By Douglas Anele
It is not by accident that after the bloodthirsty revenge coup its arrowheads, especially Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed and Maj. T.Y. Danjuma decided to strengthen their grip on political power in the interest of the northern power block after accepting the counsel of American and British diplomats that the north will sink into an economic black hole if it secedes. About the same period, crude oil found in the eastern region had begun to replace agriculture as the main source of foreign earnings for the country. The northern civilian-military establishment craved for the oil wealth: it realised that permitting regional autonomy and control over natural resources would lead to a big wealth disparity between the eastern region and the north already disadvantaged by its Islamic insularity and educational backwardness.
As already indicated, the British plan was that the north would maintain political dominance over the country. Northern politicians understood that plan so well, and even before independence mapped out strategies to implement it. The core objective was to seize and cling to power at the federal level as a route to the resources of the south by taking control of the army and manipulating census figures. Without any scintilla of doubt, the second coup of July 29, 1966 was executed to achieve that objective.
After the abortive coup of January 1966, the Supreme Military Council (SMC) headed by Maj. Gen. J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi abolished the regions and introduced a unitary system of government about four months later when he announced the Unification Decree No. 34. Unfortunately, despite Ironsi’s spirited efforts to placate members of the northern establishment that the Unification Decree did not involve any changes of boundary, that it leaves the status quo relatively unchanged, that it was a temporary measure to enable the military, accustomed to a unified command structure, to rule, and that no permanent changes would be implemented without the referendum he had promised earlier, the decree was violently opposed in the north.
Objectively considered, Decree 34 was not as anti-north as some prominent members of the northern elite that organised the subsequent riots portrayed it. For example, section 4, subsection 3 provides that recruitment of civil servants below the post of Senior Assistant Secretary would be delegated to the provincial public service commissions, a measure designed to accommodate the educational disadvantage of the northern provinces in the recruitment of civil servants. Now, although in retrospect a justifiable case can be made that the Unification Decree was inappropriate for a complex geopolitical entity like Nigeria, experience has shown that since amalgamation the dominant northern elite tend to violently oppose, and in most cases sabotage, any major public policy change or initiative that was not initiated by a northerner or which it perceives to be contrary to northern interests.
When Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon assumed office as Supreme Commander after the murder of Maj. Gen. Aguiyi-Ironsi, he abolished the Unification Decree. But he did not return the country to regionalism, which was the logical thing to do if the decree was indeed the real reason for the riots in northern Nigeria then. Presumably, he was preoccupied with consolidating his grip on power and stabilising the country. He inaugurated an ad hoc constitutional conference to look into the question of constitutional reform, but summarily dismissed the committee on November 30, 1966, because eastern delegates had not attended the conference since it adjourned on October 3. Further escalation in the disagreement between Gowon and Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, military governor of the eastern led to what can be described as sovereign national conference in Aburi, Ghana, brokered by the Ghanaian military head of state, Lt. Gen. Joseph Ankrah.
After two days of heated deliberations, Gowon and other military leaders reached an agreement known as the Aburi Accord. Shorn of details, the Accord stipulated that each region should be autonomous and responsible for its own affairs, and that the federal military government would be in charge of matters that affected the whole country. In my opinion, notwithstanding the probability that Lt. Col. Ojukwu might have been somewhat tactless in demanding its immediate full implementation, the Aburi Accord was not actualised because Gowon wanted to stay in power to spite his arch rival, Ojukwu. Besides, the desire of top civil servants such as Solomon Akenzua, H.E.A. Ejueyitchie, and Allison Ayida to retain their privileged positions in the federal government compelled them to reject the settlement as unworkable. Gowon’s ill-advised repudiation of the Aburi agreement marked the beginning of the end of the concept of regional autonomy and self-sufficiency in Nigeria. The contestations and poorly delineated relationship between the central government and the federating units have been the most problematic and troublesome issue in the history of Nigeria’s evolution as a geopolitical entity.
Having gradually stabilised himself in power, and perhaps irritated by the unrelenting warnings by the government of eastern region that his refusal to actualise the terms of the Aburi agreement could lead to secession, Lt. Col. Gowon promulgated Decree 8 that, on the surface, seemed to be a resurrection of the proposals for constitutional reforms agreed at Aburi. However, it contained new clauses that were not in the original agreement, the cumulative import of which increased the powers of the central government over the regions.
After the Eastern Consultative Assembly of Chiefs and Elders had on May 26, 1966, unanimously given Ojukwu the mandate to pull eastern region out of Nigeria “at an early practicable date,” the following day, May 27, Gowon hammered the final nail into the coffin of regional autonomy by abolishing the provinces and restructuring the country into twelve states. Gowon’s strategy was simple but effective: by dividing the east into three small and relatively impotent units and wrenching the oil-rich city of Port Harcourt and adjoining areas out Igboland, with the former as the capital of the newly created Rivers state, he largely succeeded in what some commentators have described as de-Igbonisation and destabilisation of the Igbo by fragmenting their cohesion and ceding several petroleum-bearing communities to non-Igbo states. Besides, using the looming violent confrontation between his government and eastern Nigeria as a pretext, Gowon arrogated to himself full power, in his own words, “for the short period necessary to carry out the measures which are now urgently required.”
During and immediately after the civil war, Gowon, on behalf the northern ruling power block, consolidated the bellicose unitary system of government by systematically dismantling most of the governing institutions and infrastructure of federalism. Successive military regimes headed by northerners followed his example: they issued series of decrees that allowed them transfer resources of the states to the federal government. And since the federal government from independence has been beholden to the interests of the ruling northern elite, it means that the north has been getting an increasing quantum of the south’s resources through federal allocation despite the fact that it contributes far lea than the south to the nation’s treasury.
Aside from using decrees to appropriate resources from the south to satisfy the bulimic interests of the northern military-civilian establishment, northern military heads of state had used the creation of states and local government areas as instrument to further northern interests. Collectively, late Gen. Murtala Mohammed, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and late Gen. Sani Abacha are culpable in this regard. The unjust structure imposed by these military rulers was canonised in the 1999 constitution left behind by Gen. Abubakar. Now, if we analyse statistically the structural imbalances they created, the case for urgent restructuring becomes very compelling indeed. Presently, the north has 19 states and the federal capital territory, Abuja, whereas the south has 17 states. Thus, fiscally it means that automatically northern Nigeria has the advantage of two extra states than the south, in addition to the extra funds given to Abuja because of its special status. With respect to the structural composition of the National Assembly, the deliberate strategy of favouring the north is evident as well. Since each state has three senators allocated to it, the north has 57 plus the single senator representing Abuja, making a total of 58 senators, whereas the south has 51, 7 less than the north.