Written by Olawale Rasheed
As the nation celebrates her 51st independence anniversary, ethnic nationalities in Nigeria are clamouring for adjustment of the structure of the federation. Regional Editor of Tribune Newspaper, Olawale Rasheed reviews the journey and state of the nationalities from 1960 to date .
Most commentators approach independence celebrations from the perspective of progress the nation has or has not made in various sectors.
There is always emphasis on infrastructural growth, democratic development and national cohesion alongside such national challenges such as security, access to education and economic development. How will the analysis look like if one is to assess the nation from the perspective of the fortune or misfortune of the ethnic nationalities from independence till date?
The nation has more than 250 ethnic nationalities with several languages and dialects. Have the nationalities fared better? Are their aspirations at independence now realised? Will the nationalities give a pass mark to Nigeria‘s existence 51 years after? If given the opportunity, what will such nationalities wish to see happening to the entity called Nigeria? From the onset, almost all key actors have books written by them, for them and on them, in addition to scholarly reviews and appraisals of Nigerian political history.
The state of the nation as of 1960, inclusive of the processes that led to granting of independence by the British colonial authorities, was actually troubled. Of all the ethnic configurations, only the Hausa-Fulani bloc got what they actually aimed for — the prime leadership of the virgin country. The Igbo turned down an East-West alliance that would have earned them the independence prime ministership.
Unfortunately, their preference for the core North as an ally in 1960 is yet to propel them to the presidency 51 years after. The Yoruba were hounded around and a fatal seed of division sown in their midst from across the Niger.
The independence celebration was fouled by deep-seated disagreement among critical independence leaders. In October 1960, a nation was born, whose existence was built on subterfuges, ethnic injuries, national plots and counter plots, exclusionary manipulative politics and a tribal hegemony. Behind the flag-waving pupils and students at independence was an extensive overlay of ethnic distrust, a revenge-laden political class and a nation of many ethnic groups without a consensus on common existence. The ethnic minorities in the North were brutally harassed.Thier counterparts in the old Eastern region did not fare better.
The nationalities in 1960 had dreams that were poorly captured and interpreted by the independent nation they belonged to. Even the Hausa-Fulani bloc had suppressed disagreements between the aspirations of the aristocratic lords of the Northern Peoples Congress and the Aminu Kano-led Northern Elements Progressive Union. If the British had enforced direct universal adult suffrage in the North as was the practice in the southern part of the country; if the core North had truly allowed free and fair poll in the 1959 polls and those before it, probably NEPU and other parties other than NPC of the late Sardauna would have formed the regional government. Nigeria could have witnessed a progressive national government formed by such leaders as Aminu Kano, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo by 1960.
The nationalities wanted something different from what they got at independence. The minorities in the Middle Belt aspired for freedom to choose their leaders. The Tivs and others in the region were desirous of true freedom that Britain promised. As a republican people, they abhorred aristocratic rule which was the norm under the NPC rulership.The same was true of the Kanuri who also led a mass political movement that was brutally suppressed. The nationalities of the Niger-Delta region, which was part of the old Eastern region were also so bitter that they found it convenient to form an alliance with the northern based NPC.The yearnings for self-determination was deep but prevented from gaining outward manifestation.
The Western region under the Action Group (AG) was equally unhappy with the state of the nation at independence. The widespread manipulation of the 1959 elections twisted the fate of the nation, leading to a strange alliance between a progressive Azikiwe and a conservative Ahmadu Bello. A grand progressive alliance among Aminu Kano’s NEPU, Zik‘s NCNC, Awolowo‘s AG and other minority progressive parties would have probably steered the ship of Nigeria in a different direction. An independence government with discordant ideological configuration thus took over from the British.
It was inconceivable that the Igbo would have preferred a titular president to a prime ministership offered by the Action Group if they had a voice in the decision. Political history and surviving participants proffered many reasons why the NPC took the lead at independence. But assuming the progressives had formed the Nigerian independence government under the late Azikiwe, would Nigeria have been what it is today? Certain things would have happened to the ethnic nationalities. First, the NPC would have threatened secession, but they would have been hampered by the Middle Belt activists, the Borno Youth Movement of Kashim Imam and the Aminu Kano‘s NEPU. Two, genuine debate about the structure of Nigeria would have been conducted and a truly federalised Nigeria would have emerged. Three, the inbuilt time bomb planted from 1959 to October 1960 would have been diffused. And more critically, the young nation would have been saved the political blood-letting of 1962 to 1966 and the bloodbath of 1967 to 1970.
In reality, the nationalities lost their voices when the entity called Nigeria was to be finally inaugurated as an independent nation. A section of the emerging political class then appropriated the voice of the nationalities with the clandestine support of the British authorities, fostering on the nation a leadership and a system that undermined their aspirations for a truly equitable federation. In the 1960s, the nations of Nigeria, save for the hard core North and the Zikist bloc, were at variance with the structure of the federation, a structure still surviving 51 years after.
If that was the state of the nationalities as of 1960, how are they today? There were dramatic events and happenings from then till now. For one, what the sage, Chief Awolowo, predicted as to freedom and equitable treatment of minorities within the Nigerian federation has come to pass. His expectation that one day, an Ijaw man would rule this country is now a reality. When Chief Awolowo was making this prediction, it was interesting that some key Ijaw leaders were still allies of the core North.
The South-West has had a taste of the presidency, in addition to the speakership of the House of Representatives. The Northern minorities are liberated, just as the ruling minorities of the Niger-Delta are now in charge of the topmost office in the land. The Kanuri are also having their free day, having occupied prominent positions from independence till date.
There are two ethnic groups that seem to have suffered a reversal of fortune. As noted earlier, personality ego prevented Dr. Azikiwe from assuming the position of prime minister in 1960 as offered by his rival, Chief Awolowo. Instead, the former nationalist opted for a partnership with an ideological enemy, the NPC, to push the AG into the opposition, while accepting the titular presidency. Fifty one years after, the Igbo are yet to assume the presidency of this federation save for a stint by General Aguiyi Ironsi as head of state.
What Awolowo insisted must be discussed prior to independence is now being vociferously canvassed and advocated by Igbo leaders, especially through the Movement for the Actualisation of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB). Under an ill-defined federation, the Igbo have the most extensive and expansive multi-billion naira investments outside their region of origin. In the core North, they remain perpetual target of attacks. There is no doubt that the Igbo would today not make the same choice as their great leader made at independence.
For the southern minorities, they cannot but be eternally grateful to the Action Group whose foundation agitations transformed a dream into reality. The region too is not likely to make the same choice as was made at independence. Even Ijaw leaders are now calling for the restructuring of Nigeria to enthrone fiscal federalism, resource control, greater derivation in revenue sharing and true federalism. There is the realisation among them that occupation of the presidency for four years is not an everlasting curative for their decades of neglect and maltreatment by the Nigerian state.
For the Hausa-Fulani stock in the North, this is not the best of time. There is a reversal of fortune as other nationalities strive for national reform which in the process is depriving the core North of her born-to-rule philosophy or ascription. The rulers at independence are now the ruled. The descendants of the all powerful NPC are now facing resurgence from the children of progressives in the South. Unlike the Igbo, the Yoruba and the Niger-Deltans, most core northerners would wish for the past to re-emerge.
Many analysts are of the view that while the presidential power is now in the South, democratic wheel will still take it to the North in the nearest future. This reality is what is now driving the ethnic nationalities on a new round of agitation for genuine reform of the federation. As the south failed to initiate federal reform throughout the eight years of the Obasanjo presidency, many in the south are worried that a failure to institutionalize true federalism between now and 2015 will again take the nation to square one in the future.
If all ethnic unions are challenged to debate Nigeria today, it is likely the core North will also join in agitating for justice and equity, the same cries of the Yoruba in the 50s and 60s. As all nationalities have now tasted the bitter and the sweet pills, is it not time to truly discuss Nigeria?