By Douglas Anele

The British philosopher, John Stuart Mill, had argued that “For a [democratic] federalism to work, no one group will have the advantage of relying on its unaided strength. If there is such a one, and only one, it will insist on being master of the joint deliberations.” Britain certainly did not heed Mill’s warning. Rather, in 1914 she cobbled together an unbalanced colonial amalgam that laid the groundwork for northern geographical and political domination of the south without the consent of the amalgamated protectorates.

Having brought together an unwieldy collection of over two hundred and fifty ethnic groups of different sizes into an unwieldy non-consensual union, the colonial power handed the topmost political office, the post of Prime Minister, to its northern stooge, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa. Sir James Robertson, the last British Governor-General of Nigeria, knew that the country Britain would be granting independence in October 1, 1960 might not survive for long. In his own words, “The general outlook of the northern [people] is so different from those in southern Nigeria. There is less difference between an Englishman and an Italian, both of whom have a common civilisation based on Greek and Roman foundation and on Christianity, than between a Muslim villager in Sokoto, Kano or Katsina, and an Igbo, Ijaw or a Kalabari.

How can any feeling of common purpose of nationality be built up between people whose culture, religion and mode of living are so completely different?” From the foregoing, it is evident that the British colonial officials knew that the geopolitical contraption they were leaving behind would be unstable. Still they, and prominent southern Nigerian politicians led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, persisted in their quest for “One Nigeria.” Indeed, Azikiwe exhibited extraordinary naiveté in thinking that his people, the Igbo, given their relentless quest for success, industriousness and gregarious nature would thrive in a united Nigerian nation. As a result, he ignored or downplayed warning signs from key northern traditional rulers who, in 1942, arrogantly proclaimed that “Holding this country together is not possible except by means of the religion of the Prophet.

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If they want political unity let them, [southern politicians] follow our religion.” Of course, the position of the emirs is in consonance with the Quranic pernicious discriminatory outlook. As Ibn Warraq painstakingly demonstrated in his provocative critique of Islam entitled Why I am Not a Muslim, the Holy Quran insists that by no means must a Muslim be ruled by a non-Muslim. He referred to Sheikh Manaa K. al-Qubtan of the Islamic Law College in Riyadh who argued that it was completely unacceptable under Islamic law for Muslims to be under the authority of non-Muslims. Al-Qubtan cited two verses in the Quran to support his argument: “Allah will not give the disbelievers triumph over believers” (sura 4.414) and “Force and power belong to God and his prophet, and to believers” (sura 63.8).

In my opinion, the biggest obstacle to the institution of democratic governance in Nigeria, the major reason why democracy cannot really work here, is the fact that such a system of government, with its emphasis on equality before the law and on fundamental freedoms of individuals – such as freedom of speech, freedom of religious belief or unbelief, freedom from discrimination based on gender, religion, and so on – is at odds with the rigid Islamic theocracy created by Usman Dan Fodio in the north, which discriminates against women and non-Muslims.  The antagonism between democracy and Islamic theocracy has remained a leitmotif in our torturous march towards democracy.

We have already noted the lopsided geographical federal structure created by the British, which dovetailed politically into a situation whereby, to placate the north and prevent it from seceding, the region was allocated more seats in the post-independent parliament than the eastern and western regions put together. This implies that no meaningful decision affecting the country could be taken without the consent of northern political leaders, whereas it was not very difficult for northern politicians to exploit disunited southern politicians for their own advantage. To an unbiased student of Nigerian political history, it is ironic that the better educated southerners were outsmarted politically by their not so well-educated compatriots from the north. That situation has remained relatively unchanged ever since.

Although the first form of democratic government in Nigeria was the British parliamentary system, within a short period of time the cleavages that reared their ugly heads even before independence became more pronounced as a result of the absence of the overarching presence of the British colonial master.  Now, the democratic culture of Britain which had evolved through the centuries is premised on refined debate and sophisticated party manoeuvring to reach a consensus on policy direction and implementation. Nigeria’s case is different: party politics in the country has always been marred by malignant fragmentation along religious, ethnic and regional lines.

As we adumbrated earlier, just after independence, out of envy and fear that the better educated southerners might fill up the best positions in the northern region, Sir Ahmadu Bello embarked on an apartheid northernisation programme that rankled a cross section of southerners who began to realise that they and their northern counterparts had incommensurable views about national unity. In addition, the 1963 census figures were manipulated by different regions, each seeking to corner the political and economic advantages of numerical superiority. Thus, mutual ethnic suspicion and fear became exacerbated: southerners were afraid that the northern region would use its numerical advantage to suppress the south, whereas leading members of the northern establishment feared that southerners would use their superior educational credentials to dominate the north.

The divide and rule tactics of Balewa’s government hastened the demise of the First Republic. This was particularly evident in the western region where the leader of Action Group (AG), Chief Obafemi Awolowo, did not see eye to eye with his deputy and Premier of the region, Chief Samuel Akintola. Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa was decidedly partisan in favour of Chief Akintola after the latter had re-emerged as Premier of the west in a highly controversial 1965 regional election marred by violence, thuggery, blatant rigging and intimidation of voters among other electoral atrocities. Operation Wetie was the rallying cry of violent protests against the blatant disregard of democratic norms by Akintola’s Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP). Max Siollun captured the situation succinctly in his book Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966-1976) when he wrote: “The Western region proved to be the battleground for political fighting at the federal level… .” The imposition of Akintola on the west was a negation of democratic practice and his government was deemed illegitimate because of the barefaced electoral malpractices that characterised the 1965 western regional election. Similarly, at the federal level Alhaji Tafawa Balewa held on to power illegitimately on the ground that the 1964 federal elections were boycotted by the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA, a coalition of The NCNC and AG). Clearly, the experiment with democracy was under severe stress before the January 15, 1966 coup.

Whatever pretensions at democracy in the years immediately after independence were jeopardised by corruption. In the eyes of some writers, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh emblematised the ugly face of corruption which, according to Siollun, was rife in Balewa’s government. This was how Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, one of the arrowheads of the first military coup in Nigeria, justified the tragic abortive coup attempt of January 1966: “Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribe and demand ten percent; those that seek to keep the country permanently divided so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles, those that have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian calendar backwards by their words and deeds.” Subsequent military coups have been justified by the perpetrators using essentially the same arguments that Nzeogwu formulated over fifty-three years ago.

Now, that first military coup triggered a chain of events which suffocated the evolution of democracy in the country. It is a textbook case of good intentions turned bad, because it led to the even bloodier northern revanchist coup of July 29, 1966 and the devastating civil war a year later.


To be continued…




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