By Douglas Anele
A cultural organisation called Jami’yar Mu tamen Arewa was founded by some prominent members of the northern establishment in December, 1949. Its advertised aim was “to combat ignorance and injustice in the north.” With the prospect of elections in 1951, the group metamorphosed into a political party known as the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC). In the west, the Yoruba socio-cultural association, Egbe Omo Oduduwa, formed in 1947, transformed into the Action Group (AG) at Owo in 1951. Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the Sadauna of Sokoto, and Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa were the two most prominent members of the NPC.
The NPC, right from its inception, was a decidedly regional party. As Max Siollun observed in his book Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966-1976}, “its motto of ‘One North, One People’ gave an entirely accurate description of its objectives”. Not surprisingly, it not only dominated northern Nigeria, the party had great influence in the federal government because after the 1954 federal elections, it had the largest number of seats in the House of Representatives. Now, northern political domination of the south at the national level began before independence: it was deliberately designed by British colonial administrators starting from Lord Lugard and explicitly formulated in 1913 by Lord Harcourt, British secretary of state for the colonies at that time.
The historian and essayist, Chinweizu, in Caliphate Colonialism: The Taproot of the Trouble with Nigeria, reports that Harcourt “laid down the kind of relationship that should exist between the north and the south as a marriage, with the north as the “husband” and the south as the “wife”. This obnoxious idea, in my view, aside from Islam, has remained the most enduring prism through which members of the northern elite, collectively, see the Nigerian project as the estate of their alleged great-great-grandfather, Uthman Dan Fodio.
But why did the British favour the predominantly Muslim north rather than the south with its sizeable Christian population? Frantz Fanon, the psychiatrist and political philosopher from Martinique, provides a plausible explanation. In his works, White Skin, Masks and Wretched of the Earth, he argues that imperialists and colonisers tend prefer groups that are more amenable to manipulation and subjugation to those that are not. The Islamic theocracies of northern Nigeria, with its rigid and hierarchical social stratification, were more congenial for actualising the economic and administrative designs of British imperialism in West Africa than, say, the “stubborn” and “uppity” southerners particularly the Igbo who, within the background of early exposure of their leaders to western education, stoutly resisted colonisation to the last, and continued to do so even after they were subdued by violence.
In his autobiography published in 1960, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, founder of AG, claims that the party intends to bring and organise within its fold all nationalists in the western region so that they might work together as a united group and submit themselves to party loyalty and discipline. Thus, like the NPC, AG started out as a tribal or regional party but strongly advocated, just like the NCNC, a federal system of government which is more suitable for a multiply plural large country like Nigeria than unitarism or theocratic feudalism favoured by conservative northern leaders.
Of course, Awolowo’s recommendation makes sound common sense: it allows the federating units greater freedom and capacity to mobilise available resources in their areas for development at their own pace. It should be mentioned in passing that, with the emergence of political parties along ethnic lines, the NCNC which had maintained a genuinely nationalistic outlook gradually devolved into an Igbo-dominated party, although it still had a sizeable following in the west and, through its alliance with the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU, established by Mallam Aminu Kano) in the north as well.
Interestingly, from 1951 onwards, prominent politicians across the country focused not only on decolonisation but also dissipated energy unnecessarily fighting one another for supremacy after the British might have departed. Not only that, the rivalry between the Igbo and Yoruba leaders in southern Nigeria was partially eclipsed by the more profound antagonism between the interests of the north and those of the south. This unfortunate situation has continued to militate against the emergence of political parties that are inoculated from ethnicity and religion.
A particularly jarring feature of retrogressive politics in Nigeria is whimsical defection or decamping from one political party to another. The most notable case before independence in October 1, 1960, occurred in the western region after the regional election of 1951. Candidates of the NCNC defeated their AG rivals in direct elections within Lagos. To constitute the government of that region, the two parties had to win the support of smaller, quasi political parties, notably, the Ibadan Peoples Party (IPP). According to one writer, Chief Awolowo capitalised on fear among members of the western House of Assembly that support for NCNC entails support for Dr. Azikiwe, a non-Yoruba, notwithstanding the fact that some notable Yoruba politicians, including T.O.S. Benson, Prince Adeleke Adedoyin, Adegoke Adelabu, and H.P. Adebola, were stalwarts of the party. When the assembly sat for the first time in January 1952, some NCNC and IPP legislators led by Adisa Akinloye defected to the AG.
Consequently, the AG killed two birds with one stone: it stopped the NCNC from forming the government in western region and prevented Dr. Azikiwe from moving as a parliamentarian of the region to the central legislative house in Lagos. Historians agree that this incident marked the beginning of the unhealthy political animosity between Azikiwe and Awolowo, on the one hand, and between the Igbo and the Yoruba, on the other. Meanwhile in the north, as we adumbrated earlier, politicians dissatisfied with the ultra-conservative, feudalistic and narrow political vision of the NPC leadership and had established the left-of-centre political party called Northern Elements Progressive Union, formed a coalition with the NCNC.
Going by NEPU’s manifesto, the party intended to demolish the exploitative feudal system in northern Nigeria, even if it meant dismantling the sultanate in the process. Uchenna Nwankwo in his work Shadows of Biafra affirms that following the result of the 1951 elections in northern Nigeria which British colonial administrators manipulated in favour of the NPC, the party consolidated its stranglehold on power in the region. Now, the British actually implemented the grotesque forced marriage Lord Harcourt envisioned first, by making the north disproportionately larger geographically than the south and, second, by channelling funds derived from the south to develop the north. They also adopted the same strategy to ensure that northern Nigeria had the upper hand politically in the years immediately before and at independence.
Uchenna Nwankwo’s work cited earlier contains incontrovertible evidence that even before October 1, 1960, the NPC had been playing sordid retrogressive politics of the worst kind, with support from the colonial administrators, by actively instigating and endorsing discrimination, brutalisation, and killing of Ndigbo living in northern Nigeria at the slightest opportunity. Moreover, the party did not have a well-articulated programme for liberating the suffering northern masses from the ravages of atavistic feudalism through heavy investment in human capital development. Its core objective was to maintain the status quo and privileges embedded in the feudal system. On the national stage, the preoccupation of Ahmadu Bello and his closest allies was to maintain and consolidate northern political domination of Nigeria, a mindset that has remained relatively unchanged among the dominant segment of the northern ruling elite till now.
For all their errors of judgment and rivalry, Dr. Azikiwe and Chief Awolowo sometimes tried to forge a united front to counteract the domineering retrogressive politics of NPC. Whereas Azikiwe was more idealistically nationalistic, Awolowo had a more pragmatic and realistic appreciation of Nigeria’s murky political terrain and the most appropriate strategy to cope with it. Dr. Azikiwe was so obsessed with the quest for the independence of Nigeria as one unified geopolitical entity that he was willing to expedite the process by working with Awolowo despite the unsavoury episode of 1952.
To be continued…