It is a great delight and extremely exciting that I have been chosen to speak to the students and staff of this burgeoning institution which was principally founded to train and nurture leaders of this Country for the next generation. I was exasperated when I got a phone call from one of my colleagues, Barrister Victor Essien saying that Mrs. Umoren had requested that he contact a Human Rights Activist to talk to the students and staff today to mark the 49 year anniversary of the attainment of political independence from the Great Britain.
I was really surprised and amazed that a School which I regarded as the bastion of conservatism and a place where the student of the elite which I have consistently and persistently castigated for its short sightedness, corruption, laziness, moral bankruptcy, waywardness in several fora including the mass media and the internet would want me to speak to the Children of these same People, who should squarely take the blame for the failure of our Country. I then had a phone call from Mrs. Umoden, formally inviting me to speak today. I asked why an outspoken Human Rights Lawyer and Activist like my humble self whom the elite and government regarded as an irritant, an untouchable pain for his outspokenness and strident advocacy against bad governance, corruption, graft, protection of human rights and social and political change, should be asked to talk to students of the same people I have consistently condemned in my social advocacy. She surprisingly answered that the School had previously taken a decision that the lecture must be addressed by an Activist because the authority want a frank and straight forward message to lift the students from their complacency and that School being conscious of the fact that the students as leaders for the next generation must be well equipped to be conscious and must be on the vanguard of the expected change which is looming large especially for the next generation.
I have been asked to talk on “The History of Nigeria, Who We Are and what went wrong’’. It is such a broad topic! I have wondered why a Historian was not chosen. This is because what I have been chosen to speak on is historical in content and perspective. I am a Lawyer and Social Advocate and am expected to be abreast with the History of Nigeria by virtue of my training and work. I agree that a Lawyer, as a social engineer worth his salt, must be abreast with historical and constitutional development of his country. It follows that I would not shrink from my obligation simply because I have been asked to talk about the History of my country which would have been better done by somebody who is an expert in such endeavour. I will strive to the best of my ability to fulfil this assignment which I have been given. I therefore implore all of you to forgive if I flounder and do not meet your expectations.
The History of Nigeria started when European Colonialists decided to organise a conference in Berlin, Germany, when Germany was under the political leadership of Chancellor Bismarck in 1884 and 1885 to discuss and agree on the balkanization and partition of Africa which the European imperialists in their racist mentality dismissed as a ‘Dark Continent’ which must be civilized by Europeans whom God had chosen to be the superior race. It was in this conference that Africa was shared and divided among the major European powers such as the Germany, France, Portugal, Spain, Holland and United Kingdom. It was after these Conference that the British Imperialists quickly moved to affirm and consolidate its hold on the territory. Before then, there was no country known as Nigeria. However, there had been some great and glorious empires in the territory known as Nigeria such as the Songhai Empire, Oyo Empire, Benin Empire, Kanem-Bornu and the Sokoto Caliphate which was founded by Usman Da Fodio in the Seventeenth Century. It is instructive that these various empires some of which have collapsed, had people from diverse Ethnic Nationalities which we presently find in Nigeria including the Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Fulani, Edo, Efik, Ejaham, Yakurr, Tiv, Ibibio, Ijaw etc. It is instructive that before the Berlin Conference, Great Britain had established some presence in many parts of the country especially in Lagos where a Colony was established in 1861. In the area which is presently known as the Niger Delta, Protectorate known as Oil River (later Niger Coast Protectorate) was formed in 1887. After many bloody and ruthless military expeditions to tame and pacify some Ethnic Nationalities in the areas such as Benin, Ilorin, Arochukwu etc that had fiercely resisted the intrusion, the Colonialists decided to amalgamate the Northern Protectorate, the Colony of Lagos and the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria to form one country known as Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. It is instructive that while the British Imperialistic were consolidating its stranglehold in other parts of the country, a Royal Charter was granted to the Royal Niger Trading Company to establish a sort of alliance between Economic Monopolists and Political Colonists in the North. In return the Company to protect British political and economic interest in the North. The Company established its Headquarters at the confluence Town of Lokoja (Present capital of Kogi State) and expanded its trading activities to the North Western and North Eastern part of the River Niger. Treaties were signed with several independent African States such as Sokoto, Gwandu and Nupe, thus effectively denying rival German and French incursions to the Northern Region. In 1900, the Royal Charter granted to the Royal Niger Trading Company was revoked and decision taken that a Colonial Government would administer Nigeria as a Protectorate in the South, the other in the North. Lagos was incorporated in the Southern Protectorate in 1906. The underling objective for the fusion of these Colonies and Protectorates was purely economical and not altruistic. It is important I mention that the name ‘Nigeria’’ was coined by the Mistress of the First Governor-General of Nigeria, Sir Fredrick Luggard. She was known as Flora Shaw. Some cynics are of the view that Nigeria is a failure and would ever remain a failed State because she was cobbled by British Colonialists. One of the greatest Leaders of Post Independence Nigeria, Chief Obafemi Awolowo dismissed Nigeria as a mere geographical expression in one of his numerous seminal works on Nigeria. However, I do not subscribe to the view that Nigeria is a geographical expression because it was cobbled together by British Colonialists to serve their imperialistic design and economic interest. The truth of the matter is there are so many countries that were artificially created like our Country. Let me mention some of these countries, the United States of America, Australia, India, Brazil, Canada, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia etc. Some of these countries are great industrial, military, economic and political powers today.
The colonial empire in Nigeria started crumbling after the end of the Second World War and the promulgation of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights which proclaimed and recognised the right of every people to Self-Determination and Independence. This fired or ignited the agitation for an end to Colonialism. It was this wind of change that propelled the likes of Herbert Macaulay, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and others to start the political movement to agitate independence. In 1954, a Federal Constitution came into force and the conferences that would set up the political framework and structure for post independence were held in London from 1957 - 1959. On 1st October, 1960, Nigeria was granted what, I will call: ‘Flag and Political Independence’. It was not economic or social independence we had and I think this is the genesis of the multifaceted and monumental problems which culminated in the crisis which has continually dogged and grappled the country since independence. In 1963, the Constitution which ushered in independence was jettisoned and a new Republican Constitution came into force. The country’s political system was modelled after the Parliamentary System of Government. There was a Prime Minister and a Ceremonial President and House of Representatives at the Federal level. The Prime Minister was Sir Abubukar Tafawa Balewa. He was of the Northern Peoples Congress. The President was Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. The responsibilities of the President were largely ceremonial and he did not exercise executive power. Executive Powers were vested in the Prime Ministers and his Cabinet. There were three Regions namely, Northern Region, Western Region and Eastern Region. The Regional Premiers were Sir Ahmadu Bello (Northern Region), Dr. Micheal Okpara (Eastern Region) and Chief Ladoke Akintola (Western Region). Note that another Region was created in 1964 known as the Mid-Western Region. The Premier of the Mid-Western Region was Chief Dennis Osadebey. After independence, the Country was fairly doing well before eruption of several crises such a the fractionalization of the Action Group Party in the Western Region, the Census Crisis, the Electoral Crisis, Tiv Crisis, the agitation by minority people for greater autonomy and other inherent contradictions thrown up by centrifugal forces conspired to set the country on fire. These crises led to the toppling of the Civilian Government of Sir Abubukar Tafawa Balewa on the 15th January, 1966, in a military coup de tat led by a group of idealistic young Military Officers under the leadership of Major Chukwu Emeka Kaduna Nzeogwu. The Prime Minister, Sir A. T. Balewa, the Premiers of the Northern and Western Regions, Sir Ahmadu Bello and Chief Akintola were respectively, killed. Scores of Military Officers were also killed. However, the conservative wing of the Military wrestled power from these groups of young Military Officers and a Federal Military Government under Major Aguiyi Ironsi was constituted. Military Officers were appointed Military Governors for the four Regions, Northern, Western, Eastern and Mid-Western. The coup led to inflaming of the embers of ethnic nationalism and regionalism by some ethnic champions, which led to tensions in the country and mass killing of people of Eastern Region living in Northern Nigeria. General Ironsi enacted a decree repudiating the Federal System of Government and replacing it with a Unitary System of Government. The Regions became Groups of Provinces. This further heightened tension in the country because some people saw it as a cloak to reduce the participation of people from the Northern Nigeria in governance of the country. Public opinion was manipulated in the North to see General Ironsi as championing the interest of Igbo People. Another Military Coup took place on the 29th July, 1966. General Ironsi was killed. The leaders of the coup installed General Yakubu Gowon as the new Head of State. However, the Military Governor of the Eastern Group of Provinces, Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu refused to accept General Gowon as the Head of State on the ground that he was not the most senior Military Officer to take over from General Ironsi. There was another round of mass killings of People from the Eastern Region. There was held a Constitutional Conference in Ghana to settle the political deadlock in the country between the Federal Military Government and the Eastern Region. The resolutions reached at the Conference were repudiated by the Federal Military Government of General Gowon. This led to the cessation of Eastern Region from the Federation of Nigeria on the 27th May, 1967. A country known as Biafra was declared for the People of Eastern Region on the same day, the Federal Government abolished the four (4) Regional Structures and replaced them with Twelve States namely Lagos, Mid-Western, North-West, North-East, North-Central, Western, Kwara, South-East, Rivers State, South-Eastern, Benue-Plateau, Kano States. The Federal Government ordered Police Action against the Eastern Region which eventually led to the eruption of a civil war. The Civil War was bloody and an estimated more than one Million Nigerians were killed. The Civil War ended in January, 1970. After the Civil War a programme for return to civil rule was announced. However, the Federal Military Government of General Gowon was toppled in a Coup on the 29th July, 1975. General Murtala Mohammed became Head of State. More States were created in February, 1976 to bring the number of States to Twenty Four. A time-table for return to civil rule was announced. A Constituent Assembly was established to debate the draft of proposed Constitution to usher in the return to civil rule. General Mohammed was killed in another Military Coup on the 13th February, 1976. He was replaced as Military Head of State by General Olusegun Obasanjo. In 1979, the Military handed over power to the civilians. President Shehu Shagari was elected the First Executive President of the Country. President Shehu Shagari was toppled on the 31st December, 1983, by General Muhammadu Buhari who became Military Head of State from January 1984 to August, 1985 when he was toppled by General Ibrahim Babangida. General Babangida made himself Military President and ruled with draconian Military Decrees which suppressed Human Rights. General Babangida failed in his promise to hand over power to a civilian government after he annulled the election of MKO Abiola as President on the 12th June, 1993. General Babangida was forced to relinquish power and a National Interim Government under Chief Ernest Shonekan was constituted. However, in November, 1993, the Interim National Government was toppled by General Sanni Abacha. General Abacha was a complete dictator who ruled with harsh military decrees. He clamped down on pro democracy agitation. He tried and jailed General Obasanjo for alleged conspiracy to topple his government. He ordered the execution of the famous Writer Ken Saro Wiwa for his agitation for return of Oil Resources to the People of the Niger Delta. General Abacha died suddenly in July, 1998. He was replaced by General Abdul Salam Abubukar. General Abubukar returned power to civilians on the 29th May 1999 after General Obasanjo won the Presidential Election.
Today is 49 Years of Nationhood in Nigeria. An adult of 49 Years who is still immature, groping or has no sense of direction has failed. I think Nigeria has abysmally failed. It has been 49 Years of nothing. 49 Years of nonsense. All we can boast of after 49 years are dilapidated Primary/ Secondary Schools and glorified Universities where violence and cult reign supreme. All we have is poor and crumbling infrastructures such as roads, railway lines, airports etc. Today there is virtually no power infrastructure. President Obasanjo budgeted more $ 16 Billion for the Power Sector. This huge sum of money was stolen by the privileged but selfish Nigerians and siphoned abroad. Some of them are today Governors, Senators, Ministers etc. In think Nigeria has failed because the elite that is supposed to lead has failed because of selfishness, corruption, graft, religious fundamentalism, ethnic nationalism, military rule, indiscipline and greed. Today, the country is completely lawless. Universities have closed down for than five months, yet the President went to Saudi Arabia to open a University of Technology. 49 Years we do not have a functional rail system. 49 Years, we cannot organise a credible election. The only credible election that would have seen to the swearing in of its winner, late Moshood Kolawole Abiola, was scuttled by then Military Dictator, General Babangida. 49 Years, we cannot run a functional and efficient Local government systems. 49 Years, we cannot boast of any major achievement other than kidnapping, armed robbery, stealing of public funds, rigging of election, lawlessness, political instability and 419. Nigeria is today, one of the poorest countries despite the huge human and natural resources at her disposal. Nigeria occupies the 179th position in the United Nations Human Development Index. It is a shame. The Nigerian elite must bow its head in shame. I want to say that some countries in the World which do not have the kind of resources Nigeria is endowed with have seen tremendous development. The question is: what then is the problem?
The problem lies squarely on the shoulders of the Nigerian Elite. Time has finally come for the elite to have a rethink and change for the better. If it took China just Fifty Years to become a Super Power, I do not see any reason why Nigeria cannot through deliberate and focused planning and selflessness on the part of our leaders, do that. We have wasted 49 (Forty-Nine) solid Years.
Can we do what China has done in the next Fifty Years? The change will be effected by your generation because in the next 20 (Twenty) years or thereabout to come, your generation will surely be saddled with the leadership of this country. I believe your generation would not be like the present one that has squandered every opportunity for this country to develop. Otherwise we can as well say good bye to Nigeria.
Okoi Ofem Obono-Obla
Paper delivered on 1st October, 2009, to Students and Staff of Access High Schools, Calabar, to mark the 49 Years Anniversary of the Independence of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.