History, the saying goes, often repeats itself. Take two events in Nigeria’s political history: the struggle for independence and the current agitation for political restructuring. The polarisation of the North and the South over the issue of restructuring may seem unique, yet, we have been here before. Historically, the north and south of Nigeria hardly see eye to eye on the political direction of the country. In the 1950s, the struggle for Nigeria’s independence also pitched the North and the South against each other.
The 1950s was a period of intense agitation for independence in British colonies across Africa. In many countries, even rival political and ethnic groups were united in demanding independence. But not in Nigeria! While the two southern regions, the East and the West, were vociferous in calling for independence, the North was adamantly opposed to a self-governing Nigeria. As James Hubbard puts it in his book, The End of British Colonial Rule in Africa, “Southern agitation was unsettling political leaders in the northern region, worried that their region would lose out in an independent Nigeria”.
Of course, the British didn’t want to grant Nigeria self-government, and the North gave them a perfect excuse. Britain argued that it was helping to keep Nigeria together, and that if it gave in to southern demands for independence, the North would leave Nigeria, and the country would disintegrate. It’s interesting that while it was the East that wanted to leave Nigeria in the late 1960s, it was the North that was seriously considering seceding in the early to mid1950s.
But the South was not deterred. In 1953, Chief Anthony Enahoro, of the Action Group, introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives, calling for Nigerian independence in 1956. The northern representatives proposed an alternative resolution calling for independence “as soon as practicable”. At the subsequent meeting of the council of ministers, the four northern ministers joined the six British to form a majority, which voted to bar ministers from participating in the parliamentary debate. The four Action Group ministers resigned in protest. In March 1953, northern votes defeated Enahoro’sresolution.
The backlash was unprecedented. In May 1953, four days of fighting between northerners and southerners in Kano left 36 dead and 241 injured. Riots also broke out in Lagos. And then what the British had feared was about to happen: the northern regional assembly and house of chiefs adopted a programme that, according to one British official, “amounted to call for the dissolution of Nigeria”.
The British tried to appease the South, without betraying the North. Britain agreed to grant the West and the East self- government in 1956, but insisted that Nigeria would not become independent unless the North chose self-government for itself. Given that the North had rejected internal self-government, the British decision gave it an effective veto over Nigeria’s independence. Why a region that had enjoyed “indirect rule” since the creation of Nigeria, with almost complete control over local government, did not want self-government for itself seemed strange. But given that self-government for the North would trigger independence for Nigeria, which it didn’t want, the North’s decision to reject self-government for itself was understandable.
Britain’s decision to grant self-government to the East and the West was, however, cynical. The British view was that Nigerians couldn’t govern themselves, and in granting self-government to the Eastern and Western regions, Britain’s expectation was that they would fail to govern effectively, and then, according to Hubbard, the British “could reassert control within 18 months”. Of course, Chief Obafemi Awolowo performed wonderfully well in the West, and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe didn’t do badly in the East. Both succeeded in spurring economic development in their region.
Some major events in 1957 were, however, to accelerate Nigeria’s independence. First, in March 1957, the Gold Coast, now Ghana, became Britain’s first African colony to achieve full independence. Nigerian southern leaders had always wanted political changes in Nigeria to keep pace with those in the Gold Coast, and so, unsurprisingly, in May 1957, the Nigerian House of Representatives voted to demand independence in 1959. What was surprising, however, was that, this time, the North supported the demand. Indeed, the North eventually gained self-government in 1959. And with its support for Nigeria’s self-government, which took the British by surprise, Nigeria’s independence was inevitable: it happened, of course, on October 1, 1960.
So, why did the North change its mind? According to historical accounts, the fear that it would lose out in an independent Nigeria if it was not given time to catch up with the educationally advanced South, was the main reason the North opposed self-government for Nigeria. However, the process of socialisation, coupled with the demonstration effects of self-government in the Western and Eastern regions and Ghana’s independence must have made continued opposition to self-government for the North and independence for Nigeria politically untenable and indefensible for northern leaders. Surely, they wouldn’t want to give credence to the British assumption that, as Denis Judd put it in his book, Empire, “all Africans were savages and unfitted for self-government”. So, in the end, the North removed its veto over Nigeria’s independence. Interestingly, it was the immediate beneficiary of Nigeria’s self-government, controlling the federal government that it had feared it would not be able to participate in on equal terms with the East and the West.
But fast-forward to several decades later, history seems to be repeating itself: the South is agitating for political restructuring; the North is opposing it, or at least filibustering. Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, former vice president, is the only northern leader that has provided strong and coherent intellectual, political and economic arguments for restructuring Nigeria. He even said recently that those afraid of restructuring “must be lazy”. To their credit, the Northern State Governors’ Forum and Northern Traditional Leaders’ Council have set up a technical committee on restructuring. But the widespread perception is that the North is against restructuring. At a recent conference in Kaduna, tagged “The North and the Future of Nigerian Federation”, some speakers, in a familiar brush-off, questioned the term restructuring: what does it mean? They asked.
Well, political restructuring is what, literally, it says. It’s about changing the flawed politico-governance structure of Nigeria. It’s about a new political and constitutional settlement. It’s about returning Nigeria to regionalism and devolving powers and resources to the regions. The British colonialists understood what restructuring meant, so why don’t we? For instance, Britain acknowledged that the Macpherson constitution of 1951 over-centralised governance in Nigeria, and promulgated the Lyttleton federal constitution of 1954, which shifted power from the centre to the regions. The 1963 constitution devolved powers even more, enabling strong and effective regional governments. Then the military disbanded the regions and created an ever increasing number of states, most of which are today technically bankrupt and unable to pay workers’ salaries. What’s more, they moved Nigeria away from the consensual and accountable parliamentary system to the expensive presidential system, and concentrated a lot of power at the centre and in the hands of a buccaneering chief executive.
To be clear, political restructuring does not and cannot mean breaking up Nigeria. No respectable and serious-minded Nigerian should advocate secession. But restructuring must mean a return to regional governments, with a considerable devolution of powers and resources to the regions from the centre. Only such far-reaching structural changes would launch Nigeria on the paths of political stability, national unity and economic progress.
And just as the North benefitted, at least politically, from Nigeria’s independence, despite initially stalling the process, it would benefit from a restructured Nigeria. According to the World Bank, about 60% of the poor in Nigeria reside in the North. President Buhari was right to ask the World Bank to focus development support on the North. However, only strong regional governments can mobilise internal resources and external help to drive the reconstruction of the North. But that won’t happen if the North resorts to its reflex oppositionist response to political restructuring.