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How Northern leaders tried to reject power

By  Sir Olaniwun Ajayi

Unfortunately, right from Nigeria’s emergence from British Colonial rule, she entered into murky waters and she consequently lost focus and got lost in the wilderness of misunderstanding.

No one would be surprised at the inevitable ugly portion of Nigeria since independence not only because of the lacklustre and incongruous constitution handed over to the leaders of the country but also because of the failure to pay heed to the hint given to all concerned (particularly Her Majesty’s Government) by Sir Bryan Evers Sharwood-Smith the then Governor of Northern Region who said inter alia :

“…Present political trends in the North are not, in any degree, the result of popular demand, neither are the people as a whole, in any sense ready, still less anxious, for a more responsible part in the management of their affairs….” Neither space nor time will permit reproduction of the five page notes which he prepared for the use of the Colonial Office and Her Majesty’s Government. However, to put the reader in the picture of what the position was politically in Northern Nigeria soon after the General Conference at Ibadan on 9 January 1950, we state hereunder a fair portion of Sir B. E. Sharwood-Smith’s notes.

  Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe
Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe

Note: No reference is made herein to the highly important and potentially explosive situation in the non-Moslem areas of Adamawa and nearby territories but the same principles as are outlined herein are, appropriately applied, relevant.

(a)    Present political trends in the North are not, in any degrees, the result of popular demand neither are the people as a whole, in any sense ready, still less anxious, for a more responsible part in the management of their affairs. Regrettably ‘Freedom from interference’ and continued ‘Freedom from responsibility’ are still a cherished aspiration on the one hand and a cherished heritage on the other as far as the mass of the population is concerned. Political awakening has yet to come and it is our responsibility to see that the awakeners are persons of integrity and experience and not self-seeking charlatans.

(b)   All that we have so far got in the North is a class movement, with in certain areas in particular a definite racial bias (Habi vs Fulani). This class movement has two wings. On the one hand there are the more experienced N.A. Officials. The Senior African staff of Gaskiya and leading members of the Northern Peoples Congress, On the other hand there is the Northern Elements Progressive Union which draws its recruits from the younger and more irresponsible members of the literate and semi-literate classes. A high proportion of Chiefs and leading personalities in the Emirates are prepared to cooperate with the moderate progressives. N.E.PU on the other hand and all its works is anathema to them.

(c)    It has been stressed that so far neither the N.PC nor N.E.PU have any popular backing but it must be equally stressed that, should the administration (Regional and N.A) fail to maintain the confidence of the people as a whole and fail to educate them to the true facts of the current situation, there is little doubt that the carpet-bagging demagogue will quickly step in and, by making statements that cannot be substantiated and promises that cannot be fulfilled, swing popular opinion in the direction of a revolt against the existing regime.

Such a denouement can be only too easy for a practised agitator working on an emotional and unenlightened peasantry, already unduly exploited by a corrupt officialdom. Should there be a period of social or economic distress due to famine or disease there could well be trouble, for the northern agitator has come to stay and he is learning the classic techniques of his trade and acquiring financial support from outside the Region.

(d)   To take the other side of the picture. At the present time 90% of the population un-subjected so far to outside influences, is completely loyal, sometimes blindly loyal, to its Chiefs. Therefore, to stampede or over-persuade these to concede, too precipitately authority which they still feel deeply it is their moral and religious duty to retain would result in the antagonizing of the great mass of the population for the sake of the fickle favour of the vocal few.

Decentralization and delegation must come as rapidly as possible but only in terms of the ability of a modernized machine to take the strain. It would be the height of political unwisdom to forfeit the confidence of the Chiefs in our good faith, We must carry with us the progressive emirs and they will carry with them in their turn the more reactionary of their number.

(e)    It is most important to realize that the recent report of the J.S.C on Native Authorities, Councils etc, constitutes in fact a very considerable advance both in terms of what the Chiefs as a body could be expected to concede, and equally important, what the people as a whole are ready from the point of view of political and administrative advancement to accept.

The Chiefs, especially the more enlightened ones, are not so much jealously clinging to privileges; they honestly feel that they will be betraying their peoples’ true interests if they hand over too much authority too soon to small sections of the community whose motives, they in certain cases mistrust and whose lack of experience is patent to all.

As regards high appointments, as matters stand, with very few exceptions the best people available are, in my experience, appointed to a!! posts of responsibility and, as far as possible, the wishes of the local population are taken into consideration in local administrative appointments and public opinion in the case of central posts.

The substitution of a method of ‘direct election’ for one of ‘selection after consultation’ would in the case of important member posts soon play havoc with the administration. The public would, at the present stage of its political development, naturally elect the type of man who would worry it least with reforms and innovations and
a state of stagnation would follow.

(f)    1 was continually finding myself perturbed during the recent Cambridge Conference by the insistence on ‘pattern’ which characterized the ‘academics’ combined with a failure or refusal, to realize the necessity for studying the problem of personnel. Delegation there must be, but the personnel must first be found and trained and for some time onward supervised. A complex of Councils and Committees is of no value whatsoever until the manning problem is solved….

Third, we aver positively that in the light of the available conspicuous evidence, the right and authority to govern Nigeria should not have been placed in the hand of Northern Nigeria. During the General Constitutional Conference held at Ibadan between January 9 and January 28, 1950, all the leaders from Northern Region stated quite clearly that they were not ready to accept and adopt ministerial responsibility Rather, they argued, they would be content with the Chief Commissioner to accept and execute the ministerial responsibilities for and on behalf of Northern Region.

Leaders from other Regions, the East and especially the Western Region, appealed to them in vain. Now, it will be quite elucidating to read what Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa said regarding the position of the North with respect to ministerial responsibilities. He said as follows:

“I come now to a very delicate subject, which is ministerial responsibility in the Regions and at the Centre. An appeal has been made to the North to reconsider their decision with regard to ministerial responsibility. I say this is a very delicate subject, because there are strong arguments both for and against. I know my Region very well and I know how people there feel about it. It is a delicate subject because it appears to us that it is power, which is likely to come into our hands, and which we reject ourselves. We oppose ministerial appointments in the Region, Mr. Chairman, not because we do not like to take responsibilities and to share in the management of our own affairs, but we only think, knowing conditions there, that the time is not yet ripe for the North.

We support the other Regions in having ministerial appointments, and in fact we agree with ministerial appointments in principle, but we are asking the East and the West to consider this point of ours. Nigeria is one country in name, but the Regions have reached different stages in development. The Northern Provinces only began to come into this kind of thing three years ago, the East and the West have been taking part all these years.

They know what is going on. They are ahead in many things, and so 1 think they are right if they ask these big things, but the North, I think, would be making a great mistake in asking for ministerial responsibility, and we would suggest to the other Regions, by all means have your Ministers in the Regions, but do not have Ministers with executive and legislative powers at the centre, not because we do not like it, not because we lack confidence, but because we want to be together.

Ministerial responsibility in Nigeria is a new thing. We would suggest to the West and the East—experiment with your ministerial responsibility in the Region for five years. After five years the Northern Province may like to adopt ministerial responsibility, and then the time will have come when the East and the West and the North will ha
ve ministers in the Regions and at the centre.

But, gentlemen, I say this in order to correct an impression that might have been created by a speech made here yesterday that the North always desire to put all power into the hands of the British officials or the Chief Commissioner. No, we like to have the power in our hands if we can get that power, but only when we have come to the stage when we can hold that power.

The appeal yesterday was ‘You would like us to run along with you’, seems like inviting us to jump into the river, while you are not in a position to save us if we happen to drown. And so I hope you will consider this very important point. We do not accuse you at all for asking all these things. It is merely that you have reached the stage hut we have not. There are many different problems in Nigeria which need early attention, and we must do all we can to put them in order, and if we do so we can move with the other Regions.”

Fourth, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, acting in consonance with what he declared at the January General Conference at Ibadan, that the north could not adopt ministerial responsibility is on record to have also said, impliedly that the north as at that time had no resources particularly in men as the north had only two graduates and that the literacy ratio was only 4 per cent.

The northern leaders did not consider the northerners, at that time, qualified educationally in the western way to accept, adopt or operate such a system- Nonetheless, the British Government put them in the saddle of power and authority of the country all to the political ill-health and backwardness of Nigeria.

For the purpose of completeness, we state below the appropriate relevant portion from Trevor Clark’s book on Sir Abubakar Balewa- A Right Honourable Gentleman:

“His warning was against putting faith in catchphrases about ‘Nigeria’s interests’, in response to the Ooni of Ife’s and others’ appeal for reconsideration, if Nigeria was to ‘go’ as one country, the north’s insistence on regional autonomy was very important — he took it that the federal experiment (‘never tried in any part of the world’) was merely temporary, up to such time as the regions would reach equality: it might he reversed when the north could really march with the east and west.

Meanwhile he saw ‘uncultured folks’ wrangling about proportionate revenue allocation while, since they had no intention of making time in education (which in practice would only mean a continuance of simple literacy and a surplus of clerks) or in economic development, until the north [with its 4% literacy and two graduates] could catch up, the gaps seemed destined to grow wider.”

In the fifth place, from all indications and all accounts, the Northern People’s Congress (N.P.C) never had competent men and women for the work of governance. That state of affairs was not unknown to the Colonial Office or British Government.

Yet, Her Majesty’s Government for reasons other than one of principle and appropriateness bestowed the governance of Nigeria on the Northern People’s Congress (N.PC). In support of this assertion, we like to state hereunder a short extract from the Minute prepared by M. G. Smith on conclusions of Merthyr report on constituency delimitation. It goes as follows:

It is therefore clear that the North, if it can stay united, has every prospect of dominating the Federal Government for many years to come. It seems to me doubtful whether the 1957 Conference fully understood what it was doing in agreeing to representation on a population basis.

…But the divided South, with hitter enmity between Ibo and Yoruba, may well wake up to greater fears of a Northern majority. There have been warnings of this recently in the Action Group Press, where leading members of Action Group have declared that they will revive at the resumed Conference demand that the North either dives votes to women, or accepts a division of constituencies based not on population but on electorate,,. The Governor-General is empowered to implement it in his discretion, hut he will no doubt consult both his own Council of Ministers, and the other Nigerian Governments, before he does so.

This likelihood of steady Northern majority must also cause Chief Awolowo and Dr. Azikiwe to pause before they leave the comparative safety of their Regional Governments for the doubtful fortune of the next Federal elections. But if the Federal Constitution does not attract able Southerners to the centre, it will not encourage the unity of Nigeria. Government by coalition at the centre will still be necessary for years to come. Some of the present Central Ministers drawn from all the parties are weak enough, but if those Ministers were drawn entirely from the N.P.C as the majority party m new Federal elections, then the outlook would be poor indeed— there are just not enough competent Northerners for the job….”

Sixth, the foregoing about lack of competent men in N.P.C is in pari materia with our conclusion in Chapter Three regarding the absence of capable and fit and proper men and women in the National Executive Council of the Northern People’s Congress.

Seventh, we aver that the balance of political power unconscionably schemed to favour the North was improper and detrimental to the good of Nigeria.

In addition to the other reasons which we have clearly stated to show that the British rule was seriously baneful to Nigeria and its people, a further reason was the treatment of the North and the South as two separate, distinct political administrative units for all practical purposes and the rigid maintenance of disparate methods of administration.
Although Northern and Southern Nigeria were amalgamated in 1914, for nearly half a century thereafter, the North and the South were treated as two distinct and separate countries, in administrative, legislative and executive matters. For about fifty years, starting from 1900 up to the time of Richards Constitution in 1947, the Governor, acting alone, made all the laws governing the North.

The administration and execution of the laws in the North were by the officials in the North. There was no connection whatsoever between the North and the South- Indeed, personal contact and communication between the Emirs and their children and family members and Southerners was under the control of the British Officials in the North.


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