According to an adage, ‘‘United we stand and divided we fall’’. This aptly describes what is required in Nigeria for all the nationalities making up the country. If we are talking of restructuring, it we are talking of true federalism, if we are talking of confederation or any other thing we want to achieve as a nation, if we are not united in our demand for such a thing, we may not be able to achieve it. This is why we must throw overboard anything that may want to divide us as a country or groups making up the country. For quite some time now, those in the Igbo Nation have regarded the people in the Yoruba Nation as their enemy and when you ask the Easterners why? The reply they will give you is that the Westerners betrayed them during the Nigerian Civil War, thereby making them to lose the War. How did this happen? You will be told that a single individual ; Chief Obafemi Awolowo promised them or entered into an agreement with Chief Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu before the commencement of the war that if the East secedes, the West would follow suit. Some people are however of the opinion that this statement was made just before the commencement of the civil war, that is, on the eve of the declaration of the State of Biafra. To remove the animosity between the Easterners and the Westerners, it is good to examine the statement and discover what prompted it.
After the Aburi conference to which both sides of the divide i.e the North and the East were invited to resolve their differences, the then Governor of Eastern Region, Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu demanded for nothing other than a Confederal system of Government in which each region would be restored to its autonomous status, controlling its own affairs including having its own army, police and no region would be strongly under the control of the Central Government. All the others who attended this conference including the Governors of the other regions and the then Head of state, agreed with Odumegwu Ojukwu’s demand but when they got to Nigeria, the Head of State’s foreign advisers and the Nation’s Civil Servants saw this arrangement as very bad since the then Lt. Colonel Gowon, the Head of State would have nothing to control as all the powers that were supposed to be his had been surrendered to the people’s General; Odumegwu Ojukwu. Hence, the decree that they all agreed would be promulgated after the meeting, to announce what had been agreed upon at Aburi conference was not promulgated. It has to be made clear that after the counter coup of July 1966, the North was no longer interested in being part of Nigeria, they wanted to go their separate way, it was these same foreign advisers that advised the Northern counter coupists who were bent on seceding, the economic disadvantages of doing this. It will be a bleak future for the North. They would be cut off from the sea and would have no salary to pay their workers, since all the money comes from the South. This was what made the North calm down and Lt. Colonel Yakubu Gowon became the new Head of State after General Ironsi. To this writer, the advice given by the foreigners was nothing but a ruse. This is because we all know today that countries like Niger, Bukina Fasso (former Upper Volta), Chad, Mali, Sudan, e.t.c, that are farther away from the sea than Northern Nigeria are all existing today and in some of them , their citizens live a better life than the average Nigerian.
So while the new Head of State was still thinking of how to reverse the agreement that had been entered into at Aburi conference, people from Rivers side of Eastern region came to meet with the Head of State in Lagos on January 22, 1967 demanding that the Rivers people be given a separate Region of their own. Some people were of the opinion that this demand must have been influenced by some people. Whether this is true or not, the demand was both a political and economic master stroke for Lt. Colonel Gowon for this is where the so called oil of Eastern region came from. The new Head of State, some two days after this, announced that the Government may have to create more States to give everyone a sense of belonging. Without the oil, the so called Eastern Region was also finished economically and financially.
Now that the oil was no longer in the hands of Ojukwu, he was still bent on going or seceding and many members of the then Federal Executive Council were saying they should be allowed to go if they so desire after all, the major thing that was the economic mainstay of the Country-oil-was in the hands of the Central Government since the Riverians had demanded for a separate Region of their own and were no longer part of the East. There was no concrete action on the part of the Central Government. For most part, the Central Government was prepared to continue to forge ahead with the remaining part of the federation to the exclusion of the East. It was around this time on 1st May, 1967, that Chief Obafemi Awolowo made his popular statement that ‘‘if the East is allowed to go, then the West and Lagos will also go’’. The implication of this statement was immediately dawn on the Central Government because if the West and Lagos go, there is no way that the Central Government will from their own location without the West and Lagos, be collecting taxes from oil in Rivers State. With this, the Nigerian State that will emerge from this will be a shadow of its former seif. One of the qualities of a good Country is that all its component parts must be contiguous with each other. Without West and Lagos, the new Nigeria i.e. North and Rivers would be devoid of contiguity. Because of this, the Central Government now started taking concrete actions to ensure that the East was brought to the fold once again.
Hence, when this statement was made by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the Eastern press did not know why the statement was made, they simply blew it out of proportion claiming that immediately East declares its freedom from Nigeria, the West and Lagos will immediately follow suit, not knowing that the statement had been made to make everyone realize the fact that after the amalgamation of 1914, what the West wanted was a situation where the component units making up the Country will swim or sink together. If any unit is going, then it is ALL the units that will be affected and not otherwise. If this statement has not been made on that day on May 1, 1967, the East will not be part of the Country today. This gains in weight when considered against the background that the North had wanted to break away from the Country because of the event of January 15, 1966 carried out majorly by the Ibos.
It is the considered opinion of this writer that Chief Awolowo was a man that had a special interest in the Ibos, probably, due to their industry and business acumen. He wanted them to always be part of the Country.
Our brothers in the East should therefore not see this statement of May 1, 1967 as a betrayal but as an expression of love for them, the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines betray as follows: a)‘‘to give information about somebody or something to an enemy’’
b. ‘‘to hurt somebody who trust you, especially by not being loyal or faithful to him‘‘.
c. ‘‘to ignore your principles or beliefs in order to achieve something or gain an advantage for yourself’’. None of the above has happened in this case. Chief Awolowo’s statement was purely an expression if love because for the Ibos to have been left alone and allowed to go as at that time without the Eastern oil, the Ibos would have existed as a nation but would have been in a mess financially and this financial deficiency was actually one of reasons why Biafra lost the Nigerian civil war. For instance, after getting to Ore, the Biafran liberation army could not move to Ibadan and Lagos due to what Biafran Lt. Col. Wale Ademoyega described as dearth of weapons.
Hence, the Easterners should see the Westerners as friends and not enemies, who as at that time, wanted and today still want the best for them and the nation at large. Working together as one, there is nothing the two nationalities cannot achieve. Even the People’s General, Odumegwu Ojukwu did not see himself as having been betrayed by Chief Awolowo. He attended the latter’s funeral after his death and described the Chief in a colourful way as “the best President Nigeria never had”. The former Ikemba of Nnewi, Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu was a highly experienced soldier who was trained in one of the best Universities in England. He knew that the only way for the development and advancement of the Southern part of this country is for the people of both the East and Western part of Nigeria to see themselves as one and this is why he never saw Chief Awolowo or the Yoruba people as his enemies throughout his earthly sojourn. These two groups of Nigerians are highly educated, highly intelligent, highly mobile and highly sophisticated. With unity among the two groups, they will be able to achieve a lot within a united Nigeria. I want the youths of both the Eastern and Western Nigeria to emulate Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu by not seeing one another as enemies. If this can be done, the sky is the limit for both groups in the Nigerian nation.
I thank you for reading. Please forward your comments so that this writer may be further educated on this issue.