It was veteran journalist, Comrade Lewis Obi, the editor of the now defunct African Concord magazine who wrote in 1985 that the true nature of every country was represented in its national football team. Obi gave illustrations. He argued that the immaculate nature, precision of ideas and even the conservative attribute of the English was well captured in the England’s national team, the Three Lions.
The erstwhile editor revealed that the “tyranny” of Germany as a country was made manifest in the German Machine as a national football team as they could always convert half chances into goals and, like the proverbial phoenix, bounce back to reckoning even with few minutes remaining. In the same line, the Italian national team, as explained by Obi, would give you World War 111 battle should you score them first, but will retreat to their shell and still disorganize you if they go ahead, manifesting Italy’s “on and off” way of life. On the other hand, Obi noted that the Super Eagles of Nigeria were a true reflection of the country. According to him, looking at the pathetic way Tunisia bundled out Nigeria from the journey to Mexico ’86 World Cup Finals, really dramatized the fact that the Eagles, in view of their shoddy game against Tunisia, were the same as Nigeria as a country – lack of vision, lack of direction, lack of determination!
As it is with the nations’ national teams and football, so it is with the Nigerian army as a true reflection of what the country is. In the beginning, the Nigerian army was one of the best in the world because merit, performance and professionalism were placed over ethnicity, religion and nepotism.
In 1954, there were I.V.Ugboma who was commissioned in 1948 and discharged the following year after being charged with “being too nationalistic” by the colonial masters; Wellington Bassey, commissioned in March 1949; Aguiyi Ironsi and Sam Ademulegun commissioned in June 1949; Ralph Sodeinde commissioned in 1950 and Babafemi Ogundipe who got his commissioning in 1953. Also, Robert Adebayo, Zakariya Maimalari and Umar Lawan were commissioned in 1953. Just like Ugboma, Lawan was shortly discharged. Again, Francis Fajuyi, Kur Mohammed, Abogo Largema and Conrad Nwawo got commissioned in 1954. Of the 11, five were Yoruba, three came from Northern Nigeria – not even one was Hausa. Two were Igbo, Nwawo being Delta Igbo and one was Ibibio. At that time, there was no rancour, no tension and no marginalization of any kind.
Events moved fast and, at December 1958, 24 others had joined the senior league of the Nigerian army. They were Ime Imo, James Yakubu Pam, George Kurubo (1955); Philip Effiong, Hilary Njoku, David Ejoor, Victor Banjo, Arthur Unegbe, Yakubu Gowon, Michael Okwechime, Alexander Madiebo and Patrick Anwunah (1956); Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, Essien Ekanem, Macaulay Nzefili, Ogbonnia, Ben Nwajei, Emma Ekpo, Rudolf Trimnell, Gabriel Okonweze, Ferstus Akagha, David Ogunewe, Hassan Katsina and Anthony Eze (1958). Ojukwu had masters from London. Out of the 24 officers, 15 were Igbo (including Rivers and Delta Igbo), four were none Igbo Easterners (that is, from Uyo and Calabar axis), three from North, one Yoruba and one Urhobo. If you add all together, you will discover that Ndigbo had numerical advantage over all other tribes.
It must be reported here that at January 1966, there were 45 majors in the Nigerian army and 30 of them were Igbo and all of them were commissioned before independence. That time, there was no quota system. It was basically on merit as selection and training were handled by the British army officers. However, there was one disturbing fact: Gowon was Sandhurst course mates with Anwunah, Madiebo and Okwechime. They got their commissioning on December 21, 1956. After seven years, precisely in 1963, Gowon was already a Lt. Col., while after nine years, Anwunah, Madiebo and Okwechime were still Majors.
In all, at January 1966, there were 52 most senior army officers in Nigeria and Igbo were 38. But by the July 1966 counter coup, Ironsi and other 162 Igbo army officers were exterminated. It was the end of Igbo presence in the Nigerian army. The rump formed the Biafran army and were either killed in the war or retired after the Nigeria – Biafra civil war.
Now, Nigeria died the moment Gowon was allowed to take over command as head of state. As Ojukwu noted, in January 1966, Ironsi, the most senior army officer took over leadership. Therefore, in July, since a precedent had been established, the most senior should take over. At the time of the coup in July 1966, the most senior army officer after Ironsi’s death was Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe, a Yoruba. And after Ogundipe, there were Robert Adebayo, George Kurubo, Philip Effiong, Hilary Njoku, David Ejoor, Victor Banjo, and even Ojukwu himself who, though was commissioned a year behind Gowon, was promoted ahead of Gowon due to his masters degree. And that was why he stated thus: “militarily, Gowon is not my superior”.
Ogundipe attempted taking over but Hausa/Fulani recruits at Ikeja cantonment disagreed, shouted at him and he ran away to London.
Therefore, for the army to have allowed a junior officer, Gowon, to emerge as head of state, promoted impunity, insubordination, disaffection and discrimination in the rank and file. That singular action is at the root of the problem of Nigeria.
The aftermath of July 29, 1966 brought about imposition, rascality and disorder in the system. That was how coup after coup was staged by army officers who had no vision and direction.
With Gowon as head of state, things went bad for Nigeria. Merit was sacrificed at the altar of nepotism. With Gowon, the army lost its pride and attraction. With Gown as the head of state, the Igbo that had numerical strength over the other tribes lost out. With Gowon, corruption crept into the army and political leadership of the country. He put off his date of handing over to a democratically elected government. His census was never accepted. His military administrators and permanent secretaries were adjudged highly corrupt. What is more, Gowon started what is today known as Igbo marginalization. He carried out several projects without considering the Igbo country. He hurriedly created the 12 state structure on May 27, 1967 and gave Ndigbo only one state, the East Central, while putting two to the Eastern minorities – Rivers and South Eastern State. That is, Ndigbo, under Gowon, became the minority tribe rather than majority. In this way, the idea of marginalizing Ndigbo by successive governments began and it has been there till date. Gowon, inview of the wrong military arrangement that brought him to power, committed economic, political, administrative and social blunders.
Indeed, as the Nigerian army has failed to carry out even simple operations of ending insurgency in the north, giving various flimsy excuses, so also has the Nigeria failed to solve simple problems like conducting free and fair elections, carrying out acceptable census figures, fixing of power, community development, quality healthcare delivery and standard education services.
The fact of the matter is, unless Nigeria frees Ndigbo from marginalization, exclusion and discrimination, Nigeria cannot grow, it cannot develop. The Nigerian question is still open for reapplication as far as Nigeria continues this ugly anthem called Igbo marginalization is still on.
This time, 47 – 49 years ago, Ndigbo faced the worst of invasion, bombardment, starvation and killing of the highest order. But today, Igbo nation is bubbling. From 20 pounds in 1970, Aba and Onitsha are now two of the Africa’s largest commercial centres and technical factories. From the rubbles of the civil war, Igbo wards and daughters are among the best in the world, with Kelechi Madu as a minister Canada and Ngozi Okonjo Iweala being on the verge of being the World Trade Organization (WTO) president. In sports, Rangers, Heartland and Enyimba have at one time or the other been Nigerian and African champions. From Dan Anyiam, to Jerry Enyeazu, via Christian Chukwu, through Mary Onyeali, Chioma Ajunwa, Nwankwo Kanu and many others, Ndigbo have showed capacity in sports.
Be it Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt or anywhere, Ndigbo are doing their best to promote Nigeria’s unity. A typical example is the Nollywood where faces like Kanoyo O. Kanayo, Eucharia Anunobi, Uche Jombo, Jim Iyke, Rita Dominic, Okey Bakassi, Pete Edochie, Osuoffia, Aki na Paw Paw, Genevieve Nnaji and many others are testimonies of Igbo industry and ingenuity.