By Olu Fasan
SINCE Nigeria was cobbled together in 1914, the North has rarely seen eye to eye with the South on the future direction of the country. On the critical question of whether Nigeria should be independent and free from colonial rule: The South said yes, the North said no. Now, on another critical question about whether to restructure Nigeria to make it workable as a multi-ethnic country: The South says yes, the North is saying no!
Take the struggle for independence. The 1950s were a period of intense agitation for independence in British colonies across Africa. In most countries, rival political parties and ethnic groups put their differences aside and united in demanding independence from Britain. But not so in Nigeria! While the South was vociferous in calling for independence, the North was visceral in opposing self-rule for Nigeria.
Of course, Britain didn’t want to grant Nigeria independence, but hid behind the North’s opposition, saying that if it acceded to the South’s demand, the North could secede. In 1953, the British colluded with the North to defeat Chief Anthony Enahoro’s resolution in the House of Representatives calling for Nigeria’s independence in 1956. The rejection of that resolution triggered four days of fighting between Northerners and Southerners in Kano, leaving 36 dead and 241 injured.
Then, as if to confirm the British’s fears, the Northern Regional Assembly and House of Chiefs adopted a programme that, according to one British official, “amounted to a call for the dissolution of Nigeria”. So, the North was prepared to secede from Nigeria rather than allow it to become independent and free from colonial rule!
The British tried to appease both sides. It granted self-government to the West and the East in 1956 but, to pacify the North, said it would not grant independence to Nigeria unless the North chose self-government for itself. But, strangely, the North refused self-rule for itself and, thus, blocked independence for Nigeria.
By rejecting self-government for itself and independence for Nigeria, the North gave credence to the British view, as Denis Judd puts it in his book Empire, that “all Africans were savages and unfitted for self-government”. Indeed, Britain believed Nigerians could not govern themselves, such that when it granted self-government to the West and the East, it did so cynically. As James Hubbard said in his book The End of British Colonial Rule in Africa, in granting self-government to the West and the East, Britain expected them to fail to govern effectively so that it “could reassert control within 18 months”!
But we know what happened. Chief Obafemi Awolowo performed wonderfully in Western region, and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe didn’t do badly in the East. Chief Awolowo’s achievements as premier of Western Nigeria were superlative and universally applauded, so much so that a British prime minister, Harold Wilson, later remarked that Awolowo would have made an outstanding prime minister of Britain.
Yet, the North’s opposition continued, and ended, in part, because the independence of the Gold Coast, later Ghana, in March 1957 made it utterly untenable. Thus, surprisingly, in May 1957, Northern parliamentarians voted in support of another resolution in the House of Representatives demanding Nigeria’s independence in 1959. The North became self-governing in 1959 and, of course, Nigeria became independent a year later in 1960.
Well, it’s déjà vu all over again; history is repeating itself. The North is playing hardball on restructuring for the same reason it played hardball on Nigeria’s independence. As Hubbard said in his book, “Southern agitation (for independence) was unsettling political leaders in the northern region, worried that their region would lose out in an independent Nigeria.” Similarly, today, agitation for restructuring is unsettling the North because it fears it would lose its special privileges and unfair advantages.
A few years ago, Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State urged the South to be “more tactical” in their pursuit of restructuring, adding that “there are those who entertain fear on the issue of restructuring, whether the fear is legitimate or not”. And last week, Professor Pat Utomi said that some Northern politicians are afraid of restructuring because “they are uncertain about where it would lead them”, adding that the North largely relies on the Federal Government for revenues, which “has made them really unproductive”.
But the North would benefit from Nigeria’s restructuring. For a start, as Professor Utomi argued, it would help them “become productive and move away from the poverty status”. What’s more, the North needs reconstruction, but only by becoming autonomous regional governments, under a restructured and devolved Nigeria, can it mobilise internal resources and external help for such reconstruction. Yet, as behavioural science suggests, loss aversion – where the fear of losing is stronger than the hope of gaining – is preventing the North from seeing opportunities. But how much longer can they hold off?
During the debate on Nigeria’s independence in the British House of Commons in June 1960, Archibald Fenner Brockway, an MP, commended Dr. Azikiwe and Chief Awolowo for waiting for the North. According to him: “Southern Nigeria, with its Eastern and Western regions, could have had its independence seven years ago, but the great wisdom of statesmanship of the leaders of the East and West led them to say: ‘We will postpone our own independence in order that the unity of Nigeria may be preserved’.”
But Nigeria’s political structure is deeply flawed and causing serious ethnic tensions. In a country where Southern governors cannot defend their states against marauding Fulani herdsmen, who are protected by the centre, the tensions would boil over. Yes, the South can be “more tactical”, whatever that means, but it can’t endure indefinitely the unfairness and injustice of Nigeria’s structural imbalance, nor can Nigeria itself flourish under it.
Surely, if the North loves Nigeria, if it cares about its unity, it must support its restructuring. The North was wrong on independence; it mustn’t be on the wrong side of history on restructuring! Not again!