With last Thursday’s meeting of the leaderships of the Southwest and Southeast geo-political zones in Enugu, where the two blocs agreed to work together, there are high expectations that Nigeria’s political journey will take a new direction.
The Southwest and Southeast geo-political zones have always met and taken joint positions on issues of common interest. But despite this, the relationship has not been producing the desired results because of feelings of mistrust, betrayal and bottled anger that always mar such resolutions.
The reasons for such mutual suspicions are not far-fetched. They are borne, among others, out of the tragic brutal murder in the late hours of July 29,1966, of Nigeria’s first Military Head of State, General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi and Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, then Governor of Western region at the Government House Ibadan.
Both men were killed in the revenge coup that followed the military putsch of January 15, 1966 and since then, relationship between the two regions was badly affected as acrimonies and unhealthy rivalries dominated issues affecting them.
The resultant effect was an abandonment of the bond of friendship that Aguiyi-Ironsi and Fajuyi enjoyed while they lived. It was gathered that Fajuyi, who played host to the Head of State had resisted entreaties by the coup plotters and defended his boss like a brother and in the end, paid with his life.
Last Thursday after many years of rivalry, leaders of the two regions met in Enugu in a bid to rekindle this bond of friendship in a parley they tagged “Handshake across the Niger.”To showcase the importance of the renewal of the bond, prominent personalities from the two zones attended the summit organized by Nzuko Umunna, an affiliate of Ohanaeze Ndigbo.
Present at the one-day summit were President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Nnia Nwodo who led other Igbos of note including Chief Anya O. Anya, Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa, Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Nnaemeka Achebe, former governors Chukwuemeka Ezeife, Ikedi Ohamkim, family of Aguiyi Ironsi led his wife Victoria, Abia Deputy governor, Ude Udochukwu, his Imo counterpart Eze Madumere, Prof Solo Chukwulobe, Anambra Secretary to State government (SSG), Dr Alex Oti, Dr Joe Nworgu, Mrs Onyeka Onwenu, Mr Ifeanyi Uba, Prof Pat Utomi and many others.
A chieftain of Afenifere, Chief Ayo Adebanjo led other Yoruba leaders that included Prof Banji Akintoye, Chief Olu Falae, Chief Yinka Odumakin, former governor Dr Olusegun Mimiko, Prof Akinyemi Onigbinde, Femi Okurounmu, Tony Urunta, Femi Fani-Kayode, Donald Fajuyi, Buknor Akerede, Chief Supo Shobanire and several others to the summit.
There were also former Plateau State governor, Jonah Jang, representative from Niger Delta, several groups and associations drawn from the two regions, traditional rulers and religious leaders among others.
To consummate the newfound relationship, the families of Aguiyi-Ironsi and Fajuyi were made to hold hands. And lifting the hands towards heaven, Nwodo and representative of Ooni of Ife, declared, “Let by-gone be by-gone. We are building a future together where equity, fairness, justice and mutual respect will exist for the good of our people and development of Nigeria.”
After the proclamation, the Onitsha monarch prayed that “God will bless this union and reconnection again in Jesus name.” And with a thunderous “Amen” the pact was sealed. Joy immediately saturated the entire hall as the leaders took to the dance floor for music supplied by Onwenu and Jimi Solanke.
The occasion also provided opportunity for the leaders to ventilate their anger over some developments in the country, especially the need for restructuring and the killings allegedly being perpetrated in various parts of the country by Fulani herdsmen. They had also agreed to work together for the development, peace and unity of the country and on issues affecting them.
In a communiqué signed by Nwodo and Adebanjo and read by Ambassador Humphery Orjiako, the two zones noted that the symbolic handshake, anchored on the heroism Aguiyi-Ironsi Fajuyi, though long overdue, has finally burst the myth of Igbo-Yoruba irreconcilable differences and spiteful rivalry, thus, providing new impetus for resurgence of the same bold, patriotic and nationalist solidarity of the two ethnic groups from the 1930s to the 1950s that earned independence for Nigeria in 1960.
According to them: “In a long history of close relation and association, the Igbo and Yoruba have no recorded instances of violence against each other such as inter-ethnic mass killings and destruction and/or seizure of property; that instead, they have lived, worked and prospered together, accommodating and respecting their differences.”
They expressed awareness that grievances generated by past errors on both sides can no longer justify or sustain dissention between the two groups whose solidarity and mutual collaboration have the capacity to dramatically change the fortunes of Nigeria, thereby also, changing the fates of the African continent and the black race;
They added that the handshake has brought about a new dawn of irreversible amity in the horizon of Igbo-Yoruba relations, that they have today declared time-up for, and permanently buried, the hatchet of distrust and spiteful rivalry, leading to a credible tipping-point of optimism and opportunity in realizing the destiny of Nigeria as a start-up nation-state that can achieve great things.
To ensure that workability of the relationship, they resolved to “collaborate closely to create mutually beneficial opportunities, build a strong alliance to advance their ever growing mutual interests, while striving together to meet the common responsibilities of building a united, coherent and prosperous nation-state of free peoples, freely relating to one another across the dividing lines of tribe, religion, region and politics.
“Declared unflinching support for a truly federal union of Nigeria that is democratic, stable, secure, peaceful, just and fair to all its citizens. Committed to work in close partnership and through peaceful means to restructure Nigeria, reducing and restricting the duties of the Federal Government to only matters of national importance on the exclusive list, while granting the federating units the right to take full responsibility for local, developmental and residual matters, as this will lead to healthy competition and cooperation among them, in place of the present dysfunctional arrangement that merely superintends over the sharing and consuming of rents, and holds some states and zones down for others to play the elusive game of catch-up.”
They also agreed to be “Committed to insistence therefore, on peaceful devolution of powers, fiscal federalism, land/resource ownership/control, reforming component structural and systemic institutions to radically reduce the escalating cost of governance;
“Committed to working tirelessly towards joining the economically-performing nations–China, India, Brazil, Israel, Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand etc.–not as a dependent State, but a competitive producer and exporter of knowledge-based goods and services; and to immediate implementation of pro federalism recommendations of the 2014 National Conference, in particular those affecting the efficiency of governance.”
They stated further that “the measures would reposition Nigeria to reach credible nationhood, attain its full potential and respect in the comity of nations thereby providing the leeway for the campaign for the political and economic renaissance of Africa and the black race.”
As the first step to achieve the objectives, the parley established standing committee “to drive the process and continually articulate fresh ideas and strategies to sustain the current zeal of understanding.”
Why the regions sought friendship
Although many had identified current national political realities as major factors behind the renewal of the old bond, several leaders at the summit gave reasons on why the relationship should be renewed at this point in the history of Nigeria.Former Secretary to Government of the Federation (SGF), Falae noted that the association did not just start with the Enugu meeting, stressing that it had a long history that had been subjected to circumstances threatening the existence of the country.
He added however that “It is not just a coming together but one critical for our unity and because the nation is sick and in the process of healing. It will trigger the process of healing the nation”
To former Ondo governor, Mimiko, “the handshake across the Niger was necessitated by three critical issues: The first is that seeking to build a stronger bond between the East and West, or better still across the Niger, is not inconsistent with our desire for national unity. Indeed, it is the case that when two significant units of a system work in harmony, it portends greater prospects of the entire system doing the same, and being more functional. The closer the East and West work, therefore, the surer the path of peace and development for Nigeria.
“Secondly, a comb through the history of our existence as East and West reveals profound pieces of evidence that should ordinarily serve as the basis of greater bonding between our two peoples. This is what the two objects of celebration today, Aguiyi-Ironsi and Fajuyi, personified. Let us therefore let go of our disagreement, misconceptions and pains of the past. Our narrative must change, otherwise the evident generational transfer of animosity will continue if unchecked.
“Thirdly, a handshake across the Niger, on its own and by itself, may not mean much if it does not provide the unimpeachable basis for deployment of governance structures for the betterment of the lives of our peoples.”
According to Ofili Okonkwo, “It is clearly beyond dispute that what happened between Fajuyi and Aguiyi-Ironsi rated far above a handshake; it measures beyond a union between a man and a woman whose vows are “until death do us part,” it speaks to an unbreakable bond shaped by the supreme spirit and sacrifice of the duo. It speaks to abiding friendship as well as to rare honour and to human dignity. That is why we must gather always as we have today to rekindle and exploit this supreme gift of unbreakable brotherhood between the Igbo, the Yoruba and all others.”
To further buttress this, Nwodo went down memory lane saying, “At the dawn of self-government and the commencement of political parties, Sir Herbert Macaulay exhibited that brotherhood with Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe. When Chief Obafemi Awolowo was incarcerated, Dr Micheal Okpara exhibited that bond as he looked after him in prison. Both of them sunk their differences and formed the United Progressive Grand Alliance. Many of us benefitted from this fraternity. At the end of the civil war, no Igboman had his property confiscated in Western Nigeria. I was elected President of the Students Union in a Yoruba dominated University of Ibadan. Today Igbo abound in property ownership, manufacturing and commerce in Lagos. We implore Yoruba to begin to invest in Igboland.”
For Adebanjo, the coming together was the catalyst that could promote the development of the country. He stated that the structure of the country was so lopsided that an association of the east and west was needed for the survival of the segments of the country.
He said, “We love education, we love commerce, we love, fear and serve the true God. We have respect for our fellow human beings. We are not lazy but have refused to allow circumstances placed on our way to overwhelm us. There are many factors that made us a unique people which will benefit us in the future if we stick as one.”
Implications of the handshake
It is yet to be seen how this reunion can work in a convoluted political atmosphere that prevails in Nigeria today. Many are expressing fears that the outcome of the 2019 general elections may make or mar the continued sustenance of the newfound relationship, going by the different views the two zones have maintained since the advent of the present administration. They insist that looking beyond political accruals was the key to advance the course of their struggle among others.
In his contribution, Jang stated that Nigeria had long awaited the coming together of West and East to drive other segments of the country towards speaking with one voice. He said, “I want to say that time has come to rethink those things that kept us down and ask ourselves what we are leaving behind for our future. We need to ask the question whether we have impacted or failed our youths who are the future of this country. This handshake should be extended across River Benue and other riverrine areas and I want to assure you that by the grace of God, it will ensure true federalism as bequeathed to us by our forefathers. The question of restructuring is not debatable and not in anybody’s hands to decide. It is a deal that must be accepted by all of us for greater tomorrow”, he said
For Chief Sam Sam Ohuabunwa: “The cementing factor here is trust because we have similar things in common – we love education, we love freedom, we love independence, we fear God, we love industrialization and we want sustenance. In sustaining Nigeria, we have made sacrifices but political expediency has kept us divided and thus hindering development of Nigeria.
“We must set a vision for ourselves and in this new vision we must hold ourselves responsible to ensure that the decision we reached is binding. Today must mark a new turn for our people where justice, equity and fair play must rule.”As the meeting rose, all eyes will now be fixed on the two zones to know how far they can go in their new resolve.