Prior to the 1884/85 Berlin Conference which led to the invasion and colonization of West Africa, the region presently known as Nigeria was diversified and governed according to the various ethnic groups by different traditional/cultural (political) systems ranging from chiefdoms to monarchies and imperialism.
In the North, there was a continuous transition from imperial regime to another as each new conquest instituted a change in leadership. From the Songhai Empire to the Kanem Bornu Empire, each new victory in conquest resulted in a change in leadership for as long as centuries. The Fula jihads of Usman Dan Fodio led to the rise of the conservative Fulani Empire and establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate, with the defeat and colonization of surrounding Hausa Kingdoms (such as Nupe, Kwararafa, etc) and emirates. The conquest bid headed towards the south but was stalled by swamps and water bodies separating the north from its southern neighbors.
In the core South, the most prominent system of governance was monarchy, with the Kingdom of Benin being the most notable in the region. Alongside chiefs, elders and religious/traditional leaders, the Oba (King of Benin) ruled over residents and people of the kingdom. The West, presently known as Yorubaland and bordered by the Benin kingdom, had a similar system of governance. The Oyo Empire, adopting the governing system of the Ife people, consisted of various small city-states under a monarchial system. The city-states were governed by traditional leaders who paid homage to the Alaafin (King) of Oyo. The authority of the king was subdued to ethical checks by a state council known as the Oyo Mesi. Governance in most communities of the core Eastern region was based on a title system or chiefdom. The council of elders/chiefs (made up of custodians of renowned traditional titles), alongside the traditional/chief priest, made decisions regarding governance in the various communities. In communities (on the banks of the region) such as Aboh, Onitsha, Oguta, the system of monarchy was used in governance with the leader known as Obi (which translates to heart in Igbo Language).
The aftermath of the Napoleonic wars was heralded by an expansion bid by powerful European countries ensuing in the scramble for territories and colonies in Africa (then referred to as the Dark Continent). Britain received international recognition for its claims over West Africa. A charter was issued in 1885 to the Royal Niger Company, under the leadership of Sir George Taubman Goldie. On December 31 1899, the charter was revoked by the British Government. A compensation of £865,000 was paid to the company and it transferred ownership of the territory (known as present day Nigeria) to the British Government. The western, eastern and southern areas were referred to as the Southern Nigeria Protectorate while the northern area was referred to as the Northern Nigeria Protectorate. The Protectorates were governed between 1900 and 1914 by British High Commissioners/Governors, who reported to the British monarchy. On January 1 1914, under then Governor Sir Frederick Lugard, both protectorates were merged to form the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. Sir Frederick Lugard became the first Governor-General, following the amalgamation. The decision of the amalgamation was made by 28 individuals, consisting of 22 British citizens and only 6 Nigerians. The Nigerian signatories to the amalgamation were:
i) HRH Maiturare Sarkin Mussulumi (Sultan of Sokoto)
ii) Usman dan Mahe (who later became Emir of Kano)
iii) Sir Kitoyi Ajasa, a lawyer
iv) HRH Oladugbolu (Alaafin of Oyo)
v) HRH R Henshaw (Obong of Calabar)
vi) Abubakar Shehu of Borno
Several powerful leaders (from the southern and eastern regions) such as Oba of Benin, Obi of Onitsha, Eze Nri, were intentionally excluded from the decision making due to their resistance and opposition of the British rule. Religious and ethnical/cultural diversities made it very difficult for the merger of administrative sectors of governance; hence the Northern and Southern provinces of the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria continued under different administrations.
The aftermath of World War II came with continental struggle for independence by several colonies. This resulted the granting of a Federation status to Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria by the British government, leading to it becoming the Federation of Nigeria on the October 1 1954. Prior to granting the federation status to Nigeria, in March 1953, the late Sultan of Sokoto (who became Premier of the defunct Northern region), Sir Ahmadu Bello, told the Parliament that the 1914 amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates was a mistake and the northern region will not like to proceed further with the accord. Diverse opinions on the independence of Nigeria as a country led to the earliest recorded ethno-religious in May 1953. The riots, which occurred in Sabon Gari, Kano, were between Northerners (who were anti-independence) and Southerners (who were pro-independence).
A renowned Northern politician, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (who later became the first Prime Minister of Nigeria), had also on several occasions voiced his criticism of the amalgamation. On an occasion, he said “…the Southern people, who are swarming into this region are really intruders. We don’t want them and they are not welcome here in the North. Since the amalgamation in 1914, the British Government has been trying to make Nigeria into one country, but the Nigerian people are different in every way including religion, custom, language and aspiration. The fact that we’re all Africans might have misguided the British Government. We, here in the North, take it that Nigerian unity is not for us”. On two other occasions, he proclaimed “Nigeria existed as a country only on paper. It is still far from being united. Nigerian unity is only a British intention for the country” and “We do not want, Sir, our southern neighbours to interfere in our development…. I should like to make it clear that to you that if the British quitted Nigeria now at this stage, the northern people would continue their uninterrupted conquest to the sea”. The latter statement was made with reference of the intent of the Northern region to continue its Fula jihad bid of capturing and colonizing the Southern region.
The prominent Yoruba politician and philosopher, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, affirmed that “Nigeria is not a nation; it is a mere geographic expression”. In 1956, the last British Governor-General of Nigeria, Sir James Wilson Robertson, wrote “The general outlook of the people [Northerners] is so different from those in Southern Nigeria as to give them practically nothing in common. There is less difference between an Englishman and an Italian, both of whom have a common civilization based on Greek and Roman foundations and on Christianity, than between a Muslim villager in Sokoto, Kano or Katsina, and an Igbo, Ijaw and Kalabari. How can any feeling of common purpose of nationality be built up between people whose culture, religion and mode of living is so completely different?”.
Despite severe criticism and knowledge of the difference in fundamental languages, ethnical/cultural, religious and behavioural patterns between the Northern and Southern regions of Nigeria, the British government proceeded to grant independence on October 1 1960 to the merger of both regions as a country Nigeria. Since independence, the animosity has been very evident in the level of tolerance between the northern and southern parts of Nigeria. Ethno-religious clashes and massacres have been recorded in Jos, Kaduna, Borno, Kano, etc. The 1966 military coup, spearheaded by Igbo officers Kaduna Chukwuma Nzeogwu and Emmanuel Ifeajuna, which resulted in the death of notable Northern leaders such as the Prime Minister of Nigeria, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and the Sultan of Sokoto and Premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello. The take-over of the government by the then General Officer Commanding of the Nigerian Army, Gen. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi (who was of Igbo origin), raised the speculation that the coup was a conspiracy for an Igbo ascent to power. This led to the counter-coup, masterminded by Lt. Col. Murtala Muhammed and many Northern military officers. Following the coups, ethno-religious tensions led to clashes resulting in the massacre of several innocent Igbo soldiers and civilians. The continuous massacre of people led to the secession of the Eastern region with the then military governor Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu declaring the region as Republic of Biafra on May 1967. This led to a civil war beginning on July 6 1967 and ending on January 15 1970. The war lasted for 2 years, 6 months, 1 week and 2 days, resulting to the death of about 3 million people with about 2 million Biafran civilians dying of starvation.
The aftermath of the war has been heralded with cries of marginalization of the Southern region, especially those of the Eastern area. This has caused demands by various ethnical groups for the split of Nigeria. This has led to the establishment of several organizations such as Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC), etc; all bordering on the issues of secession and political autonomy. These calls and movements have been met with staunch resistance by present Northern leaders, making it ironic that the region that initially fought the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates is currently resisting a de-amalgamation. The major economic base (oil) has also been a factor in the calls for regional attention by certain ethnic groups in Nigeria. Prior to the civil war, on February 23 1966, a young man by name Isaac Jasper Adaka Boro, of Ijaw ethnic group, established an armed militia group Niger Delta Volunteer Force, declared the Niger Delta Republic and fought with federal forces for twelve days before accepting defeat. Recently, some Yoruba people began agitations for an autonomous nation referred to as Oduduwa Republic. A global wave of secessions and independence have been ongoing in Catalonia from Spain, Ambazonia from Cameroon, Scotland from UK, Iraqi Kurdistan, Azawad from Mali, Somaliland from Somalia, Bougainville from Papua New Guinea, etc.
Several questions have risen from the secession agitations and demands:
i) Can Nigeria split up diplomatically and without war or fighting?
ii) In the event of a spilt, would it be into two, three or more nations (based on agitations by various ethnic groups)?
iii) Will the North continue with their Fula jihad conquest after a split?
iv) What role with the international community play in the event of a split?
The political tussle in the presidency election has also continued to play a role in deepening the rift between the regions and ethnic groups in the country. Also, the people of Northern Nigeria have been favoured more with appointments and recruitments into federal positions, as compared to their counterparts from other regions of the nation. Recently, the Vice President of Nigeria Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, while addressing Nigeria’s unity at a commemoration church service of her 60th Independence anniversary said that “there are obvious cracks that could lead to a break if not properly addressed”. He called for “consistent focus and prayers” to tackle these issues.
However, even with the offering of prayers, if urgent, lasting policies and structures are not put in place to address the issues of equal access to judicial, political, social and educational facilities, a time may come when it would be too late for diplomatic resolutions.
Happy Independence Day/New Month to all Nigerians nationwide and in diaspora.
God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria!
By Agwah Michael
(Founder 247NewsUpdate Blog, Researcher, Human Rights Activist, Social Critic and Political Analyst)