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The problem of retrogressive politics in Nigeria (5)

By Douglas Anele

Continuing our analysis from where we stopped last week, it can be said that any objective assessment of Dr. Azikiwe, Chief Awolowo, and Tafawa Balewa in terms of educational qualifications, familiarity with the complexities of modern democratic governance, and basic personality traits appropriate for effective leadership in a multiply heterogeneous setting like Nigeria would most probably place Balewa below the other two for the post of Prime Minister. But then, Dr. Azikiwe’s obsession with the attainment of independence within the shortest possible time made him and majority of prominent southern politicians concede too much to the north.

For instance, as I stated before, by succumbing to the threat of secession from leaders of the northern region unless the north was given fifty percent of the seats in the post-independence federal legislature, Azikiwe and others unwittingly facilitated political domination of the country by the north. In my opinion, it is one of the ironies of our chequered history that through threats and blackmail the north with serious educational, geographical and economic disadvantages, supported by British colonial officials, gained political ascendancy over southern Nigeria that had the requisite human capital and economic wherewithal to thrive as a separate Republic of Southern Nigeria. Additionally, the emergence of a northerner as the first prime Minister meant that the north whose leaders were not really keen about a united Nigeria – epitomised in Ahmadu Bello’s remark that “I would rather be called Sultan of Sokoto than President of Nigeria” – and who on several occasions slowed down the processes towards independence and probably preferred its postponement beyond 1960 eventually climbed to the commanding height of governance in post-independent Nigeria.

One cannot have an adequate understanding of Nigerian politics since the end of colonial rule without appreciating the fact that in the country politics has been essentially the contest for political office and competition for its spoils rather than for the opportunity to creatively deploy available human and natural resources for the common good, which is the essence of good leadership. Now, immediately after independence, the simmering complicated problem of ethnic rivalry and fear of domination worsened the already shaky political structure cobbled together by British colonial officials and political leaders across the country.

Northern leaders felt vulnerable: they were afraid that an Igbo-Yoruba alliance from the south, because of the overwhelming educational and economic advantages of southern Nigeria, would be radioactive to both their entrenched Islamic way of life and political dominance, whereas southern politicians resented political domination by northerners whom they saw as backward, undereducated and unsophisticated. Thus, the politics of fear and resentment against domination prevented leading politicians from rising above personal and ethnic interests to work together for the purpose of nation building

After independence, the NPC took control of the federal government with the NCNC as the junior partner in what Max Siollun aptly described as a “shaky coalition.” For northern leaders, particularly the Sardauna of Sokoto who never truly believed in the concept of a united egalitarian Nigeria, the best way to checkmate the south was to lower the standard for employment into public service and recruitment into the military in favour of the north. Indeed, the Sardauna was so obsessed with his myopic vision of Nigeria that he inaugurated a northernisation programme that sought to fill job vacancies in the northern region with northerners. Siollun reports that “where no qualified northern candidate was available, expatriates were hired in preference to southerners.”

Irrespective of the dishonest attempt by some writers to distort history by portraying Bello and Balewa as nationalists and statesmen, there is enough documentary evidence that both men were not interested in forging national unity based on equity and justice for the ethnic nationalities that constitute the country. Instead, their political horizon was limited to the north, such that both were only interested in southerners and in matters pertaining to the south to the extent they had consequences in Northern Nigeria. Leading southern politicians made the cardinal mistake of underrating northerners and the extent Bello, Balewa and other caliphate colonialists were willing to go to protect northern interest which, in reality, was to maintain the existing unjust system that favours members of the northern elite to the detriment of suffering talakawas. Again, the south was deeply divided along tribal, regional, and party lines: its prominent politicians failed to present a united front against the north. All this played out in every aspect of public life with devastating consequences culminating in the January 15, 1966 bloody abortive military coup.

As is well known, the brief history of Nigeria under parliamentary democracy has been well documented, but for our discussion some instances of the radioactive effects of immature retrogressive politics in the First Republic would be highlighted. To contextualise the issues, it is necessary to point out that the traditional British parliamentary system bequeathed to Nigerians by the colonialists was unsuitable for the country. The British colonialists did not take into cognisance the complex ethnic configurations, diverse socio-cultural antecedents of the ethnic groups in the amalgam they created as well as the inexperience of Nigerian politicians who were to run the system. The problem was worsened by the fact, noted by Frederick Forsyth in The Making of an African Legend: The Biafra Story, that the centrifugal forces in Nigeria “far from being expunged by the colonial power, had been exacerbated on occasion as a useful e4xpedient to indirect rule.”

This is in line with the main reason why Britain created Nigeria in the first place, that is, for the optimum exploitation of her human and natural resources for the benefit of British imperialism. For the colonialists, every other thing was subordinate to that overarching aim. Aside from corruption, two events signpost the mediocrity and poverty of political leadership that characterised the Balewa administration. The first one was the 1962 political crisis in western region, which led to the declaration of state of emergency there by the Prime Minister. While the crisis festered, Balewa supported amendment of constitution of western region to the effect that “the governor could remove a Premier only in consequence of a majority decision of the regional legislature.” And to further weaken the opposition, his government created a new mid-western region out of the western region. All this, together with his open support of Chief Samuel Akintola who was less popular than Chief Awolowo, could be likened to a stick of dynamite waiting for detonation.

Unfortunately, the detonation occurred during the western election crisis of 1965. The second event was the census of 1963, about which most commentators agree that the figures announced for the regions were inflated to suit the north and the south. Population matters, because allocation of political power and resources are often based on demographic criteria. The results from the south, according to Siollun, showed a preposterously high growth of the population. Balewa ordered a verification of the figures, after which an additional eight million people were “found” in the north, indicating that northern Nigeria was more populous than the south. The census figures generated mutual bitterness between northern and southern politicians to the extent that the NCNC-NPC coalition was jeopardised.

Concerning the 1964 general elections, because the wobbly alliance between the NCNC and the NPC was collapsing, the NCNC joined forces with AG to form the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA). Then, Akintola’s Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) teamed up with the NPC to create the Nigerian National Alliance (NNA). Regrettably, because party politics and political parties aimed at capturing of power and the spoils of office that came with it, politicians regarded elections as a do or die affair. Thus, tensions reached almost a boiling point during the election campaigns as leading politicians abandoned rational debate about policy and programmes from a nationalistic point of view and descended into the slough of personal abuse and ethnic chauvinism. The unprecedented corruption, malpractices and hate speeches across the political divide compelled Dr. Azikiwe, the ceremonial President, to warn politicians that “If they have decided to destroy our national unity…it is better for us and for many of our admirers abroad that we should disintegrate in peace, not in pieces.

To be continued



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