The National Question and the Quest for Restructuring in Nigeria
By Chido Onumah
To paraphrase the historian, mathematician, journalist, and public intellectual, Edwin Madunagu, every political history has its significant dates, landmarks, or turning points. In Nigeria’s political history, for instance, landmarks would include October 1, 1960, (the day Nigeria gained independence from Britain), January 15, 1966, (when the first of what would become a tradition of military coups occurred), July 6, 1967, (the official start of the 30-month Nigeria-Biafra war) and January 15, 1970, (the official end of the civil war).
To these dates, I will add January 1, 1914, (the amalgamation of the Southern and Northern Protectorates by the British to create Nigeria), May 27, 1967, (the beginning of state creation in Nigeria), and May 30, 1967, (the official declaration of the secessionist state of Biafra). The latter dates, May 27 and May 30, 1967, are significant in many ways. On May 27, 50 years ago, Yakubu Gowon, who served as head of state of Nigeria from 1966 to 1975, perhaps in anticipation of the audacious move by the Military Governor of the Eastern Region of Nigeria, Lt. Col. Emeka Ojukwu, announced the division of Nigeria into 12 states from four regions. The division of Nigeria into 12 states and Ojuwku’s declaration of Biafra were decisions that would change the country forever.
Gowon’s action did not only alter the structure of Nigeria, but it also led to the reconstruction of the nascent nation through the lenses of the so-called Nigerian military; a military that was provincial in outlook as it was ill-equipped for leadership. The military centralized economic and political power and moved Nigeria from a federal republic to a unitary state. In many ways, we can conveniently say May 27, 1967, was the day Nigeria began to unravel, and any attempt to understand the current crises and our inability to make progress as a nation must necessarily return to the action of the military junta on May 27, 1967.
The road to Biafra
Three days later, on May 30, 1967, Lt. Col Ojukwu, a Nigerian soldier of Igbo extraction declared an “independent sovereign state of the name and title of the Republic of Biafra,” officially excising the Eastern Region from Nigeria. Ojukwu based his action on the resolution, four days earlier, on May 26, 1967, of a joint conference of the Eastern consultative assembly and leaders of thought that asked him to declare the Eastern region as a separate republic at an “early practicable date”.
The declaration of Biafra was the culmination of a series of tragic events. First was the bloodletting that started with January 15, 1966, military coup. That coup led to the assassination of Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Belewa, the country’s first and only prime minister, and Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of the Northern Region, among other high-profile casualties. Some recollections by Edwin Madunagu in “Settling account with Biafra” (The Guardian, May 4, 2000) are apposite here: “One, the politics of the First Republic (1960-1965) was heavily characterized by ethnicity, especially towards the end of that tragic period. Two: Of the five army majors that are more frequently mentioned as leading the coup attempt, only one, Major Adewale Ademoyega, was non-Igbo by ethnic origin. Three: No Igbo political leader died, and the only Igbo military casualty occurred not because he was a target but because he was considered a ‘nuisance’. Four: The attempted coup was the culmination of a long period of a political crisis in Nigeria, a crisis whose center of gravity was Western Region where, before the military intervention, the crisis had become an armed popular uprising.”
On July 29, 1966, there was another military coup led by officers from Northern Nigeria, and Lt. Col Yakubu Gowon became head of state. According to Madunagu, the coupists “first made a move to pull the Northern Region out Nigeria, but when they were advised that they were now in a military situation to rule the whole country, instead of a part of it, they dropped the idea of secession and became champions of ‘One Nigeria’. Lt. Col Ojukwu refused to recognize Lt., Col Gowon, as head of state.”
The second coup led to the assassination, among other high-profile casualties, of the country’s first military head of state, Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi, an Igbo, as well as the military governor of the Western Region, Lt. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi. This was followed by, as Madunagu notes, “mass killings not only in the North but all over the country, except the Eastern Region. Now, multiply the May 1966 tragedy by a factor of 50, add to it the fact that the killings were now led by armed soldiers whose commanders were now in power, and add to this the fact that the killings did not abate for at least five months and you begin to have an idea of what happened.”
The criminal indifference of the Nigerian state to the manifest pogrom against people from Eastern Nigeria, particularly Igbos, the repudiation by the Nigerian contingent (and the “unilateral implementation” by the Eastern regional government) of the agreement on decentralization of power reached a meeting in Aburi, Ghana, involving the main protagonists, Yakubu Gowon and Emeka Ojukwu, at the instance of Gen. Ankrah of Ghana, finally paved the road to Biafra.
The accounts of what took place in those turbulent days are as varied as there are ethnic groups in Nigeria. But one thing is certain: the effects of those events, particularly the actions of May 27 and 30, 1967, are still being felt today. In one fell swoop, the military unilaterally restructured Nigeria according to its dictates. While Ojukwu drafted “unwilling” minorities in the Eastern Region to create a Biafran state where Igbos were in the majority, the Nigerian military was nothing but the armed wing of a reactionary feudal class that had power thrust on it at independence began the implementation of an agenda of conquest. Interestingly, barely a year earlier, the section of the military that seized power after the January 15, 1966 coup had attempted to reconstruct Nigeria as a unitary state with the promulgation of the unification decree 34 of 1966. That attempt was opposed fiercely by those (including a section of the military) who felt they had lost out in the power equation. The rest is history.
When history repeats itself
Unfortunately, Nigeria is on the cusp of that tragic history repeating itself. Regrettably, 50 years after the declaration of Biafra many young Nigerians of Igbo descent are trying to recreate Biafra. A few months ago there were events in Nigeria and around the world to mark the 50th anniversary of the declaration of Biafra on May 30, 1967. Forty-seven years after the end of the Nigeria-Biafra War, Biafra still resonates with individuals and groups within and outside the country; perhaps, a testament to the fact that the war hasn’t ended in the minds of the protagonists and victims and the reality that many of the issues that propelled the civil war are still with us today.
So, how do we deal with this conundrum? Is Biafra the solution? In other words, can we solve the problems of 2017 Nigeria using the tragic solution of 50 years ago? As S.M. Sigerson noted in The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth? “A nation which fails to adequately remember salient points of its own history is like a person with Alzheimer’s. And that can be a social disease of a most destructive nature.”
Seventeen years ago, Edwin Madunagu, in the piece referenced above, admonished “the young Nigerians now threatening to actualize Biafra (to) forget or shelve the plan. In place of ‘actualization’, they should, through research and study, reconstruct the Biafran story in its fullness and complexity and try to answer the unanswered questions, and supply the missing links in the story. This is a primary responsibility you owe yourselves: you should at least understand what you want to actualize. If 30 years after Biafra, you want to produce its second edition, you need to benefit from the criticism of the first. History teaches that the second edition of a tragic event could easily become a farce—despite the heroism of its human agencies. On the other hand, those who enjoy ridiculing Biafra—instead of studying it—are politically shortsighted. My own attitude to Biafra is neither ‘actualization’ nor ridicule. I propose that accounts should be settled with Biafra.”
Madunagu’s admonition needs no elaboration. It is clear enough for the young people pushing for the actualization of Biafra, many of whom were born after the end of the Biafra war 47 years ago. The aspect of his position on Biafra that I want to focus on is the aspect that warns of the “political shortsightedness of ridiculing Biafra”.
Balkanizing the nation
When the military regime headed by Gowon divided Nigeria into 12 states, it sought to weaken the prospect of the different groups in the Eastern Region uniting against the Nigerian state. Of course, that action was music to the ears of minority groups, particularly those in the Eastern Region, who had long demanded their own state. With the creation of states, however, the military not only unilaterally abrogated the geopolitical structure that existed then, but it also went a step further to destroy the principle of federalism on which Nigeria gained independence in 1960 and which had sustained and kept the country together. We need to understand that this principle was adopted not only to assuage the fear of domination by a single group in the country but as recognition of the differences (multi-ethnic and multi-lingual) of the various “ethnic nationalities” that were brought together to create Nigeria.
Part of Gowon’s broadcast on May 27, 1967, signaling the breakup of Nigeria into 12 states is pertinent here: “The main obstacle to future stability in this country is the present structural imbalance in the Nigerian Federation. Even Decree No.8 or Confederation or ‘loose association’ will never survive if any one section of the country is in a position to hold the others to ransom.
“This is why the first item in the political and administrative program adopted by the Supreme Military Council last month is the creation of states for stability. This must be done first to remove the fear of domination. Representatives drawn from the new states will be more able to work out the future constitution for this country which can contain provisions to protect the powers of the states to the fullest extent desired by the Nigerian people.
“As soon as these are established, a new revenue allocation commission consisting of international experts will be appointed to recommend an equitable formula for revenue allocation taking into account the desires of the states. I propose to act faithfully within the political and administrative program adopted by the Supreme Military Council and published last month. The world will recognize in these proposals our desire for justice and fair play for all sections of this country and accommodate all genuine aspirations of the diverse people of this great country.
“I have ordered the re-imposition of the economic measures designed to safeguard federal interests until the Eastern Military Governor abrogates his illegal edicts on revenue collection and the administration of the federal statutory corporations based in the East. The country has a long history of well-articulated demands for states. The fears of minorities were explained in great detail and set out in the report of the Willink Commission appointed by the British in 1958. More recently, there have been extensive discussions in Regional Consultative Committees and leaders-of-thought conferences. Resolutions have been adopted demanding the creation of states in the North and Lagos. Petitions from minority areas in the East that have been subjected to violent intimidation by the Eastern Military Government have been publicized.
“While the present circumstances regrettably do not allow for consultations through plebiscites, I am satisfied that the creation of new states as the only possible basis for stability and equality is the overwhelming desire of the vast majority of Nigerians. To ensure justice, these states are being created simultaneously. To this end, therefore, I am promulgating a decree which will divide the Federal Republic into 12 states. The 12 states will be six in the present Northern Region, three in the present Eastern Region, the Mid-Western will remain as it is, the Colony Province of the Western Region, and Lagos will form a new Lagos State and the Western Region will otherwise remain as it is.”
What the military regime of Gowon gave with one hand it took with the other. And that would become the hallmark of subsequent military regimes in Nigeria. Gowon failed to realize, or deliberately ignored the reality that the issue wasn’t the division of the country but the reluctance or inability of the military to keep its promise, viz., “This must be done first to remove the fear of domination. Representatives drawn from the new states will be more able to work out the future constitution for this country which can contain provisions to protect the powers of the states to the fullest extent desired by the Nigerian people.”
Unfortunately, that never happened. It couldn’t have, considering the rapacious and parasitic nature of the Nigerian military so-called and the interest it represented and still represents. Once the military couldn’t deliver on that promise, it also meant that the second part of its declaration that, “The world will recognize in these proposals our desire for justice and fair play for all sections of this country and accommodate all genuine aspirations of the diverse people of this great country,” was nothing but meaningless soundbite by a rampaging military sub-class in a desperate search for legitimacy.
Since then, there has neither been “justice nor fair play for all sections” of Nigeria. There hasn’t been any serious attempt to “accommodate all genuine aspirations of the diverse people of this great country.” The sham of a federation that the military created has evolved into a Frankenstein’s monster. Fast forward 50 years. Cleary, it is the nebulous federal government that is holding the country to ransom. The moment the military government took economic powers from the states, there was no way we could ensure justice and fair play. And once you can’t ensure justice and fair play, there is no way you can stop the concomitant disquiet.
The politics of state creation
When Gen Murtala Muhammed created additional seven states—three in the “South” and four in the “North”—bringing the total to 19 states, and a new federal capital territory, Abuja, on February 3, 1976, ten days before his assassination on February 13, he left no one in doubt that the conquest was real. While Gowon showed an inclination to balance Nigeria geo-politically, Muhammed ensured that the “North” had ten states while the “South” had nine. It has been alleged that the decision was to create four new states in the “North” and four new states in the “South”, but when Muhammed announced the creation of states, instead of creating two states (Cross River and the Akwa Ibom States) out of the old South-Eastern State, he simply announced the transformation of South-Eastern State into Cross River State.
Subsequent military regimes continued the conquest, not just on the political front, but on the economic front as well. Ten years later, in 1986, when the self-professed evil genius, Gen Ibrahim Babangida, set up a Political Bureau to review the country’s political and democratic system, one of its recommendations was the creation of an additional state (Akwa Ibom State) in “South” to create a geopolitical balance of ten states each between the “North” and “South”. Babangida spurned that recommendation. He did create Akwa Ibom State, but he added another state (Kastina State) in the “North” to maintain the imbalance. It was the same pattern that was adopted in subsequent state creation in 1991 (under Gen Babangida) and 1996 (under Gen Sani Abacha). Geo-politically, today, Nigeria is composed of 36 states: 19 states in the “North” and 17 states in the “South”.
Ordinarily, this should not matter. After all, in a federation, the federating units (states) are supposed to manage their affairs substantially and contribute to the sustenance of the federation. Therefore, only those who feel their states can sustain themselves would clamor for the creation of such states. Of course, more self-sustaining states would mean more opportunities for the national government to benefit from the exploration and exploitation of resources in every state. Unfortunately, that is not the case with Nigeria.
In a country where the military had hijacked and centralized the control of economic resources and political power by, for example, arrogating to itself the authority to create local governments as well as placing itself in the position of a chief dispenser of funds based on its own criteria, including population, landmass, the number of local governments, derivation principle, etc., the dog eat dog demand for states was inevitable. Thanks to the military—the armed wing of Nigeria’s dominant power bloc—Nigeria has a weird federation where states can’t create their own local governments; where local governments are listed in constitutions that have been nothing but military decrees writ large. Thanks to the military, Nigeria has spurned justice and fair play and disregarded the genuine aspirations of the diverse people of this great country.
It is not for nothing that Nigeria is described as a federal republic. It was a choice made by the three regions in Nigeria preceding independence. Both the Eastern and Western regions obtained internal self-government (independence) in 1957, while the North got the same in 1959. Each region could have opted to go its own way in 1960. We could have had three countries as opposed to one at independence. The decision by the regions to be part of a shared territory called Nigeria came with some obligation and expectation. There is little to suggest that the federating region was willing to jettison the greater part of their economic and political independence for the sake of “one Nigeria”.
In 1963, the regions (the precursor of our current states) controlled 50 percent of the revenues accruing from their region; today we are quibbling whether the states have the right to as little as 13 percent. In a sense, this manifest heist by the federal government has perpetuated injustice in some sections of the country while condoning indolence in others. It is this quest for control or lack of, that is at the heart of the Nigerian crisis.
The question then is what must we do to get Nigeria out of the current quagmire and ultimately save the country from self-destruction?
There are no easy answers, considering the historical trajectories of Nigeria and the beating the country has taken from rogue rulers (military and civilian) in the last 57 years. But we can start from somewhere. A genuine national conversation founded on shared existential experience can be a good starting point. We must realize that we have very limited choices and time is of the essence. The single agenda of such a national conversation is to work out an agreeable and sustainable structure for the country. This is critical for many reasons, the most important being that it is on such agreement that every other thing, including the survival of the country, rests. It is this sentiment that the late politician and lawyer, Chief Bola Ige, expressed when he noted: “There are two basic questions that must be answered by all Nigerians. One, do we want to remain as one country? Two, if the answer is yes, under what conditions?”
Undoubtedly, the majority of Nigerians would respond in the affirmative to the first question. The question then is if we agree to remain together, under what conditions? Do we want a truly federal nation? Do we want a secular and egalitarian nation where the rule of law prevails? Do we want a semi-feudal and religious republic that poses as a modern democratic society? Do we want a nation where some citizens are treated as second-class citizens? Do we want a nation where some people feel ostracized, marginalized, dispossessed, and neglected or an inclusive nation of equal opportunities, freedom, responsibility, and trust? The choice is ours, but that decision must involve the majority of Nigerians. Enter the term restructuring!
To understand Nigeria and why we need to restructure the country, we need to debunk a few myths and lay bare certain facts. Myth: God used the British to bring Nigeria together and, therefore, not only is there nothing we can do about that, we shouldn’t attempt to alter what the British put together on behalf of God. Fact: Nigeria was brought together by the British for purely economic and imperialistic reasons. Myth: The size of Nigeria is an asset. Fact: Of course, size is an asset, but no country is great simply by the size of its population. Myth: Nigeria has always been one “united” country. Fact: Nigeria has not always been like this. Nigeria was basically two different countries (Northern and Southern Protectorates). The British brought these two countries together for economic, administrative, and expansionist interests as well as its desire to check the burgeoning French interest in Africa. The evil colonialists created one country yet did everything to keep the people divided. The fault lines still exist today. Myth: Once the British “conquered” the people that would later form Nigeria, they lost the right to “self-determination”. Fact: The ethnic nationalities that were “conquered” by the British were not “conquered” collectively as one group and the fact that they were “conquered” by the British does not in any way vitiate their right to “self-determination”. Only a hegemonist and internal colonialist will push such a position. Myth: Nigeria is non-negotiable and indivisible. Fact: Nations are not eternal constructs; they come into being at certain historical junctures due to different factors and can likewise go out of existence for different reasons. Myth: Nigeria is a mere geographical expression. Fact: Nigeria is not a mere geographical expression. The country is simply no longer the sum of its constituent parts. Some people and institutions are Nigerian.
So, let’s not romanticize Nigeria or take it for granted. Having said that, it is also important that we understand that there is nothing special about the way Nigeria was formed. And this is in response to those who refer to Nigeria as a “fictional nation” or an “artificial creation”.
Who is afraid of restructuring?
For those who fear the word restructuring, let it be clear that it doesn’t imply breaking Nigeria into tiny sovereignties or going back to the status quo ante. That is far-fetched. Of course, there are many positions just as there is much misperception and confusion when it comes to restructuring. Many people genuinely do not understand what is at stake when the issue of restructuring is mentioned vis a vis the politics of Nigeria, while others, for purely partisan and ethnic reasons, decide to conflate the issue.
Make no mistake, the “restructuring” of Nigeria both politically and economically has been a continuous process since amalgamation in 1914. The restructuring in 1939 saw the division of the South into two regions, the West and East. In 1946, the country was again restructured to create a federation of three regions: East, West, and North. The process continued in I963 with the creation of the Mid-Western Region out of the former Western Region, the unitary system in 1966 and beyond, the creation of 12 states on May 27, 1967, etc. Add to this, the emasculation of the states through the reduction of the percentage of revenue accruing to states from their resources.
Basically, what restructuring will do is to create new, workable, and generally acceptable rules on how Nigeria should federate. We need to reorder the polity for effective governance. Clearly, our fortunes as a nation are tied to the kind of political, economic, and social structure we put in place. We need to review revenue generation and allocation. We can’t talk or wish our way to prosperity as a nation. We must end financial irresponsibility and fiscal rascality by revisiting the issue of fiscal federalism. We must allow states to share greater responsibility in the policing of their states. We must abrogate local governments as enshrined in the 1999 Constitution and allow states to create local governments according to their needs. We must redefine citizenship rights and banish the indigene-settler dichotomy. This is what restructuring is about. We must continue to interrogate Nigeria because our misleaders (past and present) have failed to forge a nation out of what was bequeathed to us by the colonialists. The nationhood question is never settled. The way out is to never be afraid to confront it.
Any attempt to understand and tackle Nigeria’s seemingly intractable problems must go back to the basic principles of the formation of Nigeria. We may not have it the way it was in 1960 or 1963, but it is important that whatever way we decide to have it, the decision is inclusive and acceptable. That is the essence of restructuring. Restructuring is not a silver bullet. It won’t solve all our problems, but trying to solve our national crises without restructuring the country effectively will amount to putting the cart before the horse.
The bottom line is that Nigeria is not working for Nigerians. It may be working for some Nigerians, either Igbos, Fulanis, Yorubas, Hausas, Kanuris, Efiks, Tivs, or Ijaws, but for the majority across the country, it is a nightmare living the Nigerian dream. We can point to poor leadership, bad governance, corruption, and the need for attitudinal change, but these are symptoms of a much insidious problem, the existential crisis that confronts Nigeria.
Nigeria is not working because Nigerians can’t make it work or are not willing to make it work. Nigeria is not working simply because there is no incentive to make it work; there is no allegiance to the Nigerian dream if it does exist. That explains the mindless corruption in the country, the contempt the rulers have for the country and its citizens, their eagerness to run it aground, and their willingness to run to the Metropole at the slightest opportunity either for medical attention, to educate their children, or simply to enjoy the good life. And, the country, the proverbial giant of Africa remains, in the words of Noble Laurette, Prof Wole Soyinka, “the open sore of a continent”; a nation that made billions of dollars from oil, yet (with Pakistan and Afghanistan) is one of the three-remaining polio-endemic countries in the world with one of the highest cases of out-of-school children and maternal mortality.
The purpose of restructuring, therefore, is to set Nigeria on the path of civic nationhood, a modern egalitarian society, and not to create new fiefdoms for ethnic warlords. It aims to end internal colonialism wherever it exists in the country and to free the creative and intellectual capacities for Nigerians from the east, west, north, and south, to contribute to the development of the country.
Can we reconstruct Nigeria? Can we reclaim the country and provide succor to millions of our countrymen and women in the east, west, north, and south who have endured decades of misrule, impoverishment, injustice, and oppression? This is the question that should engage true patriots and the current generation of Nigerians. Can the post-civil war generation of Nigerians reclaim the country and create a new Nigeria that can become a global contender? I think it can. But nation-building is not a tea party. This generation must learn to overcome the fear and loathing; it mustn’t allow our tragic history to repeat itself.
The future of Nigeria belongs to young men and men, millions who are unemployed and daily roaming the streets of major cities across the country. I share your frustration, pain, suffering, anger, and anxiety. But no one feels the pain more than you and, therefore, you are in the best position to bring about the kind of change you and Nigeria need.
You must rise to the occasion. You are the future of this great nation. Nigeria of 2017 is not Nigeria of 1914, 1960, 1966, or 1967-70. John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, once admonished Americans, “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” Kennedy was speaking to Americans and the “right” answer may not be in the interest of non-Americans, but the same principle can apply in our own situation. In seeking solutions to the country’s problems, you must learn from the past but you should not allow the past to cripple you. You must accept your own responsibility for the future. You should see yourselves as Nigerians first before being Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Ibibio, Fulani, or Ijaw. And in seeking to deal with the Nigerian question, that should be your guiding principle.
Nigerian youth must seize the moment and define the kind of future they want to create. Nobody will live that future but you. Don’t let our crooked politicians and so-called statesmen define that future. You can’t leave the solution to Nigeria’s problems to those who created it in the first place for, as Einstein poignantly put it, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Our rulers have defined themselves and the country for too long; they have no right to define you and the future.
Our rulers and so-called elders shouldn’t speak for you any longer. Don’t let a 90-year-old Edwin Clark or Prof. Ango Abdullahi, who as Vice-Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University from 1979–1986, was more of a despot than an administrator, ruining the future of many students in the process, speak for you. Don’t let the dishonorable men and women posing as your representatives in the Senate and House of Representatives speak for you. Afenifere, Northern Elders Forum, Ohaneze Ndigbo, OPC, Arewa Youth Forum (AYF), IPOB, MASSOB, and sundry agglomeration of ethnic jingoists and bigots, shouldn’t speak for you.
Your reality and challenges—in the light of globalization and a world where oil is increasingly becoming irrelevant and advances in science and communication technology are changing the way we live and operate—are different from the realities of your forbears. Don’t let the prejudices of the past hold you down. We have wasted 57 years as an independent nation, we can’t afford to waste the next 50 years. As we mark the 50th anniversary of Biafra and the start of the civil war, we must remember our fellow citizens from the east, west, north, and south and everywhere in between who lost their lives or loved ones, were injured or maimed for life in that unfortunate 30-month war and resolve to say never again!
I believe we can build a nation where no group or individuals place their ethnic, sectional, state, regional or religious interests above the national interest. That is the condition precedent for the survival of Nigeria. That is what restructuring can do for us.
The eternal words of Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, the great Pan-Africanist who died on Africa Day, May 25, eight years ago, are apropos: “don’t agonize, organize.”
Onumah is the author of We Are All Biafrans. This essay was written in 2017 as part of a conference presentation. It is being published now because of its relevance to Nigeria’s current situation.