Akin A. Ajose-Adeogun

“The tragedy of 1967 is that many of its seeds were not, as is often claimed, sown in October or even July 1966, but in the 1950s or, as some see it, in 1914 or maybe in 1900 itself.” – A.H.M. Kirk-Greene, Crisis and Conflict in Nigeria, 1967-1970 (Volume 1).

One of my former bosses at the law firm of Fani-Kayode and Sowemimo, the late Chief Remi Fani-Kayode, once told me, at the height of the “June 12” crisis, that the late Bode Thomas, a brilliant lawyer and intuitive genius whose advice one ignored at one’s own peril (a view confirmed by Chief Awolowo in his autobiography, Awo), had consistently warned, from the Ibadan Constitutional of 1950 till his early death in 1953, that the Nigerian Union was an unworkable proposition fraught with great dangers. Unfortunately, however, both the federalists, mainly in the Action Group, and the unitarists, mainly in the NCNC, clung on, with their heads high in the clouds, to the dream of a united multi-ethnic entity.

Unknown to the nationalist leaders from Southern Nigeria, the gulf that separated them from the aristocratic Fulani leaders in terms of outlook on life and aspirations was, and still is, unbridgeable. All their fancy, high-minded notions of working with the North on the basis of equality was, and still is, extremely naive and foolish. For the North, their politics is their religion.

Bernard Lewis aptly captured this mindset in his article, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” in The Atlantic magazine of September 1990 : “…One also sometimes gets the impression that the offense of imperialism is not—as for Western critics—the domination by one people over another but rather the allocation of roles in this relationship. What is truly evil and unacceptable is the domination of infidels over true believers. For true believers to rule misbelievers is proper and natural, since this provides for the maintenance of the holy law, and gives the misbelievers both the opportunity and the incentive to embrace the true faith. But for misbelievers to rule over true believers is blasphemous and unnatural, since it leads to the corruption of religion and morality in society, and to the flouting or even the abrogation of God’s law.

This may help us to understand the current troubles in such diverse places as Ethiopian Eritrea, Indian Kashmir, Chinese Sinkiang, and Yugoslav Kosovo, in all of which non-Muslim governments rule Muslim populations.

It may also explain why spokesmen for the new Muslim minorities in Western Europe demand for Islam a degree of legal protection which those countries no longer give to Christianity and have never given to Judaism. Nor, of course, did the governments of the countries of origin of these Muslim spokesmen ever accord such protection to religions other than their own. In their perception, there is no contradiction in these attitudes. The true faith, based on God’s final revelation, must be protected from insult and abuse; other faiths, being either false or incomplete, have no right to any such protection…” The author might as well have added that this peculiar Northern mindset – that there can be no equality with unbelievers – also helps us to understand the troubles that have beset Nigeria since independence.

Yet, the political philosophy and vision of post-independent Nigeria of the Fulani aristocracy was apparent from the beginning, and more so from the 1940s, as the following public comments of their principal spokesmen illustrate :

(1) “If the Southerners want unity, let them first of all embrace the religion of the Prophet.” – Sultan of Sokoto (Hassan, 1931-38) 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, 1 July 1949

(5) “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, 20 December 1959.

In the light of the North’s own peculiar vision for post-independence Nigeria, it is a wonder that the country attained dominion status in 1960 as a federation rather than as different countries or a confederation. Unfortunately, lost in a cloud of optimism, nationalist leaders from the South proceeded with the confidence of sleepwalkers.
The puzzling thing about it all, even if we make allowance for the inexperience and limitations of the leaders of the Nigeria independence movement, is how the far more experienced and astute British could have made such a blunder in the light of their experience in India thirteen years earlier [when communal disharmony and violence between Hindus and Muslims led to Partition, and the emergence of the two sovereign states of India and Pakistan] and their knowledge of the inherent propensities and shortcomings of Nigerian societies, as well as of the Nigerian personality and psyche. This is where their negligence and complacency comes in.

(2) THE NORTH AND THE NIGERIAN FEDERATION, 1960-2017 : The principal cause of the myriad crises that have derailed Nigeria’s peaceful and orderly development and balance was, and is still, the reckless pursuit by the Fulani aristocracy of a medieval philosophy and vision of Nigeria that asserts outright domination over, and denies an equal status to, the millions across central and southern Nigeria who are characterised as “unbelievers” in a country that is essentially an ill-assorted ragbag of mutually hostile and suspicious ethnic groups with conflicting ideologies.

The ongoing Islamist insurgency in the North-East, as well as the seeming carte blanche given to the bloody depredations of the expansionist Fulani herdsmen across vast swathes of central and southern Nigeria, both have their roots in this same medieval philosophy and vision that is incompatible with the modern liberal democracy that most Southerners aspire to.

In that sense, these are the latest in a continuum of events that include, notably, the North’s opposition to the creation of a Middle Belt State until the looming civil war forced the hands of Fulani leaders in May 1967 ;
the subversion of the democratically expressed will of the Yoruba by the crushing of the opposition Action Group, and the imposition of the North’s client, Akintola, as premier of the Western Region between 1962-66 ;
the attempts to crush the aspirations of the Tiv in the same period ; the subversion of the democratically expressed will of the peoples of central and southern Nigeria by the rigging of the 1964 federal general elections in the North and West by the NNA ;
the 29 July 1966 Northern officers’ counter- coup d’ etat and the pogroms in the North in the same year, which sought to crush the Igbo and restore Fulani hegemony ;
the subversion of the right to self-determination of the Igbo during the Civil War ;
the subversion of the democratically expressed will of all Nigerians during the “June 12” 1993 election annulment crisis ;
the attempts to crush the legitimate aspirations of the peoples of the Niger Delta to control their resources and, therefore, destiny ; the communal clashes over ownership of land and other indigenous rights, privileges and powers between the migrant Fulani and natives of Plateau State.

Two remarkable features stand out in the evolution of post-independence Nigeria. The first concerns the consistency, determination and ruthlessness with which the North has pursued, without regard to the costs for itself or the country, its warped vision of complete power and dominion over the Nigerian Federation.

The second relates to the relative objectivity and flexibility of the South in trying to reach a reasonable accommodation with the North. This second feature is best illustrated by the position of the non-Igbo South in the events leading up to the Nigerian Civil War, as well as the war itself. The resurgent South-West progressives [who, in fact, were the first to suffer at the hands of the North, like the rest of the South eventually did in turn], after unsuccessfully trying to mediate the rift between the Northern-dominated federal government and the Eastern Region, threw the support of the Yoruba behind the federal government when the Eastern Region seceded as the Republic of Biafra, sparking the Civil War. The South-West took this step because it still, in good faith, believed, like the Mid-West and most of the Eastern minorities, in the maintainance of the Federation under the new twelve-state structure established by the Northern-dominated federal government on 27 May 1967.

Equally crucial to the South-West’s decision to ally with the Northern-dominated federal government was the Eastern Region’s intransigence in the face of the following clever concessions by the Northern-dominated federal government :
(1) The publication of Decree No. 8 of 10 March 1967, which decentralised Nigeria, in accordance with the Aburi Accords of 5 January 1967, to an unprecedented degree. Nigeria, in effect, became a confederation (a highly-decentralised federation). Yet, Lt. Col. Ojukwu rejected this Decree on account of sections 70 and 71 which gave the Federal Government the power to declare a state of emergency in any region with the concurrence of only three of the four regional governors
(2) The Federal Government’s announcement on 21 May 1967 that it would lift the retaliatory economic sanctions imposed on Eastern Nigeria since April 1967 for its seizure of federal assets in the region
(3) And the Federal Government’s announcement on 25 May 1967, in response to the demand of Yoruba leaders, of the withdrawal of the menacing Northern troops from the West.

The result of the Igbo leaders’ intransigence in the face of the Northern-dominated Federal Government’s critical concessions to all stakeholders, was that the rest of the South rallied around the Northern-dominated federal government, becoming alienated from the Igbo cause – whose legitimacy and wisdom, time has now vindicated – who when war eventually came had to fight it alone.

The South-West progressives, however, opposed military action as a means of solving the problem of secession until the Biafran forces invaded the Mid-West and the West.

Paradoxically, the main result of the Civil War, the further entrenchment of Hausa-Fulani power and dominion in a now highly-centralised federation, is generally regarded as antithetical to the aspirations and interests of the Yoruba and non-Igbo Southerners who had sacrificed much in fighting on the side of the Northern-dominated federal government for what they wrongly imagined would lead to a federation of equals in which their legitimate aspirations and interests would be recognised.

It must now be self-evident to any intelligent Southerner or citizen from central Nigeria, save the most blinkered, that Nigeria as presently constituted is absolutely unworkable, considering the incompatibility of the mainstream Northern outlook on life and vision for Nigeria with that of the South.

Conventional wisdom across the South today realises, rightly, that a return, at the very least, to the federalism of the First Republic – the key to political equality between Nigeria’s many ethnic nationalities, as well as to unity – is absolutely indispensable to their progress and well-being as a people. However, one thing is clear : Southern unity, based on equality, justice and mutual respect, is imperative if the South, or any part thereof, is to secure its freedom [from Fulani hegemony] and recover its self-respect .

This was the main lesson to be derived from the unsuccessful effort to create the sovereign state of Biafra. It only remains to find out what price the South is prepared to pay for its freedom.


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