I had wanted to do some sort of follow-up to my article of last Sunday following a reply and suggestion I got from a classmate and very close friend of mine who read it. However, after attending the 12th Zik’s Annual Lecture Series of the Faculty of Social Sciences of my university last Thursday, I have decided to defer this follow-up article. As usual, Zik’s beliefs, values and work became the intellectual rallying point as former President Joyce Banda of Malawi mounted the podium as the guest lecturer.
I have thus resolved to seize this opportunity of Zik’s 119th birth anniversary to do what I have since delayed doing; dust up, review and republish an article I wrote around this time last year in the light of events that have unfolded subsequently in our nation. It is about what Zik represents for the Igbo nation and their quest for emancipation and growth. He has been accused by many of being more Nigerian than Igbo, of not being passionate about Igbo interest, but rather investing his time and energy in pursuit of one Nigeria. In extreme cases, he has been accused of outright sabotage against his ethnic group.
However, as a student of Nigerian history and role of Zik in it all, I have come to disagree with these views. My thesis is that Dr. The Rt. Hon. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Owelle of Onitsha, the great Zik of Africa, saw a vision that was greater than those of his fellow nationalists and worked for its realization. He was convinced that his philosophy and vision would, in the best practical way, lead to the greater good of the Igbo and their compatriots. He stood firmly with his conviction and I stand with him!
Zik’s philosophy of the state captures the fact that for the state to blossom, it must prevail over the tribe. State sentiments must stand tall over tribal sentiments and the myth of the state must prevail over the myth of the tribe. To state it in another way, Zik believed that being that history has brought us together as a state, the political entity called Nigeria must be run as a state and not as an enclave of multiple clans pursuing varying and often conflicting clannish interests leading to divergent loyalties that will inevitably hinder the evolution of state institutions. The modern state does not thrive on filial emotions (love and fraternal loyalty) characterisitcs of families, tribes and clans, but on institutional objectivity that pursues goals based on common interest and allocate rewards/sanctions based on merit. Therefore, to keep the state below or at par with tribal loyalties, instead of above them, is to encumber the state and expose it to implosion as with Nigeria and many African countries today. Permit me to digress a bit by making reference to philosophy as a way of further elucidating these points.
One of the greatest contributors to the Western political thought, the German idealist, GWF Hegel, over 200 years ago, alluded to this tribe versus state phenomenon. In THE PHENOMENON OF THE SPIRIT, Hegel identified three stages of evolution of human consciousness (or spirit): the subjective spirit which is the realm of individual thinking and feelings, the objective spirit which is the negation of the subjective spirit and a realm where thought has become externalised, and then the absolute spirit which is the ultimate realisation of the universal (historical) consciousness. The objective spirit, according to him, has three phases: the family, the civil society and the state. The family is the domain of emotions (love) where judgment and actions are motivated by feelings. The civil society, on the contrary, imposes legal objectivity as the driver of judgments and actions, it is a negation of the family. Lastly the state prevails as the ultimate realisation of the universal good realized through constitutionalism. The relevant point here is that filial emotions that drive the family cannot drive the civil society or the state. Hegel’s writings show that clans and tribes are rightly to be included under the category of “family” because they all are rooted in filial emotions and fraternal ties. To put it pointedly, clans and tribes are realms of fraternal emotions while the state is a realm of objectivity where laws and institutions govern. Anything to the contrary is a pathway to a failed state.
Zik recognised this incurable contradiction between tribalism and statehood and preached for state purity. His Zikist ideology recognised negation of clannish prejudices (social regeneration) as a key pathway to Africa’s emancipation and growth (resorgimento). In a statement he made in 1953 on the eve of the departure of the NCNC delegation for London for the revision of the Macpherson Constitution, he reaffirmed his belief that common good must be realised only on the common table of statehood where state loyalties stand very tall over tribal loyalties. He said: “We are leaving Nigeria and the Cameroons with the determination of achieving national unity through a workable Constitution based on common nationality and respect for human dignity. In pursuing this objective we shall tackle our common problems with an open mind and a warm heart for the rights of our compatriots, no matter from what region they may emanate… and we shall not depart from the fundamental philosophy that has guided great nations to build a heritage of freedom.”
From the above, it is obvious that Zik, contrary to what some believe, was not unaware of our diversities, hence his advocating for national unity achieved “through a workable Constitution based on common nationality and respect for human dignity.” This is what majority of Nigerians are still earning for today including by asking for a restructured federation. He saw this from the very beginning. Zik was also emphatic that “we shall not depart from the fundamental philosophy that has guided great nations to build a heritage of freedom.” A key part of those principles, of course, is placing state consciousness and state loyalties over those of ethnicty and other clannish interests.
It is failure to grasp this principle that has led a lot of persons into criticising Zik for not playing ethnic politics as they attempt to contrast his politics with that of Ahmadu Bello and Awolowo whose method tended towards ethnic nationalism. Ahmadu Bello went to the extent of implementing his “northernisation” policy. A widely shared video has shown him explaining to a foreign journalist why he would rather employ a foreigner in the northern regional civil service than gave the slot to an Igbo given what he saw as the Igbo’s domineering tendencies.
Now over 60 years after Independence, what advantage can those who championed ethnicism claim to have over the people of Eastern Nigeria led by Zik in terms of real indices of development? Is it in literacy rate, income level, access to healthcare, or standard of living generally? To be sure, the people of the Southeast are far better off than the people of the North, the supposed beneficiaries of Sarduana’s ethnic activism and the supposed gainers of the so-called age-long Hausa-Fulani hegemony. What happened? The answer is simple: the state cannot be built based on fraternal emotions. No amount of nepotism and favouritism as born out of filial emotions can replace institutional objectivity in nation building. The same can be said of how Nigerians have been allowing ethnic emotions to determine their voting pattern at elections; have any people in Nigeria fared better than others just for voting their tribesman into power? After taking the lion’s share of key federal appointments under President Buhari’s eight years, what can the north say they have gained over and above other ethnic groups in the country?
Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, giving reasons for his coup of January 1966, stated, “we seized power to stamp out tribalism, nepotism and regionalism.” That was filial emotions being correctly blamed for creating the conditions that took glory out of the First Republic. The story did not stop there; we had to go through a very bloody counter-coup, a pogrom and a civil war. And up till today the demons of filial emotions (as embodied by tribalism) are still dealing with us as a nation.
One of the episodes widely referred to in discussing Zik’s so-called anti-Igbo politics is his role in Biafra. Many have accused him of not standing by his people or outright betrayal of them during that historic episode. Interestingly, one of the critics was Engr. Joe Igbokwe who, in his 1995 book, IGBOS 25 YEARS AFTER BIAFRA, accused Zik of defecting to the federal side at some point in the war. (Ironically, Igbokwe is today on the receiving end of ethnic chastisement as Igbo ethnic mobs have endlessly harassed the activist-turned politician due to his political views.) However, the accusations of betrayal levelled on Zik by the likes of Igbokwe vis-a-vis the civil war is far from the truth.
It is on record that Azikiwe was an irreplaceable diplomatic asset to Biafra during that war. His diplomatic efforts led to recognition of Biafra by five countries – Gabon, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Zambia and Haiti. Zik would not be carried away by the emotion-laden declaration by Ojukwu that “no force in black Africa” could defeat Biafra. He saw through the emotions and ethno-nationalistic hysteria of the time and understood clearly that a Biafran military that started a war well into the 20th century without a single combat aircraft was most unlikely to avoid a defeat by a much better equipped enemy. So, his aim was to get Biafra in as much strong position as possible to negotiate an end to the war. Working with Ralph Uwechue who was doing diplomatic duties for Biafra in France, Zik sought and got the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to approve that Ojukwu addresses its Consultative Committee Meeting in May 1968 in Niamey, Niger Republic. The aim was for Ojukwu to present the Biafra’s case and give definitive conditions on which Biafra would give up seccesion and lay down her arms. These would include implementation of the Aburi Accord. At that time, Biafra, though having lost some territory to Nigeria, still presented much military headache to Gowon and his invading army. This coupled with the recognition of Biafra by five countries and sympathy from many others including France meant that the new nation welded a strong bargaining power; a reason Nigeria could be very glad to accept Ojukwu’s conditions for ending the war – or at least negotiate on those terms, with both sides possibly shifting grounds where necessary. It was a golden opportunity which only Zik’s vast international connections and political craftsmanship could have set up. No living Igbo then could have done that!
However, as it turned out, this golden opportunity was sacrificed on the altar of unguarded ethnic nationalism. Fraternal emotions defeated pragmatism. Some Biafran senior officials, notably Louis Mbanefo and C.C. Mojekwu, convinced Ojukwu to jettison the planned speech in favour of a different presentation filled with utopian statements as to how Biafran nation was irreversible. This was a time the OAU was headed by Emperor Haile Salessie of Ethiopia who was struggling against Eritrean seccession moves. He could not have supported seccession in Nigeria while preventing his countrymen from doing same. It was at this stage that Zik quietly withdraw from the scene, left Biafra and went to the UK. Uwechue equally resigned as a Biafran diplomat.
Recalling this episode in his book, REFLECTIONS ON THE NIGERIAN CIVIL WAR, Ralph Uwechue, who later became the President-General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, regretted that Mbanefo who frustrated the opportunity to end the war in a way that would have left the dignity of Ndi Igbo intact (or even elevated it higher), was ironically among the delegation that was in Lagos on January 15 1970 to conclude the humiliating unconditional surrender of Biafra. For me it’s always painful watching that video of the delegation which included some of the Igbo finest such as Sir Mbanefo the first Igbo lawyer and first Supreme Court Justice as well as senior military officer Col. Patrick Anwunah as they walked in almost like captives to meet with Gowon whereupon the leader of the delegation, Gen Effiong read the speech that humiliatingly ended with the line; “and that the Republic of Biafra ceases to exist.” In a late-night national broadcast, Gowon completed the humiliation in a speech where he declared that “the so-called Biafran sun is set forever.”
Unfortunately, Igbo ethnic jingoists have continued to attempt to rewrite history in order to suit their narrative that Zik was anti-Igbo. This was a man whose dexterous diplomacy could have given the Igbo an honourable exit route out of that war. The Igbo would not have been a defeated people, but a proud race that successfully forced the largest military force in black Africa to the negotiation table and extracted concessions.
Zik was in truth a pragmatist. Those who accuse him of utopianism think that people who implemented ethnic nationalism such as Awo and Sarduana were the pragmatists. But today results are vindicating Zik. The path of ethnic politics has been leading Nigeria to nowhere but suffering and destruction. Neither the legacy of Awo nor that of Sarduana has made the average Yoruba or Hausa better than their Igbo counterpart today. Zik was realistic enough to see that the state must be elevated above competing clans for it to function in full health. State institutions negate clannish emotions. Ask great nations how they became great. But Nigeria refused to see.
Today as always, I stand with Zik. I have studied his life and philosophy since I finished my secondary school. He was a man of immense intellectual depth and with an encyclopaedic mind. I suspect that some among his castigators are either too cerebrally feeble to grasp the deep sublimity of his philosophising or are merely refusing to see. Zik was indeed a collosus of our time and I celebrate him on this 119th anniversary of his birth.
Henry Chigozie Duru, PhD, teaches journalism and mass communication at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka. Nigeria.