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The phenomenon of Biafra (4)

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By Douglas Anele

This is corroborated by a recurrent phenomenon that gathered momentum from around 1940s and which indicates Britain’s refusal to address warnings about Nigeria’s future stability even when those warnings came from her own officials, namely, hate speech. Prominent members of the northern establishment, in both their utterances and writings, manifested appalling growing dislike of easterners, the Igbo particularly, in their midst. Again and again, speakers in the northern House of Assembly demanded that southerners must leave the north because the region was for northerners. In 1945, the repercussion of those hate speeches reared its murderous head when scores of Ndigbo living in Jos were brutally attacked and their property destroyed.

Three years later, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, during the budget session of the Nigerian Legislative Council, boldly proclaimed that “Many Nigerians deceive themselves by thinking that Nigeria is one…particularly some of the press people. This is wrong. I am sorry to say that this presence of unity is artificial and it ends outside this chamber. The southern tribes who are now pouring into the north in their increasing numbers and are more or less domiciled here do not mix with the northern people…and we in the north look upon them as invaders.” It is therefore not surprising that mutual ethnic suspicion and rivalries especially among leaders of the three major ethnic groups and fear of domination played a critical role in the emergence of regional parties prior to independence.

The Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC) right from inception was clearly set up by Sir Ahmadu Bello to cater for the northern region, whereas the Action Group (AG) headed by Chief Obafemi Awolowo was basically a Yoruba party, although as time went on Nigerians with a quasi-socialist orientation began to rally around it. The first truly national party was the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), previously known as the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons. It was formed by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and his political father, Herbert Macaulay, in August 24, 1944. But the party eventually evolved into a political organisation dominated by the Igbo.

Because of the regional configuration of these parties, none could govern the country on its own; secondly, they provided the manure for rapid germination of ethnic politics in the political history of Nigeria. A glaring example of corrosive tribalism and ethnicisation of politics which set the tone for future strained relationship between Igbo political leaders and their Yoruba counterparts was in 1951 when Chief Awolowo instigated some Yoruba parliamentarians from NCNC in the western House of Assembly to elect Dr. A.I. Olorunimbe instead of Dr. Azikiwe and effectively stopped the latter from going to the central legislature in Lagos to represent western region. That singular incident triggered stigmatisation of Chief Awolowo as a tribalist.

In March 1953 the AG, through Anthony Enahoro, tabled a motion in the federal House of Representatives for independence in 1956. NCNC members, despite the treacherous carpet-crossing incident highlighted above, supported the motion. However, northerners rejected it because they felt, correctly, that their region did not yet have an administration and educated workforce that can function independently if the British departed. Worse still, Sir Ahmadu Bello who led the northern majority in the House loathed political domination by the south and was afraid that qualified southerners would fill the posts in his domain vacated by British administrators.

Consequently, he and his cohorts modified Enahoro’s motion by replacing reference to 1956 with a watered down proposal of attaining independence when “practicable.” Indeed, Bello told the House that “The mistake of 1914 has come to light, and I should like it to go no further.” Members of the AG and NCNC walked out, followed by the resignation of AG members from the Cabinet. When the northern representatives left the House, they were heckled and jeered at by crowds in Lagos for foot-dragging on the question of political autonomy.

Sir Ahmadu Bello and others felt humiliated and embarrassed, and waited for an opportunity to exact revenge. For these northern politicians, southerners were no more than ill-mannered infidels, while the southerners regarded them as uneducated and backward, as clogs in the wheel of progress. In my opinion, with the benefit of hindsight, the AG and NCNC should have joined forces to make a valid case for an independent Republic of Southern Nigeria when northern leaders stated emphatically that the north was not ready for self-rule.

Probably, if they had done so successfully, the Biafran phenomenon with all its devastating corollaries would not have taken place. It must be mentioned in passing that Sir Ahmadu Bello dominated politics in northern Nigeria for so long because he cleverly exploited the fears of emirs and a small coterie of western-educated northerners by constantly reminding them that the best way to safeguard northern interests (that is, the hegemonist interests of caliphate colonialists) was to present a united front or political party capable of resisting the growing power and influence of southern leaders.

Opportunity for the north to have its pound of flesh from the south came shortly afterwards in May 1953 when Chief Awolowo and some AG leaders decided to tour the north, beginning from Kano, in the words of G.O. Olusanya, to “educate the northern peoples about the crisis in the House of Representatives over the self-government motion.” Two days to the scheduled visit, Mallam Inua Wada, Secretary of the NPC in Kano, informed a meeting of sectional heads in the Native Administration that “Having abused us in the south these very southerners have decided to come over to the north to abuse us…We have therefore organised about a thousand men in the city to meet force with force… .”

Although the meeting was eventually cancelled because of the toxic atmosphere generated by hate speeches from Inua Wada and his group, on May 16 a series of massacres began: northerners attacked the Igbo in Kano with what a British civil servant who wrote a report on the ugly incident described as “a universally unexpected degree of violence.” Of course, the attack seems odd, considering that Chief Awolowo was not Igbo – even if he were, the attack was unjustified – and the purpose of his intended visit was political enlightenment which had nothing to do with violence. In his autobiography,My Life, Sir Ahmadu Bello remarked that “Here in Kano as things fell out, the fighting took place between the Hausas…and the Igbo; the Yoruba were oddly enough out of it.”

The oddity reduces somewhat, however, when one remembers that the northern ruling elite, without a well-established rational non-violent model or precedence for responding to perceived threat to its dominant position in the society from non-indigenes especially, tends to react to such situations by unleashing violence on the latter. Besides, northerners envied the Igbo who, from the 1940s through hard work and relentless pursuit of western education, had become the major source of civil servants, managers, and technicians in northern Nigeria and throughout the country. Unfortunately, since concerted efforts were not made by the colonial administration to punish perpetrators of the senseless violence in Jos and Kano, a significant percentage of northerners began to feel that it was okay to vent their frustrations and anger on the Igbo at the slightest provocation.

Going back to constitutional matters, historians agree that the 1954 constitution established a serviceable federal structure by delineating spheres of activity in respect to which the regions exercised authority, including provision of regionalised public services and the judiciary. In this connection, Sir Bello, Dr. Azikiwe and Chief Awolowo became ministers of the northern, eastern and western regions respectively. Further re-engineering of the machinery of federalism took place after subsequent constitutional reforms were agreed upon at the constitutional conferences of 1957 and 1958 in London.

Some of the key reforms that resulted from the meetings include creation of the office of Prime Minister, inclusion of fundamental human rights in the constitution to protect individuals and minorities, and granting of internal self-government to the eastern and western regions, whereas the north postponed its own self-rule to 1959. Now, as independence loomed in the horizon, major political leaders across the country dissipated far more energy in a war of succession than in fighting the British colonialists, a trend that began shortly after regional parties were formed in the late 1940s. As a result, national cohesion was gradually undermined: Igbo and Yoruba leaders manoeuvred for supremacy in the south, but it was partially overshadowed by the more profound clash of southern interests with those of the overbearing northern region. In a very important sense, the Biafran problem arose from the inability of Nigeria’s ruling class to settle these disputes amicably and fairly.

The 1959 election was the last election conducted under British supervision. It has been alleged in certain quarters that Sir James Robertson, the British Governor-General of Nigeria who handled it, deliberately manipulated the process to favour the north, specifically the NPC. There is some evidence to support that allegation. Sir Robertson had in 1957 named Alhaji Balewa the Prime Minister in spite of the fact that the NPC controlled only the northern region and had only a third of the ministers in the federal executive council, and the NCNC was dominant in the eastern region, with a sizeable representation in the west and about two-thirds of the ministers.

















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