29 July 2008

Nigeria: The Forgotten Interim President

The late Dr Nwafor Orizu was a one-time president of Nigeria following the interregnum that occurred when Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and some key actors of the first republic where killed in the January 1966 military coup. However, it seems that his place in history is being inadvertently situauted. Recently, a memorial lecture was organised at the Yar'adua conference centre but it was marred by poor attendace.

One pivotal figure who symbolised the fall of the first republic was Dr. Prince Akweke Abyssinia Nwafor Orizu, the senate president on whom fate foisted the interim leadership of Nigeria in the absence of the then ceremonial President, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe.

The senator who was elected on January 8, 1960 to represent Onitsha province had handed over power on January 16, 1966 to the Supreme Commander of the Armed forces, General Thomas Aguiyi Ironsi when it was evident that virtually all the leadership of the first republic, from Prime MinisterAbubakar Tafawa Balewa to the Premier of Northern Region and the Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello and the Premier of the Western Region, Chief Ladoke Akintola among others, had been eliminated in a military putsch on January 15, 1966.

In the absence of a deputy prime minister at the time to fill the void and the palpable powerlessness of other actors to control the already charged political atmosphere at the time, Nwafor Orizu was forced to relinquish power to the army on January 16, 1966.

However, his interim leadership seem to have been forgotten but recently, some Nigerians converged at the Yar'adua international centre in Abuja to relive the memory of the late parliamentarian through the Nwafor Orizu Memorial Lecture. On that occasion, speakers attempted to capture Orizu's life not only as a political icon but as an erudite scholar and author.

However, something looked amiss in the organisation of the lecture. First, according to the master of ceremony, Senate President David Mark and other invited dignitaries came to the venue earlier but left due to the scant attendance and secondly, most of the participants hailed from one section of the country.

A participant who spoke to our correspondent on condition of anonymity said that the lecture was planned exclusively by the family."They should have involved the executive or the National Assembly since Nwafor Orizu cannot be wished away from the political history of this country".

Nevertheless, among the speakers at the occasion were the current Senate President, David Mark and a former minister of information and culture and NTA Director- General, Dr. Walter Ofonagoro.

Senator David Mark who was represented by the Chairman, Senate committee on housing, Senator Ikechukwu Obiora made a brief eulogy on Nwafor Orizu's contributions and urged the National Assembly to borrow leaf from his legislative and intellectual service in the discharge of their functions. He regretted that "we have not honoured him as much as we should".

In his speech, Dr. Ofonagoro, who shares the same alma mater, the Columbia University in New York with Dr. Orizu, praised him "for his contribution to intellectual development". He also chided current leaders for their inability to combine leadership and authorship like NIgeria's pre and post colonial leaders who have left their mark on scholarship and transparent leadership.

He also wished that an edifice like the Yar'adua centre was built in honour of the first republic's senate president." All the senators and past presidents have the responsibility to nurture the memory of Nwafor Orizu".

Other dignitaries who graced the occasion were former senate president Anyim Pius Anyim, Dr. Dozie Ikedife, President of the Unified Ohaneze Ndigbo worldwide and Dr. Ebele Okeke, the immediate past Nigeria's head of service.

So, it is incorrect reading of history to describe Chief Ernest Shonekan as the only interim president that the country ever had; as it is widely bandied. Though forgotten, Dr. Nwafor Orizu was Shonekan's predecessor.

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