Nigeria, which came into being through the forceful imposition of foreign rule that denied the indigenous peoples the opportunity to determine the terms of their co-existence, continues to be held together by bonds of superficial unity.
The basis for Nigeria’s unity is a question that Nigeria has grappled with for over a century. The foundations of this existential crisis were laid when—for the sake of economic and administrative expediency—the British Empire amalgamated the northern and southern protectorates of one of its west African colonies and created Nigeria. Similar to the fashion by which European empires shared African land between themselves during the scramble for Africa of the 1800s, Nigeria was created in 1914 without the consultation, participation or consent of the indigenes of the land. The British Empire, having non-consensually ‘unified’ diverse people-groups to form Nigeria, employed a ‘divide and rule’ tactic which fostered unhealthy competition between the regions. These toxic conditions made it easy for the empire to exert control and extract as much as possible from this colony, much to the detriment of the inhabitants they had ‘united’.
The leaders of the various regions and tribes that made up Nigeria came together briefly to push for independence from British colonial rule. But having achieved this goal in October 1960, the regions had no real common ambition to galvanize their unity. Although many of the leaders of newly independent Nigeria were committed to the pan-Nigerian ideal, these principles were abandoned at the first sign of tension and gave way to the parochial and tribal sentiments which had existed before independence.
As Chief Obafemi Awolowo, one of the founding fathers of independent Nigeria, put it, ‘…the Nigeria which they handed over to us, had in it the forces of its own disintegration…’
Old prejudices found their way into the new Nigerian state, further exacerbated by the actions of the political elite who—preoccupied with the desire for political relevance—resorted to stirring up ethnic sentiments and abandoned the pursuit of nationalistic goals. This post-independence state of affairs is partly to blame for the decimation of Nigeria’s First Republic (1963-1966) at the hands of the Nigerian military, who would go on to rule the country for over 30 years. Disgruntled elements within the Nigerian armed forces attempted to bring about a revolution that would do away with the blundering political class and put the country back on the path to greatness. According to the young Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, who was one of the leaders of the January 1966 coup d’état, the enemies of Nigeria were ‘the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 per cent; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles, those that have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds.’
The coup-makers assassinated several high-profile politicians including the prime minister, Tafawa Balewa, the northern premier, Ahmadu Bello, the western premier, Ladoke Akintola, and a host of other VIPs. This spate of killings was considered lopsided, as most of the casualties were from the Northern region of the country. The council of ministers who survived this ‘revolution’ handed over administration of the nation to Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, the head of the Nigerian army who was also instrumental in resisting the coup and preventing further bloodshed.
In an ill-advised attempt to restore a sense of unity in a deeply fractured country, Aguiyi-Ironsi issued the now infamous Unification Decree No. 34 of 1966 which essentially stripped the regions of their former political impetus and concentrated power in the central government. This was a stark departure from the parliamentary democracy practised at independence, when regions had nearly absolute control of and responsibility for their natural resources, overhead costs, and civil service. Under the unification decree, former regions became ‘groups of provinces’ governed by military administrators. Political parties and tribal and cultural associations were abolished and, most controversially, the previously separate civil services of each region were unified, meaning that anyone from any region could be employed within the civil service anywhere in Nigeria. Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo from South East Nigeria, made this decree to fulfil an earlier desire to ‘end regionalism’.
However, the decree had an impact that was the opposite of Aguiyi-Ironsi’s intentions. Still reeling from the loss of their leaders during the coup, northerners feared that unifying the civil service would expose them to unfair competition from better-educated southerners. This new decree lent credence to the notion that the failed coup was one big conspiracy by the Igbo to dominate Nigerian society. Aguiyi-Ironsi was assassinated a few months later in the July 1966 countercoup led by northern officers, plunging the country into further political crisis and deeper tribal divisions. Decades of resentment erupted as millions of south-easterners living in northern Nigeria were targeted and killed. The ensuing political impasse between the northern and south-eastern regions would degenerate into a full-blown civil war.
ON ABURI WE FELL
The Aburi Conference held in Ghana in January 1967 was one of the few times that Nigeria’s unity was ever truly ‘negotiated’. The summit saw delegations from Nigeria’s federal government, now led by Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, and from south-eastern Nigeria, led by Lieutenant Colonel Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. The conference was held to forestall a civil war, and to provide a new blueprint for how the northern and south-eastern regions would relate to one another going forward. The positions taken by the northern-led federal government delegation and their south-eastern counterparts were an ironic reversal of their respective stances a few months earlier. Now that a northerner was head of state, the northern region wanted a stronger central government and weaker regions, while the south-east advocated for diminishing the powers of the central government. This was an early case of how seemingly ideological positions held in Nigerian politics are often undergirded by geopolitical vested interests.
After initially agreeing to virtually all of the south-eastern delegation’s proposals, Lt. Col. Gowon, the leader of the federal government, would, under the advice of his permanent secretaries back home in Lagos, renege on some of the agreements. Gowon’s advisors felt that he had made too many concessions to the south-easterners, and that the confederate system of government proposed under the Aburi Accords would give south-eastern Nigeria the impetus to eventually break up the country. Lt. Col. Ojukwu wanted nothing less than the total implementation of the agreement and refused to compromise. He declared: ‘On Aburi We Stand’. Considering the events that followed, the Aburi meetings turned out to be little more than a momentary delay before an inevitable descent into war.
NATIONAL CONFERENCES AND CONMEN
The rescinded agreements at Aburi set an unfortunate precedent in Nigerian politics. Agreements and recommendations made at national conferences could now be unilaterally abandoned or abnegated by the leader of the government, either completely or in favour of less crucial resolutions. Examples of this abound in Nigeria’s history of national conferences.
During the June 12 1993 fiasco—which saw General Babangida’s military government hurriedly hand over to an unelected interim national government after annulling an election widely believed to have been won by businessman and philanthropist, M.K.O. Abiola—General Sani Abacha seized power. Abacha heeded calls for a national constitutional conference, bringing together both elected and nominated officials to discuss the future of the country. This conference, which began on June 27 1994, resulted in the creation of Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones and the 13 per cent derivation system for oil-producing states. However, the timeline for a transition to a democratically elected government, which was the main reason for the conference in the first place, was ultimately left undefined as Abacha’s handover date was extended indefinitely. Advocates for democracy believed the conference to be a calculated move by the Abacha regime to perpetuate its rulership while hiding behind legitimate demands of the people, such as the derivation formulae and the creation of zones to cater for minority interests.
11 years later, President Olusegun Obasanjo took a similar approach while pursuing his unconstitutional ‘third term agenda’. In 2005, he convened what he termed the National Political Reform Conference (NPRC) to discuss ‘pressing national issues’. It was, however, aimed at pushing for a constitutional amendment that would have legitimised his tenure elongation drive. This is why when the ‘third term agenda’ crashed at the floor of the national assembly, all of the recommendations of the NPRC’s recommendations died with it.
President Goodluck Jonathan’s 2014 national conference was understandably met with suspicion by Nigerians who were by this time wary of the potential ulterior motives of such summits. Controversy ensued as some conference delegates advocated amending the Nigerian constitution to replace the four-year, two-tenure presidency and governorship limits with six-year single-tenure limits. If accepted, this proposal would have allowed President Jonathan (who had already served as acting president for two years after the death of his predecessor, and an additional four years after winning the 2011 presidential elections) to extend his stay in office by another two years. The proposal was not unanimously accepted, and other good recommendations made at the conclusion of the conference were ultimately abandoned.
The 2005 and 2014 conferences alone cost Nigeria nearly N8 billion, money which the conferences’ sceptics say could have been better spent as neither summit had much impact on the welfare of the average Nigerian.
THE NATIONAL ‘RED LINE’
Of the myriad issues discussed and deliberated throughout various national conferences held over decades, the subject of the sovereignty and unity of Nigeria was always considered off the table. In a 2017 address to the nation, President Muhammadu Buhari (who had just returned from a three-month stay abroad for medical treatment) reiterated what many national leaders before him have said: that Nigeria’s unity is ‘settled and non-negotiable’. Buhari further admitted that he was distressed to notice that in his absence, ‘some of the comments, especially in the social media have crossed our national red lines by daring to question our collective existence as a nation’.
It is unfortunate that successive Nigerian leaders who have used every opportunity to romanticize Nigeria’s ‘unity’ have done little to build, enhance or entrench that sense of unity beyond the familiar rhetoric. Leaders themselves often stoke the flames of tribal sentiment when campaigning, only to settle into the familiar tune of national unity once they assume federal office. Nigeria, which came into being through the forceful imposition of foreign rule that denied the indigenous peoples the opportunity to determine the terms of their co-existence, continues to be held together by bonds of superficial unity. As displayed by President Buhari’s 2017 comments, more emphasis is placed on muzzling perceived ‘separatists tendencies’, sometimes with needless violent force, than on addressing the root causes of the discontent expressed from certain regions of Nigeria. Agitation for better governance is immediately conflated with agitation to break up Nigeria. This fact was again made abundantly clear when President Buhari addressed the nation following the violent crackdown on peaceful #EndSARS protesters on 20 November 2020. After failing to even acknowledge the lives lost at the hands of the Nigerian army, President Buhari needlessly reaffirmed ‘the federal government’s commitment to preserving the unity of this country.’
DISSOLUTION: THE FINAL SOLUTION?
Requests for the renegotiation of the terms of Nigeria’s unity need not be automatically equated to calls for secession. We must refrain from the habit of assuming that anyone calling for the restructuring of the federation is working towards the dissolution of Nigeria. In any case, there is no guarantee that the internal strife which has plagued Nigeria for decades will not manifest again should the regions of Nigeria break away and become independent nations. In the three years that the Eastern Region seceded, there is evidence to suggest that minority tribes within the breakaway Republic of Biafra suffered the same social intimidation and political ostracization which many complained about then, and continue to complain about in Nigeria today.
The key takeaway here, as succinctly expressed by researcher Dominique Otigbah, is that Nigeria is simply ‘too diverse to remain united without a government that is fully committed towards unity’; a unity that should be subject to periodic appraisals and democratic renegotiations.
NEGOTIATING NIGERIA’S CORPORATE EXISTENCE
As Chinua Achebe affirms in his book, The trouble with Nigeria, ‘unity can only be as good for the purpose for which it is desired’. The absence of a cohesive national narrative has manifested itself in Nigeria, in various ways since independence. The height of this being the tragic civil war which ravaged the nation barely six years after its independence. Beyond the human and material casualties that the Biafran War claimed, the conflict politically devastated Nigeria in ways that historians and political scientists are yet to fully appreciate. The political elite of the nation, which at independence was dominated by learned intellectual, albeit flawed, statesmen, was supplanted by military men who proved just as clannish as the politicians they claimed to rescue the nation from. What made military rule even worse was the fact that unlike politicians, military leaders had no avenues for checks and balances from the polity. Successive military governments eroded Nigeria’s political sophistication and instead entrenched the militarization of Nigerian civil society. Robust parliamentary debate on issues of national interest gave way to decrees that were to be obeyed without question. Social dissent and calls for accountability from activists were interpreted as treason, and protesters were routinely locked up without fair trial.
Including the current president, veterans of the civil war make up seven of Nigeria’s 13 heads of state since independence, and each has jealously protected the ‘unity’ they fought for. Understandably so. This is why utterances examining, questioning or analysing the basis for Nigerian unity—vis-à-vis Nigeria’s current and past security challenges, economic turmoil and general national underdevelopment—are met with swift condemnation.
As Nigeria marks 60 years as an independent nation, now is as good a time as ever for a fresh approach to national unity. The Nigerian leadership must abandon the pretence of an unequivocally united Nigeria and encourage frank dialogue between regional leaders and the government while eschewing the practices that have led sections of the nation to feel marginalized. It is time to implement good recommendations from past national conferences, which include devolving power from central to state governments, reducing the size of the legislature and rotation of the presidency amongst the six geopolitical zones of the country.
Beyond the rhetoric, the federal government must also encourage cultural exchange programmes and initiatives that help to engender a sense of shared heritage amongst Nigerian people. Until these ambitions are accomplished and until Nigeria begins to work for the welfare of the critical mass of its citizens, the country’s unity will continue to be up for negotiation⎈
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