In an article he wrote for the UK’s Guardian newspaper last week, Nigeria’s acclaimed author Chinua Achebe said that after the Biafra-Nigeria civil war, “Igbos were not and continue not to be reintegrated into Nigeria, one of the main reasons for the country's continued backwardness.” How true is the claim that Igbos were not reintegrated back into Nigeria after the war?
After the war ended in 1970, life in official and government circles was certainly grim for Igbos. There was an undeclared glass ceiling beyond which Igbos could never hope to rise in the government or military. Many Igbos claimed that they were being unofficially punished for their secession attempt.
Igbos complained bitterly that nearly 40 years after Nigeria’s independence, and 30 years after the civil war, no Igbo had ever been appointed Defence Minister, Minister of Internal Affairs, Chief of Army Staff, Chief of Defence Staff or Inspector-General of Police. It seemed that there was an unwritten consensus to keep Igbos out of prominent positions.
Igbos were punished not only for the civil war, but were punished also for the January 1966 military coup staged mostly by Igbo officers, in which the north’s revered senior political and military leaders were murdered. That seared a permanent distrust of Igbo soldiers into the Nigerian army’s psyche. That distrust was amplified during almost 30 years of military rule, almost all of which were under northern led, or northern dominated military governments.
THINGS IMPROVE UNDER OBASANJO
However things improved for Igbos after Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999. Democracy has been much kinder to the Igbos than military rule was. Ironically it was the much maligned President Olusegun Obasanjo that did most to reintegrate Igbos. He appointed Igbos to head the ministry of finance, Central Bank of Nigeria, and the Director-General of the Nigerian Stock Exchange was also Igbo (Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Charles Chukwuma Soludo and Ndidi Okereke-Onyuike). Heading these three portfolios virtually left Igbos in control of Nigeria’s economy and monetary policy. That economic dominance remains as today Okonjo-Iweala has returned as Finance Minister, and Bright Okogu is the Director-General of the Budget Office.
In addition, Obasanjo appointed Fabian Osuji, Chinwe Obaji and Obiageli Ezekwesili (all Igbos) in succession as the Minister of Education, and Dora Akunyili as the Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control.
Later, Obasanjo broke a taboo by appointing an Igbo: Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi (the son of Nigeria’s first military head of state, Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi) as the Defence Minister. After Obasanjo left office his successor President Yar’Adua appointed Mike Okiro to become the first Igbo Inspector-General of Police in Nigeria’s history. When Okiro retired, he was succeeded by another Igbo – Ogbonnaya Onovo. Yar’Adua also appointed Ojo Maduekwe as the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
President Obasanjo made history by appointing Air Marshal Paul Dike as Nigeria’s first Igbo service chief in 2006, when he appointed Dike as the Chief of Air Staff. Two years later, Dike made history again when President Yar’Adua appointed him Chief of Defence Staff, thereby making Dike the first Igbo Chief of Defence Staff and first Igbo our star General (when Dike was promoted to Air Chief Marshal) in Nigeria’s history. Igbos’ reintegration back into the military was completed in 2010, when President Goodluck Jonathan appointed Lt-General Azubuike Ihejirika as Nigeria’s first ever Igbo Chief of Army Staff. A few days ago, President Jonathan also appointed Vice-Admiral Dele Joseph Ezeoba as the first Igbo Chief of Naval Staff. Two of the three military services (army and navy) are now headed by Igbos.
Additionally seven Igbos have been Senate President (AKA citizen number 3 in Nigeria) for a combined total of 14 years. Azikiwe and Nwafor Orizu held the position from 1960-66, and Evan Enwerem, Chuba Okadigbo, Pius Anyim, Adolphus Wabara, and Ken Nnamani held the position for 8 consecutive years between 1999-2007.
OTHER HISTORICAL POSITIONS
Also, in past governments Igbos held the following key posts: Vice-President (Alex Ekwueme), Speaker of the House of Representatives (Jaja Wachuku and Edwin Ume-Ezeoke), Chief of General Staff (Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, as deputy to the military head of state), and Chairman of the Federal Civil Service (Professor Kesandu Ogan).
LAND IN ABUJA
Some might argue that the above examples apply only to the public sector. In the private sector, the former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory revealed that nearly 75% of the land in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, is owned by Igbos.
“THE BIG ONE
Objectively, the key prominent portfolio that has eluded Igbos is the presidency. That is the final “big one” that is missing, and the final frontier for Igbos.