The Igbo and the Yoruba occupy front-row seats in individual achievements in Nigeria, but politically it seems a curse, or a spell, had been cast on them long before 1960 when Nigeria got her Independence. In spite of the achievements of these two ethnic groups, they have always played second fiddle in Nigeria, and seem to have been happy doing so, because of myopia and pettiness.
In the last 100 years of modern history, it is difficult to recall anytime the Yoruba people attacked the Igbo living in Yorubaland and vice versa. The people of these two ethnic groups may bicker, compete, exchange hot words but it never degenerates into physical combat or bloodshed.
They have different cultures but share some common values like respect for human life, love for education, love for Western life, quest for excellence, religious tolerance, love for enterprise, and self-reliance. Each year, they produce the highest number of graduates, professionals and rich men in Nigeria.
Yet, rather than come together to give the nation true direction, they bicker over trivialities, blaming one another as the cause of the national problems, making puny attempts to belittle the other, believing they are wise.
Once they mock and tear each other apart, they assume they have won World War III. Once they see the other side lose out in anything it is pursuing, they feel they have achieved the 10th Wonder of the World.
What is the result? In spite of their academic and business achievements, they have continually lagged behind in the power equation of the nation. Sadly, for over five decades, they have learnt nothing.
Anytime a discussion is raised about the need for the Igbo and the Yoruba to close ranks, most Igbo and Yoruba would buy the idea. But ironically, many of those who stress the need for the two ethnic groups to work together would say that they would immediately start blaming the other ethnic group as the cause of the disunity between the two. Then, they would say unkind things about the other ethnic group and tell you that they are simply telling the truth. And they usually end with a conclusion that runs thus: “You guys need to admit the truth so that your ethnic group can move forward.” With such bigoted so-called truths, accusations and counter-accusations as well as insults would be exchanged, and everyone would return to square one of bickering and playing second fiddle.
Yet, the two ethnic groups claim to be educated, well-travelled, exposed and wise. One then wonders how wise people could behave foolishly consistently for decades.
Interestingly, it is the leaders of the two ethnic groups who sowed the seed of suspicion and distrust that has been bearing abundant fruits in and out of season. Before Nigeria’s Independence, the biggest and most educated political leaders in Nigeria were Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Their people saw them as demi-gods. When the election for the first Prime Minister of Nigeria was held at Independence, neither Azikiwe nor Awolowo became the Prime Minister.
Later, the Nigerian Civil War threw up another leader for the Igbo: Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. He replaced Azikiwe among the Igbo and the bickering between the Igbo and Yoruba continued.
Ironically, the Igbo and the Yoruba intermarry in high numbers. They partner in business. They work together in offices. They play together and laugh together. But once it comes to political issues, the imaginary line emerges and the blame game commences.
It was, therefore, heart-warming to hear late last year that a group known as Nzuko Umunna was working on a summit that would bring the South-East and South-West together in Enugu. The summit, which was tagged, “Handshake Across the Niger: A Celebration of Igbo/Yoruba Friendship Beyond Brotherhood,” was meant to unite the Igbo and the Yoruba by highlighting the unity and sacrifice that resulted in the deaths of Major General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi and Lt. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi who were killed together during the July 1966 coup. Fajuyi was said to have resisted the killing of Aguiyi-Ironsi, who was his guest and head of state, and he was subsequently killed with the visiting head of state by the coup plotters. It was an act of courage and loyalty that has not been highlighted enough in the relationship between the Igbo and the Yoruba.
Happily that event held last week in Enugu with the families of Fajuyi and Aguiyi-Ironsi in attendance. Representatives of the Middle Belt and the South-South were also present. The two key highlights of the conference were the reinforcement of the call for the restructuring of Nigeria as well as the call for the proscription of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria and the declaration of the Fulani herdsmen as a terror group.
At the end of the summit, a communiqué was issued. Some points from the communiqué were that the summit:
“3. Noted that in a long history of close relations and association, the Igbo and Yoruba have no recorded instances of violence against each other’s ethnic group, 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;
“4. 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;
“5. Noted that the HS 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 realising the destiny of Nigeria as a start-up nation-state that can achieve great things;”
The sad part of the summit is that while the cream of Igbo leaders represented the South-East, members of the All Progressives Congress from the South-West did not participate. It is obvious that they placed partisan politics above the interest of the people. These are people who have championed the issue of restructuring for over two decades. But they have kept away from all meetings held to press for restructuring in the last two years, because they assume that discussing what they have championed for decades is tantamount to opposing the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, whose Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, is a kinsman.
Interestingly, if they fall out with Buhari or lose out in the political permutations, they will find their voice and return to the campaign for true federalism. Let them pray that at that time they will find somebody to work with.
Buhari’s words and actions have shown that despite using the word “restructuring” to win election in 2015, he is against any effort to restructure Nigeria. It is obvious that he can only accept restructuring if his back is on the wall. It is, therefore, important that the pressure be kept on.
There are those who do not want to see the South-East and South-West work together. The blackmail they use is that it is a “gang-up against the North.” But when the North and South-West work together, it is not called a gang-up against the South-East. When the North works with the South-East, it is not called a gang-up against the South-West. It is also not called a gang-up against the South-West or South-East when the North works with the South-South. So, why is it different whenever the South-East plans to work with the South-West?
There is immense benefit in having a harmonious relationship between the Igbo and Yoruba. That is why this handshake should even graduate to a hug across the Niger.