NIGERIA @ 50: A LONG WALK TO NATIONHOOD
The pomp and ceremony that marked the celebration of Nigeria @ 50 can better be appreciated against the backdrop of the heuristic formative process of the Nigerian state.
It is a historic fact that what is today glibly referred to as the most populous black nation of the world is a by-product of the western imperialist interest.
It all began in 1849, when the British colonial authorities stormed the west coast of Africa in furtherance of their economic and strategic interests.
The first major step was the creation of a Consulate for the Bight of Biafra and the Bight of Benin, as part of efforts to sanitize them from the ‘stain’ of the slave trade. This measure sparked off a chain reaction that led to a deeper involvement of the colonial master in the economic and political life of the people of the two Bights.
The intrusion of the white man was however not smooth-sailing as he met stiff resistance among the natives. There was also bitter rivalry between the British and the French that resulted in the partitioning of the coastal area.
With time, the Consulate of the Bights of Biafra and Benin, as well as its immediate hinterland, was converted into the oil protectorate; and later, in 1893, transformed into the Niger Coast Protectorate. By the middle of the 20th century, this protectorate came to be known as Eastern Nigeria.
In 1862, the British annexed the Lagos Lagoon area and its environs, converting them into a ‘crown colony’. This, according to them, was to abolish slave trade which used the area as export point.
Nigerian historians however unmasked their real intention which was to be better able to protect their interest in the vital trade route that ran from Lagos, through Ikorodu, Ibadan all the way to the Niger waterway in the north and beyond.
As the imperial irredentist moves continued, the rest of the Yorubaland was conquered and attached to Lagos in 1897. This flank became known as Western Nigeria in the 1950s.
The third and final step came in 1888, when the British changed the National African Company to Royal Niger Company after its trade conquest in the Lower Niger. The Royal Niger Company became chartered and acquired political and administrative powers over a narrow belt of territory on both sides of the river, from the sea to Lokoja, as well as over the vast area which in the 20th century, came to be known as Northern Nigeria.
The birth of Nigeria is, in the main, a story of how these three neighbouring but distinct entities were forcibly brought together, first administratively; and later, politically.
It is instructive to note that even after the amalgamation of 1914; the colonial master deliberately ensured that the three territories never intermeshed. As it has been remarked elsewhere, the amalgamation was a colossal administrative hoodwink as it existed mainly on paper and in the person of Lord Frederick Lugard, rather than in an interlocking bureaucracy and political system.
Lugard refused to create a central secretariat for two reasons: the fear of having his power attenuated; and the need to shield the Northern Protectorate from the blizzard of westernization sweeping through the Southern Protectorate.
The upshot was that the amalgamation did not bring about a central bureaucracy. Besides, Lugard made sure that contact between the technical departments of the north and the south was kept at the barest minimum.
After 1914, Lugard created a body known as the Nigerian Council which met once a year to listen to his address on the state of the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. The body had no legislative powers whatsoever.
The ambivalence of the colonial master in keeping Nigeria politically divided was more evident in the Clifford Constitution of 1922.Though that constitution introduced the elective principle for legislative houses, the Legislative Council which replaced Lugard’s Nigerian Council made laws for only the South while the Governor legislated for the North through proclamations.
The first major step towards the political integration of the country was taken in 1946. The constitution promulgated that year by the then Governor General, Sir Arthur Richards, had as its objectives the promotion of the unity of Nigeria and granting of greater participation to Nigerians in discussing their affairs.
Major provisions of this constitution included the establishment of a re-constituted Legislative Council whose competence covered the whole country; the abolition of the official majority in the council; the creation of regional councils consisting of a House of Assembly in each of the Northern, Eastern and Western provinces, and the creation of House of Chiefs in the North whose roles were purely advisory rather than legislative.
Nevertheless, whatever was the gain of the Richards Constitution of 1946 was whittled down by the Lyttleton Constitution of 1954, which established a lopsided federation in which one region, the North, was larger than the other two regions - East and West - put together.
Thus, at independence in 1960, the Nigerian state was characterized by weak constitutional and institutional bases for development politics; an unbalanced federation; regionalism which engendered mutual fear and distrust; as well as regionally- based political constituencies.
The divergent tendencies of the multifarious ethnic groupings in the country prior to independence was such that the leader of the defunct Northern Peoples Congress, NPC, Sir Ahmadu Bello, was constrained to remark that: “Since 1914, the British Government has been trying to make Nigeria into one country, but the Nigerian people themselves are historically different in their backgrounds, in their religious beliefs and their customs, and do not show themselves any sign of willingness to unite….
“Nigerian unity is only a British intention for the country. Many Nigerians deceive themselves by thinking that Nigeria is one…. This is wrong. I am sorry to say that this presence of unity is artificial and it ends outside this chamber.”(Coleman, 1964).
In the same vein, the leader of the defunct Action Group, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, observed that: “Nigeria is not a nation. It is a mere geographical expression. There are no ‘Nigerians’ in the same sense as there are ‘English’, Welsh’ or ‘French’. The word ‘Nigerian’ is an appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria from those who do not” (Coleman, 1964).
The politics of the First Republic was played on regional basis, with the National Council of Nigerian Citizens led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe holding sway in the East; the Obafemi Awolowo-led Action Group controlling the West; while the Northern Peoples Congress led by Sir Ahmadu Bello took charge in the North.
The wobbly tripod on which the unity of the country was anchored almost collapsed in 1966 following the first military intervention in the nation’s politics. With ethnic bias read into the execution of the coup, and a counter coup by the northern elements in the military, a major national crisis ensued. First, the North threatened to pull out of the union in 1966. When General Yakubu Gowon took over the reins of power, he alluded to this fact. In his maiden broadcast on the 2nd of August 1966, the General remarked that “putting all considerations to test –political, economic as well as social – the basis for unity is not there”.
The following year, 1967, the East practically pulled out of the federation and declared its autonomy as the Republic of Biafra. It took 30 months of gory civil war to whip them back to line.
Indeed, a purposeful and determined approach towards forging a real national integration never began until after the civil war. It is therefore right to say that the over two million casualties of that war are the real martyrs of the Nigerian nationhood as their blood has sealed the county’s covenant of unity in diversity.
Worthy of acknowledgement is the ‘No Victor, No Vanquished’ policy of the Federal Government at the end of the war, driven by the triple programmes of Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and Reconciliation.
Since then, successive administrations at the centre have come up with many policies and programmes aimed at consolidating the nation’s bond of unity. Notable among them are the introduction of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) Scheme; creation of states and local governments; the relocation of the federal capital to a more central area; and the establishment of the Federal Character Commission.
As the country clocks 50 as an independent nation-state, one national question that seems to have been settled for good is the indissolubility of the federation. Both those who desire it and those who do not are unprepared to pay the costly price of attempting to break up the nation. It was principally for this reason that the country survived the unpopular annulment of the results of the June 12, 1993 presidential election and the controversial enforcement of the Sharia legal code by some northern states early in this millennium.
It is therefore incontrovertible that Nigeria at 50 has attained the status of nationhood. It is essentially fit that Nigerians rolled out drums to celebrate on the 1st of October this year at the golden jubilee of the nation’s independence.
Indeed, the unity the country achieved in the past 50 years is certainly not attributable to the ‘Lugardian’ amalgamation. It is rather a product of the supreme sacrifice made by millions of Nigerians that the country may be one.
The war against balkanization having been won, what is to be addressed now is the issue of harmonious co-existence of the federating units and individual citizens, based on equity and justice, without which the nation can never prosper