By Douglas Anele
Last week’s essay ended with Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s ominous intervention concerning the retrogressive politics of the First Republic. He continues: “Should the politicians fail to heed this warning, then I will venture the prediction that the experience of the Federal Republic of Congo will be child’s play if it ever comes to our turn to play such a tragic role…From the blind passion of those who worship power, may Allah save our republic.” From the above quotation, it is evident that Azikiwe was genuinely concerned about the potential dangers of failure by his colleagues to resolve their differences amicably without resorting to violent undemocratic methods, and by beseeching the Islamic god rather than Jesus Christ or Jehovah to intervene, as a good Christian would, he manifested a degree of religious tolerance worthy of emulation. Of course, the pogroms against Ndigbo, the two military coups of 1966 and the civil war prove beyond any reasonable doubt that Dr. Azikiwe’s timely warning went unheeded.
Meanwhile, the NNA was determined to win the federal election at all cost, such that even when UPGA boycotted it based on justified suspicion that the NNA had concluded plans to manipulate the process, Balewa still went ahead. The outcome was not surprising: although the boycott was successful in the east, NNA increased its parliamentary majority at the federal level by purportedly winning in many areas unopposed. But Tafawa Balewa could not form a new government because the President, Dr. Azikiwe, refused to invite him to do so due to widespread irregularities that marred the election.
After some days of perilous uncertainty, and based on legal advice that under the revised constitution which turned the country into a parliamentary republic in 1963 the service chiefs were right by insisting that they would take orders from the Prime Minister only, Azikiwe relented, thereby averting a looming constitutional crisis whose outcome might have been disastrous. Before all this, the NPC was already plotting to remove Azikiwe from the post of President by having him declared unfit on health grounds. Thus, he had to invite the Prime Minister to constitute a new government. The new administration was a kind of unstable coalition featuring cabinet members from the NPC, NCNC, and NNDP.
The western regional election of 1965 was even more blatantly rigged than the federal election of the previous year. Most probably all the political parties that sponsored candidates in that election engaged in one form of electoral malpractice or another. But the NNDP, leveraging on the incumbency factor and closeness to NPC’s federal government, out-rigged the others by a very wide margin using violence, intimidation of voters, bribery and falsification of results.
Now, despite ‘Operation Wetie,’ a catch-all label for the intense widespread and violent riots that attended the announcement of NNDP as victors in what was a blatant caricature of free and fair election, Prime Minister Balewa who had declared a state of emergency in the west three years earlier to deal with a comparatively smaller quantum of violence triggered by a legislative brawl refused to do so when the magnitude of destruction was far greater than what obtained in 1962, probably because he did not want to jeopardise the unpopular government of his main ally in the west, Chief Akintola. Max Siollun wryly captured the chaotic outcome of what happened thus: “The country now had two governments that were the product of illegitimate elections. The federal government was in power despite a partially boycotted and flawed election in 1964, and now the western region’s government under Akintola was in power after a spectacularly rigged election. The entire political system was corrupted from the federal to the regional level.”
Were it not for the retrogressive politics championed by NNA (the coalition of NPC and NNDP), a negotiated and fair resolution of the crisis in the west would have been reached by identifying and addressing the main causes of the post-electoral dissatisfaction and violence. For example, the federal government could have ended its suspicious dalliance with Akintola’s unpopular party, conducted fresh credible elections, and, as a gesture of goodwill pardoned Chief Obafemi Awolowo who was in Calabar prison serving a jail sentence for coup plotting. Unfortunately, it did the exact opposite by using the jackboot approach of the military. Balewa unwisely ordered the Ibadan-domiciled 4th battalion to deal with the escalating violence, which aggravated the situation because the northern-dominated battalion was perceived by the local population to be biased in favour of the NNDP and as an army of occupation from the north.
Still, the NPC government authorised a more brutal and massive military crackdown, codenamed “Operation No Mercy”, as the final solution to the problem. Interestingly, before executing the operation, Balewa reshuffled the upper echelons of the security forces by replacing southern officers with northerners. According to Siollun, Louis Edet, the Inspector-General of Police, was sent on leave and replaced by Alhaji Kam Selem; the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian army, Major-Gen. J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, was also sent on indefinite leave and his post was given to Brig. Zakariya Maimalari; while Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon replaced Lt. Col. Hilary Njoku as the commanding officer of the 1st battalion in Lagos. Clearly, nepotism and ethnic chauvinism embedded in retrogressive politics predates the present clannish administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. That said, the horrible mishandling of the western crisis by Balewa’s government was one of the major reasons for the first military coup of January 15, 1966.
Thus far, we have seen that the inability of leading politicians to put aside their personal interests and ethnic biases, coupled with the fear of ethnic domination and rivalries, led to avoidable but costly mistakes within the first six years of independence. Even so, and making allowances for the obnoxious pro-north bias of British colonial administrators, the conservative wing of the northern establishment engaged in retrogressive politics of ethnic domination much more than their southern counterparts.
To be more specific, whereas Bello and Balewa never hid their strong parochial belief that Nigeria’s unity must be founded on terms dictated by the north without considerations of merit or excellence, Dr. Azikiwe and Chief Awolowo manifested a more balanced nationalistic outlook. Keep in mind that for northern political leaders the amalgamation of 1914 was an error, and expressions of that conviction dominated political thinking in the core north from the end of World War II to independence. That is why even after independence the strong clamour for secession by northerners, according to the Sardauna, “looked very tempting.” In his autobiography entitled My Life, he admits deciding against it on two grounds, neither having any link with the ideal of forging a united Nigerian nation.
The first reason was the difficulty of collecting customs duties along a land border; the other is the unreliability of access to the sea through a neighbouring independent country. Thus, the quest for political domination and appropriation of the economic advantages of southern Nigeria to serve the hegemonist interests of the northern ruling elite continues to be the single most important factor the unites northern politicians till date irrespective of the parties to which they belong.
Now, the reasons for the political blizzard from 1966 to 1978, namely, the military coups of 1966, the civil war, and nine years of military rule afterwards are too well known to be recounted in details here. Suffice it to say that when the federal military government led by Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo embarked on transition to civil rule in 1977, many prominent politicians of the First Republic were still on the scene and active, notable among whom were Dr. Azikiwe, Chief Awolowo, Alhaji Shehu Shagari and Mallam Aminu Kano. As if Nigerian politicians are pachyderms impervious to the lessons of history, ethnicity and other forms of political shenanigans that contributed to the collapse of the First Republic reared their ugly heads once again in the Second Republic. As one acute observer of Nigerian politics noted, political violence has almost become the second nature of Nigerian politicians which usually manifests itself through both inter-party as well as intra-party feuds.
To be continued…