Remembering Prof Eyo Ita: Philosopher, Educationist, Politician

By Tony Icheku

Professor Eyo Ita is one Nigerian  politician whose place in the Country's history has not been properly celebrated. The little that is known about him is mixed with fables, fantasies and fairy-tales. But it is true that the eminent nationalist was among the Ministers whose action led to the coining of the word 'sit-tight' ministers

For instance, it is not true that as Leader of Governnment Business or Premier of Eastern Region in 1951, he was edged out by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe in an ethnic tussle for power.  Prof. Ita's disgareement  with Zik was political and a party affair which led his expulsion from the party. Other politicians of Igbo stock were equally victims in the battle royale

Here is what happened. when the Richards Constitution proposing semi-regional autonomy became operational in 1946, Both Zik and Ita of the NCNC opposed it. They both proposed a federation of eight states, with such states being responsible for their affairs.

In 1951, the Richards Constitution gave way to the Macpherson Constitution. In reality it was still the same recipe with minor adjustments. With this Constitution in place, elections were held in 1951 with Ita of the NCNC becoming leader of Government Business in Eastern Region.  Zik, leader of the NCNC won election into the Western Region House of Assembly. He  still maintained his opposition to the constitution. His strategy was for the NCNC to gain majority in the central and regional legislatures and vote against the Macpherson constitution was a project in progress. However, after the elections, the NCNC as a party held divided positions on the Macpherson constitution.

 After Zik failed to get the NCNC form the government in the Western Region. he re-focused his attention of getting rid of the Macpherson Constitution and moving towards total independence for Nigeria.

Eventually, however, the NCNC resolved and called its central ministers to resign in order to actualise the above independence strategy. But these ministers were now enjoying the perquisites of ministerial office. Some of them did not, therefore, want to give up the positions. In so doing, they were undoubtedly sabotaging and delaying the independence struggle that had already got them to where they were. Three NCNC central (national) ministers were the first culprits and were summarily dismissed from the party.

They were A.C.Nwapa, (Igbo); Eni Njoku (Igbo);  and Okoi Arikpo, (Ogoja). Only  Dr Endeley,  (Cameroun) was supportive of the tactics. Eyo Ita, the Head of Government Business in Eastern Regions and some of his ministers kicked against the policy and were shocked when the central ministers were dismissed by the party.

Of course, when the party asked them to resign, they equally rebelled against the party and refused to comply. They became known as ‘sit-tight ministers’. Amongst them were Eyo Ita, (Ibibio); E.I.Oli (Igbo); S.J.Una, (Ogoja);  R.I.Uzoma (Igbo); S.W.Ubani-Ukoma,  (Igbo); and S.J.Koripoma,  (Ijaw).

Some of these rebel NCNC members and supporters regrouped to  form the National Independence Party, NIP with Ita as their leader. NIP later merged with Alvan Ikoku’s United National Party to become UNIP.  Ita was to become the facilitator of the movement for the creation of the Calabar, Ogoja and Rivers State (COR State).

Those who complied with party directive and resigned include  Dr.M.I.Okpara (Igbo), M.C.Awgu (Igbo) and S.T.Muna (Bamenda, Cameroun). With the expulsion of the above ‘sit-tight’ attitude of some of the ministers, it behoved the legislature to orchestrate the requisite action to paralyse government business, which was practically in the hands of the British Lt. Governor.

In the Eastern Region's House of Assembly, the NCNC majority subsequently succeeded in paralysing the constitutional system by voting to defeat or defer every bill before the House. As a last resort, the Lt. Governor was obliged to use his reserve power of legislation, the ultimate proof of colonial rule and subjugation in a politically advanced dependency, to pass the Regional Appropriation Bill into law.

The  Eastern region's parliamentary crisis was resolved by its dissolution  following the enactment of an amendment to the Constitution permitting the dissolution of the legislature of a single region. During this period, according to Sklar, the strain on the Constitution was not confined to the Eastern Region, as similar events transpired in the West Region

 Finally, the Macpherson Constitution proved unworkable and collapsed as Zik had planned after 15 months of its operation and was replaced with a new Constitution (the Lyttleton Constitution of 1954) that granted residual powers to the regions and provided that apart from the Regional Governor, colonial officials of the administration would be excluded from the Executive Council of the Eastern and Western Regions, amongst other favourable provisions.

After  the collapse of  Ita’s government in May 1953, a new election was conducted to elect new members to the Eastern House of Assembly. Zik  was elected from Onitsha with NCNC gaining majority in  the House, Zik emerged as   premier of Eastern Region

 Ita became  leader of the Minority/ leader of Opposition in the House.

However in October 1959, Prof Ita, former  Head of Government Business and Minister of Natural Resources, Eastern Region, 1952 - May 1953, resigned his leadership and membership of UNIP and re-joined the NCNC.

Ita proclaimed that he was re-joining the NCNC in accordance with the dictates of his conscience and in obedience to the chiefs and members of his Calabar constituency. These events indicate that the problem between Zik and  Ita, were   somehow resolved in their lifetime.

 Ita was not only a politician, a foremost nationalist who fought for Nigeria's independence, he was also an educationist, and was the proprietor of the West African People's Institute, Calabar

He  attended the Presbyterian Hope Waddell Training School, Calabar before pursuing his tertiary education at London University and Columbia University in New York. He stayed in the U.S. for 8 years. He was influenced by the  teachings of James Aggrey, who preached  academic opportunities for African students in Historical Black Colleges and Universities in America. He was also influenced by the likes of  W. E. B. Du Bois and Edward Wilmot Blyden,  notable Pan-Africanists of their eras.

Ita on return to Nigeria,  formed the Nigerian Youth League (NYL), Calabar, and also campaigned vigorously for Africans to embrace western education as a tool of freedom from tyranny.   Through NYL, the youths were spurred for nationalism. The mantra of the movement was centred on nationalism, intertribal harmony, selfless service and a greater tomorrow. The NYL with others became a catalyst for championing Nigeria’s Independence

Richard L. Sklar, Nigerian Political Parties (1963), pages 115 – 140.
 James S. Coleman, Nigeria: Background to Nationalism (1958).
article by Uchenna Nwankwo:
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