Awo vs Zik and how it affects Southern Nigeria today
Nigerian history without Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo is impossible.
Zik and Awo were clerks, teachers, journalists and politicians. The former dropped his colonial name Benjamin, the later put aside his Christian name Jeremiah. As politicians they were great rivals. Zik ended up as Nigeria’s First President after serving as the last Governor–General. The Presidency eluded Awo. In 1979, the Supreme Court had to rely on creative political mathematics to knock out Awo who had served as the de facto number two man under Yakubu Gowon between 1967 and 1971.
The Macpherson Constitution took effect in 1951 and called for indirect elections to the regional assemblies via electoral colleges. Like he had for the Richards Constitution five years earlier, Zik opposed but chose to contest so he’d have the opportunity to change the constitution. On November 23, 1951, about a month to the elections, Zik was quoted by the Daily Times as saying, “So far as I am concerned, personally, my aim in trying to get a majority in the regional and central legislatures is to firmly entrench NCNCers in a strategic position where we would create a deadlock and paralyse the machinery of government and thus rip the Macpherson Constitution and usher in a democratic one.
“This means that if we come to power, we shall not only refuse to become ministers, but we shall use our majority to prevent budgets from being passed.”
Awo did not agree with Zik’s plan, but crucially, if Zik’s colleagues had understood his intent to torpedo the government, things may have been different.
Zik’s plan was simple. If the NCNC had won in the West, it would have, by the dictates of the subsisting Macpherson Constitution of 1951 been in a position to produce the four central ministers due the Western Region as well as the representatives for the Western Region in the Central Legislature. It would have used that majority to paralyse governance from the centre in much the same way as it ultimately did in the Eastern Region in 1953. There would have been no ministers or premiers in both southern regions as well as at the national level. Indeed, the central government in Lagos and the regional governments in the east and west would have been torpedoed in 1952 and what became the Lyttleton Constitution of 1954 would have come in 1952.
In retrospect, it is plausible that this was the reason why Zik did not bother offering ministerial appointments to his party members, or other groups like the IPP that he hoped to ally with. For Zik, the constitutional arrangement would have been torpedoed before the need for any such appointments could have arisen, thereby speeding up the decolonisation process, but crucially, he failed to explain this to his allies.
After the elections were held, and many NCNC members became aware of a version of Zik’s plans, they changed their minds, and aligned with Awo. However, even after the AG had taken the reins of power in Ibadan, the Western NCNC still insisted that Zik and Adeleke Adedoyin proceed to the central legislature in Lagos.
Another miscalculation by Zik was his belief that in the event of an AG victory in the election, Awo would cooperate with him to achieve his own objective and speedily secure national independence for Nigeria.
Why did Awo not immediately cooperate with Zik as expected upon coming to power in the West?
Unlike the other NCNC members, Awo was intelligent enough to understand what Zik proposed and its workability. But perhaps he imagined that helping Zik paralyse government would entail pulling down governments in the regions as well, which was not in his interest.
If Zik’s proposal of paralysing government had flown, it would have meant repeating the elections under a new constitution, possibly through the universal adult suffrage that the NCNC had been rooting for. Awo could not be sure that his party would, at that point, win a repeat election in the West.
The only real chance Awo had of winning the Western Region election in 1951 was through indirect elections, the format used in 1951, in which manipulation, such as using the Obas to populate the electoral colleges with pliable electors, were possible.
Put more bluntly, the difference between Awo and Zik was this – Awo was a seasoned political animal who understood that politics is first about self-interest. Zik had his head in the clouds. Unfortunately, Zik, after the defeat, rather than staying back in the West and becoming opposition, went back to the East, in order to get into power.
His retreat set the stage for the misconception among Zik’s Igbo ethnic group that Awo had used the tribal card, and events fifteen years later strengthened that view. The political relationship between the Igbo and the Yoruba has not recovered since, and both groups have hurt themselves politically because of that mutual mistrust.
I am of the opinion that post-independence Southern Nigeria adopted Zik’s dreamy approach of dreamy positions rather than Awo’s hard-nosed approach of self-interest. It still affects us today. In politics, things are not about “right” or “wrong”, but about “interests”. There is no room for holding grudges, especially if history shows that those grudges hurt you. I was privy to a recent survey which showed that more than 80% of both Igbo and Yoruba respondents identified ‘the North’ as the problem with Nigeria. However, asked if they’d be willing to work together to overcome ‘the North’, respondents demurred. I do not understand this self-flagellation because of two men long dead.
Since 1951, the Igbo have chosen to ally with ‘the North’ against the Yoruba, and the Yoruba, since 1951 have chosen to ally with ‘the North’ against the Igbo. Given that Nigeria is not quite working, does it not make sense for the Igbo and the Yoruba to ally with each other politically against ‘the North’, just once and see if Nigeria will have a different political outcome? The numbers support this, but asides the recent “Handshake Across The Niger”, we’ve not seen much in that direction, and even the Handshake appears to have cooled a little months after the event was held in Enugu.
The refusal of these two groups to cooperate, because of a bit of miscommunication 67 years ago, has got to be the longest running bit of tomfoolery in Nigeria’s history.
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