Regions, which regions?

Chairman of occasion, Aare Afebabalola, convener Dr. Olajide and Ooni of Ife, Oba Ogunwusi at the summit in Ibadan. PHOTO: NAJEEM RAHEEM

Some iconic elders of the Yoruba race have taken their push for restructuring the country a notch further. At the Yoruba Summit in Ibadan, September 7, they voted for a return to the regional system as obtained in the 1950s, the one, to quote the expression used in their communique, “fashioned out by the country’s founding fathers.”

The gathering was impressive except for the absence of some other prominent Yoruba leaders like Asiwaju Ahmed Tinubu, and the APC governors as well as senators and members of the House of Representatives who obviously are no less significant in the affairs of this country.

But for the purpose of clarity, I wish to ask this question. When proponents of restructuring talk about a return to regional arrangement, the question is: which regions? Do the proponents of regionalism, and this is not exclusive to the Yoruba group, have in mind the regions which constituted Ruth First’s Nigerian federation that rested on the “tripod of uneven length and fashioning?” And the tripod in question, in case you are in doubt, referred to the defunct Northern Region, the Western Region and Eastern Region before the carving out of the Mid-Western Region in 1963.

For that matter, were the Ibadan summiteers and the other regionalists like Jerry Gana and Co referring to the same regions fashioned out by the British colonial master, Sir John Macpherson? This colonial administrator, after a wide ranging consultation, introduced the federal constitution that provided for, among other salient features, the legislative houses comprising the Federal House of Representatives at the centre and the regional assemblies which elected members to the centre. I guess they all have in mind this same Macpherson Constitution which, despite its merits, suffered three major crises that led to its collapse in 1953 after only three years in operation.

The advocates of restructuring along regional lines could, in my view, be forgiven for feeling nostalgic about this colonial master for his unique constitutional craftsmanship. Being neither Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba nor Igbo, he was neutral enough that the constitution he introduced was hailed for its national outlook. Nobody accused the document of ethnic or even religious bias. And to boot, it introduced, for the first time, a revenue sharing formula something like the equitable mode of sharing the national cake. Apparently our founding fathers did not have any problem with this formula because, devoid of any bias, it also sought to please all and sundry.

But good as it was, it appeared to be too good for Nigeria. Three constitutional crises in quick succession saw its demise in 1953. The first test of its Iroko like durability came when the National Council of Nigerian Citizens, NCNC, the party of the great Zik of Africa, Dr. Nnmadi Azikiwe, failed to elect him to the House of Representatives in Lagos and the ministers from this party threw knock out jabs at the constitution. It suffered another mortal wound when, in the same year, the Action Group, AG and the NCNC sponsored a motion for the country’s self government in 1956. Self-government was to be the dress rehearsal for independence from the British colonial rule. The motion was moved by Anthony Enahoro of the AG. Though the motion represented a crucial step forward, because of its timing, the Northern delegates in the house were apprehensive. The North, it was made clear, was not prepared at the time politically and administratively for self-government. They came up with some amendment which replaced the 1956 with “as soon as practicable.” Swinging a Northern majority in the house, the proposed amendment to the motion was carried to the chagrin of the delegates from the south. Matters were taken outside the house to the streets where the aggrieved politicians resorted to jeering and booing their counterparts for daring to oppose Enahoro’s motion.

The brittle relationship that characterised the affairs and deals that predated independence provided a fertile ground for fist cuffs. What could have been treated as a gentlemen’s game became a huge crisis which snowballed into the famous Kano riot and which, in turn, spelt the death knell of the Macpherson constitution.

But the collapse of the federal constitution did nothing to injure or kill federalism. And certainly the regions, as they were, remained intact. The 1960 constitution, also fashioned out by the colonialists, ushered in the country’s independence with the NPC in control of Federal Government at the centre with Abubakar Tafawa Balewa as Prime Minister and NCNC as the junior partner with Azikiwe as Governor General, though in a shaky coalition. Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group became the official opposition party and the sage of Ikenne himself officially became leader of the Opposition.

Thus was independence served on the platter of mutual suspicion. The North, it was feared in the South, would continue to dominate the government in the centre because of its numerical strength. All manner of alliances were forged either to take control of government at the centre or as conspiracy to whittle down the power and the influence of the North. Northern region was for all practical purposes, bigger than the two southern regions put together.

And for the comfort of the South, something had to give. But what? It was difficult to say. The coup of January 15, 1966 became handy. No matter how much the spin doctors tried, they have failed to provide a justification for the killings that took place. Apart from the killings, politically the coup changed the structure of the country.

The man who took power from the rump of the Federal Cabinet, Major General J.T Aguiyi Ironsi, in his attempt to fashion out the new structure of government, was persuaded by his advisers to settle for a unitary system of government. He said that the various committees that he set up had come with findings that “majority of Nigerians abhor federalism and they prefer unitary system of government” which would unify the administrative structure along the line of the Army’s command and control system. That is how federal system as we knew it kissed the dust.

The Leviathan that was Northern Region, as well as the other regions of the federation, was to be broken up into groups of provinces with military prefects at the control of affairs. That suited those who were eternally in mortal fear of the North, its size and its population.

Those who seek a return to regional governments as part of the restructuring agenda would do well to bear in mind the trajectory of the country’s political and constitutional development, so that nobody holds any one section of the country responsible for what obtains today. It is also advisable that we do not issue threats and give conditions that suggest that we as citizens of this country are implacable strange bedfellows who must either slightly stay apart or go our separate ways to prevent the heavens from falling.

But the questions remain pertinent. What regions are we talking about – the Northern Region that made government look so distant from the majority of the people in the North who continued to agitate for states of their own or the Eastern Region with minority groups of the Rivers, Cross Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Bayelsa states who today value their political freedom, they are prepared to die to keep it or, for that matter, the Western Region that predated the creation of the Mid-West which today comprises Edo and Delta states?

Nobody quarrels with devolution of powers and authority and all other salient features in the current state structure. But it looks to me like wishful thinking to begin to amalgamate the states within the currently unrecognised six zones of the country and call them regions. To do that, I think, is to take one politically pragmatic step forward and take 36 clumsy and thoughtless steps backwards.



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