By Douglas Anele
According to James S. Coleman in his Nigeria: Background to Nationalism, “Dr. Azikiwe is reported to have sent a post-election letter to Mr. Awolowo proposing that their two parties form an alliance that …would force the government to concede to us a better constitution whose provisions would make party politics more effective.” Although according to available information Chief Awolowo prevaricated somewhat initially, it is on record that the NCNC-AG alliance played out in the 1953 constitutional conferences which helped to bring about the Lyttleton constitution of 1954. For example, in one of the conferences, Anthony Enahoro tabled a motion on behalf of the two parties in the Federal House of Representatives calling for Nigeria’s independence in three years’ time, that is, 1956. The northern majority in the House were adamant: they actually replaced ‘1956’ with the more modest but vague objective of attaining independence “when practicable”, which actually meant “when the north is ready for it”.
For Ahmadu Bello particularly, granting independence to the country on the date proposed by Enahoro would be suicidal for the north since the region was economically backward relative to the southern regions and lacked adequate western-educated manpower to administer it efficiently according to the principles and practice of modern political economy. With the benefit of hindsight, one wonders why Azikiwe, Awolowo and other southern leaders lacked the unity of purpose to insist on having a republic of southern Nigeria first pending when the northern region would be ready, to pave way for a renegotiation of the basis for Nigerian unity – if possible or desirable.
There seems to be a consensus among commentators that the 1959 election that preceded independence was rigged in favour of the north, especially the NPC. Going back eight years, in the indirect regional elections held in 1951, NPC working in concert with the colonial officials ensured that NEPU failed to achieve the level of electoral victory it deserved given its popularity among the masses. That said, keep in mind that conservative northern leaders benefiting from the feudal system regularly used intimidation and threat of secession to get concessions from their southern counterparts and the British officials.
For example, with the blackmail of secession they demanded and eventually got for the northern region more seats in the federal parliament than the eastern and western regions put together, which implies that no meaningful decision by government affecting the whole country can be taken without support from the north. Some might endorse the strategy as a good example of political sagacity or realpolitik. However, the effects have been devastating, because it led to hubristic negative triumphalism by the conservative wing of the northern establishment and resentment in the south given that the latter carries disproportionately the economic burden of the country as a whole, notwithstanding the revisionist falsehood of southern dependence on the north peddled by Prof. Ango Abdullahi and a few northern irredentists.
Despite British colonial rigging of the 1959 federal election to favour the NPC, including the fact that although both the NCNC and AG each had more votes than the party, NPC had by far more seats in the central legislature (134) than the other two parties with 81 and 73 seats respectively. Chinweizu argues, correctly, that had proportional representation been applied, the NCNC-NEPU alliance which garnered 3,103,627 votes (or 40% of total votes cast) would have had most seats and produced the Prime Minister. Alternatively, had Azikiwe and Awolowo set aside their animosity and pulled together, their coalition would have had 164 seats compared to NPC’s 148. And the Governor-General and Balewa’s bosom friend, Sir James Robertson, would have been obliged to ask the NCNC-AG alliance to form the government at independence.
There are two interesting accounts concerning the emergence of Sir Tafawa Balewa of NPC as the Prime Minister instead of Dr. Azikiwe or Chief Awolowo that most Nigerians are unaware of but which, if things had been otherwise, might have changed the trajectory of Nigerian history profoundly. The first one, as reported by Chinweizu, is that Sir Robertson, Nigeria’s last British governor-general, confessed that in 1959 he asked Balewa to form the government by persuading some of the southern members of parliament to support him, and that Sir Abubakar assured him he would get a southern group that would agree with the decision. Robertson did this before the results were released in full because he wanted to pacify the Sardauna of Sokoto, leader of the NPC to prevent the latter from pulling the northern region out of Nigeria.
The second account reflects the inability of Dr. Azikiwe and Chief Awolowo to reach a common ground at the critical moment so that one of them would become Prime Minister instead of Alhaji Balewa. Azikiwe had been blamed particularly by loyalists of Awolowo for preferring to align with NPC rather than with the AG. In my opinion, that is partially correct, which is probably an unfortunate outcome of the disappointment felt by NCNC leaders as a result of the carpet crossing episode of 1952. However, Chief Mbazulike Amaechi, a diehard supporter of Dr. Azikiwe, presented a different perspective on the issue about eight years ago. According to Chief Amaechi, after the 1959 election when it became obvious that a coalition government must be formed to take over from the departing British colonialists, a delegation from the AG went to discuss the matter with NCNC leaders in Azikiwe’s Onitsha residence. It proposed that both parties should form an alliance such that Azikiwe would become Prime Minister while Awolowo would serve as the finance minister. While the discussion was on, Azikiwe went upstairs to answer a telephone call. Upon his return, Azikiwe told the AG delegation that the NCNC would consider AG’s proposal and send a delegation back to Chief Awolowo.
When the AG delegation left, Dr. Azikiwe informed the NCNC leaders present that the telephone call he went to answer was from the Sardauna of Sokoto and that the Sardauna had informed him of a delegation from Chief Awolowo which visited him offering NPC precisely what the other delegation that just left them offered their own party, the NCNC. Probably concluding that AG is a double-headed snake, Dr. Azikiwe decided to negotiate with the Sardauna. During the negotiation, Ahmadu Bello insisted that the north should produce the Prime Minister, otherwise they were not ready for independence. In the agreement to end British colonial rule signed at Lancaster House, it was agreed that if any region said it was not ready for independence, the process will be postponed until all regions were willing to go ahead. According to Chief Amaechi, northern leaders took advantage of that agreement. Dr. Azikiwe and top leaders of the NCNC reasoned that having fought and sacrificed so much for political freedom, it was preferable to allow the north produce the first Prime Minister so that independence would be attained as soon as possible.
While a plausible case can be made that the British skewed the elections and the processes leading to independence in order to favour their acolytes from the north, southern political leaders especially Dr. Azikiwe and Chief Awolowo are also to be blamed for allowing them get away with it relatively easily. Now, the decision of Sir James Robertson to hand over political leadership to his friend Balewa means that the British colonial administration was not interested in allowing the most qualified Nigerians to lead the country after independence due to the likelihood that a cerebral leadership headed by such a person, like Dr. Azikiwe or Chief Awolowo for instance, would not be easily manipulated to continue servicing British economic interests which was the overarching motivation for British imperialism in Africa. Thus, despite attempts by the British to prop up Balewa (a school teacher with inferior academic credentials and cognate experience in modern democratic leadership when compared to leading politicians from the south) as a statesman, Balewa was not the most suitable politician to be Nigeria’s Prime Minister at independence because there are better alternatives from the south – and even from the north, such as Mallam Aminu Kano.
To be continued…