Akin Osuntokun: The two faces of January in Nigeria’s history

by Akin Osuntokun


If January 1st was the day Nigeria was born, January 15th, was the date it was sentenced to death.

January was so named in honour of the Roman god Janus. The distinctive symbolism of Janus is his duality-he is the god of beginnings and endings, of war and peace. January holds a similar symbolism for Nigeria. January 1st and January 15th are significant and supremely symbolic dates in Nigeria. It is more so this year. January 1st 1914 was the day on which Nigeria was amalgamated and the date has been consecrated as its symbolic birthday. Nigeria was contentious at birth and has remained so. I have just discovered one more area of contention and it is on the origin and conception of the name-Nigeria, itself. I assume that most Nigerians believe that the name Nigeria was derived from River Niger and that the identity of the name giver is Madam Flora Shaw-the consort to Lord Frederick Lugard. While there is no contention on the role of Madam Shaw, I recently came across a counter proposition to the effect that the name was derived from ‘Niger’ (a Latin word denoting black); that the circumstance of playing host to the largest population of blacks within a national boundary was sufficient cause to invoke this connotation and ancestry in the name of the new baby.

Following the heckling of a Northern parliamentary delegation to Lagos in 1953, Sir Ahmadu Bello negatively popularised the date in the angry reaction that the mistake of 1914 has come to light. He remained true to this position in the option he chose to remain as Premier of Northern Nigeria rather than assume the office of the Prime Minister of Nigeria in his capacity as the leader of the majority party. In his stead he sent his lieutenant, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, to hold forte for him.

At the dawn of the centenary of this birth date, Nigerians have been exercising their widespread penchant for inventing and propagating myths and rumours and then proceed to interpret developments in the light of the invention. This time around, the speculation from the grapevine was that the British originators of Nigeria gave us the permission to undo the Nigerian union after 100 years of existence! It is in this frame of mind that the proposed national conference is perceived not just as the initiative of President Goodluck Jonathan but as an addendum to the amalgamation promulgation of 1914.

Yet the coincidence is uncanny in many respects. Whatever may be the motive of the president in convening the conference, it is fairly certain that it has little or nothing to do with the centenary commemoration of Nigeria-but here we are with a conference that has been long in coming but seems to have suddenly fallen on our laps from nowhere. No less surprising is that an initiative that literarily dropped from the skies now looms as most appropriate and inevitable. If the attribution of presaging the dissolution of Nigeria (in 2015) to the Americans has any validity, it certainly has nothing to do with the centenary projection of Nigeria yet the forecasted terminal date is on all fours with 100 years of Nigeria’s existence.

As we speak, nobody knows for sure how Nigeria will fare in the next one year-against the background of the questions being asked by the twin challenges of the Boko Haram insurgency and the competing regional claims to the Presidency of Nigeria by the Niger Delta and the far ‘North’ political blocs. As a matter of fact, the specific aspiration of the insurgents was to provoke the theocratic isolation and excision of the latter from Nigeria. The apparent containment of the insurgency in recent months is tenuous and is liable to rebound in explosive dimensions depending on the outcome of the 2015 presidential election. There is a Niger Delta parallel to this observation. In equal and opposite prospects, the dormant Niger Delta volatile and violent agitation for regional autonomy will likely resurge in virulent proportions once the outcome of the presidential election does not tally with the desired expectation. As the saying goes, Nigeria is between the rock and the hard place.

The national conference scheduled for the first quarter of this year has provided a sounding board and jury to adjudicate on the cases of this deadly duo; and it reverses the potential to offer answers and solutions to the questions they are asking. The antecedence of the Sharia populist uprising and its rogue manifestation in the Boko Haram insurgency has inferred a regional distinction on the predominantly Muslim segment of the Northern half of Nigeria. Deliberations at the conference are expected to give clarity to this sub regional character-if in fact it is authentic, and propose a viable framework within which, this group identity is liberally and distinctly recognised and accommodated.

If January 1st was the day Nigeria was born, January 15th, was the date it was sentenced to death. Nigeria had since languished on the death row. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and so it was with the Chukwuma Nzeogwu-led torpedo of civil democratic rule in Nigeria on January 15th 1966. With the privilege of hindsight it is possible now to conclude that there were two antithetical tendencies in the ranks of the coup makers-the idealist and the ulterior agenda strands. One was personified by Nzeogwu and the other typified in the manipulative and ambitious personae of Emmanuel Ifeajuna. Whichever tendency ultimately prevailed mattered little-as the cure (military intervention) prescribed for the clearly troubled democratic dispensation carried within its syringe the advance copy of the HIV virus.

In the wake of the intervention, the political history of Nigeria decisively entered its subjective phase where accepted historical account became interchangeable with the political agenda of the militarily ascendant faction of the Nigerian ruling elite. The internal contradictions within the ranks of the perpetrators of the first coup resulted in a haphazard and short lived (all of six months) enactment of a suspected Igbo hegemony. From the death of General Thomas Aguiyi Ironsi to the end of the civil war it was tragedy all the way for the Igbo.

While the motives of the coup makers of January 15th 1966 can only be inferred, the counter coup of July the same year announced its purpose and motive with the clarity and temper of a wounded lion. To all intents and purposes, the civil war actually started with the revenge coup of July 1966- which was a response to the interpretation of the earlier coup as a declaration of hostilities against the Northern region. In this understanding, the Northern region no longer wanted to be part of Nigeria and if that was not to be the case, it would only remain on its own clearly understood terms. With a complicit South-west in tow, the latter option of remaining in Nigeria as a hegemonic partner only requires the military subjugation of the secessionist Igbo dominated Eastern region. It took 30 months of a one sided civil war to achieve this.

Again, the coincidence of the end of the war on January 15th 1970 was intriguing. This time around, January 15th actually reaffirms Nigeria and negates the ominous portent it previously represented or so it seems. The superficiality of this reading was soon revealed in the reality that the Nigeria that was affirmed was a placebo, a make believe. The Nigeria that was bequeathed by the civil war is a militarist heavily skewed political entity rooted and sustained on military coercion not on the principle of voluntary will. That is why governance in Nigeria resembles dicta more than participatory democracy.

In the knowledge that all states are ultimately guaranteed by coercion, what I said earlier amounted to tautology and platitude. After all, the slavery enamoured Southern states of America were, against their wish coerced back into the American union. The difference here is that the American constitution and the federalist structure had not been altered or altogether abrogated in the intervening duration of the civil war. The Nigerian equivalent of this would be the reversal to the status quo ante in January 1966. And of course, nations endure not on the implicit threat of coercion but on legitimacy earned from the satisfaction of the irreducible minimum universal aspirations of mankind for food, shelter and security or the hope thereof.

Even in its dysfunctional disfiguration, there is nothing inevitable about the political failure of Nigeria-it takes the intervention of human agency to achieve that. What is true and inevitable was that the post-civil war political structure predisposed the country to a high degree of probability for failure. Given this inherent structural predisposition to failure, Nigeria would have required the vigilant ministration of successive enlightened and committed political leadership to succeed. In all societies and since the age of governance by popular mandate the ideal of a regular succession of able and prepared leadership is the rare exception and not the rule. This is the reason why functional societies predicate governance on the assumption that leadership would mostly be lacking in virtue and fidelity-hence the imperative of designing a framework that anticipates and limits the potential for damage by mediocre or outright bad leadership.

It does not require the genius of rocket science to deduce that at the heart of the desperate struggle to capture power at the centre is the control over the preponderance of resources and patrimony that is domiciled therein. If we find logic in the cliché that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’, then it should not be difficult for us to see the sense in paring down the powers at Abuja and redistribute the residual in six equal proportions. Such a step (decentralisation and devolution of powers) will encourage greater public accountability and ensure far more efficient utilisation of our scarce resources. Providence has given Nigeria the opportunity to clearly see what works and what does not-all in the space of the last two generations. The ghost of January 15th will be laid to rest only when we rediscover the path of decentralised federalism.

Reality Check: Any good observation about governance in Nigeria tends to rouse suspicion. Try this for size. The health care system in place in Ondo State is world class, not metaphorically but literarily. Please don’t take my word for it, just go and see for yourself.



Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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