Nigeria: I want to be a tribalist…Like Awo
From the title, you know I’m not yet a tribalist, but becoming one is now my all-consuming ambition. My preferred brand of tribalism is one popularized by the late sage, Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo. Before the rest of you ultra-nationalists ‘bomb’ me to smithereens, let me rehearse my resume. I am full-blooded Ndigbo and I can’t recall any time in my over forty years of
earthly existence when I was ashamed of that illustrious heritage.
There is a handful of Igbos whose ancestry is subject to controversy. Certainly not the war-like, industrious people of Ohafia.
Growing up during the civil war, I could write volumes on the horrors of a war whose true intentions were at best woolly from either side. As a little boy, death and dying weren’t as scary as they now seem to boys my age. Fact was, only a very thin line separated the so-called living, the dying and the dead. It didn’t mean that we had lost all sense of feeling. It just meant we were better primed to confront all eventualities. Babies, to be sure were also made during this dark period and what a sturdy breed they turned out to be! I can speak most certainly of my kid brother, Anya.
This was also a time of unprecedented propaganda: some true, others, not nearly. We were often regaled with stories of burgeoning international support that would soon turn the tide of war in our favour. Many were eliminated just because someone branded them as saboteurs or simply, “sabo”. To be sure, some of those sabo were beyond our reach: deep in enemy territory. Chief among this lot was a man simply called Awo. What the Biblical Haman was to the Jews was what Awo was made to appear to Ndigbo. He desired the extermination of Ndigbo. The policy of currency change, Awo’s brainchild was a masterstroke that hastened the war’s end. As if that wasn’t enough, all “biafrans”, irrespective of what amount they had in banks before war broke out, were to be paid a paltry £20! Again Awo was fingered as the architect of this diabolical plot. Not that I really took these facts to heart as a child. Nonetheless, they were tucked away somewhere in my sub-conscious until sometime in 1978.
Those were the heydays of the second republic when the NPN, UPN, NPP, GNPP and PRP bestrode the political landscape. Awo was the presidential flag bearer of the UPN while the great Zik carried the flag of NPP. Predictably, Awo was routinely presented as a hater of Igbos who didn’t merit their votes. But another element was added to the mix: Awo was a tribalist who could not be trusted with power at the national level. What I understood then about being a tribalist was that you loved your people so much you were incapable of loving others. That of course was supposed to be a bad thing because anyone qualified to govern Nigeria must love her—every part: warts and all.
Awo lost the 1979 election with the attendant controversies and the dubious manner they were resolved. At this time, I was a student in Federal Government College, Kaduna and I was in the process of choosing which higher institution to attend. Maybe it was my predilection for confronting conjectured controversies that combined to push me towards the University of Ife. Having learned from history that Ife was where it all began for the Yorubas, I concluded that anyone so in love with the Yorubas as Awo was touted to be must leave incontrovertible evidence there. I needed to resolve this Awo business. For myself.
So to Ife I came in August 1980; a starry-eyed teenager with my ‘biafran’ prejudices neatly hidden away. The best time to arrive Ife is in broad daylight. Incidentally, I made my inaugural entry in the dead of night; no thanks to the dubious antics Onitsha touts. This did not in any way lessen the exhilarating aesthetic experience of seeing an academic institution so well planned; almost so perfectly executed. Here was a campus whose complexity lay in its almost disarming simplicity. You needn’t be an architectural or artistic genius to recognize when beauty and functionality are in perfect harmony. In every aspect of the planning and disposition of this model of an institution, these two are locked in an eternal embrace.
Ergonomics is the science that relates the work environment including the design of furniture and equipment to efficiency. I believe there was something about the ergonomics of the Institute of African Studies that helped produce Nigeria’s first and only Nobel Laureate: the inimitable Wole Soyinka. Had not the standards been so hideously compromised by military adventurists and their civilian collaborators, we would by now have produced a handful. It was an environment that produced academics of indubitable intellectual pedigree, not the present regime steeped in unabashed plagiarism and political chicanery. Nowadays, the place is littered with “quota” professors and “handout” merchants.
When I tell people that I didn’t own a bucket in all my seven years in Ife, it’s almost like saying I won the gubernatorial contest in Abia without resorting to the diabolical. But the claim is as true as they come. And that says volumes about the superlative state of Ife’s infrastructure. I was keenly aware of the hell students went through getting water in nearby University of Ibadan. Even in the much younger University of Benin, the water situation was only marginally better than UI’s. If at that time the University of Ife was dubbed the most beautiful campus in all of Africa, that beauty was all-encompassing and roundly deserved.
And Awo, the celebrated hater of Ndigbo, the confirmed tribalist was the founder of this enduring edifice? I knew I still had a thing or two to learn about this brand of tribalism. The zenith of my transformative experience was my encounter with “Cocoa House” in Ibadan. I had known from history the place of cocoa in the economy of Western Nigeria and how Awo had caused to be erected, a tall building in its honour. But nothing I’d known prepared me for that moment when, approaching Ibadan from Iwo Road, I saw this thing pointing menacingly into the sky. When I’d regained a little of my composure, I asked my Yoruba partner what “that thing” was, and he answered casually that it was cocoa house.
For as long as I was in Ibadan, I kept trying to locate this monument and on each and every occasion, I never failed to. For many years, cocoa house served not just as an enduring physical landmark but also as an incontrovertible evidence of a man’s vision and unfeigned love for the welfare of his people. If this was what tribalism made people do, then most certainly I wanted to be initiated into it.
Let me make a belated confession. What actually prompted me to write this piece is the presidential ambition of former military president, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB). An event that took place in 1986 involving Awo and IBB is etched deeply in my memory. It was the final day of the convocation ceremonies of the university. IBB was there as the visitor with all the trappings and accoutrements of a military dictator masquerading as president. Awo came as the founder, which in those days, did not amount to much. Truth is, we weren’t even aware Awo was attending. A crowd had gathered in the foyer of Oduduwa Hall to protest the presence of IBB on our hallowed turf. They were just working themselves up into a revolutionary frenzy when, without warning, the great sage arrived. And without as much as breaking a stride, the crowd switched to praising Awo.
Awo is a king o
A king o
Awo is a king o
For two unbroken hours, the crowd sang and surged and in that super charged atmosphere, Awo barely managed to cover a mere distance of 100 metres into the auditorium. At some points, the crowd would introduce some predictable modifications to the song to cast aspersion on the person of the visitor. I leave the matter of those modifications to your fertile, imaginative artistry.
In the Bible, believers are enjoined to give worship to God alone. It is absolutely forbidden to worship any other: human or otherwise. As a believer, I was keenly aware of this fact. But that fateful day, I came precariously close to flouting that divine injunction. I never knew how I transited from being an amused observer to becoming a fervent and ardent participant. In fact, it would have exerted much more from me to stay aloof in that situation.
Over the years, I’ve had cause to recall the events of that bright December morning with lots of nostalgia. What we did was clearly dangerous. How do you boo and jeer at a sitting military president then suddenly switch to the song above for an ordinary citizen and not expect swift, official reprisals? Every president, prime minister or head of state since Zik is touted as a nationalist who is supposed to love Nigeria and work for her best interest. IBB is also supposed to be a nationalist which explains why he and his ilk have all manner of national honours and accolades dripping all over them. Come over to Abuja and take a ride on IBB Boulevard. You’ll be impressed.
Awo and his type? Those were tribal kingpins and demagogues who were condemned to remain ‘local champions.’ The street in Abuja that Awo was found worthy of was a back street somewhere in Area 11 Garki. The Obafemi Awolowo Way that now stretches from Berger Junction towards Jabi is a desperate afterthought!
Herein is the paradox of the Nigerian situation. While we heap adulation and fete people of questionable patriotic credentials, we snub true lovers of our nation; denying them meaningful space on the national dais. So adept have we become at applying this disingenuous art that we are presently in grave danger of permanently derailing the fragile ship of state.
Maybe Awo was really into tribalism. I can live with that. But look at what his brand of tribalism brought to his people. Let’s even assume University of Ife was never established and there was never a Cocoa House. Even if O’odua Investment and other tangible initiatives never materialized. If all that Awo could be credited with is imbuing in his people this great love for education, he’ll still be my hero. Because of the head start education gave the Yoruba’s, the rest of us will perpetually play the catch-up game. If this is what tribalism can bequeath to a people, then I want to be immersed in it.
Maybe I can use this tribalism to convince my people to pay greater attention to matters of education. Maybe they’ll be minded to elect people who’ll truly fund education unlike the current political leadership that doesn’t seem to be bothered that the institutions in the south-east are gradually collapsing under the weight of palpable but avoidable neglect.
The industry of Ndigbo is legendary and no city embodies this ethos more than Aba. And that happens to be the place of my birth. Yes, I was made in Aba. But Aba in particular and Abia in general have been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons. Crime and criminality, especially the evil of kidnapping. Each time a negative report is published, I take it very personally. Can tribalism be creatively employed to stem this satanic tide so that Aba can become once more a haven of peace and industry? It’s a possibility I intend to fully explore.
Ohafia people do not suffer fools gladly. With rogues, we’re even less tolerant. Whether in the defunct Eastern region, in East Central State, in Imo and now in Abia State, we’ve certainly paid our dues. Yet for all this loyalty, all we have to show is an Army Barracks! In spite of this anomaly, we’ve remained very accommodating. Ask any soldier who’s ever been stationed there. My people have had to go too far away in search of bread. I think we deserve better. I can state without any fear of contradiction that no industry sited in Ohafia can fail. We’re a very honourable lot.
Like I said, Ohafia deserves so much better and I can say same for Abia. Ndigbo shouldn’t be where they are today and the same is true of every other ethnic nationality in our clay-footed federation. If the whole place can be littered with types of Awo who’ll work assiduously and selflessly to uplift the state of their people, this deafening bleating about marginalization will cease. Only then can Nigeria latch on to her true greatness.
If it is tribalism—Awo’s brand, that’ll secure our passage to this soothing harbour, then so be it.
OLUGU OLUGU ORJI mnia