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Nigeria: Africa’s failed asset?

The flaw in British handover to North

By  Sir Olaniwun Ajayi

Political Power Imbalance

“ON their (the British) departure, the plants of public order were in the process of being choked by weeds of insensate intolerance, the forces of progress were deliberately subordinated to the dead-weight of decadence and unsophisticated reaction/ native tyranny was enthroned as the protector of human freedoms, and the country, though politically emancipated, was firmly held in leash by foreign economic interests.

…With Nigeria the problem was almost the reverse. Was it too big to survive? The powerful appetites of Goldie and Lugard had created this African giant: a giant speaking two hundred languages, composed of 31 million people—a seventh of the population of the continent in 1953 (today it approaches 100 million).

Would it hold together after independence or snap in two like India? After all, these haphazard blocks of scrub and desert, peppered with ill-matched tribes, had neither geographical nor political unity.,. The trickiest problem was to design the Federal Constitution of Nigeria…. During his administration, Lugard had encouraged the isolation of the north by imposing a system of indirect rule, using the Islamic Emirs, as the Princes had been used in India.

By contrast, the originally pagan south had the bulk of the natural resources and had moved faster towards democratic politics. Disastrously, the new Federal Constitution was weighted heavily in favour of the north. However, no one forecast disaster at the time. Like everything, the constitution was a desperate expedient… Now the British found they bad gravely miscalculated.

Chaos there was in plenty. Twelve of the forty-seven new African States (including the Congo, Nigeria, Sudan and Ethiopia, that is, all the biggest states except Egypt and Algeria) have been crippled since independence by Civil War.

There have been forty military coups in the last thirty years, many of them involving the murder or execution of the Head of State…

Whatever might be the motive or desire of the British, the good that they did in Nigeria, in real terms, is immeasurable, considerable and cannot be obliterated- On the score of fairness therefore, it is to their credit that order, good government, peace and flourishing commerce and industry came to Nigeria, a territory afflicted and bedevilled and torn apart by trivia! and petty senseless wars. That a country now known and called Nigeria exists, the honour, credit and praise belong to the British who, it was, that created it.

From left: Rt. Hon Allan Lennox-Boyd, Secretary of State; Chief Obafemi Obafemi; Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa; Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe.
From left: Rt. Hon Allan Lennox-Boyd, Secretary of State; Chief Obafemi Obafemi; Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa; Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe.

It is, therefore, right and appropriate to admit, without any question, that the British era gave us a potentially great country, and it has been, though with some observations and reservations (with which we shall deal shortly), of great benefit to Nigerians and to the world at large.

So far so good. However, with all sincerity, what the British left behind appears to be a good heritage but, on the other hand, and this is the crux of the matter, it is a pernicious heritage. Decidedly, it is of malignant irony and distressing paradox that the British could bestow the government of this great country upon Northern Nigeria on the platform of Northern People’s Congress. The Sub-committee on Africa of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives of the United States of America disagreed with the gesture of the British.

The Sub-committee observed that:

“Prior to independence, Nigeria’s leaders were constrained to accept the wishful premise that nearly pure British forms of western liberal government were sufficiently suited to Nigeria’s needs, and/or that the spontaneous evolution of social forces could be relied upon eventually to reconcile transparent discrepancies of history. (Such was the conclusion of the British composed Minorities Commission Report m ipssj.

At the same time, tbe boundaries used to erect the Nigerian federal structure—for which tbe British political model provided no precedent at all—owed their origin strictly to tbe system of British colonial administration.

Those boundaries had been devised wholly for purposes of British control, certainly not out of concern for sound principles of representation. Structural “contradictions”—most notably tbe fact that tbe Northern segment was larger than tbe others put together yet was also tbe poorest, educationally most disadvantaged, and tbe least prepared culturally to engage in the secular games of modern democratic polities—abounded. “86

It can safely be admitted that British handover of political power to Northern Nigeria was more of a curse than a blessing especially in view of political instability, infamous and loathsome corruption even in high places, dirty political jobbery, embarrassing and frightful ineptitude and irresponsible governance that followed in its wake. It was a clear case of robbing Peter to pay Paul- “A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on tbe support of Paul.”

There are a number of cogent and pertinent grounds for making this serious assertion.
First, the Nigerian Constitution emerging from the proceedings of the General Conference of January 9, 1950 was called the Macpherson Constitution (which carne into effect in 1951), and it recommended to the Secretary of State for the Colonies that there should be three regions—the Northern, Eastern and Western Regions with the independent municipality of Lagos.

This recommendation was varied by the Secretary of State for the Colonies on the advice of the Legislative Council of Nigeria by merging Lagos with Western Region. Quite clearly, the constitution, at best, could only be described as quasi-federal.

Before the commencement of the General Conference, memoranda had been presented by each level of government. The recommendation or memorandum from Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM) and the one from Western Nigeria to which we had previously referred1″ were to the effect that Nigerian Federalism should be on linguistic basis.

That portion of the memoranda from NYM and the West were not considered. Accordingly both Mbonu Ojike and Eyo Ita wrote a Minority Report stating inter alia:
“What we want is a strong federated Nigeria with local government based on natural and not artificial geographical boundaries. Grouping of Nigeria along ethnic and/or linguistic units would serve to remove the problems of boundaries, minority and Pakistanistic dangers now threatening the unity of Nigeria.”

Mr. J. Griffiths, the Secretary of State for the Colonies made a cursory reference to Ojike’s and Eyo Ita’s Minority Report in his despatch of 15 July 1950 to Sir J. Macpherson, where he stated that “…On the proposal that Nigeria should be divided not into three Regions but into a considerably larger number of units based on ethnic grouping … the General Conference recommended that Nigeria should consist of three regions…  In this connection, two flaws bedevilled the decision to divide Nigeria into three regions.

There was no due observance of or reference to the principles of federalism as it affected a country like Nigeria with diversity of race, religion, language, culture, tradition and attitude to western education. The principle of federal constitution as espoused by Gladstone Professor, Kenneth C. Wheare, a leading authority on the subject, is to the effect that in a federal state, governmental powers between the different levels are structured in such a way that the federating units are coordinate and independent. In Wheare’s words:

“In a federal constitution, the powers of government are divided between a government for the whole country and governments for parts of the country in such a way that each government is legally independent within its own sphere, The government for the whole country has its own area of powers and it exercises them without any control from the governments of the constituent parts of the country, and these latter in their turn exercise their powers without being controlled by the central government.

In particular, the legislature of the whole country has limited powers, and the legislatures of the states or provinces have limited powers. Neither is subordinate to the other: both are co-ordinate.”

The other aspect of the flaw which bedevilled the Nigerian Constitution was the lack of proper and due regard to the peculiar nature of the country and its multifarious people. Nigeria is a classic example of the concept of heterogeneity. Nigeria as a country is made up of dissimilar diverse nationalities the types of which were Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

These were federations during the period of communist rule. However, they were, like Nigeria, not true federations. Nigeria, like the Soviet Union, failed because of extreme imbalance of the constituent units and incongruous structuring.

Nigeria being a multilingual and multinational country, the only suitable federal constitution for Nigeria should be one that was based on language. If; as sought by minorities before independence, during independence and more so after independence, the Middle Belt and other states had been created, the political instability that was the portion of the First Republic might not have happened.

The first coup d’etat might have not been dreamt of. With the inequity of political power arising from the imbalance of the structure of the country, the growing natural resources (in men and materials), capital and the inadequacy of technical knowledge, the country failed and collapsed completely and, up to the present time, has not rediscovered itself.

The British Government maintained that no new state would be created. In this regard, we refer to the comments of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lennox-Boyd to Sir N. Marshall:
…I should be glad to be informed as to the exact nature of the latest proposals on this subject, and to know whether I am right in my belief that one of the main motives behind these proposals is the desire on the pan of the N.C.N.C and the Action Group to split the Northern Region so as to reduce its present numerical preponderance in the Federal Legislature! also whether, in addition the N.C.N.C …to work hack to a unitary form of government which they would aim to dominate

In March 1955, the Colonial Office also wrote inter alia as follows:  The main aim of United Kingdom policy for Nigeria in the immediate future is therefore to prevent further fragmentation of the territory and to preserve the unity of the Regions within the Federation against possible moves to secede. . . The North has no outlet to the sea and the West no major port (Lagos is now, quite rightly federal territory)- The East is poor  – much poorer than the West and a good deal poorer than the North and land hungry….

Furthermore, Sir B. Sharwood-Smith wrote to T B. Williams saying, among other things:
“…I must underline the fact that, to both the N.C.N.C and the Action Group, a measure of fragmentation is a major objective of policy in both instances. Both would like to see the North weakened as a result of being split into smaller.
The British Government refused, very bluntly, all requests, particularly by the Action Group, to create more states. The Willink Commission appointed to inquire into the fears of minorities and the means of allaying the fears came up, and recommended that there was no need to create states in Nigeria, which recommendations were in tandem with the wishes and desires of the British Government and the N.RC. But when the pressure and agitation for state creation became intensely emotional and fervid, the Secretary of State adroitly blackmailed the Nigerian Leaders stressing that if they seriously desired new states created, they would have to put the request for the grant of Nigeria’s independence in abeyance or to secure independence as scheduled and get states created after independence. The Leaders opted for the latter.

Furthermore, it should be borne in rnind that the evidence submitted to the Minorities Commission suggests that the case for new states, not strong anywhere, is weakest in the North. Even if there proved to be a larger demand than the Commission found for establishing new states in the East and West, it seems very unlikely that there will be a majority demand for the setting up of a new state in any area of the North which could hope to stand alone as a state. The creation of new states in the South only would thus bring about a further unbalance—there would be an overwhelmingly powerful North facing 4 or 5 smaller states in the South.

Minority representatives at the Conference have argued that the new states for which they are pressing would prove viable because their inhabitants would be glad to cut their coat according to their cloth. It is very difficult to believe, whatever might be said in the first flush of enthusiasm for the idea of a separate Government that the peoples of any one state would be content over a long period to enjoy a standard of living much lower than the rest of Nigeria simply to possess their own governmental machine. Poor relations are an embarrassment in any family.
It seems therefore as though the Conference has the following choices:
(a)    It can abandon the request for independence in 1960 and instead put the question of the creation of new states to the test either at the elections next year or in a series of plebiscites next year based on the new Federal electoral rolls. If it preferred to do this the U.K. would then convene a fresh conference after these elections or plebiscites to consider whether any new states should be created following the election results and, if so, what provision for them should be made.
(b)   It can accept that to obtain early independence no new states can be created either now or as a result of next year’s elections, so that the existing framework of government is adhered to at least until after the strains of independence have been taken. To this could add that the U.K. recognizes that the existing Regional boundaries and the Regions themselves cannot be regarded as sacrosanct forever and that there must be some procedure after independence for the changing of these boundaries and for the creation of new states. The U.K. has proposals for suitable provision in the constitution to this effect.”

Second, to confer the national political leadership of Nigeria to Northern Nigeria under the auspices of the Northern People’s Congress, as the British Government did on the threshold of the country’s independence, was like a reckless and heterodox marriage whose disastrous divorce was around the corner.

At Independence Nigeria gave a promise, optimistically, of one of the potentially great countries of the world. And the expectation was that the men and women at her helm of affairs would be persons of outstanding ability, exceptional weight, as well as unique and ripe experience. It was thought that the government that would emerge would embosom the best and great characters in the country.


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