THE CURSE OF THE BROKEN VESSEL : NIGERIA AT THE CROSSROADS
It is my humble opinion that a union of diverse peoples, if voluntarily negotiated in good faith, and with all fears - real or imagined - and interests taken account of on the basis of equality, justice and fair play, affords a much greater chance of securing a finer quality of life for its constituent members, than a collection of independent states.
In view of this broad generalization, the obvious question that arises then, is why have so many of such unions failed [as, for example, in Yugoslavia] or failed to achieve their potential, and simply limped along [as in the case of Nigeria]. My answer to this is contained in the caveat attached to my broad generalization : in fashioning our Union, the fears and interests of all of Nigeria's various ethnic nationalities - the building blocks of the Nigerian State - were never voluntarily negotiated on the basis of equality, justice and fair play. The critical series of constitutional conferences in the 1950s were a pale imitation of the sort of profound negotiations that were needed. These conferences were nothing but a deal done by the Colonial Office and the political parties representing, primarily, the major ethnic nationalities (containing a few representatives of some of the larger minority ethnic nationalities added for effect), in which the narrow, selfish interests of the larger groups were paramount. For evidence of this, one need not look beyond the unsatisfactory way in which the Willink Commission resolved, in 1958, the question of the fears and interests of the minority ethnic nationalities. I therefore believe that the Nigerian Union has not delivered on its promise because the colonial power, the United Kingdom, handed us at independence a "broken vessel"; we have since lived with "the curse of this broken vessel" that has completely proved unfit for the use for which it was meant.
In order to undo the devastation wrought by this singular omission in our historical evolution, we need to understand, and sincerely come to terms with, the reality of our situation since 1947, when the representatives of all the Nigerian peoples, for the first time, sat in the same legislative body. If we engage in this honest soul-searching, the following facts will emerge : (1) "If the Southerners want unity, let them first of all embrace the religion of the Prophet." - Sultan of Sokoto (Hassan, 1931-38, or his predecessor, Abubakar) in the 1930s. (2) "If the British quit Nigeria now, at this stage, the Northern people would continue their uninterrupted conquest to the sea." - Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, budget debates in the Legislative Council on the Appropriation Bill, March, 1947. (3) "Many Nigerians deceive themselves by thinking that Nigeria is one...particularly some of the press people...This is wrong. I am sorry to say that this presence of unity is artificial and that it ends outside this chamber... and we in the North look upon them as invaders." - Balewa [in reply to Dr Azikiwe's motion condemning the creation of ill-will among the peoples of Nigeria and urging a united Nigerian outlook]. (4) "We despise each other...we call each other ignorant...the South is proud of Western knowledge and culture; we are proud of Eastern culture...To tell you the plain truth, the common people of the North put more confidence in the white man than in either their black Southern brothers or in the educated Northerners...The Southern press ridicule the Hausa and make disrespectful attacks on the emirs...there is a tendency to take the North for granted and assume that in a self-governing Nigeria the North would in effect be a background protectorate governed by Southerners." - Abubakar Imam, at a meeting of the West African Students' Union in the U.K., reported in the Nigerian Citizen, July 1, 1949. (5) "It would appear that the God of Africa has created the Igbo nation to lead the children of Africa from the bondage of ages..." - Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, The West African Pilot of July 8, 1949. (6) "I too, after conquering the South, will also divide Nigeria into two, to be taken charge of by two of my lieutenants." - Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sunday Express, Dec. 20, 1959. (7) "...In April, 1966, the same Chief E.O. Eyo [former Chief Whip in the Eastern Nigeria House of Assembly in the 1950s, until he defected to the Action Group following a disagreement with Dr Azikiwe] told both Ifeajuna and myself that he was first and foremost an Ibibio and then a Nigerian..." - Maj. Adewale Ademoyega, p. 129, Why We Struck. (8) "I do not know about other nationalities in Nigeria, but not less than 95% of Yoruba young men and women believe that what they should be working for is their own republic." - "The Youths are Angry, and Chiefs Mislead Gen. Abacha" by Uncle Bola [Ige], The Sunday Tribune, Feb. 15, 1998.
The foregoing, at first glance, may seem depressing and quite disturbing; however, in a country of many submerged nations such as Nigeria, it is only natural that different ethnic nationalities will have different fears, values and aspirations. It is also natural that they will strive to realize those aspirations regardless of what others may think, believing - and rightly so - that they have the right to control their destinies. This immutable fact explains the numerous crises that have continually bedevilled the Nigerian Union since its inception.
Even the ongoing Islamist insurgency in the Northeast is, in its own warped way, an assertion of a community's right to take control of their destiny [by insisting on realizing their aspiration to have their lives governed according to the precepts of their religion]. In that sense, it is the latest in a continuum of events that includes the "eight-point programme" of the Northern legislature, in 1953, requesting for a confederation, in the aftermath of the bitter recriminations provoked by Anthony Enahoro's self-government motion of that year; the agitation, in the 1950s, for the creation of states for the ethnic minorities in the Northern, Eastern and Western Regions; the crises in Tiv land and Western Nigeria during the First Republic; the riots in Northern Nigeria of May, 1966, and the Northern military counter-coup de etat of July 29, 1966, both provoked, in part, by the Ironsi's government's attempt to transform the country into a unitary state; the attempt to create the sovereign state of Biafra; the struggle for the validation of the June 12 elections; the insurgency in the Niger Delta over the control of the natural resources found there ; the sectarian conflicts in Plateau and Taraba States between the settler Fulanis and the indigenous peoples.
With the convocation of a national constitutional conference by the Jonathan administration, the country has a chance - maybe the last one - to redress a 66 year old omission, and engage, in good faith, in a negotiation that takes into account the fears, interests and aspirations of all ethnic nationalities, and which is based on realism, mutual respect and empathy, equality, justice and fair play. If this is done, I believe the country will finally strike the right balance, and transform into a loose federation of largely autonomous component states, which, in the opinion of many constitutional law experts, is the only form of government that can successfully and happily accomodate a diverse collection of ethnic nationalities - with equally diverse aspirations - within the same country. Such an arrangement celebrates pluralism by allowing the different ethnic nationalities within a country to realize their conflicting aspirations, while, at the same time, partaking of all the advantages that a union of diverse peoples necessarily offers. If we are to be free of the "curse of this broken vessel," and beneficially and peacefully co-exist, we must recast our federalism along this line.
(Mr. Akin Ajose-Adeogun is a Lagos-based lawyer)