Ahmadu Bello, Obafemi Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikiwe with the British colonial master after they left in 1960

The British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Paul Arkwright, recently sought to deny the grievous harm his country wrought by the amalgamation of 1914. It won’t wash.   The unpalatable results of the fraudulent, unjust and forceful grouping of the diverse nationalities and states into an unwieldy state are all too visible, even 103 years later. History cannot be re-written; Britain bears a major responsibility for the mess that Nigeria is today.

At first glance, Arkwright’s postulation that the colonial power departed 53 years ago, adequate time for Nigerians to forge a viable, prosperous country has some merit. But look closer at the arrangements, the chicanery and the fraudulent foundation of the federation she bequeathed to a narrow ruling class, it is obvious that the dice was loaded heavily against the artificial state created.  There have been brief, sporadic periods of progress, but the booby traps erected by the cynical, manipulative colonial officials at departure have acted as debilitating breaks on the Nigerian vehicle.

Arkwright attempted to gloss over Britain’s role in an interview published by the Vanguard.   Hear him; “1914 is a rather long time ago and it’s a bit too convenient to blame the British for anything that happened over 100 years ago.” He was wrong.

The amalgamation of 1914 created an edifice, constructed on a foundation of selfish imperialism, fraud and cynical manipulation; it can hardly deliver sustainable stability and development. And Arkwright knows this. History teaches us that decisions taken today could continue to shape and influence local, national and global affairs well into the future; and the global arena is replete with examples. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies articulates the global consensus that the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 by which Britain and France, with the assent of Russia, redrew the political borders of the Middle East, accounts for the region’s perpetual instability.

Prior to the 1914 amalgamation too, there was no country called Nigeria just as there was no Yugoslavia until 1918. Instead, a hotchpotch of diverse kingdoms, emirates, chiefdoms and states and over 250 languages, many of which had never had mutual contact, were grouped together irrespective of their widely divergent cultures, faiths and socio-political systems. 

Lord Lugard and Mrs Flora Shaw

Faced with this alphabet soup, the rational thing to have been done was to devise suitable constitutional arrangements that would ensure its durability. Rather, the colonialist, through a series of devious manoeuvres, was determined to weaken the various nationalities and confer perpetual advantages on a tiny feudal class that was also the least prepared for the challenges of modern governance. It rejected the sensible suggestion of more regions and ethnic affinity, enthroning perpetual majority of the North over the South.

The forced union of nationalities that had never lived as one entity was bad enough, but Britain worsened Nigeria’s case in what Henry Bretton labelled “one of the greatest acts of gerrymandering in history” by arranging “a bedevilling imbalance between Northern and Southern Nigeria with the former encompassing 75 per cent of the land and 60 per cent of the population…”, according to constitutional law professor, Ben Nwabueze.

In his various well-researched books, the late statesman, Olaniwun Ajayi, published documents detailing how colonial officials bent all the rules and conspired in the 1950s, to entrust leadership of the emerging Nigeria to a region, whose leader, Tafawa Balewa, confessed, had only two university graduates and four per cent literacy compared to fast growing educated intelligentsia in the South. All efforts to make the Colonial Office do the rational thing of breaking up the giant North and creating additional regions as articulated by Obafemi Awolowo in his books and by the Western and Eastern regions’ delegations were rebuffed.

Britain went further to restrict missionary and education activities in the North in order to help the emirs and chiefs maintain a hold on their people and prevent the liberalising influence of modern knowledge. Britain ensured that the least intellectually endowed faction of the elite would hold the reins of power.

De-classified documents also show that colonial officials rigged the censuses of 1931 and 1953, while a former colonial official, Harold Smith, alleged how the British hatched a secret operation to influence the 1959 elections in favour of the dominant Northern party. The culture of rigging census and elections was, therefore, planted by Arkwright’s forebears. Furthermore, while Lagos and the Southern provinces were exposed to limited parliamentary practice and self-government from 1922, Northerners were not, until the late 1950s, being allowed to keep their feudal practices; yet, they were saddled with running a large, complex federation with such limited experience, knowledge and pool of educated human capital.

The lessons of history are glaring: artificial states are handicapped except when brought together through shared experiences, long periods of co-habitation and the exercise of the free will of their diverse nationalities to unite. The Germanic, French and Italian ethnic nationalities of Switzerland have a shared history and co-habitation dating to the medieval era and sealed in the formation of the Swiss Confederacy in the 13th century.

Arkwright and his employers know that the chickens the communists hatched by the forced migrations and transplanting of ethnic nationalities in the defunct Soviet Union have come home to roost in violent separatist movements today such as in South Ossetia, Abhkazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and in Donbas, threatening the cohesion of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine. The root of the Northern Ireland crisis was sown by decisions taken centuries ago.  

However, we agree that Nigeria should creatively sort out its problems, not by Arkwright’s call for collective amnesia or by mutual antagonism, but by seeking to undo what should be undone and rearranging what should be restructured for the good of all. The solution lies in making this a federation indeed, redrawing the internal borders of its constituent parts to, as much as possible, align with nationalities, groups of minorities that have significant affinity and as well as fiscal autonomy.



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