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Nigeria: celebrating the 'mistake of 1914'.

On 1 January 1914, the British officially launched the union of Nigeria, which was cobbled together from the disparate empires and kingdoms in that part of West Africa defeated by British might, and initially lumped together in two entities--Northern and Southern Nigeria. There is general agreement in Nigeria today that the "amalgamation" of the north and south was a mistake, yet the event has to be celebrated 100 years on. Femi Akomolafe reports on the year-long centenary celebrations that are causing controversy in Africa's most populous country.

If Nigerians required any reminder about their rulers' total disconnection from the reality of their everyday lives, it was amply supplied on 27 February this year when the country's elite threw a lavish party in the capital Abuja, where they dressed up in the finest fineries, wined, dined, and made great speeches. The occasion was the celebration of the centenary anniversary of the union created by Britain that brought the North and South of the country together in 1914. And the celebrations will go on for a whole year!

As usual on such occasions, the elite went giddy with excitement and were fulsome in their self-congratulatory speeches. The party, attended by many heads of state from across the world, went ahead even as Nigerians continued to be traumatised by the menace of a resurgent Boko Haram fundamentalist group, which went about killing and maiming in three Northern states.

To many Nigerians, the merrymaking of the elite appeared all the more insensitive as it came a few days after Boko Haram had massacred 48 students at the Federal Government College in Buni Yadi in Yobe State.

How could a government, a democratic one to boot, be partying at a time of such great national calamity is a question many Nigerians rightly asked. The gruesome killings of sleeping students at Buni Yadi particularly shocked Nigerians.

The killings at Buni Yadi brought the number of people killed by Boko Haram to close to 300 since January this year. Little wonder that many Nigerians, including prominent figures, protested loudly against the anniversary celebration in Abuja.

Professor Wole Soyinka, the Nobel literature laureate, said beforehand: "I would have preferred that the entire day of infamy be ignored altogether. I am even thinking favourably of just ignoring the obscenity, then turning up at the counter-event."

The former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, railed: "[President Goodluck] Jonathan ought to have been sober in view of the recent killings of secondary school students in Yobe State by the Boko Haram sect. I am appalled by this obscenity in the name of centenary celebration. It is inappropriate!

"I am proud of our history over the last 100 years. [But] I totally denounce the party in Abuja. It is a symbolic dance on the graves of those murdered at the Federal Government College, [and] a slap in the faces of the parents of the murdered students who are currently mourning their children, and those crying over their abducted children."

The former minister of petroleum resources, Professor Tam David-West, fumed: "There is nothing to celebrate. Nigeria's amalgamation is a mistake. From 1914 till today, Nigeria cannot showcase any tangible achievement. We are yet to get a nation because we don't love ourselves. We still have divisions along ethnic and religious lines, which are now worse under President Jonathan. So far, it has been 100 years of motion without movement. So what are we celebrating? If we are a serious set of people, the celebration should be used for deep reflection on where to go from here?"

To Chief Fred Agbaje, a constitutional lawyer, the union is a wasted alliance. "Whatever was the reason for the amalgamation and the intention, it was the beginning of the problems of Nigeria. It was a criminal amalgamation for selfish economic and political reasons by the British. It put the political administration of Nigeria in the hands of some people instead of [creating] an equitable distribution of power.

"So it has been 100 years of wasted alliance; [as well as] wasting in the sense that it has retarded the growth of some sections of the country. In terms of law and legislation, most of the laws that were imposed on us in 1914 were diametrically opposed to our cultural, political and socio-economic situation. There will be no prospects for this country unless, through a national conference, the anomalies imposed on us by Lord Lugard [who initiated the amalgamation] can be addressed."

Another lawyer, Chief Fred Agbeyegbe, went even further as he questioned the legitimacy of the Nigerian state. He declared: "Nigeria ceased to exist on 31 December 2013, based on the principle of the amalgamation treaty. Nigeria was amalgamated in 1914 by treaty. In international law, any treaty that is not dated expires after 100 years. And this invariably marks the end of the country as it ceases to be a legal entity."

Boko Haram on rampage

To many Nigerians, the money splashed on the centenary celebration in Abuja should have been used to improve security which, for most citizens, has become the number one headache, especially at a time when Boko Haram seems to be on a rampage. If fact, Nigerians were scandalised when it was reported that government troops abandoned their posts, and fled in the heat of the battle with the Boko Haram insurgents, complaining of inadequate equipment and the lack of insurance coverage.

Despite official claims last year to have broken the back of the insurgents, including one by the head of the Nigerian State Security Service (SSS), Boko Haram has upped the ante. And this comes in the face of a 16 September 2013 claim by the director general of the SSS, Ekpenyong Ita, who said: "We can confidently say that we have decimated the terrorists' top and middle level leadership and its footsoldiers, thereby dislodging its centre of gravity.

"There is no doubt that our strategies have invariably affected the cohesion of the group as well as the chain of command, to the level that the group, for now, does not possess the capacity to direct and launch simultaneous attacks on several cities or targets in Nigeria as had been the situation in the past two years. We intend to build and consolidate on our successes in this war against the terrorists in order to create a conducive environment for democracy and development."

Ita's words were echoed by the spokesman of the Nigerian Army, Lt-Col Sagir Musa, who told the nation on several occasions that the army was winning the war against Boko Haram. Founded in 2002, Boko Haram's initial announced aim was opposition to Western values, including Western-styled education. Hence the name, Boko Haram, which is a Hausa phrase meaning "Western education is forbidden". But today, no one knows what the organisation is fighting for, and why it is so indiscriminate in its attacks against fellow and innocent Nigerians. Unlike other insurgents groups, Boko Haram's leaders remain faceless.

When in 2009, the group began low-intensity military operations, the Nigerian military replied swiftly with massive counter-measures. The group's founding leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was captured and killed in mysterious circumstances while in police custody. That was among the many mistakes the security establishment made. Rather than keep Yusuf alive and gather vital intelligence, the security establishment, buoyed by a sense of triumphalism, killed him!

The centenary hoo-hah

Modern Nigeria came into being on 1 January 1914, when the British colonial power, on the advice of the governor of the Territories of Northern and Southern Nigeria, Frederick Lugard, decided to amalgamate the two protectorates to form a colony of the British Empire. The name "Nigeria" is said to have been suggested by Lugard's concubine, Flora Louisa Shaw.

Looking at it, only cold colonial calculations impelled the union as it defied common sense, logic, geography, and history. The birth of the "nation" was made all the more problematic as the colonial midwives did not complete their job when they handed over power in 1960 to local politicians.

Forty-six years were too short a time to build a nation from a disparate group of independent states, but an irresistible clamour for political independence by nationalists and the exhaustion of the British government by the Second World War, compelled London to grant independence to the nascent state on 1 October 1960. Documents since released by ex-colonial officials (some of them published by New African in the past) suggest that the British deliberately left enough politically-charged mines scattered around the land, to ensure that it was only a question of time before things blew up. It did so spectacularly in 1967 when the aggrieved Igbos of Eastern Nigeria launched an abortive secession bid. The three-year civil war that ensued reportedly claimed a million lives. Since the amalgamation in 1914, geography and history have conspired to make Nigeria a very difficult nation to rule. The two great rivers of the country, Niger and Benue, appear to provide natural demarcations.

Historically, the territories that were cobbled together to form Nigeria harboured some of pre-colonial Africa's strongest states with fierce independent dispositions. The empires of Bornu and Oyo, and the kingdom of Benin are a few of them.

Even at the beginning, two founding fathers of the nation expressed serious misgivings about the amalgamation. The powerful Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, called it the "mistake of 1914", and the former premier of Western Nigeria, Obafemi Awolowo, said it was "a mere geographic expression".

To the former attorney general and minister of justice, Richard Akinjide, one of the greatest lawyers the country has produced, "the amalgamation of was a fraud". In an article, Akinjide said: "Our problem did not start yesterday. It started about 1884. Lord Lugard came here about 1894 and many people [do] not know that Major Lugard was not originally employed by the British government; he was employed by companies. He was first employed by the East Indian Company, [then] by the Royal East African Company, and [later] by the Royal Niger Company.

"It was from the Royal Niger Company that he transferred to the British government. Unless you know this background, you will not know the root causes of our problems. The interest of the Europeans in Africa and indeed Nigeria was economic and it is still economic. They have no permanent friends and no permanent interests."

Akinjide went on: "Nigeria was created as a British sphere of interest for business. In 1898, Lugard formed the West African Frontier Force, initially with 2,000 soldiers and that was the beginning of our problems. Anybody who wants to know the root cause of all the coups and our present problems, and who does not know the evolution of Nigeria would just be looking at the matter superficially. Our problems started from that time ...

"When Lugard formed the West African Frontier Force, about 90 per cent of them were from the North, mainly from the Middle Belt. And his dispatches to London between that time and January 1914 are extremely interesting. Lugard came here for a purpose and that was British interests ... In those dispatches, Lugard said various things, which are at the root of yesterday and today's problems.

"The British needed a railway from the North to the Coast in the interest of British business. Amalgamation of the South (not of the people) was of crucial importance to British business interests. [Lugard] said the North and the South should be amalgamated.

"Southern Nigeria came into existence on 1 January 1900, [after] Benin was conquered in 1896. It made the creation of the Southern Nigerian protectorate possible. If you remember, Sokoto was not conquered until 1903. So, there was no question of Nigeria at that time. [But] after the conquest of Sokoto, the British were able to create the Northern Nigerian protectorate.

"Lugard went full blast and created what was to be known as the protectorate of Northern Nigeria. What is critical and important are the reasons he gave in his dispatches. He said the North was poor, they had no resources to run the protectorate, and they had no access to the sea; while the South had resources and educated people.

"The first Yoruba lawyer was called to the Bar in 1861. Therefore, because it was not the policy of the British government to bring British taxpayers' money to run the protectorate, it was in the interest of British business and the taxpayer that there should be an amalgamation. But what the British amalgamated was the administration of the North and South and not the people of the North and South. That is one of the root causes of the problems of Nigeria and Nigerians."

Akinjide's article was very detailed. He delved into history and discovered that "when the amalgamation took effect, the British government sealed off the South from the North. And between 1914 and 1960--a period of 46 years--the British allowed minimum contact between the North and South because it was not in the British interest that the North [became] polluted by the educated South.

"That was the basis on which we got our independence in 1960. When the North formed a political party, its leaders called it the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC). They didn't call it Nigeria Peoples Congress. That was in accordance with the dictum and policies of Lugard.

"When Aminu Kano formed his own party, it was called Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU), not Nigerian Progressive Union. It was only Awolowo and Zik [Azikiwe] who were mistaken that there was anything called Nigeria. In fact, the so-called Nigeria created in 1914 was a complete fraud. It was created not in the interest of Nigeria or Nigerians but in the interest of the British.

"And what were the structures created? Northern Nigeria was to represent England, Western Nigeria [to be] like Wales, Eastern Nigeria was to be like Scotland. In the British structure, England has a permanent majority in the House of Commons. There is no way Wales can ever dominate England, and neither can Scotland. But they are very shrewd. They would allow a Scottish man to become prime minister [or] a Welsh man to become prime minister in London, but the fact remains that the actual power rested [with] England.

"That was what Lugard created in Nigeria, a permanent majority for the North. The population figure of the North is also a fraud. In fact, a British colonial civil servant who was involved in the fraud tried to expose it but he was never allowed to publish it.

"The analysis is as follows: If you look at the map of West Africa, starting from Mauritania to Cameroon and take a population of each country as you move from the coast to the savannah, the population decreases. Or conversely, as you come from the desert to the coast, right from Mauritania to Cameroon, the population increases. The only exception throughout that zone is Nigeria. Nigeria is the only zone whereby you go from coast to the north [and] the population increases, and [as] you come from the north to the coast, the population decreases. Well, geographers, anthropologists, and population experts, draw your conclusions."

Lugard's take on Africans

The baffling inability of Nigerians to build a strong, viable and prosperous nation will not make sense until one understands the dynamics that made things so difficult. That Lugard was a rabid racist was never in doubt. This is what he wrote about Africans:

"In character and temperament, the typical African of this race-type is a happy, thriftless, excitable person. Lacking in self-control, discipline, and foresight. Naturally courageous, and naturally courteous and polite, full of personal vanity, with little sense of veracity, fond of music, and loving weapons as an Oriental loves jewellery.

"His thoughts are concentrated on the events and feelings of the moment, and he suffers little from the apprehension for the future or grief for the past. His mind is far nearer to the animal world than that of the European or Asiatic, and exhibits something of the animals' placidity and want of desire to rise beyond the state he has reached.

"Through the ages, the African appears to have evolved no organised religious creed, and though some tribes appear to believe in a deity, the religious sense seldom rises above pantheistic animalism and seems more often to take the form of a vague dread of the supernatural.

"He lacks the power of organisation and is conspicuously deficient in the management and control alike of men or business. He loves the display of power but fails to realise its responsibility ... He will work hard with a lesser incentive than most races. He has the courage of the fighting animal, an instinct rather than a moral virtue ...

"In brief, the virtues and defects of this race-type are those of attractive children, whose confidence when it is won is given ungrudgingly as to an older and wiser superior and without envy ... Perhaps the two traits which have impressed me as those most characteristic of the African native are his lack of apprehension and his lack of ability to visualise the future."

Award for Lugard!

Yet, at the expensive centenary celebration in Abuja--on 27 February 2014--Nigeria's current rulers mustered the courage and grace to give Lugard and his concubine posthumous awards! The Test' was not the only thing that vexed Nigerians, the decision to award 100 people national honours generated enough controversy of its own, as many prominent Nigerians rejected the awards.

Whoever compiled the Honours List did the country a great disservice. Incredibly, the list lumped illustrious names like Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Gani Fawehinmi with such types as Lugard and, please don't gasp, General Sani Abacha! How anyone could even dream of honouring Abacha, who terrorised the country in the five years that he was military head of state, is a question that left Nigerians perplexed.

Little wonder that Wole Soyinka was acerbic in rejecting the award given him: "Such abandonment of moral rigour comes full circle sooner or later," Soyinka said. "A murderer and thief of no redeeming quality known as Sani Abacha, one whose plunder is still being pursued all over the world and recovered piecemeal by international consortiums, at the behest of this same government [is the same man] which [the government] sees fit to place on the nation's Roll of Honour!

"I can think of nothing more grotesque and derisive of the lifetime struggle of several on this list, and their selfless services to humanity. It all fits. In this nation of portent readers, the coincidence should not be too difficult to decipher. I reject my share of this national insult." The families of Fela Anikulapo, MKO Abiola, and Gani Fawehinmi were among those who also rejected the awards bestowed on their noted sons.

Celebration justified

Although the centenary celebrations have their numerous critics, many Nigerians and foreigners feel that the country has a need to celebrate.

The organisers of the celebrations released a "Concept Document" which outlines the major events that will anchor the year-long celebrations. In it, they boasted: "Nigeria is a beautiful mosaic with a national identity defined by its history and contemporary culture. The arts are fundamental to our existence, drawing out the nation's soul for the world to see. Our commitment to transform Nigeria will be strengthened by a new understanding of our history, the visions of our founding fathers, our collective achievements, and the promise of the nation of our dreams."

Nigeria's last military ruler, Gen Abdulsalam Abubakar, said the celebrations were necessary: "It should be a time to rebrand, rejuvenate and pursue the true ideals for Nigeria," he said.

The secretary to the Federal Government, Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, agreed. "1 January 2014 marks 100 years of our union as a nation. There are not many nations privileged to have such longevity," he said. "Notwithstanding our struggles and challenges, this is an epoch deserving of a celebration by the Nigerian people. It offers us a unique opportunity to focus on our country, its history, people, achievements, and aspirations for the next century.

"Our story is one of admirable and remarkable progress. Nigeria attained independence, fought and survived a civil war and is currently committed to building a stable nation, with a strong economy. We are blessed with a vibrant population and our democracy is maturing. This centenary celebration presents us an opportunity to count our blessings as a nation, celebrate our dexterity and resilience as a people, and resolve to launch into the next century with renewed determination, hope and expectations."

On his part, President Goodluck Jonathan, in a 46-point address, was full of admiration and hope for the country: "One hundred years ago," he said, "the British colonial authorities amalgamated the Southern and Northern Protectorates, giving birth to the single geopolitical entity called Nigeria which has become our home, our hope, and our heritage ...

"We are a nation of the future, not of the past, and while we may have travelled for a century, we are not yet at our destination of greatness ...

"In challenging times, it is easy to become pessimistic and cynical. But hope, when grounded in realism, enables and inspires progress. Therefore, as we celebrate our first century of nationhood and enter a second, we must not lose sight of all that we have achieved since 1914 in terms of nation-building, development and progress ...

"We are a unique country. We have been brought together in a union like no other by providence ... The whole world awaits this African success story. With our sheer size, population, history, resilience, human and natural resources, and economic potential, Nigeria is divinely ordained to lead the African Renaissance ..."

The dignitaries at the celebrations included the French president, Francois Hollande, South Africa's deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, and many other heads of state from across the world. Many of them lauded Nigeria for the role it has played in the maintenance of world peace and harmony.

They gave nice speeches, but Nigerians would rather that their officials spend more time solving the country's myriad problems than celebrating a union that has brought more harm than good.
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Title Annotation:Feature: Nigeria
Author:Akomolafe, Femi
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6NIGR
Date:Apr 1, 2014
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