When the history of Nigeria’s march towards true democracy is finally written for posterity, it would not be complete without mention of genuine federalists like the premier of northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Chief Olu Falae and others like them. Sir Bello was a man who was largely misunderstood by many Nigerians, especially the Igbo who mostly saw and dismissed him at the time as a tribal leader. I was one of those who believed that Sir Bello hated the Igbo, the way he spoke about them. I have watched the video clip of his foreign interview over and over again, and many years after, I now realize that Sir Bello did not hate the Igbo in any way.
Asked about the Igbo by a foreign journalist, he described them as a people who liked to dominate others. If for example you put an Igbo in a labour camp, he said, that Igbo would try to emerge as the head man of the camp. In other words, the Igbo man by Sir Bello’s recording always wanted to be at the forefront of events. That is exactly true. But what could have been truer was that the circumstances of the times gave support to that desire of the Igbo.
In those days, many Northerners were scarcely educated. So, most of the public offices were manned by the southerners, under British colonial rule. The few who were educated, like Alhaji Tafawa Balewa (who was my father’s course mate at the University of London Institute of Education in 1953) occupied the juicy public offices but a majority of the largely illiterate citizens could not be counted on to take on public offices under the British colonial management of the country. So, the Igbo took advantage of the circumstances as it were, and filled in every important position. They were there in the classroom as teachers and students. They were there in financial institutions like banks as staff and management. They were there in the farm as farm hands. They were in the transportation and hospitality industries and so on.
There is a possibility that the northern leaders at the time may have made representations to the colonial government. If so, the result was that by the time Nigeria acquired self rule in 1960, the document that authenticated that independence from Britain gave each of the then three regions a free hand to develop at their own pace with whatever resources they had in their land.
In a recent video clip making the rounds, Chief Olu Falae confirmed that Sir Bello was right in pursuing his northernization policy at the time. The idea was in line with the document that procured independence for Nigeria from Britain. According to Chief Falae, it had become necessary for the leaderships of the Nigerian government to consider returning to the letters of the constitutional document which Nigerian leaders negotiated with the British government between 1957 and 1959 that granted Nigeria independence from Britain.
It was on the basis of that constitution that the three regions agreed to acquire independence as one united country. It was the foundation of what came to be known as a united Nigeria. It was a negotiated constitution. If the three regions had disagreed on the constitution, there would have been no Nigeria as it was at independence from Britain.
In 1966, the military invaded the political growth of Nigeria and aborted its democratic evolution. They discarded the negotiated constitution and introduced one that was not only un-negotiated but one they insisted was un-negotiable, and still expected Nigeria to remain united – possibly by force because they had the gun, and that was important!
The negotiated constitution gave considerable autonomy to each of the three regions. Each region collected its own revenue and contributed an agreed percentage of its gross earnings to the central government. Each region was in charge of its roads, education, medical services and rural infrastructure.
But when the military came into the political arena, they turned the table upside down, weakened the regions economically and strengthened the centre. Like the one party system that the army is, all authority flowed from Abuja, in terms of finance and in terms of security.
Chief Falae says that the imposition of its constitution on Nigerians by the military would have been unacceptable to the leaders of the three regions at the time – Sir Ahmadu Bello, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo – and many well meaning Nigerians would agree with that.
The current constitution was drafted by the military under General Abacha and is said to be skewed to favour the north. Before then, the regions were federating units. There were four different constitutions – the federal constitution, the eastern constitution, the northern constitution and the western constitution. That was to the extent the regions were autonomous at independence.
Each region even had its own ambassador in London at independence. He was known as the Agent-General while the federal ambassador was known as the High Commissioner. M. T. Mbu was Nigeria’s High Commissioner in London at independence. The ambassador for Eastern Nigeria was Mr. Jonah Achara. That of Western Nigeria was Mr. Omolodun. And for Northern Nigeria, it was Alhaji Abdulmalik. These were the four men who were regarded as ambassadors of Nigeria in the UK by the time the country had independence from Britain. But now states have been created in place of regions. And that has complicated issues even more.
My take is that we can still manage to come by something close to the regions. Each of the zones General Babangida created during his tenure as military president can now be regarded as a region so that instead of the four regions the country had at independence there will now be six regions. The same level of autonomy can be given to them as was given to the regions after independence from Britain.
The north can then carry on with their northernization or Arewanization policy which was Sir Bello’s passion. The East can embark on their Eastern or is it Biafranization policy and the West on their Westernization or Oduduwanization policy. They meet at the centre. They meet at the centre to agree on their democratic norms and values in the knowledge that true democracy must be negotiated by the federating units. Anything short of that is military imposition and it is not generally acceptable to many knowledgeable Africans.
And so, I hasten to make a case for the two gentlemen who caught the spirit of the original constitution before the invasion of Nigeria’s political space by the military. I hasten to make a case for Chief Olu Falae and Sir Ahmadu Bello.
Chief Sir Emeka Asinugo is the author of ‘The Presidential Years: From Dr. Jonathan to Gen. Buhari’ and publisher of Imo State Business Link Magazine (Website: imostateblm.com)
Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."
Reproduction is authorised provided the author's permission is granted.