Independence or Ethnic Nationalism?

By Tobi

This article is the second of a meta-series on Nigerian independence, ethnic nationalism and fiscal federalism. To receive the other articles from the series straight to your mail, click here.

Growing up in Nigeria, the names - Awolowo, Azikwe, Balewa and Ahmadu Bello - were taught as more or less the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John of the Nigerian Bible. They signified a new testament; a new awakening, a new salvation - and, reasonably so. Their faces were plastered on the legal tender; their names were commonly prefixed to the name of “best” universities, airports and other significant landmarks in Nigeria. To the young Nigerian, they were simply the heroes of Nigeria; the ones for whom we had to thank for spearheading the fight for self-governance of Nigeria from the British colonial rule. They were the founding fathers of Nigeria.

What exactly were we thanking them for? Independence. What did (does) that mean? The average young Nigerian, speaking from experience and that of many others of the new generation, were - and arguably, still are - clueless. We blindly, as routinely done, thanked them for their service to Nigeria. Religiously, we chanted “the labour of our heroes past, shall never be in vain” every morning on the assembly ground; as the filtered history momentarily taught in class unconsciously crafted role models for us - the youth. Every October 1st, we dusted our patriotic suits, and celebrated them and Nigeria. This was a ritual ceremoniously observed until this year, where one stopped and asked “what exactly do we celebrate?”

Deconstructing the concept of independence through research, three things rapidly stood out. The first being the fact the role of visionaries including Herbert Macaulay, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Jaja Wachukwu and Anthony Enahoro is often excluded from the independence narrative. The second, ostensibly of minor importance, is a common factor of Western education attained by most “heroes.” This seemingly insignificant fact may however be argued to have ignited the sense of indigenous cosmopolitanism among the leaders, as Pan-African movements increasingly gained momentum in the same period. Particularly so, as the fifth Pan-African conference in Manchester in 1945, for which Awolowo attended, brought together kindred spirits committed to the decolonisation of the African continent.

More prominent, however, were the stern undertones of ethnic fragmentation which drove the decolonisation process of Nigeria from the late 1940s to the 1960s. Carrying the torch of nationalism, Nnamdi Azikwe in partnership with Herbert Macaulay, formed the National Council of the Nigeria and Cameroons (NCNC) in 1944 with a unified Nigeria as the light. In 1949, Ahmadu Bello, Tafawa Balewa, and Aminu Kano formed the Northern People’s Congress (NPC). Dissimilar to NCNC, however, NPC was formed with the mandate for the ‘northernalisation’ at its forefront. NPC was for the Northerners, by the Northerners. The Western region, in this light, could surely not carry last. Awolowo, in 1951, thus founded the Action Group (AG).

The objective was clear: AG was for “preserving Yoruba interests and culture in a multi-ethnic, federated Nigeria.” From early on, the house was far from order. The events that unravelled in the subsequent years, even before the realisation of independence, later confirmed that politics was more or less a game of chess. That is, an ethnically chauvinist ideal to ‘checkmate’ other regions, and retain power in relevant constituencies. As opposed to fundamental and effective policies and ideals, for which political parties and campaigns ought to have been shaped by - well, at least, one thought until Britain and America recently lost the plot - indigenous governance was riddled by identity politics. Nationalism, however, it was tagged.

In all fairness, it was, indeed a nationalist movement. What it was, however, is that ethnic nationalism took a higher seat than civil nationalism. The latter, for which Azikwe doggedly fought for initially, was merely an ideology. Though Nigeria attained a status of “independence” from the colonial rule of the British government in 1960, the institutional revolt was however in favour of federalism - that is, the use of sub-unit or regional government, equally allocating the power to govern to the different polities - and not necessarily a unification agenda that fostered a shared identity. Alluding, however, to the heterogeneous composition of the Nigerian people in terms of ethnicity, one could argue that a weak central government was the optimal solution.

If anything, it was a prelude to coups and the Biafran war; the perpetual marginalisation of ethnic minorities in Nigeria, today, and the satirical system of prebendalism often confused as governance. The elephant in the room, often shadowed, by the sugar-coated history is the vested interests of our “heroes” and that of subsequent military regimes. The same interests that led Awolowo to embezzle state funds - a fact about our saint, unknown to most - to finance the activities of his Yoruba-dominated party AG; the same interests that permanently eroded trust in the public system with the rigging of elections by the Northerners in the 1960s. Dare one ask, again, what we celebrate?

As far as self governance goes, confetti is in due place for the founding fathers. The subjugation of Nigerians through colonialism was an infringement of many rights, a setback for the country and the African continent, and simply impermissible. In terms of nation building, however? The songs of praise end at Psalms 1960. The issue of tribalism by the virtue of identity politics have subtly paved the way for the ethnic-driven violent conflicts that continue to drive nails of instability into the walls of nation building in Nigeria. More poignantly, it has advanced Nigerian politics from a game of chess to a battle ground - a continued expression of ethno-democracy, and patronage politics.

Still prevalent even in voting today, ‘democratic’ elections are sadly driven by the unconstitutional rota of which moulds what majority or minority should be next to govern the state, as opposed to the sole factor of meritocracy of the candidate running for the position of leadership. However controversial, that the 2015 Presidential elections were won by the Action Progressive Congress (APC) - a merger between the Yoruba-dominated Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and Northern populated All Nigeria’s Peoples Party (ANPP), similar to the alliance of Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) and NPC circa 1965 - with 21 of 36 states, was not a mere coincidence. Or perhaps, it was, and the pattern of voting just happens to tally proportionately with the ethnic configuration of the parties?

The Northern and Western regions in Nigeria were predominantly pro-APC and its presidential candidate and 1983 military head of state, Muhammadu Buhari - an indigene of Katsina- was highly favoured. Whereas, in the South South and South East region - the former from which the opposition leader, Goodluck Jonathan, hails from - PDP secured the votes. Coincidence, again, one may say. The tenure of Jonathan interestingly administered the Niger Delta Amnesty Programme with a budget allocation of 114 Billion Naira in 2012, in comparison to the national education sector which received an appalling amount of 66 billion Naira. You may choose to call this coincidence, yet again. I, however, consider it as an inherited prebendal political system. When you look at the Nigeria we have today, you see that Awolowo, Azikwe, Balewa and Ahmadu Bello, were truly the founding fathers - those of ethnic nationalism.

To gain further insight on the decolonisation of Nigeria and the ‘real story of Nigeria’, this informative documentary by Jide Olanrewaju here is highly recommended.