By Chidi Odinkalu
They can be formed, reformed, un-formed, negotiated and re-negotiated. In the lifetime of most of us here, for instance, the Soviet Empire has collapsed into middling, hardly remarkable, entities; Yugoslavia dis-integrated into a collection of warring states and statelets; Germany evolved into one country from two; Ethiopia went the other way, becoming two countries instead of one, (indeed, Menelik II had sold Djibouti to the French about 116 years ago to finance the modernization of Addis Ababa); Sudan has similarly become two countries (in which further splintering cannot be ruled out) and the United Kingdom itself could be reduced to England and Wales in 2014 depending on the outcome of the proposed referendum on Scottish Independence.
A little further back in time but still in the lifetime of some here, Tagore’s India, the subject of the composition “Mind Without Fear” in his Nobel Literature Prize winning collection, Gitanjali, went from one territory to three countries (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) in just under a quarter of a century.
While no one who wishes Africa well can desire the “withering” of Nigeria, those of us who are Nigerians or descended from here cannot also afford to take Nigeria for granted. The US Air University scenario paper on possible state failure in Nigeria sums up the considerations why this is so: Nigeria, like many nations in Africa, gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1960.
It is the most populous country in Africa and will have nearly 250 million people by 2030. In its relatively short modern history, Nigeria has survived five military coups as well as separatist and religious wars, is mired in an active armed insurgency, is suffering from disastrous ecological conditions in its Niger Delta region, and is fighting one of the modern world’s worst legacies of political and economic corruption. A nation with more than 350 ethnic groups, 250 languages, and three distinct religious affiliations—Christian, Islamic, and animist, Nigeria’s 135 million people today are anything but homogenous….
While religious and ethnic violence are commonplace, the federal government has managed to strike a tenuous balance among the disparate religious and ethnic factions. With such demographics, Nigeria’s failure would be akin to a piece of fine china dropped on a tile floor—it would simply shatter into potentially hundreds of pieces.
These are also the reasons that make this discussion concerning the direction of Nigeria both worthwhile and necessary in this year preceding the Centenary of Nigeria’s Amalgamation. Such a conversation should, however, be based on a dispassionate understanding of where we have come from.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MAKING OF “A PIECE OF FINE CHINA”
The intricate interplay of politics, money and abuse (of power, people and rights) has been central to Nigeria’s narrative since well before the Amalgamation. In very broad strokes, Nigeria’s story has been one of “substance dependency” first on palm oil and then on the oil of hydro-carbons.
Many people here will struggle to remember the days of the Peanut Pyramids of Kano or the development wrought on the back of revenue from Cocoa (Produce) in Ibadan. This dependency is one that has rendered us unwilling, unable or indifferent to the need to care and count our people, our money and our votes.
For many Nigerians, the story of our current travails go back to the Amalgamation. A little heralded event that happened in the year before Amalgamation may have had much greater significance for the future evolution of Nigeria. In 1913, on the eve of the First World War, Winston Churchill, then Imperial Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, decided that the United Kingdom should change the fuel for its battleships from coal to oil. Former Financial Times correspondent, Michael Peel, narrates that this “marked the start of a century shaped by the geopolitics of crude.”
Upon Amalgamation, official policy and practice granted a monopoly of exploration rights in Nigeria to British companies. On the eve of another World War a quarter of a century later in 1938, colonial Britain granted the milestone license to explore oil in Nigeria jointly to Shell and the then Ango-Iranian Oil Company, later to known as British Petroleum, BP. 18 years later, oil began to flow from Oloibiri in what would later be Bayelsa State. Nigeria was under self-rule, a mere four years from the end of Empire and “our piece of fine China” was already decades in the making.
At independence in 1960, Nigeria inherited colonial institutions that had not been tested by a free people. The Police Force bequeathed to the country in 1960, for instance, was an expeditionary institution with a century of the wrong kind of traditions and history. It largely remains so.
The judiciary, for all the admirable men (they were all men then) that administered it, was institutionally younger than the Police at Independence, but essentially also not much different in its essential philosophies. Fundamentally, the Nigerian legal profession as designed became a state-controlled entity, not an independent one.
All its organs – the General Bar Council, the Body of Benchers, Council of Legal Education, Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee and Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee – were established as statutory bodies governed in their constitution by in-built government-control.
The defining landmarks in the early unraveling of the post-colonial legal and political systems were three events that happened in quick succession from 1961 to 1963 in the civilian interregnum that preceded military rule.
First, shortly after Independence, the Nigerian legal system faced its first major test in the treason trial of J.S. Tarka in 1961. Tarka, firebrand leader of the Opposition United Middle Belt Congress, UMBC, was charged with the serious crime of levying war against Her Majesty, the Queen of Nigeria – treason.