believe very strongly in African Unity and cooperation this is why I named this house Africa House, my book on reflection on the Nigeria Biafra war is dedicated to the true and thoughtful African not to my wife or any other person.

So, I’m a very confident African, I’m an Nkrumaist, I’ve been since school days and I still am; so my vision is that Africa should come together and promote their religious interest and develop their economy, when we join hands to do something it would be better done than if we had done it as individuals. We talk about economic development and unemployment, what nonsense? For every mouth there is to feed, God has provided two hands to do the feeding; Japanese did not invent cars or Koreans, what is a car? Piece of metal, iron and plastic cut to certain specifications and put together no more no, less; so if you and I sit here and import everything we want, we are giving employment to people in air-conditioned factories in Europe or elsewhere at the expense of our graduates who are unemployed, so we need a government with vision that knows what the masses need. As great as America is, she exports only 6 percent of her products, the rest are consumed locally. Nigeria is not just any country it is the leading Black Country in the whole world.