Hence, the Warrant Chiefs appointed by the British and vested with arbitrary powers hitherto unknown in Igboland were thoroughly disliked by the people. It was not surprising that most of them became tyrants who abused their authority with impunity. The use of these unpopular chiefs for taxation led to the Aba women riots of 1929.
Principal targets of the attacks were Warrant Chiefs and the native courts. The policy of separateness that underpinned Britain’s colonial policy in Nigeria is evident in the fact that while some concessions were made to Southern Nigeria through the introduction of the Nigerian Council in 1913 and parliamentary democracy from 1923 onwards, the North remained the exclusive province of the governor who administered it by proclamation until 1947.
Moreover, Northern and Southern Nigeria implemented different policies on land tenure, and two official languages existed side by side in the country, that is, Hausa and English for the North and South respectively.
The emergence of nationalist movements, which gathered momentum especially in the early 1920s and 1930s, contained seeds that germinated into bitter ethnic rivalry and suspicion later. For example, because Southern Nigeria was more developed economically than Northern Nigeria and had a sizeable number of Western educated people, the pioneer nationalists were predominantly from the South to the discomfiture of the North.
Also, the ethnic provenance of prominent political parties in the 1950s up to the establishment of military rule on January 15, 1966, meant that the spirit of pan-Nigerian nationalism was yet to blossom among the political class. Aside from the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, which was the first truly national party formed on August 26, 1944, others evolved from socio-cultural groups.
The Action Group (AG), led by Obafemi Awolowo, and the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) headed by Ahmadu Bello mutated from Egbe Omo Oduduwa and Jamiyya Mutanen Arewa respectively. It must be observed that, with the formation of AG and NPC (whose membership was restricted to Northerners), ethnic nationalism and regional cleavages steadily supplanted centripetal forces for national integration. Therefore, before the end of 1951, most prominent nationalists concentrated not only in challenging British colonial administration in Nigeria that was, in any case, ready to surrender power at “the right time,” but also wasted their valuable energies on power struggles among themselves. For instance, there was bitter disagreement between Northern political leaders and their counterparts from the South with respect to the timing of independence. Indeed, when in 1953 Anthony Enahoro, an AG member in the House of Representatives moved a motion for independence and suggested 1956, Northerners in the House vehemently opposed the move, on the ground that independence at that date would mean replacement of British colonisers with compatriots from the South.
Northern political leaders were anxious and afraid that given the economic and educational backwardness of their region relative to the South, with negligible representation in the bureaucracy, complete political autarky on that date would be detrimental to the North. Thus, they wanted independence delayed until the region was “ready” for it. Now, unknown to Nigerians ignorant of our chequered political history, domination of the political architectonic by Northern Nigeria after independence was a logical consequence of the lopsided political engineering carried out by the British.
A glaring example is the Lyttleton constitution of 1954, which provided for one hundred and eighty four elected members of the federal legislature. In the distribution of its membership among the three regions, Northern Nigeria had ninety-four, forty-two each from the Eastern and Western regions, two from Lagos and six from Southern Cameroons. One of the fears which this kind of arrangement portends for any society, according to one perceptive historian, was identified long ago by a foremost political philosopher, John Stuart Mill, who argued against having a component in a federation that will exert overarching power than the others combined.
According to Mill, such a component, if allowed to exist, will insist on being the master in any joint deliberation. Of course, the minorities in Nigeria were also afraid of domination by the majority groups. Consequently, their leaders demanded creation of states to cater for their interests. The Willink Commission of Enquiry looked into the matter, concluded its assignment and submitted its report in 1958 without recommending state creation. By the time subsequent constitution conferences were held, the issue remained unresolved despite heated debates for and against the measure. Perhaps, G. O. Olusanya was correct in claiming that Nigeria lost an opportunity to experiment with subdivision of the country into states, which would have reduced the unequal balance of the three regions and brought down to a manageable level the painful experience that led to the civil war.
It is regrettable that Nigeria entered the era of self-governance with a constitution which failed to address satisfactorily the conflicting interests of ethnic nationalities that were yet to forge the kind of national unity required for creating a modern nation-state. With the benefit of hindsight, the viability of independent Nigeria was already compromised through lopsided political calibration of the country by British imperialists in favour Northern Nigeria.
The problem worsened because of cutthroat competition for power by the political elite, formation of political parties on regional or ethnic basis, and blunt refusal of the North to negotiate its hegemonic position relative to the East and West. Delegates to the 1959 Constitutional Conference held in London were eager to step into the shoes of the departing colonial administrators. Which was why, instead of allowing for more time to deal satisfactorily with critical issues such as the concerns of minority ethnic groups in the emergent country, absence of genuine unity between the North and the South, and state creation among others, they hurriedly opted for independence immediately, hoping to reopen all other outstanding issues after independence was granted. As already noted, the colonial system was responsible for bringing together various ethnic groups that constitute Nigeria. Of course, the economic interest of Britain was the overriding factor that motivated the amalgamation programme of Lord Lugard, although, as the historian, Festus Ade Ajayi correctly remarked, the policy was guided and largely dictated by existing geographical, commercial and cultural connections.
When independence was finally attained on October 1, 1960, a broad section of Nigerians, particularly frontliners in the nationalist movements, were euphoric, because the event ushered a new beginning, a new era that showed good promise. However, the essential tensions which existed right from amalgamation to the very last day of colonial rule in Nigeria resurfaced, this time around without the neutralising effect of the presence of British colonial administrators.
During the First Republic, these tensions began to boil over after the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, of the NPC had formed a coalition government with the NCNC, with AG as the opposition party.
To be continued.