By Ali Mazrui
Ali Mazrui, Africa’s most famous political scientist, dissects the history of Nigeria to make comparative statements.
The cohesion of the United States as one country rests on the roles of two personalities – George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Paradoxically, the survival of Nigeria as one country also rests on two personalities’ Lord Lugard and General Yakubu Gowon. George Washington was a rebel against British rule, but laid the foundation of post-colonial American unification. Lord Lugard was a representative of the British colonial order, but served the destiny of amalgamating Northern and Southern Nigeria into one country in 1914. This event launched Mega-Nigeria, an enlargement of political scale.
When George Washington’s achievement was threatened by separatism and secession in the 1860s, Abraham Lincoln came to the rescue and saved the Union. When Lord Lugard’s amalgamation of North South was threatened by separatism and secession in the 1960s, Yakubu Gowon came to the rescue and helped to save the Union and to preserve Mega-Nigeria.
From World War 1 to The Biafra War
The year 2004 has marked the 90th anniversary of the amalgamation of Northern Nigeria with Southern. In 1914 Lord Lugard, the British Administrator, had unified what could have been two separate countries each destined to have at least 50 million people by the end of the 20th century. It is an open question which of the two halves of the country would finally have retained Nigeria as its name.
But because Lugard amalgamated the two halves into one entity, Nigeria developed into a country of 120 million people by the beginning of this new millennium.
It is a surprise of historic proportions that the amalgamation has survived these ninety years. It has survived the vagaries of differentiated colonial policies when the North was governed differently from the South.
Nigeria’s amalgamation has survived Northern separatism after World War II when Northern Nigeria wanted to attain independence as a separate country from the South. Kwame Nkrumah, the Ghanaian leader, described Northern separatism at that time as a form of “Pakistanism” with the goal of religiously inspired partition. Yakubu Gowon was at the time a mere child and a Christian and was not involved in Muslim separatism.
Nigeria’s amalgamation survived Eastern separatism in the first decade of independence when the Eastern region attempted to invent Biafra and helped to unleash a civil war from 1967 to 1970. On this occasion, Yakubu Gowon was called upon to play his supreme historical role, the role of saving the Union of a singular Mega-Nigeria.
As Governor-General of Nigeria during the period of World War 1, Lord Lugard has contradictory effects on the future of Nigeria’s unity. Lugard was the architect of Nigeria’s national amalgamation, but his policies were detrimental of Nigeria’s national integration. Amalgamation broadened the national boundaries and merged north and south into one country. National integration was supposed to be the process by which ethnic and religious division would be softened or ameliorated as the people acquired a sense of shared citizenship and national consciousness.
Lord Lugard virtually invented the British policy of Indirect Rule in Africa, which attempted to govern Africans through their own “native authorities”. Indirect rule was particularly successful in Nigeria, leaving the Emirates of the north especially strong. As a colonial policy which respected indigenous institutions, Indirect Rule was more humane than the assimilation policies pursued by France and Portugal.
But by helping to preserve indigenous cultures and native institutions, Indirect Rule also helped to sustain “tribal identities” in Nigeria, and thus made national integration more difficult. It might, therefore, be said that while Lord Lugard was a hero of national amalgamation, he was inadvertently an adversary of national integration.
At independence amalgamation had given Nigeria an ethnically mixed single national army. But inadequate national integration had made ethnic consciousness a little too strong within the armed forces. Amalgamation had made the Nigeria army strong enough to control both halves of the country, North and South. But ethnic divisions within the armed forces turned Nigeria’s first military coup in January 1966 into an ethnic bloodbath (essentially in favour of the Igbo). The counter-coup which followed a few months later deepened the ethnic and regional divide. The country remained amalgamated, but not adequately integrated.
Onto this stressful national stage stepped young Yakubu Gowon, then in his early thirties. His twin tasks were first to prevent the break-up of Nigeria’s amalgamation and, secondly, to try to promote greater national integration.
A major set-back to both ambitions was the anti-Igbo pogrom which broke out in northern Nigeria in October 1966, killing many people and triggering off large-scale migration of the Igbo back to the Eastern region. Igbo separatism entered a new phase. The breakup of Nigeria’s amalgamation was ominously on the horizon.
One solution was a looser federation, what was described as confederation at the Aburi meeting in Ghana between Yakubu Gowon and the Igbo leader, Colonel Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. Gowon failed to persuade Ojukwu to drop his secessionist aspirations. Ojukwu declared the separation of Baifra from Nigeria. Ojukwu hoped that the Yoruba of the Western region would join him and also secede, thus ending the legacy of 1914.
General Gowon made a shrewd and brilliant move. He abolished the old regions of Nigeria and divided the country into twelve new states. This help to diffuse fear of Northern domination among the Yoruba and other groups, and encouraged Eastern minorities to turn against Igbo leadership and pray for a Federal victory.
Weakening the original political regions of post-colonial Nigeria helped the cause of national integration. But what about saving the Union which had been created in 1914? General Gowon succeeded in keeping the Yoruba and other group within the Nigerian Federation. By July 1967 Gowon was ready to declare “police action” to stop the secession.
But Yakubu Gowon was constantly aware that saving the territorial integrity of Nigeria was useless without simultaneously pursuing the national integration of its people. He was emphatic about a “code of conduct” and sensitive rules of engagement. He insisted that the so-called Biafrans should not be called “enemies”, but should be regarded as fellow Nigerians who needed to be won back into the national fold. He was a benign war leader who was against the so-called ‘quick kill’. He could have made the illegal night-flying to Biafra dangerous for the aircraft. But for almost a year and a half he shut a blind eye to these night-flights of relief supplies to Biafra.
Yakubu Gowon had triumphed in saving the Union, but he still needed to promote greater national integration. His leadership helped to avert another anti-Igbo bloodbath in the wake of Biafra’s defeat. He permitted mercy missions to be rushed to the former Biafra. Within a single year the agonies of widespread disease and starvation were reversed in the Eastern region.
On the tenth anniversary of Nigeria’s independence he declared plans for new elections, a new constitution and a new population census. He said military rule would be needed until 1976. He wanted time to consolidate civil reconstruction as part of the process of national integration. He later made the mistake of asking for even more time at a moment in history when the country was impatient or a return to civilian rule. His fellow soldiers, led by Murtala Muhammad, overthrew him in July 1975.
Like Abraham Lincoln, Yakubu Gowon has saved the Union of his country. Like Lincoln, Gowon’s tenure of office was ended by force. But while Lincoln was assassinated, Yakubu Gowon went into exile for a least a decade.
Our main focus in this paper is, of course, Nigeria rather than the United States, but the hope to conclude with a discussion of whether Nigeria is a future African equivalent of the United States, and whether Yakubu Gowon is Africa’s equivalent of Abraham Lincoln.
Between Exceptionalism and Typicality
There are indeed certain attributes which make Nigeria strikingly unique in Africa – setting it apart in configuration from all other African Countries. This aspect might be called Nigeria’s exceptionalism. Many of those attributes are a consequence of the policies of Lord Lugard, on one side, and General Gowon, on the other.
There are other attributes, however, which make Nigeria a mirror of the African experience as a whole, making Nigeria a good illustration of what the whole of Africa is all about. This side of Nigeria might be called Nigeria’s typicality. Some particular ups and-downs of the country may be typical of the entire continent. To understand Nigeria is to comprehend this dialectic between the exceptionalism of Nigeria in the African configuration and the typicality of Nigeria as a mirror of the continent.
The exceptionalism of Nigeria includes of course the huge size of its population in relation to its neighbours. It is by far the most populous country in Africa. This is a central aspect of the 1914 amalgamation. The next country in size on the African continent is Egypt, and yet Egypt is only a little more than half of Nigeria’s population.
When ECOWAS was formed in 1975 upon the initiative of Nigeria and Togo, its population comprised 150 million people in sixteen countries; more than half of that total population were Nigerians. The Gross National Product of ECOWAS in 1975 was $85 billion U.S. dollars, the bulk of that came from Nigeria. General Yakubu Gowon was a major architect of this ambitious African regional organisation. He was strengthened by the legacy of enlargement from 1914.
Nigeria’s exceptionalism also includes the combination of immense human resources (youthful and potentially gifted population) with immense natural resources (led by oil and gas). In 1914, Lord Lugard knew about Nigeria’s palm oil. Nigeria’s other oil, petroleum, had yet to reveal itself.
Towards A Pax Nigerian
Almost from independence Nigeria’s exceptionalism included a potential leadership role to hope keep the peace in West Africa, a kind of Pax Nigeriana. For better or for worse, Nigeria’s regional rival in this peace-keeping role has not been another West African Country. It has in fact been France. It has been France, combined with Nigeria’s own internal problems, which have prevented Pax Nigeriana from fulfilling its regional mission to the full.
Opinion is divided within France in this new millennium as to whether to continue Paris’s historic role in Africa or whether to find a new mission for French destiny in the newly emerging countries of Eastern and Central Europe. If France is beginning to withdraw from African (as the devaluation of the C.F.A. franc portended) the so-called regional “vacuum” left behind is likely to be increasingly filled by Pax Nigeriana.
On the evidence so far, Pax Nigeriana, keeping the peace in West Africa under Nigeria’s auspices is better fulfilled when Nigeria is under military rule than when it is under the politicians. The most spectacular exercises in Pax Nigeriana occurred in the 1990s when Nigeria led the forces of ECOWAS (the ECOMOG troops) into Liberia first to restore peace and then to help re-start electoral democracy. The final result was elections in Liberia in 1997, which returned Charles Taylor to power for a while.
In 1998, Nigeria more unilaterally took on the army in Sierra Leone, which had overthrown the elected government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. Nigeria reversed the military takeover and restored the constitutionally elected government. But what had made it possible for Nigeria to play this role of “Big Brother” in West Africa? Mega-Nigeria’s enlargement of scale went straight back to the unification of 1914 and to the preservation of the Nigerian Union under the leadership of Yakubu Gowon.
For most of the 1990s Nigeria paradoxically became a force for democracy abroad but remained a dictatorship at home. Nigerian forces helped to restore relative freedom to the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone, but the Nigeria forces were slow to extend freedom to the Nigerian people at home.
This does not mean that Nigeria should not have helped to re-democratize Liberia and Sierra Leone. General Sani Abacha’s regional role was one of the positive aspects of Pax Nigeriana. But doing good abroad is no excuse for not doing better at home. Fortunately, there were indications that the military government after Abacha wanted an honorable way towards re-civilization. The last elections of the end of the 20th century brought a former soldier to head the new democracy’ General Olusegun Obasanjo.
It is arguable that one of the first exercises of Pax Nigeriana occurred in Tanzania in1964. Army mutinies in Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika had forced the three governments to invite British troops to return to East Africa and disarm their own mutinous soldiers.
President Julius K. Nyerere understandably disbanded the whole mutinous army once order was restored. But who was going to keep the peace in a Tanganyika without an army? Julius Nyerere called upon fraternal troops from Nigeria to fill the vacuum while Nyerere set about creating an alternate indigenous security force. It is arguable that the beginnings of Pax Nigeriana lie in a voluntary partnership between Nigeria and what later became Tanzania. Nigerians helped Tanzanians keep the peace in their own country in 1964. Ironically, this marked the 50th anniversary of the amalgamation of Nigeria into one country.
Nigerian Politics: Between the Sublime and the Theatrical
Perhaps it is also part of Nigeria’s exceptionalism that it has not just one pivotal ethnic group in a national configuration but three. Uganda has one pivotal group, the Baganda. Kenya has in reality two outstanding pivotal groups – the Luo and Kikuyu. Senegal’s outstanding pivotal group is the Wolof.
Is Nigeria exceptional in having three very large pivot ethnic groups, each with a dazzling record of achievement? Nigeria would not have had such a triad of vanguard ethnic groups if the 1914 amalgamation had not occurred, and if it had not been preserved by Yakubu Gowon”s government.
The Hausa are by far the largest linguistic group not only in Nigeria but in West Africa as a whole. Within Nigeria itself the Hausa also have a long record of skill of governance from pre-colonial days, right through colonialism until postcolonial days. The Yoruba have in many ways the most complex indigenous culture of them all. The Yoruba impact on global Africa and the rest of the Black world is less about the Yoruba language and more about the Yoruba religion and culture. Yoruba religious rites are to be witnessed in countries as diverse as Brazil, Jamaica, Haiti, Suriname, Nigeria, Dahomey (now Republic of Benin) and the United States.
The Igbo were the great technologists of Nigeria in the second half of the twentieth century. Their triumph in economic skills in Northern Nigeria in the 1950s and 1960s contributed to their vulnerability as a people in 1966. During the Nigerian Civil war the Igbo’s innovativeness also produced Africa’s first locally made gun-vehicles.
During the Civil War the Igbo displayed levels of innovative daring unknown in post-colonial African History. The Igbo created rough-and-ready armed militarized vehicles as well as the beginnings of African’s industrial revolution. This renaissance was aborted by the oil bonanza from the 1970s onward.
During the Biafra War Nigeria was more internally innovative than externally prosperous. The Nigerian Civil War produced some of the high points of Nigeria’s experience with technological innovation. The Nigerian oil bonanza after the 1973 OPEC price escalation created disincentives to Nigerian enterprise.
War had brought out both the best and the worst of Nigeria in human terms. But technologically the power of spilt blood in Nigeria produced greater innovation than the power of sprouting petroleum. The pain of Biafra was technologically more fruitful than the profit of OPEC. While Commander-in-Chief, Yakubu Gowon, was mobilizing the Federal forces, Colonel Emeka Ojukwu was inspiring and motivating Igbo innovation.
Nigeria’s exceptionalism in 1998 included the extraordinary phenomenon of five political parties choosing the same man as their Presidential candidate, Sani Abacha, even when Abacha was not even a member of any of these parties. This was unprecedented anywhere in the world. At one level this showed political opportunism at its most glaring, and was not a credit to the complex size of Nigeria. But at another level this could have been a defensible constitutional experiment if it had been presented as such.
When Africa had one-party states (as in Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania and the Ivory Coast), the real choice for voters involved elections to the legislature. The choice of the Head of State was never in doubt in those African on-party states. The legislative choice was between individual candidates within the same party.
What Nigeria might have evolved in 1998 was a system a little more pluralistic than the one-party state but a little less pluralistic than a system of full-blown electoral competition at all levels. At the presidential level, the people of Nigeria would have no more choice than the electorates of Africa’s one-party states had before the 1990s. But at the level of legislative elections the people of Nigeria could choose between parties and not simply between individuals.
At least theoretically the people of Nigeria would have had more choice in 1998 than the people of one-party Kenya had before 1992. However, the Nigerian voter was not impressed. And Abacha did not live long enough to be the Head of five political parties.
Let us now shift from Nigeria’s exceptionalism, its uniqueness, to Nigeria’s typicality in the African context.
Ideologies: the Cultural and the Economic
Nigeria’s typicality includes the fact that Nigerians are more strongly moved by socio-cultural ideologies than by socio-economic ideologies. Socio-cultural ideologies appeal to such cultural forces as ethnicity, religion, nationalism, race-consciousness and regional allegiance.
Socio-economic ideologies try to appeal to such economic interest at class, economic equity, trade union right and the like. Marxism, Ujamaa and most other forms of socialism are socio-economic ideologies. Ethnicity, nationalism and regional allegiance are socio-cultural ideologies.
In Nigeria, as in most other parts of Africa, ethno-cultural ideologies are much stronger than ethno-economic ones. My favorite Nigerian example was Obafemi Awolowo’s effort to move Nigeria a little to the left. When he looked to see who was following him, it was not the dispossessed of all ethnic groups in Nigeria who followed; it was his fellow Yoruba of all social classes and levels of income.
My favorite Kenyan example was Oginga Odinga’s modest attempt to move Kenyans a little to the left. When Oginga looked to see who was following him, once again it was not the dispossessed of Kenya of all ethnic groups. It was his fellow Luo of all social classes and levels of income.
Africa is a continent of surplus passion but deficit power. Nigerians as Africans feel strongly about many aspirations. In the controversial words of a very distinguished African philosopher president, a king of philosopher kings, Leopold Senghor of Senegal: “Emotion Is Black, Reason Is Greek.”
Nigeria is typical of Africans also because of the swings between tyranny (too much government) and anarchy (too little government). When under military rule, Nigeria leans towards tyranny (too much government), when under civilian administration, Nigeria leans towards anarchy (too little government).
In spite of the fact the country was at war from 1967 to 1970, military rule under Yakubu Gowon was more benign than military rule either before the Gowon regime or subsequent to it.
Nigeria’s triple heritage is a convergence of indigenous African values, Islamic culture, and the impact of the West (both secular and Christian). In one sense, this convergence of the three legacies is part of Nigeria’s typicality.
But Nigeria is exceptional in having those three civilizations (Africanity, Islam and the West) almost equal in power. Can we measure political development by the yardstick of declining scale of political violence? Let us try with Nigeria. The first two decades of Nigeria’s independence were the age of regicide and primary violence. The killing of the King or Head Executive as a trend as regicide. Of the eight supreme leaders of Nigeria in the first 20 years, four has been assassinated.
The eight supreme leaders were Azikwe, Balewa, Ahmadu Bello, Ironsi, Gowon, Murtala, Obansanjo and Shagari. The 50% who were assassinated were of course Balewa, Ahmadu Bello, Ironsi and Murtala Muhammed. Regicide was at a 50% rate, a high rate indeed. Ahmadu Bello was technically a regional leader but with immense federal and national power. In all, three Northern leaders were killed, as compared with one Southern.
The next 20 years of Nigeria’s independence (1980 to the year 2000) were to be of militarism and constitutional experimentation. These were the last years of Shagari, those of Buhari, those of Babangida and his immediate successors, and the emergence of Sani Abacha. The most promising experiment was the Babangida transition, which collapsed ignominiously with the aborted election of June 1993. The transition would apparently have bought M.K.O Abiola into power. It would have been a remarkable stage in the electoral amalgamation of the two halves of Nigeria. For the first time a Southern Muslim would have presided over Nigeria. Under Abacha the years of militarism and constitutional experimentation could have continued, on the other hand, with a new concept of presidential recycling from military ruler to elected Head of State.
If Abacha had lived and run for the Presidency, he would have been partially following the precedent of Jerry Rawlings who captured power twice by the barrel of gun and later gained legitimacy through the ballot box and electoral process. But Abacha died in June 1998 before the scenario could be attempted in Nigeria. The experiment in North South amalgamation was inconclusive and was still subject to ups and downs.
This speech was given in November, 2014.
Professor Ali Mazrui was the Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies and The Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities, State University of New York at Binghamton. He is the author of over twenty five books, including Towards A Pax Africana. He was author and narrator of the acclaimed nine-part television series, The Africans: A Triple Heritage. He is also a senior scholar in African Studies at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, the A. D. White Professor-At-Large Emeritus at Cornell University, the Albert Luthuli Professor-At-Large, University of Jos, Nigeria, and Chair, Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, Washington, D. C. USA.
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