By Douglas Anele
To fully answer the question that forms the title of our discussion today, it is important to pose a subsidiary question: a mistake for whom or from whose perspective? Now, going by the saying that “One man’s meat is another man’s poison,” it is evident that different answers would be given to the main question by a typical British colonial official;
members of the ruling northern establishment; a prominent Yoruba politician who feels that in 2023 he might be chosen by his party to contest for the post of President; an Igbo who believes strongly that his people do not have a sense of belonging in Nigeria; and so on. In other words, because the subsidiary question will elicit different responses from different categories of people, the leading question requires a nuanced answer.
All the same, a fruitful way of tackling it is to examine some defining features and events in Nigerian history to ascertain whether the country has recorded meaningful progress especially since 1960 when it attained independence from the British colonial master. In addition, we have to determine as objectively as possible whether Nigeria has been a blessing or a curse for the various ethnic nationalities and majority of her citizens nationwide.
The literature on Nigerian history records that the late Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of the defunct northern region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, was the first prominent politician to declare unequivocally that the British amalgamation of northern and southern protectorates in 1914 was a mistake, a conviction which, according to Frederick Forsyth, “runs right through northern political thinking from the end of the second world war to independence.”
The Sardauna’s negative assessment of the creation of Nigeria was made while contributing to a heated debate in March 1953, on the floor of Parliament in Lagos where he proclaimed that “The mistake of 1914 has come to light, and I should like it to go no further,” meaning that he was against any additional measure that would bring northern and southern Nigeria closer together as one country.
Since that ominous declaration most Nigerians, particularly members of the dominant ruling power blocks, either are unaware of the Sardauna’s pessimistic conclusion regarding a unified Nigeria or gloss over it as if it were of no consequence. That is a very big mistake, in my opinion.
Had Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and other southern protagonists of One Nigeria before independence reflected deeply on the kernel of truth in Sardauna’s statement and acted on it, perhaps there would have been no Nigeria as we know it today, and the devastating Biafran war together with its hideous repercussions still weighing the former eastern region down like a huge hunchback would never have happened.
Failure to examine critically the foundational principles of the colonial amalgam we inherited from Britain has encouraged intellectual and moral laxity amongst the ruling northern elite and their southern enablers towards the serious contradictions and anomalies that lie at the very core of Nigeria, her origin, and ultimate justification.
Ironically, pioneer leading northern political figures who later benefitted immensely from the amalgamation, including the Sardauna himself and Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, perceived clearly more than their far better educated southern counterparts (with the probable exception of Chief Obafemi Awolowo) that the Nigerian project is almost an improbable proposition. For instance, during one of the early constitutional conferences, Balewa affirmed that “Nigeria existed as one country only on paper.
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It is still far from being united. Nigerian unity is only a British intention for the country.” On another occasion, he proclaimed: “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.”
That very statement by Balewa who was later rigged into the office of Prime Minister by the British colonial administrators expressed the long term hidden agenda of the dominant northern ruling block, also known as Fulani caliphate colonialists by Chinweizu, namely, its intent to capture and colonise southern Nigeria after British colonial rule might have ended.
There are several reasons why the amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates to create Nigeria ought not to have been carried out. To begin with, the country did not come into being as the end result of an unplanned natural process of geopolitical evolution by ethnic nationalities majority of whom could have formed independent nations on their own.
Rather, she was artificially cobbled together by an imperialist or colonial power without the consent of her citizens, comprising over two hundred and fifty ethnic groups arbitrarily herded together into an unwieldy and non-consensual union by British imperialists. According to Max Siollun, one of the perceptive writers on Nigerian history, “Nigeria was so ethnically, [culturally] religiously, and linguistically complex that even some of its leading politicians initially doubted it could be a real country.”
Chief Awolowo, one of the greatest political philosophers to have emerged from Nigeria, argued that “Nigeria is not a nation; it is a mere geographic expression.”
Sir James Robertson, the last British Governor-General of Nigeria, was very worried about whether the country would survive after independence the centrifugal forces that had emerged since the amalgamation. In a note he wrote in 1956, he affirmed as follows: “The general outlook of the people [northerners] is so different from those in southern Nigeria as to give them practically nothing in common.
There is less difference between an Englishman and an Italian, both of whom have a common civilisation based on Greek and Roman foundations and on Christianity, than between a Muslim villager in Sokoto, Kano, or Katsina, and an Igbo, Ijaw or Kalabari. How can any feeling of common purpose of nationality be built up between people whose culture, religion, and mode of living is so completely different?”
So, the British colonialists knew that there are fundamental cultural, behavioural, and ideological differences between Muslim northerners and southerners and, yet, they insisted on amalgamation and handed power to ill-prepared northerners who on several occasions slowed down the processes leading to independence. Some might argue that Nigeria is not the only multiply plural country created artificially by an imperial power.
However, apart from being one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse countries in the world, the combination of Trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonialism, and neo-colonialism impacted indigenous communities especially in southern Nigeria in ways for which there are no true equivalents in other multiply plural countries like the United States, India, and so on.
Throughout the ages contacts between the aboriginal societies that were wedded together to form Nigeria had led to varying degrees of cultural intermingling and assimilation. Nevertheless, wide differences which always generated centrifugal forces in a unified Nigerian state remain.
The northern part dominated by the Hausa and Fulani (the latter having originally migrated mostly from Fouta Jallon) are traditional, socially conservative, and largely Muslim. Centuries of intermarriages and cultural cross-fertilisation have obscured the differences between the two ethnic groups. In spite of that, the notion of a monolithic northern Nigeria is a myth.
There are many minority groups especially in the north east and middle belt of the country, although for political contestation the northern establishment enthusiastically presents the veneer of a single northern geopolitical behemoth that aspires to dominate the rest of Nigeria. In the south, the Igbo and the Yoruba have always been demographically preeminent, with a substantial number of Christians.
But southern Nigeria also comprises several minority ethnic nationalities that have some sociocultural affinities with the two major ethnic groups there. The British did very little to encourage a nationalist outlook on the diverse peoples they forced to come together as one country. In fact, the official colonial policy was to maintain the separateness between the north and the south.
Forsyth captured the situation shortly before independence succinctly when he wrote: “None of the basic differences between the north and the south had been erased, nor the doubts and fears assuaged, nor the centrifugal tendencies curbed. The hopes, aspirations, and ambitions of the three regions were still largely divergent, and the structure that had been devised to encourage a belated sense of unity was unable to stand the stresses later imposed upon it.”
TO BE CONTINUED.