2019: Political Permutations (III)


As earlier mentioned in the first part of this article, the southwest Yoruba is the most cohesive part of the country. The relationship between the Yoruba and the north has been on-going for centuries. In Kano, Zaria and other cities of the north, there are Yoruba communities that had existed for over 200 years now, conclusively proving that it was not British colonial rule that brought the north and the west together, since there are also settlements in the major cities of the western states of northerners who have been there before the advent of colonialism, trading in goods such as palm oil, groundnut, clothes, salt and kola nuts for ages. Apart from that, there are Yoruba in Kwara and Kogi states who are indigenous to the north.

This relationship was built on a strong foundation of commonality of interests, strong historical linkages and cultural similarities. Historically, it is the north and the west that have strong empires and kingdoms with structured societies, respected leaders and standing armies even when the ancestors of the white men were in caves. This is why it is the west and the north that mostly accommodated people from other cultures hospitably.

Here, Benin in Edo is included in the west as it was part of the west historically and culturally. The Yoruba have Oduduwa as their main historical ancestor. The Hausa have Bayajidda, the Fulani have DanFodio while the Kanuri have Elkanemi, while the Nupe have Tsoede. And in both west and north there are Muslims, Christians and traditional worshippers. There are lots of cross-cultural intermarriages between northerners and westerners going on for centuries too.

It thus came as a huge surprise when the west and the north did not align politically in the build-up to independence. But there was mutual respect between Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the premier of the west, and Sir Ahmadu Bello, the premier of the north. In fact, in the northern House of Assembly, a Yoruba from the west and an Igbo from the east were selected as special members. In the west, Awolowo also appointed a Hausa and an Igbo into the western House of Assembly similarly to represent the special interests of those communities. The east did not appoint anyone from other parts of the country into their regional assembly.

Chief Samuel Akintola who took over from Chief Awolowo as premier of the western region tried to start an alliance with the north which led to the formation of the Nigerian National Alliance (NNA) at the centre. It did not get any strong root as Awolowo was the undisputed leader of the west.

However, the January 15, 1966, coup which saw the assassination of virtually all the first-generation military and political leaders of the west and north by mainly Igbo Army officers brought unity in adversity for the north and the west. If the politicians were in power and so had to be eliminated for the military to take over power, why did they kill their fellow military officers in the process? It was a strategic blunder and, as Mao Tsetung of China said, “an arrogant enemy is easy to defeat”.

By killing Christian, Muslim, Hausa-Fulani and non-Hausa-Fulani northerners, those who executed the January 15, 1966, helped to unite the north since the only reason all these gentlemen and women were assassinated was because they were northerners. The north became united like at no other time. They waited for Gen. Ironsi who took over as the first military head of state of Nigeria to punish those who killed their comrades but Ironsi did not. And so, on July 29, 1966, these historically martial arts people led a counter-coup to revenge the unnecessary killing of their leaders. These are basically peaceful people but, when provoked, they fight to finish.

After the countercoup, Col. Yakubu Gowon emerged as the Nigerian leader. Except for Col. Ojukwu, the military rallied round Gowon. Gowon released Chief Awolowo from prison, appointed him minister of finance and vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council. From the then existing four regions, 12 states were created in the first attempt to restructure Nigeria. Col. Ojukwu, in response, declared the eastern region the Republic of Biafra in the first attempt by any section to secede. A civil war broke out which, 30 months later, ended with the defeat of the Biafran secessionists. Gen. Obasanjo received the instrument of the Biafran surrender, marking the end of the civil war in January 1970.

When Gen. Gowon reneged on his promise to hand over to civilians, he was overthrown by the military which saw the emergence of Gen. Murtala Muhammed as head of state, with Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo as his deputy. They organized a most credible transition to civil rule, which Obasanjo adhered to, after Murtala was assassinated in an abortive coup in February 1976.

During the 1979 presidential election, Chief Awolowo, in trying to show goodwill to the Igbo, did an unusual thing by choosing Mr Philip Umeadi, an Igbo from the east, as his presidential running mate. This was unprecedented as both were Christians and both were southerners. That deprived Awolowo of the required geographical spread, and was thus defeated by Alhaji Shehu Shagari.

General Obasanjo not only handed over to a democratically elected government on October 1, 1979, but handed over to Shagari, a northerner. Obasanjo would have helped to install his kinsman, Awolowo. That act made him not only a national hero but an international statesman. The north in turn supported Obasanjo overwhelmingly and got him elected president of Nigeria in 1999 too. During the Babangida transition also, the north voted overwhelmingly for Chief Abiola during the June 12, 1993, presidential election against a northerner, Alhaji Bashir Tofa. The same Obasanjo also handed over to a northerner, Mallam Umaru Yar’Adua, in 2007 after his two terms. And when Babangida was leaving earlier, he appointed Chief Shonekan from the southwest as head of the interim national government.

However, it was the 2015 presidential election that saw the solidifying of the enduring friendship, partnership and perhaps permanent political relationship between the north and the west: General Buhari chose Prof. Yemi Osinbajo as running mate and it became like the civilian equivalent of the Murtala/Obasanjo regime in terms of cohesion and unity of purpose. The southwest and the whole north voted overwhelmingly for that ticket. It saw the first defeat of an incumbent president in the history of Nigeria. That was the culmination of over two centuries of mutually beneficial relationship, thanks to President Obasanjo, Senator Bola Tinubu, President Buhari, generals Babangida and Abdulsalami and many others.

Over the years, the Yoruba as a people have played significant roles in the survival, sustenance and development of Nigeria politically, economically and socially. The first university in Nigeria, the Ibadan University, is in the southwest. Most first-generation western-educated northerners graduated from that university and have kept strong bonds as a result. Lagos in the southwest was the capital of Nigeria for over half a century. Most first-generation civil and military officers did their career there. And thanks to the accommodating nature of the people, Lagos is still the economic nerve-centre of Nigeria. The Yoruba also have very high sense of justice and fairness. That is why they were in the forefront of fighting dictatorship and human right abuses.

With what happened in 2015, the political landscape of Nigeria may have changed forever. After all, the northwest and southwest alone have a combined voting strength of 50 per cent of the whole country. It is impossible to ignore such a block.

History is on the side of the oppressed.

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