The Biafra Story - Page 3

In the West the Easterners’ assimilation was total; they lived in the same streets as the Yoruba, mixed with them on all social occasions, and their children shared the same schools. In the North, at the behest of the local rulers, to which the British made no demur, all Southerners, whether from East or West, were herded into Sabon Garis, or Strangers’ Quarters, a sort of ghetto outside the walled towns. Inside the Sabon Garis ghetto life was lively and spirited, but their contact with their Hausa compatriots was kept, at the wish of the latter, to a minimum. Schooling was segregated, and two radically different societies coexisted without any attempt by the British to urge gradual integration.

The period from 1914 to 1944 can be passed over briefly, for British interests during those years had little to do with Nigeria. First there was the Great War, then ten years of British reconstruction, then the Slump. Nigeria got out of this a brief period of prosperity when her raw materials sold well in the arms race before the Second World War. During this period Britain’s colonial policy remained traditional and orthodox: maintain law and order, stimulate the production of raw materials, create demand for British exports and raise taxes to pay for colonial rule. It was only in the fifteen years between 1945 and 1960, and notably in the last ten years of that period, that a serious attempt was made to find a formula for post-independence. This attempt got off to a disastrously bad start and never quite recovered. The bad start was called the Richards Constitution.

In 1944–5 the Governor, Sir Arthur Richards, now Lord Milverton, a man who (according to contemporary descriptions), despite his deep love of the North, managed to make himself unpopular, made a tour of the country sounding out local opinion about constitutional reform. It was the North that made it quite clear, and has maintained this attitude ever since, that it did not want amalgamation with the South. The North agreed to go along only on the basis that (1) the principle of separate regional development should be enshrined in the new constitution, and (2) that the North should have nearly fifty per cent of the seats in the legislature (North 9, West 6, East 5).

The opposition of the North to amalgamation with the South, given voice in numerous statements by their leaders ever since, was in 1947 (the year of the inauguration of the Richards Constitution) expressed by one of the Northern members, Mallam Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, later to become Prime Minister of Nigeria. He said, ‘We do not want, Sir, our Southern neighbours to interfere in our development. … I should like to make it clear to you that if the British quitted Nigeria now at this stage the Northern people would continue their interrupted conquest to the sea.’

From a unitary state, ruled by a central legislative authority, Nigeria became a three-region federal state in 1947. Since the war started between Nigeria and Biafra Lord Milverton in the Lords has been an advocate of Nigerian unity, apparently oblivious of the fact that it was his constitution which watered the seeds of regionalism, the disease which killed Nigeria. The threeregional state was the worst of all possible worlds once the attitude of the North had been ascertained; an attempted marriage of the irreconcilables.

It was the North which in a sense was the most realistic. Northern leaders made no secret of their separatist wish. After Richards came Sir John Macpherson who introduced a new virtually unitary constitution. But the damage had been done. The North had learned that it could get its way by threatening to pull out of Nigeria (thus sending shivers down the British spine), and the Macpherson Constitution yielded to a fresh one in 1954.

During the various regional conferences summoned by Macpherson during 1949, the Northern delegates claimed fifty per cent representation for the North at the Central Government, and at the General Conference at Ibadan in January 1950 the Emirs of Zaria and Katsina announced that ‘unless the Northern Region is allotted fifty per cent of the seats in the Central legislature, it will ask for separation from the rest of Nigeria on the arrangements existing before 1914’. They got their wish and Northern domination of the centre became an inbuilt feature of Nigerian politics.

The North also demanded and obtained the loosest possible form of Federation and made no secret of their deep conviction that the amalgamation of North and South in 1914 was an error. The expression of that conviction runs right through Northern political thinking from the end of the Second World War to Independence. In March 1953 the Northern political leader Sir Ahmadu Bello told the House in Lagos: ‘The mistake of 1914 has come to light, and I should like it to go no further.’

In his autobiography My Life Bello recalled the strong agitation for secession by the North and added that ‘it looked very tempting’. He admits he decided against it on two grounds, neither having any connexion with the ideal of Nigerian Unity that possessed the British. One factor was the difficulty of collecting customs duties along a land border, the other the unreliability of access to the sea through a neighbouring independent country.

By the time of the 1953 conferences which yielded the fourth constitution, the North had modified its views on separatism to ‘a structure which would give the regions the greatest possible freedom of movement and action; a structure which would reduce the powers of the Centre to the absolute minimum’.

About these ideas the London Times commented on 6 August 1953: ‘The Northerners have declared that they want a simple agency at the centre, and are apparently thinking on the lines of some organization like the East African High Commission. But even the High Commission is linked to a Central Assembly, whereas the Northern Nigerians have declared that there shall be no central legislative body.’

What the Northerners were demanding, and apparently with the will of the overwhelming body of Northern opinion behind them, was a Confederation of Nigerian States. This was what Colonel Ojukwu, Military Governor of the Eastern Region, asked for at Aburi, Ghana, on 4 January 1967, after 30,000 of the Eastern people had been killed and 1,800,000 driven back to the East as refugees. Even then, he only asked for it as a temporary measure while tempers cooled. If the Northerners had got their wish in 1953, or the Easterners in 1967, it is likely that the three Regions would today be living in peace.

Again the British gave way to Northern isolationist demands, but failed to see the danger in the North’s unwillingness to integrate. So a British compromise prevailed. It was the Southerners who wanted a state with several regions in it to give the forthcoming federation a political equilibrium. The British Government argued for three – North, West and East, the most unstable option of them all, but also the wish of the North. Two other phenomena during the last decade of pre-independence are worth looking at, inasmuch as they indicate Britain’s refusal to take note of warnings about Nigeria’s future stability, even when those warnings came from their own civil servants. Throughout the decade Northern speeches and writings revealed a steadily growing dislike of the Easterners in their midst. Time and again speakers in the Northern House voiced their deep conviction that ‘the North was for the Northerners’ and that the Southerners should go home. (Most of these Southerners were from the East.) Sporadic violence against Easterners had occurred in the past, notably during the bloody Jos Riots of 1945.

In May 1953 a delegation from the Action Group, the leading Yoruba political party, was due to visit Kano, the largest city of the North. Intense fomentation of public opinion against the visit was undertaken by Mallam Inua Wada, Kano Branch Secretary of the Northern People’s Congress. In a speech two days before their scheduled arrival Wad

a told a meeting of section heads of the Native Administration: ‘Having abused us in the South these very Southerners have decided to come over to the North to abuse us. … We have therefore organized about a thousand men ready in the city to meet force with force… .’ The Action Group’s visit was cancelled, but on 16 May a series of massacres began. Failing to find Yorubas, the Hausas set about the Easterners with what the official report compiled by a British civil servant termed ‘a universally unexpected degree of violence’.

In his autobiography Sir Ahmadu recalls that ‘Here in Kano, as things fell out, the fighting took place between the Hausas … and the Ibos; the Yorubas were oddly enough out of it.’

The official report was a conscientious effort. The rapporteur condemned Wada’s speech as ‘very ill-advised and provocative’. Of the conservative estimates of 52 killed and 245 wounded, he comments that ‘there is still a possibility that more were killed than have been recorded, in view of conflicting statements by ambulance- and lorry-drivers [who carted away the living and the dead]’. Of the whole affair he observed that ‘no amount of provocation, short-term or long-term can in any sense justify their [Hausas] behaviour’. But perhaps his most notable utterance was in the conclusion: ‘The seeds of the trouble which broke out in Kano on 16 May 1953 have their counterparts still in the ground. It could happen again, and only a realization and acceptance of the underlying causes can remove the danger of recurrence.’ There was no realization, nor any attempt at one.

In 1958 the British, while studying the question of the minority tribes – that is, the people who are not members of the ‘Big Three’, the Hausa, the Ibo and the Yoruba – asked Sir Henry Willink to conduct a survey and make his recommendations. Of the Eastern Region, now divided into three by Lagos’s unilateral decision in 1967, Sir Henry found that the difference between the Ibo and the non-Ibo minorities was sufficiently slight to be soon expunged by the growing nationalism. Oddly, it has largely been expunged, not by Nigerian nationalism but by common suffering at the hands of Nigerians, and by Biafran nationalism.

Another observation of Sir Henry Willink concerning the East was that Port Harcourt, the Region’s biggest city, was largely an Ibo city. In the pre-colonial period it had been a small town inhabited by the Rivers peoples, but in the intervening time it had grown to a flourishing city and port, mainly on the strength of Ibo trading enterprise and initiative. Inside the city Ibos and non-Ibos lived peacefully side by side. In May 1967 when the Government of General Gowon in Lagos decided unilaterally to divide Nigeria into twelve new states, three of these were carved out of the East and Port Harcourt was named to be the capital of the Rivers State, which caused an even greater sense of outrage east of the Niger.

After the 1954 constitution, there were a further five years of negotiations about the future form of Nigeria, and a fifth constitution. On 1 October 1960 Nigeria stumbled into independence, loudly hailed from within and without as a model to Africa, but regrettably as stable behind the gloss as a house of cards. None of the basic differences between North and South had been erased, nor the doubts and fears assuaged, nor the centrifugal tendencies curbed. The hopes, aspirations and ambitions of the three Regions were still largely divergent, and the structure that had been devised to encourage a belated sense of unity was unable to stand the stresses later imposed upon it.

Mr Walter Schwarz, in his book Nigeria, commented: ‘The product which emerged from a decade of negotiations between government and governed was far from satisfactory. Nigeria became independent with a federal structure which, within two years, was shaken by an emergency and, within five, had broken down in disorder, to be finally overthrown by two military coups and a civil war.’*

The new constitution was a highly intricate assemblage of checks and balances, rights and guarantees, too Utopian to withstand the ruthless power struggle that soon after independence began to seethe inside Nigeria.

In Africa as elsewhere political power means success and prosperity, not only for the man who holds it but for his family, his birthplace and even his whole region of origin. As a result there are many who will go to any lengths to get it and, having got it, will surpass themselves in order to keep it. The pre-independence 1959 election gave a taste of things to come, with Southern candidates in the North being intimidated in their election campaigns. This election was the last in which the electoral and returning officers were mainly British civil servants, who did the best they could. In subsequent elections ballot-rigging and thuggery became more or less the order of the day.

Nevertheless, the 1959 election gave Nigeria a government. The pattern of the power struggle that was to follow was already established, and followed very closely the lines of regionalism laid down by the ill-fated Richards Constitution twelve years earlier. The East was dominated by the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) party, headed by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, pioneer of West African nationalism and a long-time struggler (albeit a peaceful one) for Nigerian independence. In its early days the NCNC had had the makings of a truly national party, but the rise of other parties with a wholly regional rather than political appeal following the Richards Constitution had driven it more and more into the East. Nevertheless Azikiwe himself still preferred the more pan-Nigerian atmosphere of Lagos, although he had been by independence already five years Prime Minister of the East.

The West was dominated by Chief Awolowo’s Action Group party, whose appeal was strongly and almost exclusively Yoruba. He had been for five years Premier of the West.

The North was the bailiwick of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) whose leader was the Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello. This triangular balance of power had already existed for five years since the 1954 election in which the NPC and the NCNC in a coalition with 140 out of 184 seats had put Awolowo’s Action Group into opposition.

The 1959 election repeated the process; in an expanded Chamber, the NPC held the North with 148 seats, the NCNC held the East and a chunk of the West (mostly those non-Yoruba parts now called the Midwest) gaining 89 seats, and the Action Group took most of the Yoruba-speaking West, but gained only 75 seats. Although none of the parties held a clear majority, any coalition of two could put the third into opposition. After some behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing the NPC clinched the deal with the NCNC and continued as before, with Awolowo consigned to another five years of helpless opposition.

Already in 1957 after the last of the constitutional conferences a Federal Prime Minister had been appointed. He was Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a Hausa, deputy leader of the NPC and up till that time Minister of Transport. There was no surprise that Sir Ahmadu, leader of the majority NPC, who could have had the post for himself, refused to come south and head the country. As he himself said, he was quite content to send his ‘lieutenant’ to do the job. The phraseology indicates the future relationship between the Federal Prime Minister and the Premier of the North, and where the real seat of power lay.

It was in this form that Nigeria entered into a shaky independence. Shortly afterwards Dr Azikiwe was appointed the first Nigerian Governor-General, and the premiership of the East passed to his Number Two, Dr Michael Okpara. In the West Chief Akintola had already taken over from Awolowo as Premier, while the latter headed the Opposition in the Federal Chamber. The Sardauna stayed on as lord of the North.

The brief history of Nigeria under parliamentary rule has already been well documented. What seems to emerge from all the accounts, although it is seldom so expressed, is that the traditional form of parliamentary democracy worked out in Whitehall proved to be unsuitable to the existing ethnic group structure, incomprehensible even to its local practitioners, inapposite to African civilization and impracticable in an artificially created nation where group rivalries, far from being expunged by the colonial power, had been exacerbated on occasion as a useful expedient to indirect rule.

Tags: Frederick Forsyth Historical
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