Ignorance, Political Irrelevance and Persistent Quest for Restructuring Nigeria
Being text of the First Memorial Lecture in Honour of late Professor Haruna Wakili of History Department, Bayero University, Kano, Mambaya House, Sunday 20th June 2021
By Alkasum Abba
Department of History, ABU, Zaria.
The Calls for Re-Structuring
I chose to speak on the topic: Ignorance, political irrelevance and the persistent quest to re-structure the Nigerian polity, 1999-2021. I selected this topic because, I think my late friend would have been deeply agitated by what is being aired on many of the private radio and television stations and written as front page headlines in most of the private newspapers, especially in the last one year. Then the social media is choked up with all sorts of news, opinions and reports about the division of the people, in the country and its imminent collapse!! Sometimes, after reading these gloomy materials, you may even feel that the situation is so hopeless that when you go to bed, you may wake up in another country called, Biafra, Oodua or Arewa Republic! In fact, some foreign countries, like the USA have predicted the collapse of our country by 2015 and they still continue to think that we are a failed state on its way to the final crash!
However, we have defied all the terrible predictions about our country and that we are still intact outside the minds of our detractors, both domestic and foreign as well as in the editorial rooms of most of our private newspapers, radio and television stations that preach doom and gloom and of course the social media platforms. We have been besieged by one Forum or the other filled up to the bream by ex this and ex that all vying for relevance and attention outside the framework of our political institutions. I am not going to get involved in the debate about re-structuring, as such, but I just want to draw attention to some of the fallacies being proposed, which are actually based on stark ignorance of our political history.
Since the restoration of civilian democratic rule in 1999, a political circle for the demand for re-structuring of the Nigerian polity has emerged. This circle began at the start of the second tenure of a Presidential team. Thus the Obasanjo/Atiku team opened the circle in 2005 when it set up a National Political reform Conference, following persistent media campaign by people outside the political institutions of the country. Then in 2014, the same type of people mounted similar pressure on President Goodluck Jonathan, who was literarily forced toconvene another, National Conference, even though no action was taken on the previous one. The two reports are, now, idling in the libraries and Archives for future generation of historians and other researchers, to make sense of them. It is in this context that we can understand the current deafening calls for not just re-structuring of the polity but even a renewed demand for the breakup of Nigeria. The intensity of this campaign, today, is the product of the refusal of the Federal Government to concede to the demand for yet, another conference or political jamboree.
Ignorance of our History
What is quite interesting about what is going on in the political space in this country, today, is that non-state actors and men of yester-years have been provided with unlimited platform by a section of the privately owned electronic and print media to continue topropagate falsehood against the unity, stability and the corporate existence of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. As a historian, I have been worried by the level of ignorance being circulated about our recent political history as proposals by some of the groups and people involved, who are simply creating political mirage out of a galaxy of fantasies. I will take three examples to illustrate.
A. Return to 1963 Constitution
The first proposition I want us to look at is titled: Proposals for Restructuring of Nigeria Using the 1963 Constitution as a Template. This document dated 2nd February was presented to the National Assembly on 9th February 2021, by an organization calling itself Eminent Elders Forum. The three officials of the organization are: Senator Ibrahim Mantu, Chairman; Dr. Akin Fapohunda, Secretary and Professor Echefuna. R. G. Onyebeadi, Convener. Although self-appointed, this is one of the few organizations that is not parochially constituted and recognized that restructuring is a Constitutional issue, which by law can only be handled by the National Assembly. However, I consider their proposal to return Nigeria to Parliamentary System and specifically the 1963 Constitution as based on ignorance.
In the first place, one may ask, why do we return to a system which failed? There is an impression that our politicians did not have enough experience and that they practiced this system for just 5 years before the military removed them in 1966. The truth of the matter is that the politicians of the First Republic have been in Parliament, both in Lagos and at their Regions for about TWENTY YEARS before they were removed by the military, that is, from 1947-1966.
Secondly, the problem of the First Republic is not just the system of Government but the limitation of the Constitution and the parochial nature of the politics. It has to be recognized that the Parliamentary system Nigeria operated in the period 1947-1966 was built on the faulty foundations laid by the Richard’s Constitution. It had been the most undemocratic Constitution Nigeria ever had because it was crafted by the Governor of Nigeria, Sir Arthur Richards and his three Chief Commissioners of the Northern, Eastern and Western Regions, without consulting anybody in Nigeria. This document was sent to the House of Commons for approval before it was placed before the Legislative Council in Lagos for endorsement. All subsequent Constitutions, 1950-1963, were merely the Richards’ Constitution of 1947 as amended. The problem of the Constitution was not just how it was produced but its fundamental principles are STILL the bane of Nigerian politics.
It was this Constitution that introduced, consolidated and legitimized regionalism in Nigerian politics and the British did this deliberately to undermine the emergence of a pan-Nigerian political movement to fasten the process of the achievement of independence with a modicum of unity and national cohesion. The NCNC was the only political party that saw through this political charade, fought against it butwas defeated by a combination of the British, the Action Group and the Northern Peoples’ Congress politicians. It was called tripod politics; that is two regions against one, which we are still practicing.
Thirdly, the attempt to reject the 1999 Constitution because it was drafted under the guidance of the Military Government is also based on ignorance. It must be pointed out that every departing authority has left its footprints on Nigerian politics. For in the process of reviewing Nigerian Constitutions, under the British from 1953-1959, where all the conferences were held in London, the Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs chaired all the meetings and ruled where the parties were not able to agree. For example in the 1953 Constitutional Conference, it was the Secretary of State, The Right Honourable Alan Lennor-Boyd who ruled that Lagos be excised from Western Region and be made a Federal Territory. The British Government organized the conferences in London with the purpose of detaching Nigerian politicians from their constituencies and be in a position to organize how to influence them. If you read the papers of Sir K. P. Maddocks in Rhodes House Library, Oxford, you can understand my point.
In fact, the British deliberately cultivated Regional identities against Nigerian identity to further consolidate the Regions as political entities since the enactment of the Richards’ Constitution, by ensuring that colonial officers were not transferred across the Regions, which made them also become emotionally attached to the Regions where they work. From 1954 onwards, the politicians started to consolidate the Regions by consciously building identities around theirRegion in relation to the other Regions and even fought over location of Federal projects, on the basis of Regions.
Here in the North, an identity was built for us by the NPC Government around the idea of “dan Arewa” [a northerner] as against “dan Nigeria” [a Nigerian] and Hausa language was promoted to become part of our identity and distinctiveness in the Federation of Nigeria. In addition, films, songs and even the flowing gown became the hallmark of Northerners. The effectiveness of the campaign of the Northern Region Government was to such an extent that Southerners started seeing all Northerners as “Hausa people”, which persists till date. The Regions, therefore, were bad for the unity, integration and progress of Nigeria and going back to the Constitution that created and promoted the Regions is retrogression.
So the Nigerian military Governments were confronted with the ills of Regional politics, which poisoned the political atmosphere in the First Republic and the military also became victims of this politics, when military officers from the Eastern Region picked their guns, attacked and killed senior military officers from the Northern and Western Regions whose politicians were in alliance and whose Governments have been in crises.
Thus, although at that time, the soldiers were recruited on Regional platforms, as soldiers, their responsibility has been to protect the territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; no loyaltyto any particular Region. Soon they also realized that the more national outlook is emphasized the better for the country and safer for the military. That is why in the 1979 Constitution they insisted that political parties must have national outlook, to participate in politics. This constitution set out the process of eradicating the poisonous political atmosphere of regionalism and regional politics. But the politicians have been resisting this progressive outlook and keep on looking back to the retrogressive Richards’ Constitution. Is it, therefore, surprising to you that this nation is pre-occupied with North – South politics in the name of restructuring?
Fourthly, the 1979 Constitution and its current 1999 version as amended is most suited to creating national unity and integration than the Richards’ Constitution of 1946 as amended in 1963. Perhaps the most important consideration is that the President of Nigeria is directly elected by the people. It is not just enough for a candidate to get majority vote but he or she should also secure one-quarter of the votes in two-thirds of States; it is a very important process in producing an acceptable political leader for the country. This is in contrast to the Parliamentary system where the Prime Minister has a very limited constituency and that it is the members of Parliament from the majority party that select the leader of the Government for the country.
It may interest you to know that both the Sardauna and Tafawa Balewa contested election only once in their political career, that was the 1951 Regional election. In all subsequent elections, 1954, 1956, 1959, 1961 and 1964/65 they were returned as unopposed! I am, therefore, amazed that in the year 2021 this country is still filled up with parochial intellectuals, journalists, community leaders and even politicians, all conducting themselves in the way that Sir Richards set out for them to behave in his 1946 Constitution. This is one of the reasons why they don’t like the 1979 Constitution, as amended. A typical example is the way our current political leaders conduct themselves on Regional political platforms like the politicians of the First Republic, with their Northern Governors’ Forum, Southern Governors’ Forum, etc.
This is in stark contrast to the conduct of the Second Republic politicians who after the experience of the dangers of regionalism in the First Republic tried to maintain national outlook as enshrined by the 1979 Constitution, by refusing to operate under regional political platforms through the establishment of Progressive Governors’ Forum, which cut across the Regions as opposition to the ruling NPN Government. They did not in the Second Republic establish regional political blocks like their current colleagues are busy doing.
Fifthly, the claim that the Presidential system is expensive has no basis because it is the elected leaders that came into office in 1999 that fixed the salaries and allowances of political office holders far beyond the salaries and standard of living of the people of Nigeria. This can be corrected because the Second Republic politicians did not earn huge salaries and allowances.Part of the problem also has to do with the fact that the political parties are very weak and exert little or no control over the excesses of elected members on their platforms, at both the executive and legislative levels. To stop this we need to organize political parties based on programmes, principle and ideologies.
B. Fallacy of Ethnic Politics
The denigration of the 1979 Constitution as amended in 1999 took another dimension when a group of 127 people calling themselves, the Nigerian Indigenous Nationalities Alliance for Self-Determination met in Abuja and issued a statement. This statement is circulating in the Social Media thus:
“We gather here this day as Accredited Delegates of the Constituent Component Nationalities Alliance for Self determination, being a Joint-Cooperation Framework for the Self-Determination Initiatives of the Southern and Middle-Belt of Nigeria on behalf of our Various Peoples and Interests, to Pronounce an end to our toleration of Nigeria’s Unitary Constitutional Order, Unilaterally Imposed and Forcefully Maintained by a Section of the Nigerian Country, in negation of the Federal basis upon which Nigeria became one political union at independence in 1960, and in brutal subjugation of our collective sovereignties currently being forcefully and fraudulently appropriated by the Nigerian state.
We gather here today before the global community, to formally proclaim a sovereignty dispute in rejection of the further operation of the imposed, unity constitutional arrangements of Nigeria and in assertion of our inalienable right to self determination.”
When I looked at the names of some of the people who attended the meeting, it became clear to me that this country is suffering from the frustration of a handful of elite, who once held important positions in Government and they are venting their anger on us because they have now become politically irrelevant. Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, as Chief of Defence Staff was second in command in President Ibrahim Babangida’s military Government. Group Captain Jonah Jang was military Governor of Benue and Gongola States in the military Government led by General Ibrahim Babangida and was elected Governor twice in Plateau State. Other members on the list were Second Republic Senators, Professor Banji Akintoye; President-General of Ohaneze Ndigbo, Chief NniaNwodo; former Vice-Chairman of Arik Air, Senator Anietie Okon; Commodore Idongegist Nkanga (retd); of PANDEF, leader of Middle Belt Forum, Dr. BitrusPogu; former Minister, Prof. Yusuf Turaki and 121 others. When they were in Government, they were well placed to look into the limitations of the 1999 Constitution and effect changes. They never did so. Perhaps the most important point to raise with them, is that, none of them held their high positions in government as representatives of their ethnic groups because in this country, representation is based on State or Local Government.
However, I want to draw the attention of this group thatattempts in the past to build politics on the basis of ethnic nationalities had failed. So, we need to draw lesson from what had happened. Perhaps the best example is the case of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. In 1945, Chief Awolowo along with Professor Biobakuand Dr. Oni Akerele established, in London, the EgbeOmo Oduduwa, [the society of the descendents of Oduduwa], with the sole purpose of uniting all Yoruba people, irrespective of class and other interests. In his autobiography, When We Were Young, University Press, Ibadan, 1992, Professor S. O. Biobaku revealed how the name came to him:
I recall our traditional history which had linked the Itsekiri to the Oba of Benin, a descendent of Oduduwa and progenitor of the Yoruba people and so I had a flash of inspiration that a name which would embrace all of us in Western part of Nigeria was ‘Oduduwa’.p. 126
This was not the first ethnic association in Nigeria but it was the first one to be set up for political purposes. In 1948, the Egbe was re-launched in Lagos under the leadership of another conservative Lagos elite, Chief Bode Thomas. One of the goals of the organization was to see how they could detach young, radical Yoruba youth from the radical politics of the NCNC. [CO583/287 The Archives, Kew, London and West African Pilot 21st May 1948]. Then in 1951 Chief Awolowo launched the Action Group as the political wing of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, to contest the forthcoming election in the Western Region alone, as the representative of the Yoruba people. The outcome of the 1951 election shocked him, because the AG was able to win just 29 out of 80 seats into the Western Region House of Assembly. The NCNC won 35 seatsand 16 seats were secured by smaller political parties. The AG was able to form Government only after obtaining the support of the 16 smaller parties, with the help of the British who wanted regional politics to take off, by ensuring the defeat of the NCNC in the Western Region.
Although the politicians in the AG appointed themselves as Yoruba representatives, the Yoruba electorate did not see AG as their representatives. This rejection of the AG by Yoruba electorate was extended to the Federal elections of 1954 where the NCNC, again defeated the AG when it secured 23 seats against the latter’s 18 seats. Soon after this election, Chief Awolowo and his colleagues realized the fallacy and limitations of ethnic politics and therefore, opened up the Action Group for non-Yoruba to join. This was what made it possible for the AG to expand its political activities to both the Northern and Eastern Regions and became a national party as against its initial conception of being just a Yoruba tribal party.
The example of the poor electoral performance of the Action Group in the Western Region, in the period 1951-1956, is a clear indication that self appointed tribal champions do not represent the people they claim to represent. The representatives of the people of Nigeria are found in the National Assembly, State Houses of Assembly and the Local Government Councils in addition to the executive arms of Government. Anyone who wants to speak for thepeople should secure their mandate through an election but not by self declaration.
C. IPOB and Biafra
The Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, is not involved in the restructuring debate but it is aiming at creating, out of Nigeria, an independent country for Igbo people, through violent means. This made it to become one of the most widely discussed topics in the press and the social media.
This has become more intense because of the violent nature of the activities of the IPOB, who attacked vehicles conveying livestock and agricultural produce coming from the Northern States as well as some Northerners resident in the area. They have also been attacking Police and Military formations, killing and maiming our security personnel in the Southeast. It has reached a point where some groups from the Northern States have called on the Federal Government to set in motion the process of creating a so-called biafra republic.
The activities of IPOB are built on the mistaken belief that it is possible to resurrect Biafra after the project failed 50 years ago. Looking at the history of the period 1966-1967, the attempt by Lt. Col Ojukwu to establish Biafra was facilitated by a number of factors, all of which are absent now. These are:
- The division within the members of the armed forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This division was ignited by the sectionalist coup on 15th January 1966, which led to the killings of political and military leaders, of and from the Northern and Western Regions, in the name of the “Nigerian revolution” by a section of the military drawn from the Eastern Region whose political and military leaders were spared. It was this factor that enraged a section of the Nigerian Army from the Northern Region to also organize a sectionalist counter-coup on 29th July 1966 with the sole purpose of breaking the country. This break up was prevented by among others, the unanimous decision of Federal Permanent Secretaries who met the coup leaders at the Ikeja cantonment and showed them why the planned break-up was bad. In spite of this, they prepared a document for the formal dissolution of Nigeria and were looking for a lawyer to check it for them. Alhaji M. D. Yusufu, who was the Chief Intelligence Officer of Nigeria, told me that Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon invited him to attend their meeting at the Ikeja Cantonment and he refused; he told him that “when Soldiers getangry, the Police keep away from them.” He said he then asked him, what do you want? Gowon said they were looking for a lawyer to look at theirdocument. He told him that Justice MuhammedBello was around and that they could bring the document to him to look at. Three of them came with the document and it happened that they were among the key leaders of the counter-coup; they were Murtala Mohammed, Martin Adamu and Joseph Garba. Justice Bello was staying in a building overlooking the Central Bank of Nigeria. He looked at the document, effected corrections and then asked them a simple question. “When you go back to Kaduna, how are you going to pay your soldiers’ salary after two months”? While they were staring at each other, he pointed out to them that the entire money Nigeria had, was here in this building and they cannot take it to Kaduna. He then advised them to take over the Governmentinstead of dismantling the country. Before this time, they had already alerted Ilorin to arrange to receive the Abeokuta military cantonment and had also commandeered BOAC plane which made two trips to Kano to drop members of the families of the soldiers.
- The decision of the Federal Military Government,to appoint and post Military Governors to their Regions of origin and also relocate members of the armed forces back to their Regions, strengthened the capacity of Lt. Col Ojukwu to organize a rebellion by the Government of the Eastern Region against Nigeria.
- The existence of a recognized political unit of Nigeria called Eastern Region under the control of a military Governor appointed by the Supreme Military Council with legitimate powers and in control of all the institutions of authority; the army, civil service, police, custom, immigration etc was an important factor in facilitating the rebellion.
- The inability of the military Governments of both Generals Ironsi and Gowon to resolve the unjust killings of both January and July 1966. The leaders of the counter-coup were not prepared for the responsibilities confronting them as the new rulers of Nigeria because they had only planned to dismember the country and not to govern it. So the administrative challenges were, practically, beyond their imagination and Ojukwu took advantage of this situation to declare secession.
It is therefore, very important to note that what happened in 1967 was a rebellion of a section of the Nigerian armed forces stationed in the Eastern Region against the Federal Republic of Nigeria. IPOB does not represent anything near the political and military advantages which Lt. Col Ojukwu had in the period 1966-1967. It is merely trying to organize an insurrection just like the Boko Haram. While Boko Haram is an extremist religious organization, IPOB is an ethnic chauvinist organization and both of them can only inflict pain, sufferings, death and destruction to our polity.
It is important to also note that countries managed such instability for decades; like FARC rebellion in Colombia, which lasted for about 60 years and the rebel organization had at one time controlled about 25% of the land area of the country, but its insurgency ended with a negotiated settlement a few years ago. Even Boko Haram was at one time controlling several Local Government Areas in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States but now they are just running around the Sambisa forest area, operating guerilla tactics of war fare.
What is even more significant to note is that IPOB does not have the dream Biafra of Ojukwu becausethe experience of the minorities in the Eastern Region made them realize that Biafra was a limitedproject even before it was formally inaugurated in 1967. It is obvious that no minority in the former Eastern Region will support the resurrection of Biafra. N. U. Akpan who served as the Secretary to the Government of Biafra said in his book, The Struggle for Secession, 1967-1970: A personal Account of the Nigerian Civil War, Frank Cass, London, 1976, that:
Meanwhile as the crisis deepened, the molestation of members of the minority groups increased. Non-Ibo-speaking people could not move freely, without insults and embarrassments, through the different checkpoints manned by civil defenders. My own family experienced serious difficulties when they were travelling home from Enugu to my village. If such was the experience of the family of the Chief Secretary to the Government at the time, then the position of others can be imagined.
As far as the Ibibios were concerned, nothing increased their doubts and suspicions so much as the Governor’s [Lt. Col Ojukwu]address to the people in Uyo, which he visited for the first time early in 1967…. But when the time came for the Governor to respond to the addresses of welcome he completely ignored my notes and spoke impromptu. Advising the people on how to behave, he likened the Ibibios to wives while the Ibos were husbands, and this he said, was the principle by which the relationship between the two groups should be governed.[p.156]
If nothing else, the above is a reminder why the Biafra project failed 50 years ago and why it will not go anywhere beyond instigating violence and promoting insecurity in the Southeast. The earlier this is understood the better for everybody in Nigeria.
Any attempt to campaign for restructuring of the political institutions of the Federal Republic of Nigeria based on ignorance and falsehood will not be successful. It is important we draw important lessons from our history in order to be able to correct defects identified in our Constitution. Using the media, including the Social Media to campaign for the dismemberment of Nigeria will not be successful because the people who are doing it have no relevance or roots in our political space. Join the institutions of Government to change the structure of Government; you cannot do it from the outside.
Thank you very much.