This week, we continue our discourse on the urgent need for Nigeria to restructure now before it is too late.”
The legendary and iconic founder of Action Group and Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was again on song. In his epic book, “Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution”, the late sage opined that these “natural and automatic generators of centrifugal forces and tendencies tend to induce in the ethnic groups concerned a strong and burning desire for separate existence from one another. They are factors which, if they had not been restrained and skilfully canalised by the British, would have led to the emergence of several independent sovereign states in the place of the ONE NIGERIA we now have.”
Awolowo was not alone in deciphering that the variegatedness of Nigeria must necessitate the operation of a federal, rather than a system of government. Sir Ahmadu Bello, the towering and Northern Nigerian leader of the then ruling NPC, while contributing to the great debate on chief Anthony Enahoro’s memorable motion for Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1953, gave thumbs up for true federalism in the following words:
“Sixty years ago, there was no country called Nigeria. What is now Nigeria consisted of a number of large and small communities all of which were different in their outlook and beliefs. The advent of the British and of Western education has not materially altered the situation and these many and varied communities have not knit themselves into a composite unit….Whatever Nigerians may say, the British people have done them a great service by bringing all the different communities of Nigeria together.”
In what appeared to be a conversation between two of Nigeria’s founding titans, Ahmadu Bello and Dr. Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe (Zik of Africa), obviously the most colourful, grandiloquent politician Nigeria ever had – near him was K. O. Mbadiwe, the man of the timber, caterpillar, iroko and obeche – Zik was said to have implored: “Let us forget our differences and move on”. To this, the Sardauna of Sakwatto was said to have replied: “Azikiwe, we cannot forget our differences. Let us understand our differences to be able to move on. I am Moslem and Northerner. You are a Christian, an Easterner. By understanding our differences, we can build unity in our country.”
These young nationalists, then in their forties, understood clearly what the issues were – that there were obvious differences, but that bridges of understanding needed to be built in the geographical contraction called Nigeria, for peaceful co-existence. In Gowon’s maiden speech, as Head of State in 1966, the then 32-year old Bachelor General Head of State, poignantly noted that: “The basis of (Nigerian) unity is not there”. That was why the slogan for the 30 months bloody civil war was “to keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done”. Gowon’s name was even acronymised to “Go – on – with – one – Nigeria”.
Ayo Opadokun, a fiery activist, lawyer and former National Secretary of NADECO, once declared that “for Nigeria to move forward, we must sit down and decide how we want to relate with ourselves.” To this writer, there are two germane and fundamental questions to be answered here: First, do we want to continue to live together as one Nigeria? If the answer is in the affirmative, the corollary question is “on what terms and basis do we continue to live together?
It is all too clear that the current agitations for self-determination are mere symptoms for more fundamental undercurrents of a weak foundational structure foisted on us. My soul mate in the Human Rights and Pro-democracy Movement, a strong northern voice, Shettima Yerima, President of Arewa Youth Consultative Forum, once put it succinctly in an interview granted to SUN Newspaper: “Violent crisis cannot stop until there is a clean environment that allows its stoppage. The issue of disunity must be addressed or else we would wake up one day to discover to our chagrin that Nigeria is no more there.” I agree.
One easily forgotten nationalist, indeed the foremost of them all, Herbert Macaulay, once sarcastically responded to claims by the British Colonialists, that they had “the true interests of the natives at heart”, thus: “The dimensions of ‘true interests of the natives at heart’ are algebraically equal to the length, breadth and depth of the white’s man’s pocket.”
This numero uno nationalist ( I am a proud recipient of Herbert Macaulay Foundation Award), born in 1864 in Lagos, was the grandson of Samuel Ajayi Crowther, who had been rescued from a Portuguese slave ship and later became Bishop of the Anglican Church. Son of Revd. Thomas Babington Macaulay, who founded CMS Grammar School, Lagos (the oldest secondary school in Nigeria), Macualay, who attended the same CMS and Fourah Bay College, Freetown, Sierra Leone, later founded the Nigerian National Democratic Party, Daily News (Nigeria’s first indigenous newspaper in 1926) and later NCNC, whose leadership later fell on Zik, when Macaulay died at 82 in Lagos, after taking ill in Kano during a campaign.
Today, these paths – finding legends are no more. But, their incisive, controversial and provocative words continue to live on. The questions now in dire need of answers are: Were they right in their assertions and has anything changed between then and now to contradict them? Have we today proven them wrong by our actions, inactions and utterances? Perhaps, no. The state of the nation does not appear to put a lie to their thoughts and deep-seated assessment of the Nigerian project.
ln the beiginning
The Royal Niger Company was a mercantile company chartered by the British government in the nineteenth century. It was originally formed in 1879 as the United African Company and renamed National African Company in 1881 and later, the Royal Niger Company in 1886.
The company existed for a comparatively short time (1879–1900), but was instrumental to the formation of colonial Nigeria, as it enabled the British Empire to establish control over the lower Niger against the German competition, led by Otto Von Bismarck, during the 1890s. In 1900, the company-controlled territories became the Southern Nigeria Protectorate, which was in turn united with the Northern Nigeria Protectorate to form the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria in 1914. It eventually gained independence within the same borders, as the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 1960. Indeed, it was Flora Shaw, a young British lady, the daughter of a Field Marshall, who, in an article in the London Financial Times in 1879, gave Nigeria her name, “Niger – area”, after the River Niger. She later married Captain Lord Lugard, the midwife of the amalgamation. “Niger – area” was later corrupted to “Nigeria”, our present nomenclature. Ever since, the amalgamation of the southern and northern protectorates of the northern parts of Nigeria, we have known no genuine peace in this nation.
Throughout the early 20th century, Nigerians found various ways to oppose foreign rule. Local armed revolts, mainly concentrated in the middle belt, broke out sporadically. They intensified during World War I (1914-1918). Workers in mines, railways, and public service often went on strike over poor wages and inhuman working conditions, including a popular general revolt in 1945, when 30,000 workers stopped commerce for 37 good days over excessive taxation, prompted other conflicts, including a battle in 1929 fought mainly by Igbo women in the Aba area, known famously as the “Aba Women Riots”. More common was passive resistance: Avoiding being counted in the census, working at a slow pace, telling stories that ridiculed colonialists and colonialism. A few political groups also formed to campaign for independence, including the National Congress and the National Democratic Party, but their success was slight. In 1937, the growing movement was given a voice by Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo nationalist, who founded the newspaper, West African Pilot.
By 1922, the Clifford Constitution had come on board, but could not address the burning issues on ground.
In 1947, the British responded by introducing a new Constitution that divided Nigeria into three regions, the Northern Region, the Eastern Region, and the Western Region. The Northern Region consisted mainly Hausa-Fulani and were Muslims; the Eastern Region, Igbo and Christians; and the Western Region, Yoruba and mixed Muslims and Christians. The regions each had their own legislative Assemblies, with mainly appointed, rather than elected members, and were overseen by a weak central Federal Government. Although short-lived, the Constitution had serious long-term impact on Nigeria through its encouragement of regional, ethnic-based politics.
The 1947 Constitution failed on several fronts and counts and was abrogated in 1949, and followed by other Constitutions in 1951 (Macpherson) and Littleton (1954), each of which had to contend with powerful ethnic forces. The Northern People’s Congress (NPC) argued that northerners, who made up nearly half of Nigeria’s population, should have a large degree of autonomy from other regions and a large representation in any federal legislature. The NPC was especially concerned about respect for Islam and the economic dominance of the South by the North. The Western Region-based Action Group also wanted autonomy; the Yoruba feared that their profitable western region cocoa industries would be tapped to subsidise less wealthy areas. In the poorer East, the National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), wanted a powerful central government and a redistribution of wealth – the very things greatly feared by the Action Group.
To be continued next week