By Nnamdi Elekwachi
Sam Omatseye is an acclaimed publicist from whose journalistic enterprise and outings I love harvesting, he is as good as they come, doubtless. However Sam caught my attention yesterday with his latest piece on the candidacy of Peter Obi, the Labour Party presidential standard bearer. It was, and I must admit, a beautiful piece with respect to syntax, wording and crafting; but yet a sharp disservice to history, especially history of secession and the Igbo in Nigeria, combinedly. In this sense, it was only a beautiful nonsense; yes, that oxymoronic figure of speech captures it best! It then brings one to the question, ‘How good a student of history is or was Sam?’ I shall return to the history of secession, including the politics of it in the later part of my piece, especially to allow us see whether secession or even Biafra was the picture Sam painted.
Now, Sam, who writes for The Nation Newspaper, knows which side his bread is buttered given the bad press he frantically churned out against Peter Obi, which only reminds someone like me of the saying: ‘where you stand depends on where you sit,’ being Rufus Miles’ Law of the 1940s America. In other words, your position in a matter depends on your interest in the said matter. With Sam, it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
In his latest ‘Obi-tuary’ piece first published on his virtual platforms and later his column, Sam limited those who could virtually comment on the said post. I understand his reason for this could be privacy preference, to filter opinions, not necessarily to sample, collate or aggregate them; or to dodge the toxicity he brings to his camp being unprepared for what Achebe called ‘Media War.’ Sadly, and funnily too, the said piece was a supposed opinion article to which the reading public is expected to react, hence my piece. Although some of those who cheer for Obi may have a rather different approach from Obi himself, like Zik and Zikists, the same can equally be said of virtually all presidential candidates and their online supporters, including Sam’s paymaster, Tinubu. To the panoply of agents of ‘dis-Obidients,’ including originating sources of yellow journalism, Sam just adds a number. His seniors in this school being Reno Omokri, Dino Melaye and others. Still, democracy, we must understand, is a beautiful thing thriving in multiple opinions. But the beautiful thing is that hirelings like Sam have not found any scandalously shady thing concerning Obi’s background, unlike Tinubu, or say Atiku.
It is so funny how Sam, for whom I have huge respect hitherto and even now, could only limit secessionist agitation and the Obi candidacy to an Igbo affair, conveniently failing to mention that secession had knocked at Nigeria’s door at every time the nation neared one form of transition or the other, visiting all her geopolitical zones. He is definitely not a good student of history for wrongly mixing remote and recent histories in one rancid pot of borscht, with no causal link. Again, and in vain, Sam sweetens the pot, then takes his hate for a collective human group up a notch by asserting that Obi’s supporters are one and the same with Kanu’s pro-secessionists of South-East. There, he fails it, albeit partly – as Obi’s supporters cut across the federation just like those of others.
It may be mentioned that any discourse that interrogates Kanu’s secession bid deserves a balanced and objective view before we even talk of it as having to do with the Obi candidacy or not. The paymasters of Sam cannot be said to be the real and actual lovers of Nigeria and her unity than Obi. Tinubu, for example, who now aspires to govern Nigeria under APC platform, had once said he doesn’t believe in one Nigeria in a ThisDay Newspaper published on April 13, 1997. Many of us still have that edition, its virtual or traditional issue, yet Sam believes Obi champions a separatist cause even when he fails to give any evidence of such baseless claim that he advanced. For now, there is no record of Obi supporting IPOB or any separatist movement, even though the IPOB cause is a legitimate one by all extant public international laws and conventions, especially those to which Nigeria is a signatory and state party like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and African Charter on Human and People’s Rights known commonly as Banjul Declaration of 1981.
A certain lawyer and virtual friend of mine for whom I have respect and regard even went as far as saying that Hero Lager, a brand of beer he said Obi has interest in bears the Biafran emblem of a rising sun as official escutcheon; and so Obi is a Biafran sponsor. That young man failed to understand that the three regions that accompanied Nigeria to 1960 flag independence each had a symbol and flag briefly from 1960s-70, and that that of the East was a rising sun on a shield flanked by a leopard and a man in the white background or stripe of the Nigerian banner; just like the West had two elephants flanking a lion under a cocoa tree. What this looks like today is telling a Nigerian not to read Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun because it has a ‘Biafran’ symbol. Worst is, this Biafra hirelings like Sam fear to either mention or study is an older entity than Nigeria herself. Biafra was pronounced and recognised by Portuguese coastal trading agents in 1492 or thereabouts, whereas Nigeria was pronounced by the British in 1890s! And beyond just being a mere symbolism of a rising sun(an eastern phenomenon), Biafra represents an era no Igbo would want to forget like Jews are apt to remember 1939-45. While there is a little closure to genocide questions, even that the Heroro and Nama tribes people underwent at the hands of Germans, Biafra suffers attempt to be wiped away from living memory.
By 1914, before the East dreamt of separatism, the North had wanted to maintain a separate existence from the rest of the country, even to the point of contemplating secession. Writing in his autobiography, Ahmadu Bello, former premier of the North had averred:
‘Lord Lugard and his amalgamation were far from popular amongst us at the time. There were agitations in favour of secession; we should set up on our own; we should cease to have anything more to do with the Southern people…’ (See My Life… by Ahmadu Bello, P. 134/5).
At amalgamation, the North, being less politically sophisticated and advanced, had wanted a separate entity from the people of the South, evidently as seen in Bello’s own account. Ahmadu Bello who wrote his book before the East contemplated secession even used the word “secession” in his own details. The record of the Lancaster talks preceding independence still show how the North wanted a Nigeria they can control or nothing, contrary to what Chief Obafemi Awolowo and his western delegates had wanted, whereas Zik was the only one who wanted one Nigeria, even to the point of accepting to form a coalition with Balewa’s NPC at independence. In fact, certain un-initiates of history like Sam Omatseye had advanced that Enahoro was the first to move for independence of Nigeria by 1953, even when notable and leading scholars like the Ghanian K.A.B Jones-Quartey had written in the 1960s about how Zik asked that Nigeria be allowed to attain the status of a self-governing entity in the 1940s (see A Life of Azikiwe by K.A.B Jones-Quartey).
Nigerians are not friends of history and so people like Omatsaye could be forgiven for not seeing the Biafra War, which wounds continue to bleed today, objectively as a crisis rooted in a plot hatched by young Nigerian soldiers to end disturbances and turmoil that threatened a fledgling nation in the 1960s, beginning in her West with ‘Penkelemesi,’ ‘Wild Wild West,’ ‘Operation Wetie’ and the like in the days of Akintola-Awolowo conflict, climaxing to war in the East. If today Omatseye presents Obi as one looking to reap from the fruits of separatist agitations in the South-East just to become president, then he needs to go back to the history of his paymaster, even those before him in the Yoruba West. It is clear from the accounts made available by the so-called ‘January boys’ of 1966 through their coup narratives and war memoirs that the initial game plan was to install Obafemi Awolowo, a Yoruba chief, as the president.
Before mentioning secession in Nigeria, it is pertinent for us to visit the politics of 1950/51 when Chief Obafemi Awolowo, had insisted that should the colonial government insist on administering Lagos as a separate entity, being the federal capital territory, outside the rest of the West, the West would secede from the union, to which Zik had snapped back at him saying, ‘Secession is against the federation…’ In fact, Awolowo would later urge that the clause and article of secession be inserted into what later became Macpherson’s Constitution of 1951 to no avail. Why do writers like Sam limit secession, which was begun first by Bello’s North and advanced by Awolowo’s West as solely Igbo affair without tracing the root of secession itself, without mentioning characters like Adaka Boro who made it a threat of force shortly before 1967? Indeed, to the history of secession in Nigeria, Omatsaye likens to the burial absentee who does exhume the interred from the feet. This he does with a wishy-washy narrative of history, I daresay. So, it is safe to say that secession in Nigeria has never for once been the antecedental corollary of all forms of marginalisation or fears of domination exhibited by other Nigerians, like Kenule Saro Wiwa of Ogoniland, and as well as the Igbo because half-baked chroniclers like Sam run columns in the national dailies?
If people supported Kanu’s Biafra and later yielded to ‘One Nigeria’ on account of Obi’s candidature, then it makes Obi a unifier and shows to that extent how political and economic exclusion might have been the plank of the campaign for a plebiscitary restoration of Sovereign State of Biafra. Did not the Yoruba threaten to leave Nigeria first in 1950/51 and later shortly before 1999 transition? Did not the North do same as far back as 1914 as seen in Bello’s own words cited herein above and later in 1966 when they chanted ‘Araba’?
Again, Tinubu who was once a senator by 1992 during the botched Third Republic later became the Jagaban he is today in the Fourth Republic because of politics of separatism. This is what Sam, following his mono-causal approach to historical events, fails to see, or sees but fails to acknowledge. 1999, it has to be said, wouldn’t have come for the Yorubas the way it did were it not for fear of secession entertained by other Nigerians. After the death of Chief M.K.O. Abiola, the acclaimed winner of the June 12 presidential election, the military establishment, urged by their old colleagues and retired generals, insisted on a power shift to the South, in fact, it was even micro-zoned to the South-West with Obasanjo and Olu Falae clinching their party presidential tickets. Tinubu, who returned from political exile as a former NADECO hero, would later, under this circumstance, become the governor of Lagos State, even though he was not one of the 49 signatories to NADECO instrument of May 15, 1994!
Sam has taken up his pen in defence of Tinubu today. There is nothing wrong with this enterprise as long as food comes to the table, but the question should be, if agitation is now part of Nigeria’s presidential history, what could be said of Jonathan who was made a vice president and later president at the heat of militancy and economic sabotage in his South-South region? Is Peter Obi being considered in any quarters because his brothers are making angry noise about secession in the name of Biafra or just because Nigerians are pushing for a project they believe in? Did Sam write a piece to tell the world and his wife how Jonathan and his Ijaw nation traded off agitation to have the presidency as he does with Obi currently, even to the point of belabouring the Igbo?
The worst, for someone like Sam, is the attempt to reduce Obi to a Biafra project. We all were here when, in a recent interview, the governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki raised concern over the growing popularity of Obi in his South-South state, as a perceived threat. Obi is making inroads at other states too, and I am not here to argue with or harangue anybody because of an opinion they hold, but Sam would have done better to dwell on the business of the day, in this case going straight to the business of marketing his paymaster, as he did in his previous piece ‘The Case for Shettima.’
Holding opinions is one of our fundamental rights, expressing our opinions too is also a fundamental right; but the worst historical enterprise is that done without historical discipline but just to exclude a people or their history because it serves a certain purpose; Sam indeed made secession an Igbo thing thereby subverting and inverting history. Sam does all these and more not because he is a free spirit and moral agent capable of holding and forming and writing his opinion but because he is standing where he would love to sit. But nobody should associate Obi’s movement with Biafra. I still see people using Nnamdi Kanu’s pictures, Biafra flags and symbols as profile on social media platforms. So why do people still sit at home on Mondays?
Like Zik said, ‘History will vindicate the just and God shall punish the wicked.’
Nnamdi Elekwachi, a historian, can be reached via [email protected]