In a famous article deservedly syndicated in the Nigerian newspapers as well as social media entitled “Ndigbo and support for Jonathan”, C. Don Adinuba, a respected public affairs and communication consultant, wondered why Governor Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State has always been enthusiastic to express gratitude to Vice President Namadi Sambo for “supporting our son President Goodluck Jonathan” but has never, like Ijaw leader Edwin Clark, uttered a word of appreciation to the Igbo people who have provided the bulwark of support to Jonathan. Adinuba asked why the situation has been like this, even when it is axiomatic that Sambo, who lost his ward in the 2011 general elections to the opposition Congress for Progressive Change, has added little or no electoral value to the Jonathan presidency, unlike the Igbo who have supported this administration more than any other ethnic group in the country, including those in Jonathan’s Niger Delta region. I have waited for a month since the article was published to see if any person could answer Adinuba’s exceedingly thoughtful poser but couldn’t find anyone.
The Igbo political elite claim that their unflinching support for Jonathan without demanding the development of Igboland in any way, including the rebuilding of collapsed infrastructure like federal roads in the southeast, is targeted at achieving a rapprochement with the ijaw who have, over the years, displayed hostility towards the Igbo whom they accuse of internal colonialism in the First Republic. If this official explanation is believable—though many analysts believe that the support for Jonathan by the Igbo politicians has more to do with personal gains than anything else—then we should expect a reciprocal action from the ijaw political leaders. Rapprochement is not a one-way traffic. Parties on both sides of the divide must show the spirit of mea culpa or atonement of sins committed against the other party. Whereas it is possible that the Igbo people oppressed or displayed a profound lack of sensitivity to the Ijaw and other minorities in the defunct Eastern Region, it is also true that the Ijaw have hurt Igbo interests in an awful manner.
Take the notorious “abandoned property” issue in the old Rivers State. At the inception of the cataclysmic Nigerian civil war in 1967, Igbo people in different parts of the country fled to the Igbo heartland now called the southeast. Those who had buildings and other valuable assets naturally left them behind. At the end of the civil war in January 1970, the Igbo people were warmly welcomed back to all parts of Nigeria, thus making Nigeria a quintessential case study in what the late great Professor Ali Mazrui called “Africa’s short memory of hate”. Dr John Abaelu, the brilliant Anambra State-born erstwhile academic, economist and banker, recalls in his absorbing autobiography entitled Traversing Hills and Valleys which was published a couple of months ago: “Nigerian and Biafran soldiers were seen hugging each other and laughing like old friends. Plenty of gifts changed hands from Nigerian soldiers (biscuits, canned beef, sardine), and from their new (Biafran) friends oranges, coconuts, bananas, etc. It was difficult to believe these were former enemies who had been locked in mortal combat for 30months.”
Houses and other immovable assets left behind by the fleeing Igbo people were returned to them without conditions. In Yorubaland in particular, rents collected from tenants who occupied the houses were paid to the Igbo owners on their return. As Senator Jibril Aminu, former minister of education and of petroleum resources, has always observed, the Yoruba have a great sense of social justice and largely do not hesitate to react promptly any time they notice an act of grave injustice. When naval ratings attached to Rear Admiral Harry Arogundede brutalized a female banker named Uzoma Okere in November 2008, Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos personally led the public protest against the action and instructed the State Ministry of Justice to file an action against the fellow Yoruba top naval officer in a state high court; Ms Okere from Imo State was awarded N20m in damages by the court.
Back to the so-called abandoned property issue. The only place in the country where properties belonging to the Igbo were not given back to them was the old Rivers State, carved out of the Eastern Region and was then dominated by the Ijaw people. Rather than ensure the return of these valuable assets, often built with the life savings of the Igbo owners, the Ijaw military governor of the state, the youthful Commander Alfred Diete-Spiff, enacted a military edict overnight declaring all the Igbo-owned houses “abandoned properties”. They were confiscated and distributed to indigenes of the Rivers State as a war booty. For instance, one of the houses of Chief Z. C. Obi, the revered president of the Igbo State Union and father of Senator Onyeabo Obi, was given to the late Ogoni writer and Igbophobist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and it served as the headquarters of his business on Aggrey Road in Port Harcourt.
The anti-Igbo sentiment seems permanently etched in the consciousness of some Ijaw political leaders. When Chief Melford Okilo, the Ijaw governor of the old Rivers State, was facing a stiff reelection campaign in 1983 on account of his lackluster performance, he played the typical tribal game of Nigerian politicians when they find themselves in a tight corner: Chief Okilo went to the graveside of Major Isaac Adaka Boro and, in broad daylight, began to weep uncontrollably before television cameras, asking his Ijaw people to rise against another “colonization by the Igbo who are aided by the mainland peoples like the Ikwerre, Etche and Ogoni in the Nigeria Peoples Party”. Dr K. O. Mbadiwe had on more than one occasion told the story of how, despite the promise by Alhaji Shehu Shagari in 1978 to choose an Igbo running mate in the 1979 presidential election, Chief Okilo insisted on putting his name forward to displace such notable Igbo aspirants as Dr J. C. Okezie and Dr Mbadiwe himself. Dr Mbadiwe was thus forced to scream against Chief Okilo in public during the screening process: “Stop! Who goes there? Why are you putting yourself forward for consideration as the vice presidential candidate? Is it because I was magnanimous to allow the north to produce the presidential candidate of our National Party of Nigeria?”
Have things changed in recent times in the attitude of the Ijaw political elite toward the Igbo? Much as one would have wished the contrary to be the case, the evidence on the ground does not quite suggest so. In 2009, Professor Chukwuma Soludo, who had just completed a glorious term as the Central Bank governor, sought to run for the governorship of Anambra State. Dr Patrick Dele Cole, an Ijaw and Nigeria’s former ambassador to Brazil who was once managing director of the Daily Times, wrote a most scurrilous article against Soludo in The Guardian. Short of being accused of treason, stories then began to fly around, with all manner of people around State House talking about how Soludo was planning to run someday for the nation’s highest office. President Jonathan would appear to buy the stories, as he personally set in motion a machinery to stop Soludo by all means from becoming the Anambra State governor. This is a story for another day.
As Igbo political leaders fall over themselves in the pro-Jonathan reelection campaign, it is right and proper to speculate if the Ijaw would go out of their way to support an Igbo presidential candidate with hysteria as our people are currently doing. I am afraid the Igbo political leaders just don’t get it.
– By Jerome Igwebuike, a retired deputy director in the public service who lives in Abuja.