Evang. Eliot Ugochukwu-Uko is the founder of the Igbo Youth Movement, IYM, Deputy Secretary-General of the Prof. Ben Nwabueze-led Igbo Leaders of Thought and Secretary-General, Eastern Consultative Assembly. In this interview, he bares it all on the forces holding Nigeria down and the way forward.
Voices from across the 6 geopolitical zones seem to agree that 2023 should be granted to the Southeast to produce Nigeria’s president. What are your views on this?
Everybody agrees Ndigbo have been ill treated since 1970. Nzeogwu, Adegboyega, Ifeajuna and co didn’t conspire with the thousands of Igbo men, women and children slaughtered in the well organised three-wave pogrom of 30th May-3rd June, 29th July-3rd August and 29th September-3rd October 1966, that triggered the loss of faith that led to the Aburi, Ghana summit, that led to the declaration of Biafra. Regrettably, cost of the very bloody war that cost Nigeria Bakasi peninsula, control of our oil resources and stable economic and political growth ever since, has been borne by Ndigbo alone. Envy and fear of Ndigbo unwittingly established an anti Igbo political culture that seems to suit everyone just fine. Nigeria did not know when to apply the breaks on the punishment meted out to Ndigbo over the years.
Denying Ndigbo their dues and rights over January 1966 coup and the attendant civil war, does not make sense really. Like I said elsewhere, the younger generation of Ndigbo will never accept to be part of Nigeria where they won’t have a say.
So, what should we expect of the dominant political parties in this regard?
The two major political parties agreeing to zone the presidency to the Southeast for the 2023 presidential elections won’t be a bad idea, but I am yet to see any sign that the two big parties are seriously considering that. Moreover the political thinking trending in all the political engine rooms, doesn’t support that line of thought now.
There’s a possibility though, that those deliberately flying this kite, are hoping to use it to blackmail Ndigbo in the hope that Igbo political class will swallow the bait, jump into the fray in droves, quarrel amongst themselves, thereby giving the anti Igbo forces the opportunity to blame Ndigbo for their inability to put their house in order. All those are possibilities and permutations. An Igbo man as president of Nigeria would serve as a soothing balm and a unifying gambit to heal the land, but that still won’t solve Nigeria’s structural problems. There’s no alternative to the necessary political structural changes needed to save Nigeria. Changes like, power devolution and whittling of central government’s powers. Handing the presidency to any section of the country, whilst this unitary structure remains, simply amounts to a Greek gift. Yes giving an Igboman, opportunity to govern Nigeria for a season, is alright, but restructuring our polity in order to save Nigeria is more important.
Do Igbo youths believe in Nigeria President of Igbo extraction?
Igbo youths are not excited about Nigeria. It’s worrisome, but it is true. They see the Nigerian state as a huge joke, at best as an insincere, unfriendly establishment, out to hurt and harm them. All their lives, the Nigerian state has been faraway from them. Everything is skewed against him. From the cutoff marks for both unity schools entrance exams and Jamb are designed against him, he wonders why he has to score triple the entrant points granted other sections of Nigeria, before he would be admitted to study. He wonders why those who post bogus and over bloated census figures, think anybody believes their overblown figures. He knows he is shut out from a lot of positions in Nigeria. He sees unqualified characters manning several government agencies and making a total mess of it. He sees elections brazenly rigged in broad daylight, with unpopular candidates imposed on the hapless nation.
He loses faith in the country. He believes there’s no point voting in elections, as your vote clearly doesn’t count. Why que under the hot sun to register for a pvc and another rigorous exercise to que to vote, when at the end of the day, your votes do not matter, as the political class announces what ever result, they want announced.
They have completely lost faith in Nigeria. Nigerian state interestingly,also do not seem to care, how Igbo youths feel about Nigeria. So ,over the years, Igbo youths have convinced themselves that Nigeria is not our home. Only about 30% of Igbo youths ever bother to register and only about a quarter of this 30%, actually comes out to vote. So actually less than 10% of Igbo eligible voters ever participates in elections in Nigeria. The political class knows all too well about this grave apathy, but they don’t bother, as long as they are duly elected by the small marginal voters. They also inflate figures during the rigging process. So, the problem simply continues to get worse.
The Igbo have been so badly treated in Nigeria, that they seem to have lost interest in Nigeria. Maybe offering the Igbo the presidency might rekindle their interest in Nigerian elections, I doubt. I know their soul and spirit is long gone. They believe Nigeria hates them. It’s sad, but that is the situation.
Who’s to blame for all this resentment?
Everybody is guilty. We need to try and bring back their soul back. By giving everyone a sense of belonging. How? Through power devolution. By restructuring the polity. There’s no other way. I’ve been intensely dealing with Igbo youths for decades now and I can tell you this. They will never be part of Nigeria, where they will have no say. Never.
You just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the IYM, what actually has been driving you these past 20 years?
God’s grace and leading. The IYM was founded and established by God Almighty for a particular purpose. God has been directing the affairs of the IYM since 1999. What started out as a youth organisation earlier designed to promote Igbo language and spread good behaviour amongst Igbo youth, through distribution of a leaflet titled “IGBO CODE OF CONDUCT “, gradually began to accommodate questions from umuigbo at the end of each seminar, on the precarious Igbo condition in Nigeria.
Slowly IYM began to enlarge the discussion from the importance of education and other issues, to need for Nigeria to give Ndigbo justice.
Gradually, our resource persons at every seminar drifted into the pathetic political situation of Ndigbo in Nigeria. That is how IYM began to fight for justice for Ndigbo.
IYM, suddenly became the defender of Ndigbo over the years.
From promotion of Igbo language, to stressing the need for education, to Igbo Code of conduct, now to fearlessly defending the rights of Ndigbo. IYM metamorphosed into the authentic and trusted voice of the oppressed and voiceless Ndigbo. Because the Igbo elite can meander their way to survive in Nigeria, they do not care about the plight of the downtrodden, IYM became the trustee voice of the masses of Ndigbo overtime. That’s what happened.
IYM initially wasn’t created to inspire the younger generation of Ndigbo, to wake them up from slumber, to make them understand that if they do nothing about their condition in Nigeria, they will only be shifting that job and responsibility to their progeny. But that is exactly what IYM became with time. Nobody seemed to care about the younger generation of Ndigbo. So I took up the gauntlet. My target was purely the younger generation. To prepare them for the task ahead.
I travelled all over the country,preaching to Igbo youths to organise themselves and fight for their rights.I told them nobody would fight for them if they don’t fight for their rights. I showed them glaring instances of clear oppression and subjugation of Ndigbo in Nigeria. I moved from school to school, compiled details of brazen suppression of our rights and denial of our dues as part of Nigeria. It was only a matter of time before they woke up from slumber. I was fortunate, respected elders honoured my invitation to speak to the youths at every of my seminars. We had question and answer sessions. It is those questions and answers sessions that opened my eyes to the depth of the frustration of the Igbo younger generation. I became alarmed.
Dim Odimegwu Ojukwu, who generously and kindly attended dozens of my IYM seminars confided in me that he wasn’t shocked at the bitterness in the hearts of Ndigbo younger generation. He told me that he knew the younger generation of Ndigbo will be very angry at the treatment they are receiving from Nigeria. He said the rest of Nigeria do not care about the frustration of Igbo youths, because Nigeria is busy, still celebrating the defeat of Biafra. He said the younger generation of Ndigbo will not accept the suppression of Ndigbo much longer. He knew that something was bound to give. He posited that the envy and fear of Ndigbo was largely responsible for the conspiracy to hold Ndigbo down perpetually, by denying them their rights.
So, by the late 1980s, I had known that the younger generation of Ndigbo will reject and resist the position of servitude designed for Ndigbo by the victors of the civil war. I happened to know this, not because I am a very smart person, no no no,I found out simply because I organised seminars for Igbo youths and during question and answer sessions, young Igbo men would lament that they are tired of Nigeria and wished for a separate state where they would be treated like human beings.
The student in Owerri, at my event at the Rosy Arts Theatre, would say the same thing the traders at Aba told us. The traders at Idumotta or Alaba market Lagos, would say the same thing the civil servants in Enugu told us, and these people do not know each other.
The Nigerian state was clearly deceived by the “desperate hustling” of the Igbo elite club, who are so desperate for anything, that they are willing to execute a contract through subletting,even crawling from office to office licking boots for crumbs.. Nigeria’s leadership erroneously concluded that Ndigbo have finally accepted the humiliating position we designed for them, as their proper place in Nigeria for ever and ever.
Accordingly, the humiliation of Ndigbo became state policy.
They forgot that Igbo elite represented only one percent of Ndigbo. They also forgot that Igbo are so republican in nature, that every Igbo reacts according to how the shoe pinches him and the Igbo are never controlled by the announcement from one emir somewhere.
They also did not realise that the elite accepted the continuous humiliation in Nigeria because of two reasons. One, they are educated and therefore can always find a way to survive in a Nigeria, known globally as very corrupt playground for Asian and Middle east scammers,masquerading as business men,who boast all over the world, how Nigerian officials are the easiest to compromise their positions to the detriment of their own citizens. Secondly, the Igbo older generation, who were brutally punished by the colonial master ( from July 1967 to January 1970) through total blockade and ruthless bombardment and straffing of even refugee camps, for daring to forget that the colonial master himself, has great plans over Nigeria’s oil for his home country.
The trauma of the war created two different classes of Ndigbo. One, those who are willing to accept the continuous humiliation of Ndigbo, and those who are willing to do anything to restore their lost dignity.
This fact, sadly, remains lost on the Nigerian state, which regrettably believes that force and intimidation will subdue the angry Igbo younger generation to accept the continuous humiliation Ndigbo have been facing since 1970.
Could that be why MASSOB and IPOB are agitating for Biafra? What is the way out?
Count your teeth with your tongue. I have repeatedly screamed the way out for decades. I have been screaming long before Ralph established MASSOB. If I had joined my friends and classmates to hustle for political accommodation in Nigeria, I would not have known the shocking discovery I found out during the question and answer sessions during IYM seminars for Igbo youths. If those my friends parading as successful politicians had found time to organise seminars for Igbo youths like I did in the 1980s and 1990s like I did, they too would have discovered the degree of anger burning in the hearts of Ndigbo younger generation. They also would have known that even their personal aides and otinkpus are not happy with Nigeria. They would have known that the only people happy with Nigeria, are those benefiting from the misery in the land. They would have known, that these agitation was inevitable. It was bound to happen. Nigeria was bound to come to this.
I asked for the way out….
I would only be repeating myself. 25 years ago, Dim Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu, my leader, asked Bob Onyema to bring me to Villaska lodge, Ikoyi for a meeting. At that time, I was leading a coalition of Ndigbo Youth groups in Lagos. What came out from that very important gathering of very important leaders was actually packaged for the General Abacha constitutional conference of 1994/1995. What some people at that time called Afenifere agenda, simply because the great Senator Abraham Adesanya- led NADECO amplified it at that time. I am yet to see any superior argument till date.
Nigerians have no better choice. Nigeria is not working. There are reports of past conferences, many sections are bitter and angry with the current structure, some even want out of Nigeria.
The system that worked from the mid 1950s to mid 1960 gave everyone a sense of belonging. You see the people lying to themselves, that they can hold Nigeria together under this unitary structure are the problem. Why they choose to deceive themselves, beats me. Nigeria cannot grow under this military constitution. If the political structure is not reconstructed to true federalism by devolving powers to the federating units, Nigeria will die. Going back to the 1963 Republican constitution is the way out, my dear brother.
Former minister, Prof Chinedu Nebo said recently that Igbo political leaders are responsible for the woes of Ndigbo. Do you agree with him?
Prof Nebo is a highly respected intellectual and leader of men. It depends on what context he spoke. Everybody knows the Igbo political leadership has not done well. Just look at the zone. No seaport, no airport, no rail services, no motorable road, that’s not all, no clear political direction.
When you add this to the popular narrative all over the country, that a certain influential politician from the South west drafted Buhari for the top job 6 years ago due to what they termed, the unbridled arrogance of Igbo politicians who encircled Jonathan at the time, fending off,everybody else,so the story goes. This politician from the South west was very bitter with the Igbo politicians who surrounded Jonathan at the time. He lamented how he abandoned his own Presidential candidate, Nuhu Ribadu and entered into a deal to return Jonathan in 2011,only to be dealt a bad card. He is said to be willing to forgive Jonathan, but remains unforgiving to the Igbo politicians who he believed misled Jonathan. Out of anger and frustration, he entered into alliance with Buhari,to get back at Ndigbo. Now if this narrative is true, just in case it’s true, it then throws up the question: What did Ndigbo benefit from Jonathan for which we are presently suffering so much isolation over the conduct of Igbo political class, over which some people do not wish to forgive Ndigbo.
It could only mean, that those Igbo politicians who shepherded Jonathan and allegedly blocked this angry South west leader from receiving any patronage whatsoever from Jonathan, hijacked Jonathan for their personal benefit, as there is nothing to show for Ndigbo’s unalloyed support for Jonathan, absolutely nothing.It is even said that Igbo sons and daughters in that government, mindlessly helped themselves with funds meant for infrastructural development in Igboland. Pathetic. In that case, the venerable Prof Nebo is absolutely correct. He must know what he is talking about as he was an insider, as minister in Jonathan’s government.
What challenges have hit IYM hard these past 20 years?
Plenty, but I prefer not to talk about them. I don’t want to talk about shameless agents of the oppressor, sabotaging IYM for crumbs they are usually given. I pray that God grants them long live to witness the 50th anniversary of the IYM 30 years from now. It is well with Ndigbo. IYM believes Nigeria will be restructured by and by.
Has the IYM achieved its aim?
Only time and the public can judge that. IYM was designed to water the ground, sort of open the eyes of Igbo youths and wake them up to the fact that they just have to wake up and fight for justice as Nobody is going to fight for them. It’s not a 100 metres dash, rather, it’s a marathon long distance race. We need to be prepared for the task ahead.
But many of the Igbo youths are fighting for another nation…
Nigeria pushed them out, by refusing to listen to their cries long before now, by refusing to restructure Nigeria long before now, by refusing to engage them before now. It is wrong to ignore their cries of injustice. Ignoring them, simply means you are asking them to go to hell of do your worst. The shoe has been hurting them for long, for decades they cried. Till date the Nigerian state has never bothered to engage them to find out why they are crying. The Nigerian state encourages their agitations by refusing to engage them.