By Dare Babarinsa
One of the most contentious question of the 1958 Manchester House Nigerian Constitutional Conference in London was whether Nigeria was worth keeping at all. For almost 50 years, Northern Nigeria and Southern Nigeria had been ruled as two separate territories by the British overlords. Even the British colonial services of the two protectorates and their officials related to each other as if they belonged to two different establishments.
When the regions were created after the Second World War, each of the three regions also tried to have its own identity. When the leaders met therefore, the temptation was high to go their different ways. After all, that was what happened to the British created East African Federation which eventually broke into Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika (now Tanzania).
Our three main leaders, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, the leader of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroon, NCNC; Sir Ahmadu Bello, the leader of the Northern Peoples Congress, NPC and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the leader of the Action Group, all agreed that it was better to keep Nigeria as one. Many years later, I had accompanied Chief Bola Ige to the University of Ibadan where he was billed to deliver a public lecture. That was at the height of the General Sani Abacha dictatorship.
Ige said there are two important questions about Nigeria. Do we agree to stay together as one? If the answer is yes, how do we stay together as one that would be profitable to all sides?
The answer to the two questions was provided by the 1960 Independence Constitution agreed upon by the leaders who led our country to freedom. There were about 70 political parties in Nigeria in 1960s and they all, except one, agreed to the Constitution. The only exception was the bizarre party, Egbe K’Oyinbo Mailo! (The Whiteman should not go Party). Though the party received a lot of publicity, it had scant following. Nigerians wanted independence and Nigerians wanted to keep their country as one.
The 1960 Constitution granted a lot of powers to the regions. So much so that Ahmadu Bello, the leader of the NPC, who would have been the Prime Minister of Nigeria, declined the job, preferring to remain as the Premier of the Northern Region. So consequential were the regions that they also embarked on limited foreign policies. The Northern Region did not recognize the new state of Israel. The Western Region however maintained a robust relationship with the new Jewish state, collaborating with it in the fields of agriculture, road construction, health and many other fields. The Western Minister of Agriculture, Chief Akin Deko, visited Tel Aviv, the capital of Israel, several times to discuss with Jewish farmers.
There are many aspects of the 1960s Constitution that should be of interest to the current generation of Nigerians. First, each region has its own Constitution, which was nonetheless inferior to the Constitution of the federation. What would have been the fate of Nigeria and Nigerians if that 1960 Constitution (and the revised edition of 1963 when the Mid-Western Region was created) had survived? One think now of the United Arab Emirate which is made up of seven emirates. This small federation has become the focus of development in the Middle-East. Dubai, one of the federating kingdoms, is loved by Nigerians, especially our politicians and business people.
It is important that we trace where the rain started beating us. One was the creation of the Mid-West Region in 1963. After independence in 1960, the AG became the party in Opposition to the Federal Government made up of the NPC and the NCNC coalition. For many years, Chief Awolowo and his party, the AG, had been the greatest campaigner for federalism, proposing that new regions should be created to accommodate the yearnings of the minority ethnic groups. He advocated that Nigeria should be divided into seven federating regions: Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers Region, Eastern Region, Mid-Western Region, Western Region (including the Yoruba speaking Ilorin and Kabba Province of the North), Northern Region, Borno Region and the Middle-Belt Region.
This proposal was rejected by the other two leaders and the British officials who moderated the Constitutional Conference. Nonetheless, they set up a Commission under Sir Henry Willink, a British official, to see ways to “allay the fear of the minorities.” The truth was that the British were in the throes of the Cold War and they wanted a Nigeria that would be controlled by their friends from the Northern Region where the Fulani aristocracy was dominant. They did not want new experiment that could jeopardize that arrangement.
But the Action Group crisis of 1962 provided the opponents of Awolowo the opportunity to serve him a portion of his own dish. They created the Mid-West out of the Western Region and refused to tamper with the other regions. By the end of 1963, the power equation in Nigeria has changed substantially. The NPC controls the Northern Region, the NCNC now controls two regions, East and Mid-West, the new party of Chief Ladoke Akintola was in charge of the West, the NPC and NCNC coalition remain in control of the Federal Government while the AG was out in the cold, its leadership in prison and its followership in testy defiance and disarray.
I often wonder what would have been the fate of Nigeria if she has been running a federation of seven regions as proposed by Awolowo since 1960? The politicians paid dearly for their inability to manage the Nigerian estate in the First Republic. When he came to power in January 1966, Major-General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi, Nigeria’s first military Chief of State, concluded that the problem of the polity was “extreme regionalism.” He dissolved the federation and in its place, created what he called group of provinces. He did not see that the imbalance in the federation created systemic tension and instability. His successor, General Yakubu Gowon, decided to address the issue in a different way. He created 12 states in 1967.
We have seen of recent the various challenge to the authority of the Nigerian state and its legitimacy by free agents of violence. First was the direct assault by the Boko Haram terrorist group who sought to create an Islamic state within the territory of the Federal Republic. There are also other free agents; kidnappers, robbers, embezzlers and their fellow travelers who actually believe the government cannot or would not do anything about their crimes. It is this climate of fear and reckless impunity that is fueling the feeling that may be the ancestors were wrong in endorsing the eternity of the Nigerian state bequeathed to us by the colonial experience.
Mao Zedong, the founding father of modern China, confronted with the complexity of the Chinese state, declared: “I am a lonely monk, walking in the rain with a leaking umbrella.”
The rain on this shore started as a drizzle when our ancestors; Zik, Bello, Awolowo, had no umbrella; but it is now a torrent on us. We should not wait until it becomes a violent storm before we do something creative about it. The current structure of the Federation is not working. It is proving increasing powerless to fulfill the basic duty of the state, which is to protect life and property. It is also becoming dangerously helpless in protecting its own property, hence the stories of unbelievable corruption and endless and often fruitless prosecutions in its wake. This is a big burden for President Buhari, but he has voluntarily and eagerly sought the job of leading the sometimes riotous Nigerian populace. We expect him to do job.
We expect him to send a comprehensive proposal to the National Assembly on constitutional reform. His party, the All Progressives Congress, APC, already has a position on the matter as encoded by the report of the El-Rufai Committee. I don’t know which part of the Federation is comfortable with what we have now. The current challenge provides for us an historic opportunity to address the age long problems that have constantly undermined our capacity to become the first African Super Power. Buhari should rise up and seize the opportunity.