By Douglas Anele
It must be mentioned in passing that the foremost pre-independent political party formed by the Sardauna of Sokoto and his cohorts was the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) whose motto of ‘One North, One People,’ according to Max Siollun, gave an entirely accurate description of its parochial objectives. Ahmadu Bello was not just an arch Fulani irredentist, he was also a hardcore tribalist.
It is utterly disgraceful that either out of ignorance, deliberate attempt to massage bloated egos of the northern elite or plain stupidity some purportedly educated Nigerians rank the Sardauna alongside Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the greatest Pan-Africanist advocate of One Nigeria, to the extent of describing him as one of the country’s founding fathers and pioneer nationalists.
Only an hardened ethnic jingoist would, as the Sardauna did during an interview with a British journalist, that he would rather employ foreigners to fill vacant positions in the north than compatriots from Igboland if there were no northerners to occupy them. On the other hand, had Azikiwe not allowed his naïve dream of One Nigeria to trump his sense of pragmatic realism and read the Fulani handwriting on the wall accurately, there probably might not have been a country called Nigeria beyond 1956 where Fulani supremacists such as Alhaji Maitama Sule, Ango Abdullahi,
Nasir el-Rufai and other nouveaux riches from the north would be talking about non-negotiability of One Nigeria or the purely fictional divine right of northerners to lead, and threatening those who demand a nation of their own because they are thoroughly fed up with the Lugardian contraption which seems to have been designed to keep them perpetually under political bondage.
An attentive reading of available historical records reveals that even before independence Britain wanted to hand over political leadership to a northerner. In previous essays, I have detailed how and why that happened. Of course, southern politicians led by Azikiwe who worked tirelessly to end colonial rule unwittingly played into the hands of northern leaders and their British allies by not putting aside their petty personal squabbles and insist on independence for the south when Anthony Enahoro moved the motion for it in 1953.
The major reason given by northern representatives for rejecting the motion was that their region did not have a developed modern administrative machinery and sufficient number of educated workforce that can function independently from British colonial administrators. But that was largely a self-inflicted problem occasioned by Islamic insularity, misguided reluctance of northern rulers to permit modern western education to penetrate the region, and indirect rule system which allowed Britain to concentrate on its economic agenda leaving existing outdated sociocultural order in the north undisturbed.
It is ironic that the very region which consistently opposed closer integration with the south and procrastinated about independence for the country ended up producing the first prime minister.As Prime Minister Alhaji Tafawa Balewa was a stooge or puppet of both the Sardauna and British colonial officials. Consequently, it is a matter of conjecture the extent to which his odious northernisation policy was his or a reflection of the Sardauna’s and his British backers.
Nonetheless there is no doubt that northernisation negated the very idea of a unified country and triggered the descent from meritocracy to mediocrity at the federal level. It must be admitted that southern politicians of the First Republic were deceived by their superior educational qualifications and exposure to modern western lifestyles, which caused them to underrate their northern counterparts. Siollun was right again when he commented that after British officials had bowed to the demands of the north on several occasions southern leaders belatedly began to appreciate the fact that northern politicians were not as backwards as they thought.
Ahmadu Bello and his lieutenants were actually playing smart Machiavellian politics using blackmail and threats of secession to get what they wanted. So it is wrong to blame northerners alone for the tottering and eventual collapse of the Nigerian colonial edifice in 1966 because if leading southern politicians had insisted on leaving the north behind to form their own country, the bloody coups and pogroms of that ominous year would not have occurred.
Besides, as Frederick Forsyth correctly noted, “the traditional form of parliamentary democracy worked out in Whitehall proved to be unsuitable for the existing ethnic group structure, incomprehensible even to its local practitioners, inapposite to the African civilisation and impracticable in an artificially created nation where group rivalries, far from being expunged by the colonial power, had been exacerbated on occasion as a useful expedient to indirect rule.” In other words, given the quicksand on which the foundational structure of Nigeria was built, it was only a matter of time for the edifice to crumble, which actually happened less than six years after independence.
The major highlights of 1966, the crucial turning-point in Nigerian history with serious implications for the country’s unity, were the failed military coups of January and July, and pogroms against the Igbo domiciled in the north. All this led to a profound change in the thinking of Igbo political leaders and intelligentsia about the future political structure of Nigeria.
Without a doubt, Ndigbo were the primus inter pares in the quest for an independent unified Nigeria. And more than indigenes of other ethnic nationalities they actually put into practice the idea of one country by living and contributing to the development of other areas outside Igboland, which is why they are often described as “the Jews of Africa.” The respected historian, Prof. Tekema Tamuno, affirmed that Ndigbo are the makers of modern Nigeria.
It is fair to say that despite incendiary attacks on them during the Jos and Kano riots of 1945 and 1953 respectively, they remained the staunchest believers in a strong central government as the only way to unite the country. However, about four months after the northern revanchist coup in July 1966 Igbo leaders did a complete ideological turnaround by proposing a loose federation of states with a considerable degree of autonomy for each federating unit, a structure remarkably similar to what leading northern leaders had been clamouring for all along.
That ideological volt-face was clearly on display during discussions about the position each region would adopt at the forthcoming Ad Hoc constitutional conference slated to begin on September 12, 1966 by Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon after he become supreme commander due to the gruesome murder of Maj. Gen. J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi.At the conference the north still stuck to its position of a weak centre and relatively strong regions, and in order to eliminate any possible ambiguity about its position attached a detailed memorandum about the East African Common Services Organisation as a model.
Keep in mind that Ironsi’s Unification Decree 34 of 1966 was used as alibi to massacre tens of thousands of Ndigbo living in the north; it also triggered hysterical demands for araba or secession, the longstanding wish of a considerable percentage of northerners. Those who eulogise Gowon as a statesman for being a strong champion of One Nigeria probably do not know that the initial draft of the first speech he was to read on August 1, 1966 after becoming head of state included a passage announcing secession of the north.
Unfortunately, at the last minute high-ranking British and American diplomats, citing the potential negative economic repercussions of such a move on the north, dissuaded Gowon, Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed and others from going ahead. These two men and other northern military officers who not only participated in the coup of July 1966 but later became heads of state are hypocrites and crude opportunists.
To be continued