Dr. Remi Adekoya

In the last series we discussed the political debates provoked by the 1947 Richards’ Constitution and its tri-regional structuring of Nigeria into the eastern, western and northern regions. Today, we’ll discuss another very significant event during this period; the 1948 ‘Lagos Press War’ between Nnamdi Azikiwe’s West African Pilot newspaper and Daily Service, the mouthpiece of the pan-Yoruba Egbe Omo Odùduwà group.

From its inception, the Egbe Omo Odùduwà, of which Obafemi Awolowo was Secretary-General, faced accusations from Zik and his media of ethnicizing politics. The latter conveniently ignored the fact an Igbo equivalent of the Egbe Omo Odùduwà, the Igbo Federal Union, likewise existed and operated at the time.

For most of 1948, the rival newspapers waged an aggressive war of words. For instance, after Zik supported the creation of a rival Yoruba socio-cultural organization, the Yoruba Federal Union, Daily Service published an editorial titled ‘Nnamdi Azikiwe is warned not to strain the patience of Yoruba people.’ Its author stated:

‘The picture that leaves me bewildered is that of Zik, an out-and-out Ibo inaugurating a Yoruba Federal Union! It may be said in mitigation that he had but the poorest materials out of which to erect the Yoruba Federal Union, having only managed to scrape together the waifs and strays of the Yoruba race, he had no Yoruba unions to ‘federate’ for no Yoruba Union would submit to the degradation of being federated by Zik. Nevertheless, the daring of the man is staggering. By attempting so openly to create divisions among the Yorubas, he is approaching the zero hour of his chequered political career. He is playing with the trigger of a loaded gun, the muzzle of which is pointed ominously toward his own forehead. Can anyone imagine a Yoruba man in Onitsha or Nnewi organizing an Ibo Federal Union?’

In response, Azikiwe’s Pilot argued that: ‘Henceforth the cry must be one of battle against the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, its leaders, at home and abroad, uphill, and down dale, in the streets of Nigeria and in the residence of its advocates. The Egbe Omo Oduduwa is the enemy of Nigeria; it must be crushed to the earth. There is no going back, until the Fascist organization of Sir Adeyemo Alakija [leader of Egbe] has been dismembered.’

A mass meeting of Igbos in Lagos declared any attacks on Zik would be considered attacks on the ‘Igbo nation’. In response to this declaration, Awo sent Daily Service editors a telegram with instructions on how to react. I discovered the telegram in Awo’s personal library at his Ikenne home. To the best of my knowledge, the contents of this telegram have never been published and are very revealing of the atmosphere of the day. Awolowo wrote:

‘So the Lagos Igbos regard attack on Azikiwe as attack on them. Even so the attack must go on with unabated fury for to do otherwise would be to dethrone reason and put suicidal madness in its place. Fight on redoubtable Service. Now that the Igbos have placed themselves on the side of the evil that is Azikiwe the issue is clear. Lagos Igbos lied ignominiously when they said that Egbediplomatically turned down offer for settlement before present press war started the fact is offer was made after war started and was not turned down. They also lied when they said Egbe’s express aim is to put Igbos at their right place. It is incredible and it is an outrageous affront on Yoruba manhood and womanhood that whilst Igbos resented reprisals on Azikiwe they approved of his unprovoked attacks on respected and respectable Yoruba leaders. We had thought that it was an issue between individuals but now that Igbos make Azikiwes cause theirs we too make Alakijas Majas and Davies cause ours we accept the challenge without flinching we must not attack first but every aggressive onslaught must be repulsed with stronger force we must so fight that our opponents would soon discover that there is more courage and more brains and resourcefulness on this side than there. Lagos is a Yoruba town and four million Igbos cannot terrorize its Yoruba inhabitants into submissive silence. Surely Azikiwe’s time is up it is only a matter of weeks. Am writing series on recent events for publication from next week. Meantime please show our Igbo friends that the Yorubas though gentle in manners are formidable in action.’

Awolowo thus asserted an ethno-territorial claim to Yoruba ownership of Lagos while portraying the on-going conflict as part of a concerted Igbo effort to subjugate Yorubas in their own homeland. By September 1948, the prospect of Igbo-Yoruba fighting on the streets appeared real; especially when radicals on both sides started buying up all the available cutlasses in Lagos. To prevent the worst, extra policemen were deployed on the streets. Meanwhile, Zik claimed Igbos were brandishing cutlasses merely ‘for propaganda purposes’, a rather unconvincing explanation.

Things eventually calmed down, but the damage was done as the conflict had led to the aggressive politicization of the Igbo Federal Union and the Egbe Omo Odùduwà. In December 1948, the Igbo Federal Union morphed into the Igbo State Union ‘to organize the Igbo linguistic group into a political unit.’ Zik was elected president of this new pan-Igbo association, leading to accusations from Awo that he was, deep down, ‘an Igbo jingoist’ rather than the Nigerian nationalist he professed to be.

Scholars have suggested Yoruba-elite resentment at the rising status of Igbos in 1940s Nigeria as the major psychological factor underlying the conflict. Due to the educational advantages of the Yorubas in early colonial Nigeria, most of the more desirable bureaucratic, economic and political activity in Lagos was dominated by Yorubas for much of the early 20th-century. However, by the late 1940s, the Igbos were fast eliminating the education gap and becoming increasingly assertive in both business and politics.

This vexed many Yoruba elites who saw Zik as the personification of this Igbo ascendance, one they perceived as aggressive and threatening. In essence, a conflict of interests and personal antipathies between Igbo and Yoruba elites was transposed onto their ethnic groups. Personal attacks on Zik came to be viewed as attacks on the ‘Igbo nation’ while backing down from the conflict was portrayed as tantamount to group defeat and subjugation, as Awo alleged in his telegram.

The idea defeat and dishonour for elite actors signified defeat and dishonour for the whole group reflected a strong personalisation of ethnic discourse in which elite honour is equated with group honour, elite rivalries are portrayed as group rivalries and elite interests are interpreted as congruent with group interests.

This discursive fusion of elite and non-elite interests was achieved by portraying the social class of the individuals involved in the conflict as of secondary importance to their ethnic identities. ‘Yoruba leaders’ are being insulted, the ‘Igbo nation’ is under attack, you must join us to defend the group. So went the rallying cries.

In the next series, we shall look at the controversial 1951 Western regional elections which involved claims and counter-claims of hidden agendas for Igbo and Yoruba domination by both Awolowo and Azikiwe’s parties and media groups. Till then, take care folks!