The land mass known today as Nigeria existed as a number of independent and sometimes hostile national states with linguistic and cultural differences until 1900.
The Governor General of Nigeria between 1920 – 31 , Sir Hugh Clifford, described Nigeria as “a collection of independent Native States, separated from one another by great distances, by differences of history and traditions and by ethnological, racial, tribal, political, social and religious barriers.”
(Nigeria Council Debate. Lagos, 1920). The building of Nigeria as a multi – national state began in 1900 with the creation of Northern and Southern Protectorates along with the colony of Lagos by the British government. Further effort at unification and integration was made in May 1906 when the colony of Lagos and the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria, which had existed separately, were amalgamated to become the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria.
Even then the Northern and the Southern Administration were separate and distinct. Both were independent of one another and each was directly responsible to the Colonial Office. The first momentous act of the British in the political evolution of Nigeria as a modern state was the amalgamation of the administration of the two sections of Nigeria on 1 January 1914 by Lord Lugard. For ease of governing and in the economic interest of the British, indirect rule and separate development policy were maintained in the two sections of the country, with the amalgamated administration based in Lagos. This, in effect produced two Nigerias, each with different social, political, economic, and cultural backgrounds and development within the country.
No further constitutional development took place until 1922. The 1922 constitution made provision, for the first time, for elected members to sit on a Nigerian legislative council, but did not empower them to make laws for the North. Nigeria was divided into four administrative units in 1940; the colony of Lagos, the Northern, Eastern and Western provinces. This administrative divisions, with increased power for the colony and the provinces, was not only maintained but separateness was also strengthened and deepened by Sir Arthur Richardson’s constitution of 1946 which inaugurated Nigeria’s regionalism. It however achieved a half – hearted political breakthrough by integrating the North with the South at the legislative level for the first time.
The post second World War political awareness and upsurge of nationalism in Africa brought about the Richardson’s constitution of 1950. Political parties were formed on regional and ethnic basis. The outcome of this was obvious: full scale regionalism. With the Macpherson’s constitution of 1951, a greater measure of autonomy was granted the regions with stronger regional legislatures. With only residual power left to the central government, Nigeria politically took a turn for the worse, and there was a possibility of three countries emerging out of Nigeria.
In 1953, the central cabinet was split over the acceptance of a target date for securing self – government with the end result of the Kano riot. The gap between the regions widened. For the first time the North talked openly of the possibility of secession rather than endure what they saw as humiliation and ill – treatment. The West also threatened to secede over the non – inclusion of Lagos in the West in the new constitution. The 1954 constitution confirmed and formalized the wishes of Nigerian leaders to move and remain as far apart as they possibly could. The choice between Unitary and Federal options in the form of government had been irrevocably made. The leaders settled for Federal option. Thereafter things happened fast in the political arena. There were constitutional conferences in 1957, 1958, 1959 and in 1960 culminating in the granting of independence to Nigeria on October 1, 1960.
It should be noted that from 1954 onwards, the political direction was constantly away from a strong center towards a formidable, almost insulation of the regional base of each major political party. The failure of the Willink commission to recommend the creation of more states in 1958 for the Nigerian type of federalism planted the most potent seed of instability into the evolution of Nigeria as a nation in the 1950s. All the political leaders who had strong and firm political bases in the regions fought hard for maximum powers for the regions which weakened the center. At the same time, the ugly embers of tribalism and sectionalism had been fanned into a deadly flame by all the political leaders. These leaders rode on the crest of this cancerous tribalism and ignorance of the people to power, at the expense of national unity and the nation.
Instead of regionalism ensuring and preserving national unity, it became its bane. There were diffusion instead of fusion of the three units. According to Gen. Obasanjo: “The only point on which Nigerian political leaders spoke with one voice was the granting by the British of political independence – and even then they did not agree on the timing.” (5:3) With granting of independence in 1960, all the dirt, swept under the carpet, surfaced. Nigeria was now beset by strings of political problems which stemmed from the lop-sided nature of the political divisions of the country and the type of the existing federal constitution, and the spirit in which it operated.
The first post independence disturbance was over the defense agreement between Great Britain and Nigeria, which was seen as “an attempt (by Britain) to swindle Nigeria out of her sovereignty”, by contracting with Nigeria to afford each other such assistance as may be necessary for mutual defense and to consult together on measures to be taken jointly or separately to ensure the fullest cooperation between them for this purpose. It was viewed an unequal treaty. Through student demonstrations and vehement opposition by the general public and members of the Federal House of Representatives, the agreement was abrogated in December 1962.
This episode was nothing compared with later developments in the country’s turbulent political history. The general census conducted in 1962 was alleged to be riddled with malpractices and inflation of figures of such astronomical proportions that the Eastern Region refused to accept the result. A second census was carried out in 1963, and even then the figures were accepted with some reservations. Meanwhile the people of the Middle Belt area of the North had grown increasingly intolerant of the NPC rule of the North. The Tiv, one of the major tribes in the Middle Belt, openly rioted for almost three years (1962 – 1965). Then came the biggest crisis of them all – the general election of 1964. The election was alleged to be neither free nor fair. All devices imaginable were said to have been used by the ruling parties in the regions to eliminate opponents.
The Chairman of the Electoral Commission himself admitted there were proven irregularities. The President, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe refused to appoint a Prime Minister in the light of these allegations. The President and the incumbent Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, were each seeking the support of the Armed Forces. This marked the first involvement of the Armed Forces in partisan politics. For four anxious days, the nation waited until the President announced that he had appointed the incumbent Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, to form a broad based government. The same could not be said of the Western Region election of 1965. The rigging and irregularities in the election were alleged to be more brazen and more shameful. Law and order broke down completely leading to an almost complete state of anarchy. Arson and indiscriminate killings were committed by a private army of thugs of political parties. Law abiding citizens lived in constant fear of their lives and properties.
This was the state of affairs when the coup of 15 January 1966 took place. “As an immediate cause, it might be claimed that the explosion of that day could be traced back along the powder trail to the fuse lit at the time of the Western Region election of October 1965.” (5:6) The aim of the coup was to establish a strong, unified and prosperous nation, free from corruption and internal strife. The outcome of the half-hearted and ill-fated coup was a change of political balance in the country. Major Nzeogwu’s (the leader of the coup) aims for the coup was not borne out of its method, style and results. All the politicians and senior military officers killed were from the North and Western Region except a political leader and a senior Army officer from the Mid – West and the East respectively.
The coup hastened the collapse of Nigeria. “The Federation was sick at birth and by January 1966, the sick, bedridden babe collapsed.” (1:210) From independence to January 1966, the country had been in a serious turmoil; but the coup put her in an even greater situation. Most of the coup planners were of Eastern origin, thus the Northerners in particular saw it as a deliberate plan to eliminate the political heavy weights in the North in order to pave way for the Easterners to take over the leadership role from them. The sky high praises of the coup and apparent relief given by it in the south came to a sudden end when the succeeding Military Government of Maj Gen. J.T.U. Aguiyi Ironsi, an Easterner, unfolded its plans. If Ironsi had displayed a greater sensitivity to the thinking of the Northerners, he could have capitalized on the relief that immediately followed the coup.
But in addition to his failure to take advantage of the initial favorable reaction to the coup, he did not know what to do with the ring leaders who had been arrested. He did not know whether to treat them as heroes of the revolution or send them before a court martial as mutineers and murderers. Military Governors were appointed to oversee the administration of the regions. In the North the numbed favorable reaction in certain quarters turned to studied silence and a “wait and see” attitude. This gradually changed to resentment, culminating in the May 1966 riots throughout the North during which most Easterners residing in the North were attacked and killed.
A counter coup was staged by the Northern military officers on 29 July 1966 with two aims: revenge on the East, and a break up of the country. But the wise counsel of dedicated Nigerians, interested and well-disposed foreigners prevailed. The Head of State, Maj. Gen Aguiyi Ironsi and many other senior officers of Eastern origin were killed. After three anxious days of fear, doubts and non-government, Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, at the time the most senior officer of Northern origin and then the Chief of Staff, Nigerian Army, emerged as the new Nigerian political leader. The lack of planning and the revengeful intentions of the second coup manifested itself in the chaos, confusion and the scale of unnecessary killings of the Easterners throughout the country. Even the authors of the coup could not stem the general lawlessness and disorder, the senseless looting and killing which spread through the North like wild fire on 29 September 1966.
Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, the then Head of State, in a broadcast to the people of the North in September said; “I receive complaints daily that up till now Easterners living in the North are being killed and molested and their property looted. It appears that it is going beyond reason and is now at a point of recklessness and irresponsibility.” (3:9) Before then, in an effort to stop the killings and to preserve the nation in one form or the other, an ad hoc conference of the representatives of the regions was called on 9 August 1966 in Lagos. The meeting made the following recommendations:
1. Immediate steps should be taken to post military personnel to barracks within their respective regions of origin.
2. A meeting of this committee or an enlarged body should take place to recommend in a broad outline the form of political
association which the country should adopt in the future
3. Immediate steps should be taken to nullify or modify any provisions of any decree which assumes extreme centralization.
4. The Supreme Commander should make conditions suitable for a meeting of the Supreme Military Council urgently as a further means of lowering tension.
The first recommendation was implemented on 13 August 1966. Troops of Eastern Nigeria origin serving elsewhere in the country were officially and formally released and posted to Enugu, the capital of Eastern Region, while troops of non-Eastern origin in Enugu moved to Kaduna and Lagos. This marked the beginning of division and disunity within the rank and file of the Nigerian Armed Forces. “This simple and seemingly innocuous action broke the last thread and split the last institution symbolizing Nigeria’s nationhood and cohesion which had been regularly tampered with by the politicians since 1962. The rift between the Eastern Region and the rest of the country was total.” (5:8) Most of the civilian of Eastern Region origin who had never lived in the East and would have continued to live elsewhere in the country lost confidence and moved to the East. Some of them when they arrived at their destination became refugees in their own country
None of the other recommendations was fully implemented except nullification of the unification decree. The implementation of the recommendation with regards to the posting of troops to barracks within their region of origin was relentlessly pursued by the political leaders of Western Region after the exercise had been completed in the Eastern Region. They were afraid of the so – alled Northern troops domination and probably of the safety of the troops of Western Region origin.
With the troops of Eastern Region back in Enugu and the non-Eastern troops withdrawn from there, with Nigerians of non-Eastern origin driven out of the East in their own interest, and with Easterners at home and abroad returning home with news of Nigerian’s brutality against them, and with the oil flowing in the Eastern Region, the way was now open for the implementation of the secession. The East and the North began a virulent of words through their radios and newspapers. Early in 1967, a peace negotiating meeting of the Supreme Military Council of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Eastern Region Military Governor, Lt. Col. Ojukwu was called under the auspices of Gen. Ankrah of Ghana in Aburi, Ghana. As it turned out, all the other members of the council except Ojukwu were either too thrusting, too naive or too ill – prepared for the meeting. Therefore Ojukwu scored a vital goal in his ambition.
Walter Schwarz remarked : “Ojukwu got his way with little effort, by being the cleverest. He was the only one who understood the issue. Step by step the others came to acquiesce in the logic of Ojukwu’s basic thesis – that to stay together at all, the regions had first to draw apart. Only Ojukwu understood that this meant, in effect, a sovereign Biafra (Eastern Region) and the end of the Federation.” (6:18) Different versions of what happened in Aburi were released by Ojukwu in the East and by the Federal Military Government in Lagos. Ojukwu accused the Federal Government of bad faith and going back on promises. The Federal Government accused Ojukwu of distortion and half truths. After several meetings amongst the Federal and Regional officials, what amounted to the demise of the Federation was promulgated in decree No. 8 of 17 March 1967 in a desperate effort to implement the Aburi decisions and to avoid further stalemate and possible civil war. Not surprisingly, Ojukwu completely rejected Decree No. 8 as falling short of full implementation of Aburi decisions. The die was cast. All efforts to intervene by eminent Nigerians and well – wishers to Nigeria like Gen. Ankrah, late Emperor Hallie Selassie of Ethiopia and the late Dr Martin Luther King proved abortive.
The flurry of conciliatory meetings achieved nothing. Gen. Obasanjo remarked: “Ojukwu was adamant, obstinate and obdurate. He refused to attend the Supreme Military Government meeting called in March in Benin city, Nigeria to discuss outstanding issues and deliberate on the budget for the coming fiscal year. If he could not achieve his long cherished ambition of ruling an independent Nigeria, he could break it up and rule an independent and sovereign “Biafra.” Nothing could stop him.” (5:10) As early as 7 June 1966, after the May incident in the North, Ojukwu was quoted as saying: We are finished with the Federation. It is all a question of time.” (5:11)
Ojukwu seized the Federal Government property and funds in the East. He planned the hijacking of a National commercial aircraft Fokker 27 on a schedule flight from Benin to Lagos. All these and other signs and reports convinced the Federal Military Government of Ojukwu’s intention to secede. Lt Col. Yakubu Gowon, the Head of Federal Government, imposed a total blockade of the East. It was realized that more stringent action had to be taken to weaken support for Ojukwu and to forestall his secession bid. Short of military action at that time, creation of States by decree was the only weapon ready to hand. The initial plan was to create States in the Eastern Region only. Such action was considered impolitic and fraught with danger. Eventually 12 States were created throughout the country on 27 May 1967.
The Eastern Region was divided into three states. The reaction from Enugu was sharp and quick: the declaration of Eastern Nigeria as the independent sovereign state of “Biafra” on 30 May 1967. The month of June was used by both sides to prepare for war. Each side increased its military arsenal and moved troops to the border watching and waiting until the crack of the first bullet at the dawn of 6 July 1967 from the Federal side. The war had started and the dawn of a new history of Nigeria.