The meeting of Igbo and Yoruba leaders in Enugu two days ago has given practical expression to one of the popular coinages of the late Biafran leader, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, that there was the need for a “handshake across the Niger”, meaning Igbo and Yoruba people, before moving up north.

For long, Ojukwu’s proposal had been on the theoretical level until the recent happenings in Nigeria, which necessitated many groups  begin to reexamine their membership of the corporate entity called Nigeria.

Some people had been saying that the Igbo-Yoruba unity would never be possible, bading it on their long standing differences, while leaving out the positive sides.

Even though the Igbo and the Yoruba had arrived the Nigerian political scene at different times with the latter having a head start, while the two ethnic groups were initially politically administered separately by the colonialists, nevertheless the British colonial administration still saw the need to bring them together through the 1906 unification of the Colony of Lagos and the Protectorates of Southern Nigeria.

To solidify that relationship, the colonialists went further, in 1929, to establish the administrative headquarters of the Southern Nigeria Provinces at Enugu, with Kaduna as headquarters of the Northern Nigeria Provinces, while Lagos remained the Capital of the whole country.

That was the period when we had Ogunbiyis and the Brodericks, the Sannis, etc., living in Enugu either as civil servants businessmen, contractors, traders, etc. Throughout the period, there was no reported altercation between the Igbo and the Yoruba as they all lived peacefully with their Igbo colleagues in the Coal City.

Enugu remained the headquarters of the Southern Nigeria Provinces, including the Mandated Territory of the Cameroun, until 1939, when the colonialists, in their characteristic divide and rule tactics, decided that the Southern Nigeria Provinces should be split into two, comprising the Eastern and the Western Provinces, with the capitals at Enugu and Ibadan respectively.

In a memo dated May 19, 1937, the Chief Commissioner for Southern Provinces, Mr. W. E. Hunt, proposed to Governor B. H. Bourdilon that “the present system whereby the Southern Provinces Secretariat at Enugu is the single bottleneck for the eleven Southern Provinces is too cumbersome and dilatory, and that there should be a return to the old system of three Provincial Commissioners  for the Western, the Central and the Eastern Provinces, or something akin to it, while the Camerouns as a Mandatory Territory would form a fourth Commissionership; the present provinces and the Residents would be abolished and the Provincial Commissioners or Chief Commissioners would deal with the district officers as the days prior to 1914″.

Justifying his memo, Mr. Hunt further wrote: ” It seems plainly unbusinesslike that matters arising say at Abeokuta or Ibadan would be discussed with a Chief Commissioner 400-600 miles away by road and 860-924 by rail, and then submitted back to Lagos for the Governor’s information and decision. And apart from the delay, it leaves the Governor too long in the dark about the progress of events and of action thereupon, while these same events and the action taken may be the subject of daily comment in the press.

“Some of the difficulty arises from the geographical position of the capital in a corner. But even if the capital were more or less in the centre at Kaduna, the difficulty, though diminished would not be solved”. 

 The proposal was later turned to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London, Mr. W. G. A. Ormsby-Gore, for consideration and approval.

While conveying the approval for the reorganization of the Southern Provinces, Mr. E. J. G. Kelly, Secretary of Southern Provinces in a circular dated September 17, 1937 wrote: ” The Secretary of State has approved the reorganization of Southern Provinces into two administrative units, the Eastern and the Western Provinces with headquarters at Enugu and Ibadan respectively “. This took effect from April, 1, 1939.

Analysts believe that the reason why the British colonialists decided on the balkanization of the Southern Provinces while the North which was three times the size of the South was left intact was because of the increasing nationalist agitation in Southern Nigeria. So, the best way to stem that agitation was to keep the South divided, in order that the people would be quarreling among themselves while they were being exploited. 

While the colonialists had succeeded in keeping the South divided, they equally had made sure that resources available in the country were in short supply, such as political positions, employment or job opportunities, vacancy in educational institutions, scholarships, market stalls, etc. so that the people would be competing or struggling among themselves to access them.

These were the genesis to the so-called ethnicity or Igbo/Yoruba rivalry, as the two ethnic groups had been relatively at par in terms of population and educational attainment. So while these two ethnic groups were struggling for the crumbs that fell from the master’s table, the Hausa/Fulani ethnic group in the North were assisted by the colonialists to hijack the country’s political leadership.

In a recent declassified information published by the London Guardian Newspaper, Mr. Harold Smith, a British citizen who worked as a civil servant in Nigeria during the colonial era, talked of how he was victimised by the British colonial authorities in Nigeria for refusing to participate in rigging the 1959 Independence Election, which Mr. Smith alleged the colonialists had rigged in favour of the North.

According to Mr. Smith, “Britain rigged Nigeria’ independence elections”. He explained that among the several ways they rigged the election was by jerking up the population figure of the North, which gave the area fifty percent of seats in the national parliament as well as ensuring that southerners were not allowed to canvas for votes in the North.

According to him, “The Northern Emirs’ controlled NPC did not even need to fight its opponents in the West and East”, adding that “they could sit back and let the Southerners fight each other”.

Now that the scales seem to have fallen off the eyes of the Igbo and the Yoruba as they now have realised that their so-called differences were externally induced, and that they had a lot of things that unite them, it behoves on all and sundry to work for the sustenance of this new initiative by emphasizing the positive aspects of their relationship.

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