By Yinka Odumakin
WALE Adebanwi, a Professor of African American and African Studies at the University of California-Davis recently stopped by at Jazz Hole on Awolowo Road in Ikoyi, Lagos to read from his latest book: NATION AS GRAND NARRATIVE: The Nigerian Press and the Politics of Meaning, to a select audience of some of the richest minds around town.
The evening beautifully moderated by the author of What a Country, Mr Kunle Ajibade (reviewed as Not a country by Adebanwi years back) attracted Prof Niyi Osundare, Prof Adigun Agbaje, Bashorun J.K Randle, Mr Jimi Agbaje, Erelu Bisi Fayemi, Mr Laolu Akande, Mr Tayo Koleosho, Mrs. Nike Nedum (Née Ransome-Kuti), Akin Ajayi, Fafaa Dan Princewill, Mr Tuned Fagbenle and a host of others.
Adebanwi was clear about his mission in the book when he states: ”As the following chapters illustrate, despite the constant divisive narratives that present, defend and contests diverse and sometimes contradictory interests of Nigeria’s many ethno-regional, ethnic nationalist, or ethno-religious groups, there is constant gesturing toward a nation of aspiration, a Nigerian grand nation, that it is assumed, surpasses or subsumes the many nations forced to live together within the Nigerian federation”.
That aspiration unfortunately has remained aspiration as the event he chose to open the book illustrates.
It was in 1953 when Anthony Enahoro, one of the leading lights of anti-colonial struggle and a prominent member of the Obafemi Awolowo-led Action Group, AG, moved the motion that Nigeria should become independent in 1956 at the Federal parliament.
That motion should have been unanimously supported by members of parliament if an “impossible country” was not in the making.
Enahoro had said in the preamble to his motion on the floor of the Federal House of Representatives that any proposal short of full political independence for Nigeria “has ceased to be a progressive view because Nigerian nationalism has moved forward from that position”.
Adebanwi correctly posits that “in a response that showed the fault lines of Nigerian nationalism in the late colonial era-and since then-Sir Ahmadu Bello of the Northern People’s Congress, NPC, introduced a dilatory motion substituting the phrasing “as soon as practicable for the year “1956” proposed by Enahoro.
In an undisguised reference to the superficiality of the “Nigerian nationalism” which Enahoro and his Southern compatriots were lionizing, Bello added “sixty years ago, there was no Nigeria but merely a collection of communities very different in outlook and mode of life”.
The North threatened to leave Nigeria over the quest for independence by the South. In anticipation that the NPC which had more numbers in the House was going to win the vote, the NCNC and AG members in the House of Representatives walked out of the House. The meeting of the House was adjourned and members of NPC met very unfriendly crowd in Lagos.
They were called all sorts of names before they left for the North. A retaliatory move by Northern leaders in Lagos after the adjournment on March 31, 1953 self- government motion, came during the tour of the Northern Region by the AG led by Chief S.L. Akintola; it was viewed by Northerners as an invasion of another man’s territory. It was while Akintola and his group were in Kano that a riot broke out. Several people lost their lives while many were wounded. After the crisis, the NPC members issued an “eight-point-programme”, to the colonial government to the effects that until their demands were met, they would not return to the House in Lagos.
It may be necessary here to reproduce this programme so we can properly situate when “Nigeria unity is not negotiable” mantra became a sing-song. The North asked for the following: (1) That each region shall have complete Legislative and Executive Autonomy with respect to all matters except the following: External Affairs, Defence, Customs and West African Research Institutions;
(2) That there should be no Central Legislative body and no Central Executive or Policy making body for the whole of Nigeria;
(3) That there shall be Central Agency for all regions which will be responsible for matters mentioned in Paragraph (1) and other matters delegated to it by a Region;
(4) That the Central Agency shall be a neutral place preferably Lagos;
(5) That the composition and responsibility of the Central Agency shall be defined by the Order-in-Council establishing the constitutional arrangements. The agency shall be a non-political body.
(6) That the services of railway, air, posts and telegraphs, electricity and coal mining, shall be organised on an inter-regional basis and shall be administered by public corporations. These corporations shall be independent and covered by the statutes under which they are created by the board of experts with a minority representation of the regional governments;
(7) All the revenues shall be levied and collected by the regional government except Customs revenue at the port of discharge by the Central Agency and paid to its treasury;
(8) The administration of the Customs shall be so organised so as to assure that goods consigned to the region are separately cleared and charged to duty. Each region shall have a separate public service.
There can be no other explanation as to why those who made those proposals in 1953 became the very people flogging those making demands for a restructuring that do not go far like they did at the National Theatre in Lagos in 1991 when the late Alao-Aka Bashorun led us to the foyer to demand a National Conference than the oil that was discovered four years after.
The very people who put these beautiful demands together in 1953 now pretend as if they don’t know what we are talking about today because of the gains of iniquity, of a dysfunctional unitarist arrangement we misnamed a federation.
To all intents and purposes, the sharp divisions of 1953 still define us till today as our clash of civilizations define our positions on critical issues.
Adebanwi captures vividly this clash of civilizations as it lived through the pages of Nigerian newspapers in the 1950s.
For instance he quoted the Nigerian Tribune, the voice of western region of February 1950 as editorialising that British colonialism, which forced together the different ethnic groups in Nigeria, had “failed to fulfill the mission for which it set out” the “UNITY of the North, East and West they (had) promised us. They have achieved, to our horror, DISUNITY”.
About a year later, a Northern newspaper, Nigerian Citizen editorialised that the new telephone line linking Kaduna, the capital of the Northern region, with Lagos, Enugu, the major cities of the two Southern regions, signified “the gaining of momentum towards bringing the people of Nigeria closer together”, thus urging Nigerians to “sink prejudices as much as possible for wider patriotism” and dismissed “Southern polemics” expressed by The Tribune editorial as “extremism” of the South and its newspapers.
The West African Pilot responded to this by dismissing Citizen as “a very patient imperialist pet and added that “the alliance of imperialism and feudalism will henceforth be fought by the holy crusaders of the nationalist army as they enter the first phase of psychological warfare”.
The main thrust of discussions at Adebanwi’s reading was that aspiration to nationhood will remain a mirage if the lack of consensus that characterised the relationship of Nigeria’s ethnic groups in 1953 continues to define our union.
As it was in 1953, we have hardly agreed on anything except corruption among the elites. To count ourselves accurately has been impossible. We find it difficult to hold free elections. If we fixed voting age to be 18 some civilization will line up six year olds.
We cannot standardise admission criteria into our schools leading to the recent cancellation of post-UTME in our universities. We retire some people on tenure policy and cancel same policy for another set of Nigerians.
The Holy Book asks if two can walk together without agreement. Nigeria is answering that question by tying the legs of many racers and making them to run in different directions. The result is pitiful falls all over the place and the very reason why Nigeria lies prostrate at the intensive care unit of failed nations.
Redressing 1953 requires revisiting the eight-point agenda of the North of 1953 and remove the biles therein to create a Nigeria where all constituent units are free to move and develop at their pace and according to their civilizations. Let each section concentrates on its area of comparative advantage and assign its priorities.
A model that seeks to use the instrumentality of the Federal Government of Nigeria to turn the whole country into a grazing land, for instance, negates federalism and can only breed conflicts and perpetual feud.
Nigerians since 1953 after their representatives dispersed in Lagos with riots breaking out in Kano afterwards have not sat anywhere to agree on the terms of their unity concretely and spell it out. So the “unity” that is not “ negotiable” today was not negotiated anywhere .
The closer to such negotiation was the gathering of thoughts as symbolised by the 2014 National Conference around which some consensus have been built; today it’s possible, imperfections notwithstanding. And those dismissing the document should wake up and smell the coffee as the game in town has expired.