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The death of democracy in Nigeria: A coroner’s inquest (3)

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By Douglas Anele

Unfortunately, Sir James Robertson’s plan succeeded partly because leading southern politicians, especially Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, failed to put in abeyance their personal egos and radioactive Igbo-versus-Yoruba rivalry in order to present a united front against Robertson and Balewa. That said, as Premiers of their respective regions, Dr. Azikiwe, Chief Awolowo and Alhaji Ahmadu Bello (whose tenure as Premier of the northern region was tragically terminated during the first military coup in January 15, 1966) performed creditably by implementing programmes that benefitted a significant percentage of the population.

But Azikiwe and Awolowo were by far more attuned to the institution of democracy than the jihadist-oriented Sardauna because of their exposure to solid western education and secular democratic values, whereas Ahmadu Bello was hampered by his limited academic credentials, serious educational disadvantage of the northern region generally as well as by his fixation to outdated Islamic weltanschauung and way of life.


Indeed, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the most powerful northern politician of the First Republic, never really believed in the concept of a united democratic Nigeria. He single-mindedly pursued a northernisation agenda such that that he preferred filling vacant positions in the northern region’s civil service and educational institutions where qualified northerners were unavailable with foreigners on contract basis rather than employ southerners, particularly the Igbo. His narrow negative triumphalist approach to nation-building is evident in an address he delivered to his caliphate constituency less than two weeks after independence. In it, Bello insisted vehemently that Nigeria “should be an estate of our great-grandfather, Uthman Dan Fodio.

We must ruthlessly prevent a change of power. We use the minorities of the north as willing tools and the south as a conquered territory and never allow them to rule over us, and never allow them to have control over their future.” The same sentiment was expressed over a decade earlier by Sir Balewa: “We do not want, Sir, our southern neighbours to interfere in our development. I should like to make it clear to you that if the British quitted Nigeria now at this stage, the northern people would continue their uninterrupted conquest to the sea.”

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The views expressed by these men were totally in consonance with the Islamic teaching that Muslims should not allowed themselves to be ruled by “infidels,” that is non-Muslims. Now, contrast Bello’s and Balewa’s stark Fulani caliphate colonialist or belligerent conquistadores viewpoints with that of Dr. Azikiwe. According to Azikiwe, “Politics is a means to an end which is more glorious than the means through which this end must be attained. Socially, the end is guarantee of social security and a right to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, just as do other peoples.”

Chief Obafemi Awolowo also articulated a rational philosophical roadmap for Nigeria. In projecting his vision of secular democracy for the country, Awolowo emphasised the pursuit of “…equal opportunities for every Nigerian; equality under the law; extermination of ethnic hegemony; dethronement of mediocrity wherever it exists; guaranteeing for every Nigerian no matter his place of birth or state of origin equal access to the good things of life.

We can succeed provided we allow ourselves to be guided by this great principle: ‘The glory of a ruler is the welfare of every one of his people.’ ” From the foregoing, it is evident that by amalgamating the predominantly Muslim population of northern Nigeria with the south where Christianity and western education had made tremendous impact on the various peoples there, the prospects of democracy were not encouraging. Historians of Nigerian politics tend to neglect the fact that Islam, the dominant religion of northerners, is fundamentally incompatible with democracy and human rights.

This point needs to be brought to limelight for a proper understanding of the challenges in entrenching viable democratic institutions and also the democratically aberrant dispositions of leading northern Muslim politicians since the creation of Nigeria as a geopolitical entity by Britain. Islam has never really favoured democratic tendencies, a fact King Fahd of Saudi Arabia frankly acknowledged some time ago when he affirmed that the democratic system is not suitable for the Muslim-dominated middle-east, that the system of free elections is not suitable for his country.

The political system the British met on ground in the northern region was the rustic emirate system in which politics and Islam were blended together to form a theocracy headed by the Sultan of Sokoto. In the south, particularly in the defunct eastern region sometimes misleadingly described as “acephalous,” most of the autochthonous communities had evolved some kind of Republican political systems anchored on key cultural groupings, whereas traditionally the Yoruba operated a kind of monarchical arrangement that had checks and balances alien to the emirate system in the north.

Now, for members of the core northern political establishment, the democratic doctrine of separation of religion and state is a western concept which has no legitimacy in the Holy Koran and sharia law. Additionally, pious Muslims believe strongly, as a matter of religious conviction, that legitimate authority comes from Allah alone, and the ruler derives his power from Allah and the holy law, not from the people. The individual owes absolute obedience to the ruler because of the divine right of kings. Hence, a typical northern politician cannot really genuinely espouse democratic values unless he or she pays lip service to or jettisons the totalitarian principles in the Holy Koran and sharia law.

As devout Muslims, Ahmadu Bello and Tafawa Balewa must have felt the essential tension generated by their commitment to Islam and the need to operate according to the requirements of democratic governance in a modern nation-state. It is in this light that one can understand why, at the initial stage, they were very reluctant to embrace the concept of democracy under the umbrella of “One Nigeria” and also why northern leaders regularly resorted to threats of secession during the constitutional conferences convened to fashion out an appropriate constitutional framework for post-colonial Nigeria.

Democracy is “government of the people, by the people and for the people,” which means that representatives of the citizens in both the executive and the legislature derive their legitimate authority from the people, not from a certain deity believed to exist whose commands believers must obey unquestioningly.

Therefore, although pioneer frontline Nigerian politicians inherited parliamentary democracy from Britain, that inheritance was deeply flawed partly because the British handed power over to the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), whose leaders, as devout Muslims, were wedded more to the rigidities and insularity of Islamic theocracy than to the tenets of modern democracy, unlike their Christian southern counterparts whose political outlook were shaped by a deep appreciation of democratic culture and values.

The implications flowing from the dissonance in political consciousness between Sir Ahmadu Bello and his cohorts in the north and Dr. Azikiwe and other leading southern politicians on the democratic trajectory of post-independent Nigeria are obvious. As we observed earlier, Dr. Azikiwe and Chief Awolowo envisaged for Nigeria a democratic political system or arrangement that would cater for the welfare of all Nigerians without discrimination; but their northern counterparts were more interested in replacing external British colonialism with a pernicious internal Fulani caliphate version by subjugating the middle-belt and the south. The antagonism between these contrasting political outlooks constitute both a remote and proximate cause of the political problems that led to the eventual collapse of the First Republic.

A plausible case can be made that British colonial administrators deliberately structured Nigeria, with the co-operation of the dominant northern political elite, to ensure that the north dominates the south after independence. That is why they configured the country lopsidedly such that the north constituted over two-thirds of Nigeria’s land mass. Henry Bretton in his work, Power and Stability in Nigeria: The Politics of Decolonisation, affirmed that “the very construction of the northern region, in the form in which it entered the era of independence, represents one of the greatest acts of gerrymandering in history.” Naturally, the overriding intention of British imperialism for Nigeria was to protect the economic interest of Britain; it had nothing to do with the creation of a viable democratic country.

To be continued…







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