In a military government, it is rare for a civilian to hold a top political office such as Governor of a State. In Nigeria, Soldiers, after a successful coup, were wont to nominate civilians to hold Ministerial Appointments, Advisers and Chairmen of Corporations.
The soldiers were not unknown for incorporating a para-military agency of the state in governance, mostly the police, definitely not civilians. That was why the emergence of a civilian as an administrator of East Central State in 1967 was strange and unexpected.
In 1966, the Northern Soldiers who felt betrayed by their Southern counterparts, the five majors, hit back after six months in what was regarded a reprisal or a counter coup. The head of state, Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi an Igbo and his host, Lt. Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, the Governor of Western region, a Yoruba were killed. The slaying of Ironsi led to succession crisis in the military. It snow-balled into rebellion.
The Northern coup was induced by the January 15, 1966 putsch that wiped out most Northern political leaders and senior military men. What, perhaps angered the Northern soldiers was that while political leaders were killed in the Northern, Western and Middle Western regions, none was killed in the Eastern region.
The counter coup also led to pogrom of people of Eastern region extraction living in the Northern region. The call by the Eastern region Military Governor, Lt-Colonel Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, that all Easterners in the North should return home worsened the hostility as disintegration stared Nigeria on the face barely after six years of independence.
The emergence of the then Lt-Colonel Yakubu Gowon from a minority ethnic group in the North as head of state set the country on the path of implosion that raged in civil war for about three years. To break the spinal cord of the rebellion, 12 states were created, putting and end to the four-region structure, the North, West, East and Middle West. The political master stroke was to give autonomy to minority ethnic groups in the Eastern region and reduced the area under the control of the Military Governor, Ojukwu and isolated the Igbo-speaking people.
Eleven military governors were appointed. Three of them were Assistant Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner and a Commissioner of Police, while the twelveth was not a soldier or cop, but a civilian. He was not dubbed a governor either. He was called an administrator. By October, 1967, after the fall of Enugu the capital of Eastern region to the Federal Army, there was a need for an administrator who would be an Igbo but not a soldier.
Gowon the head of state could not trust an Igbo Military Officer because most if not all of them supported Ojukwu. During the search for a right candidate Anthony Ukpabi Asika emerged and appointed the administrator of the East Central State. On the list were: Brigadier Adeyinka Adebayo, Western State; Col. Mobolaji Johnson, Lagos State; Col. Samuel Ogbemudia, Middle Western State; Col. Abba Kyari, North-Central State; Police Assistant Commissioner, Usman Farouk, North-Central State, Police Commissioner, Audu Bako, Kano State; Lt. Col. David Bamigboye, Kwara State; Col. E.J. Eguene, South-Eastern State; Col. Musa Usman, North-Eastern State; Deputy Police Commissioner, David Gomwalk, Benue-Plateau State; Lt. Commander Alfred Diette-Spiff, Rivers State and Mr. Anothony Ukpabi Asika, Administrator, East-Central State.
The immediate good that the creation of the 12 states handed down to the country and her people was an end put to the fear of domination of the minority peoples by the major ethnic groups in the country. The fear of domination had been a political burning issue among the minority ethnic groups who were afraid of major ethnic groups’ domination. The fear had been expressed in many constitution conferences held before independence.
The agitation led to the creation of Middle West region in 1963.
The civilian beneficiary of carving Nigeria into 12 states was no other person than Ukpabi Asika. He was born on June 28, 1936 in Barkin Ladi, on Plateau Highlands in the North-Central (Middle-Belt) area of Northern region.
His father, Edward Obiozor Asika, was a Surveyor, working at Colonial Posts and Telegraph Department. He was from Ogbeoza Umuezaroli in Onitsha. Edward was a member of the elite Nigerians holding senior appointments in the colonial civil service. Ukpabi’s mother was Enyi Rebecca. He had his secondary education at Saint Patrick’s College, Onitsha. He later moved to Edo College in Benin, where he completed his secondary education.
He worked as a Clerical Officer at Onitsha Town Council in 1953. He later left for Lagos and got a job at the Marketing Department. After three month, he got a job at the Northern Nigerian Marketing Department. That was in 1954. His quest for higher education sent him to the University College, Ibadan, where he studied Economics.
After his appointment was confirmed, Ukpabi Asika soon ran into trouble waters when he drew the Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe.
Different of opinions on pubic issues on which the first President of Nigeria, the late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and the former and only administrator of the defunct East Central State, the late Asika, could not compromise put a wedge of hostility between the two illustrious sons of Igbo who had earlier enjoyed chummy relationship. Nations are not unknown to have gone to war over beliefs, ideas and issues the leaders hold dear to their hearts, driving them to the precipice and if not checked eventually degenerating into violence that could claim several lives and destroy billion of naira property.
An advice from Dr. Azikiwe, which the administrator regarded not to be in good faith provoked much furor that degenerated into name calling and what the cultured regarded gutter language against Great Zik. The objection of Dr. Azikiwe to a policy that the administrator wanted to implement was in the elder statesman’s considered opinion not well thought out. He believed that it would be counter productive and do more harm than good. Ukpabi Asika, however, regarded Dr. Azikiwe’s comment a direct doubt on his competence and a challenge to his integrity, a brutal dent on his ego that bordered on ridicule of his office and person.
In his reaction, Asika frowned on what he described as an unbecoming, unsolicited and irrelevant advice of ex-this, ex-that in the affairs of the state. Asika did not mentioned any name. Those who were aware that the administrator had raised serious objection to the former President’s suggestion in private discussions among trusted close friends and to a larger extent, the general pubic knew that Dr. Azikiwe was the object of the tantrum.
It was a surprise to Igbo elite and even senior government officials. Most people were shocked because it was an open secrete that despite the negative impact of the rebellion and the lost civil war had on Igbo and especially their senior citizens, Dr. Azikiwe stood out as a personality of awe, held in esteem not only among Igbo, but also across Nigeria.
His contribution to the quick end of the war could not be under estimated.
Despite that he was at the inception of the war, with the rebel leader,
Emeka Ojukwu, Zik as he was popularly called, switched support to the Federal Government’s Camp when he saw the futility of rebellion and a war that could never be won. The significance of his dumping the rebels was devastating to the Biafran cause and was equally highlighted in glowing phrases by Ukpabi Asika in his address to welcome Zik.
It was clothed in eloquence put together for a worthy son of the soil. Asika’s speech was on the occasion an evidence of respect-cum-high regard for the man who could rightly be described as one of the torch-bearers of Nigeria’s independence. He described Zik as “our honoured and most distinguished returnee”.
On the occasion of Zik’s return to the federal side, Asika could not but be happy as the rebels had lost an emisary that Biafra was using for her diplomatic crusade for international recognition for the doomed republic. Besides, Asika knew that he could not get a better supporter on the lonely road of his support for one Nigeria when his Igbo kin and kith were walking the rebellion path. It was, therefore, not a surprise that people, war-weary Igbo, were in quandary when two of their own were at loggerheads, calling themselves names.
In such a setting, it would be an empty optimism to expect Dr. Azikiwe to keep quite. He also gave Asika a dressing down, Zik was, if anything a warrior with a powerful tongue that could reduce a giant to a dwarf. That exactly was what he did. He reminded Asika that nothing is permanent in life, adding that those in vogue today because they are in power would also go the path of their predecessors. That was how the ex-this, ex-that phrases became the currency of language and a parlance in the political lexicon of Nigeria.
Those in office, the incumbent power that be, welcome praises and adulations of their predecessors. Regrettably, they frown at any whiff of criticism from them. Those in office today, perhaps, forget that they are not traditional rulers who are by virtue of the norms that bring them to office rule for life. Modern days leaders in office are not so lucky. They must leave office after expiry of their tenure (democracy) or throush coup in military government.
The spat between the first President of Nigeria, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, and the administrator of East Central State, the only civilian in a military government, was an eloquent proof of a maxim that interest is the only permanent feature in politics. The two statesmen involved earlier had a warm relationship. Ukpabi Asika was, without fear of contradiction, a fan of Dr. Azikiwe. Both were from the Igbo ethnic group. They did their tertairy education in the United States (US). Zik was a great communicator with pen and his tongue, a journalist who used every weapon in his literary arsenal to push the agenda for freedom and independence of Nigeria, and by extension, Africa and her people.
Ukpabi Asika was equally a brilliant economist. He graduated in the University College, Ibadan in 1960, winning the prizeman for the best graduating student for the year. Asika leveraged on his towering academic achievement to win Rockeffela Scholarship to study in the University of California in Los Angels.
Ukpabi Asika completed his master’s degree programme in Political Science and returned to the University of Ibadan as a lecturer, while writing his Ph.D thesis on liberation movement in Southern Africa in 1967. His contibution to a University of Ibadan Political Journal, The Nigerian Opinion, revealed Asika as a deep thinker and insightful analyst who understood the peculiarities of the crisis of rebellion brewing in the country at that time.
His writings revealed that he could never be a part of rebellion, but an unrepentant federalist. In October 1967, when the search for an administrator for the East Central State cropped up, he was picked as the man for the job. The East Central State was the core area of Igbo people. It was therefore, not a surprise that Asika’s kiths and kins regarded and branded him a quisling at the beginning of the Nigerian Civil War. Biafran radio nicknamed him Lord Haw Haw.