In the years leading to the centenary of amalgamation, there has been a lot of writing, especially on the Internet that amalgamation was an experiment to be tried for one hundred years and that legally, that experiment would end on first January 2014.
Many of the writings referred to a “well known” secret document that affirms the one hundred year validity of amalgamated Nigeria and speculated that Nigeria would indeed dissolve on that date. These stories continued although no one ever cited the document and no one I read actually said they even sighted the document. Its one of these rumour mongering activities we Nigerians are so good at.
In his perceptive story of the amalgamation, Professor J. F. A. Ajayi makes the point that what “the British may have completed is the work began by the Fulani” in carving out the administrative framework for a new nation. He however raises a caveat. The British “were not seeking to unify Nigeria.” They were traders trying to establish suitable conditions for the expansion of their trade. It was a continuation of earlier policies aimed at removing barriers to their trade.
When the Oba of Lagos tried to block British trade, they removed him in 1851 and they did the same to the King of Bonny in 1854. The underlying issue leading to colonisation was the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 when the European rivals for African resources decided that declaration of “spheres of influence” was too vague and Europeans must show “effective occupation” of territories before other European rivals have to back out. It was on that basis that the Royal Niger Company received the Royal Charter from His Majesty to occupy Nigeria.
The Royal Niger Company signed treaties on trade with a number of rulers including the Sultan and the Emirs of Bida and Gwandu but the rulers reneged when they discovered that the ultimate intentions of the British was to take over sovereignty. The decision of the British was to crush them and it was in that context that formal colonization became the new policy.
According to Professor Ajayi, the real reason for amalgamation was the railways. The British Government had decided that coastal trade was not enough and that the best strategy for expanding commerce was to penetrate the hinterland by rapidly building railways. The administrations of the Northern and Southern Protectorates were directed to build the railways. The two administrations however developed two different strategies.
The Southern Protectorate started building the railways from Lagos through Jebba to the Northern hinterland. The Northern Administration however decided to build its railways from Baro on the River Niger to Kano with the strategy of shipping goods from Baro to the Niger Delta by the river. Lugard was furious that the two Administrations were working at cross-purposes and decided that amalgamation was the best route towards a coherent trade policy.
It is important to note that colonial governance was never amalgamated. Indeed, only four elements of public administration were amalgamated – railways, telegraphs, customs and excise and the Supreme Court. All other aspects of public administration including public works, education, health, agriculture, forestry, lands and survey and local government were completely under the authority of the two Lieutenant-Governors in Kaduna and Enugu while Lagos handled the four elements that were amalgamated.
Lord Lugard, it would be recalled, had come with the zeal of Indirect Rule learnt from India and Uganda and strongly believed in the principles of divide and rule and was therefore not the person to superintend the amalgamation of colonial governance in Nigeria. There was no “mistake of 1914”, there was simply the implementation of a more effective trade policy. The amalgamation of Nigeria could not have been time bound because it was not a political project about the future of the country.
The real story therefore was that there was no amalgamation of colonial governance and Lord Lugard was very successful in implanting a political culture of divide and rule. By promoting education in the South and restricting its expansion in the Northern Emirates, the grounds were laid for differential evolution of the modern elite. Katsina College, later renamed Barewa College, was established as a school for training princes to rule the emirate, a school where students were not graded on the basis of competitive exams but on English diction and “leadership qualities”.
The result was the emergence of the Northern Peoples Congress as an ally of the colonialists. It was a party that was fundamentally opposed to the emancipation of the people and committed to the protection and promotion of privilege. That however was not the worst crime of British Colonialism. The real crime was the complicity of the Colonial Administration in blocking the passage of the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) to power when they won the first round of the elections in December 1950. They were alarmed by the NEPU’s radical agenda articulated in the Sawaba Declaration:
“That owing to the unscrupulous and vicious system of administration by the family compact rulers and which has been established and fully supported by the British imperialist government, there is today in our society an antagonism of interest, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between the members of the vicious circle of Native Administration on the one hand and the ordinary talakawa on the other hand;”
“That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the talakawa from the domination of the privileged few and by the reform of the present autocratic political institutions.”
In the South, the allies of NEPU in the Zikist Movement were marginalized in the NCNC and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was strengthened. In the West, Obafemi Awolowo routed out the Yoruba from the NCNC and established his regional hegemony.
I know it is sacrilege to criticise the first generation trio of Ahmadu Bello, Obafemi Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikiwe. The fact of the matter however is that they turned their backs at amalgamating the governance of Nigeria just as the British did. They bought into the 1939 British agenda of reinforcing regional autonomy with the division of the country into three regions. Since then, Nigerian politics has had a very strong ethno-regional character and the political class have always sought to exploit it for their political ends, leading to a disastrous civil war in 1967-70. Whenever the interests of a section of the political elite have been threatened, the response has been threats about the break-up of Nigeria.
It was the Sardauna of Sokoto who first referred to the amalgamation as “the mistake of 1914”. That was in the early 1950’s, when he flagged the secession banner, because he felt that Southern politicians were unwilling to understand the attitudes of the Northern elite towards independence. He argued that the Northern elite would not rush for independence if it meant replacing European domination with Southern domination. In 1964, following the census and election crises, Southern politicians got disenchanted with their future in Nigeria. Michael Okpara, Premier of the Eastern Region threatened that they would secede. Okpara went ahead to establish a committee under his Attorney General to work out the modalities for a declaration of secession. When Ojukwu finally decided to embark on the course of secession three years later, he had ready-made plan waiting for him.
Calls for secession were also being expressed within the Regions themselves. In February 1964, Isaac Sha’ahu of the UMBC declared in the Northern House of Assembly that the Tiv people felt unwanted and threatened “To pull out of the North and the Federation as a whole. We shall be a sovereign state”, he affirmed. The transition from threats to an actual attempt at secession was made on 23rd February 1966 when Isaac Boro decided that he was not ready to live in a Nigeria that was ruled by Igbos. He therefore declared the Independence of the Niger Delta Peoples Republic following the first coup. Finally, just before the war, Western leaders had warned that if the East goes, the West would follow. After successive failures by Awolowo to rule Nigeria, Bisi Onabanjo declared on first October 1983 that: “the time has come to consider a confederation, by which I mean a federation of autonomous states”. The British did not really amalgamate Nigeria but our political class have not been very different.
Dr. Ibrahim, a public intellectual and former Chief Executive of the Centre for Democracy and Development, CDD, is now a consultant in Abuja