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Government and Politics


Brass statue of an oni, an Ife king of the early fourteenth or fifteenth century

THE STORY OF NIGERIA during the postcolonial era has been one of a search for the constitutional and political arrangement that, while allowing for the self-expression of its socially and culturally diverse peoples, would not hinder the construction of a nation out of this mosaic. In this search, the country has experienced cycles of military and civilian rule, civil war, and peaceful reconstruction.

If any nation typified political scientist Richard Sklar's characterization of the African continent as a "workshop of democracy," it would certainly be Nigeria. The country has experimented with different federal, state, and local government systems, learning more about its needs, resources, and constraints with each experiment. Despite the predominance of military regimes during the three postcolonial decades, Nigerian society has retained many of the fundamental building blocks of a democratic polity: vigorous entrepreneurial classes, a broad intelligentsia and numerous centers of higher education, a dynamic legal community and judiciary, diverse and often outspoken media, and, increasingly, courageous human rights organizations.

Despite the differences in character and composition of the successive governments, it is still possible to identify the major threads of Nigeria's institutional evolution. As the nation finds itself once more on the threshold of transition from military to civilian rule, promised for 1992, examination of these threads is essential for understanding the Nigeria that will become the Third Republic.

Nigeria is essentially an artificial creation, which, like most other African states, is a product of colonialism. This fact is central to understanding the country's government and politics, which have been conditioned and bedeviled by the problems of accommodating several diversities: ethnic, linguistic (there are between 250 and 400 distinct languages), geopolitical, religious (there is a deepening cleavage between Christians and Muslims), and class.

Nigeria became politically independent on October 1, 1960, after about seven decades of colonial rule by the British. Prior to colonial rule, most of the groups that today make up the country were often distinguished by differences in history, culture, political development, and religion. The major differences among these precolonial groups pertained to their sociopolitical organization: anthropological and historical studies usually distinguish between societies that were centralized ("state") and those that were noncentralized ("stateless"). To the former category belonged the Sokoto Caliphate and the emirates of the north that, together with the Kanem-Bornu Empire, were advanced Islamic theocracies. Also included in this category were the Benin, Oyo, and other western kingdoms, as well as the Igala Kingdom in the middle belt (see Glossary) or lower north. In these centralized systems, there were clear divisions between the rulers and the ruled, usually based on wealth and ascribed status. Institutions of a distinctly political nature, as well as taxation systems, were already established. Of all the centralized systems, the Sokoto Caliphate with its vassal emirates had the most advanced form of state organization. Not surprisingly, it provided the model for the British colonial policy of indirect rule, i.e., the governance of indigenous peoples through their own institutions and rulers.

By contrast, in noncentralized systems such as those of the Igbo and other eastern and middle-belt groups, there was a diffusion of political, economic, and religious institutions and practices. Also to be found was a large measure of egalitarianism, democracy, and decentralized authority. Under the colonial policy of indirect rule, "traditional" rulers (known as warrant chiefs) were imposed on these stateless societies.

In the immediate precolonial period, a pronounced religious gulf separated the northern from the southern peoples. Islam had been introduced to the Hausa states and other northern parts in the fifteenth century, but it did not dominate until the jihad of 1804, which extended Islamic influence to most parts of the north and even to towns on the southern fringe, such as Oyo and Auchi. The southern peoples were devotees mainly of traditional religions who underwent increasing contact with, and exposure to, Europeans and Christianity. In some areas of the south, such as Benin and Warri, the penetration of Christianity dates to the fifteenth century. When the north experienced contact with Europeans much later, the spread of Christianity and other Western influences was slowed by the strong attachment to Islam. This fact explains in part the uneven rates of economic and educational development between the northern and southern peoples that have persisted to this day, with important consequences for government and politics.

It should not be assumed that the various population groups in precolonial Nigeria were completely separated from one another. Historians have established evidence of various forms of interaction among the peoples, the major ones being trade and superordinate-subordinate relationships. Powerful centralized systems, such as the Sokoto Caliphate and the Benin Empire, dominated several neighboring groups. Where no established group held sway over the others, as was the case among the Yoruba-speaking people in the nineteenth century, a pattern of conflicts and wars prevailed. On balance, there were pronounced differences among the people who later came to comprise Nigeria, especially when we consider the major regional groups. British rule did much to accentuate these differences and, in some cases, created new divisive sentiments. Even the nature of British conquest and the process by which its rule was established encouraged separate identities.

The conquest and colonization of the coastal area of Lagos and its hinterlands took place between 1861 and 1897. The conquest of the eastern region and the declaration of the Niger Coast Protectorate occurred in 1894. Finally, a third wave of penetration led to the declaration of a protectorate over the northern areas in 1900. In 1906 the colony of Lagos and the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria (which included the former Niger Coast Protectorate) were joined together to become the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria. Finally, in 1914 the northern and southern protectorates were amalgamated to become the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria, although both parts continued to be administered separately.

During the period extending from amalgamation in 1914 to independence from colonial rule in 1960, Nigeria had four major constitutions, each named after the colonial governor who formulated it: the Clifford Constitution (1922), Richards Constitution (1946), Macpherson Constitution (1951), and Lyttleton Constitution (1954). Although the first two constitutions were virtually imposed on the country, the latter two involved some consultations with representatives of the people through constitutional conferences. At the Ibadan General Conference of 1950, Nigerian leaders agreed that only a federal system that allowed each of the three regions (north, west, and east as created by the Richards Constitution) to progress at its own pace would be acceptable. Until that point, the constitutions had a unitary orientation. In creating three regions and delegating some powers to them, the Richards Constitution was a forerunner of the later federal constitutions.

Although the regional leaders at the Ibadan conference had unequivocally declared their preference for federalism, the subsequent Macpherson Constitution was essentially unitary. It went farther than the Richards Constitution in devolving power to the regions but left the regions subordinate and closely tied to the central government. Because many Nigerian political leaders favored a federal system in which the regions enjoyed wide autonomy, the Macpherson Constitution engendered continuing opposition. Finally, in 1953, this constitution became unworkable.

Rather than self-government for the whole nation, the northerners wanted self-government as soon as practicable and only for any region that was ready for it. They believed that each region should progress politically at its own pace. When a constitutional conference was convened in London in 1953, a federal constitution that gave the regions significant autonomy eventually emerged. This Lyttleton Constitution was the one that remained in force, with slight amendments, until independence in 1960. It enabled the regions to become self-governing at their own pace: the two southern regions in 1956 and the northern region in 1959.

Several important developments that have continued to affect Nigeria's government and politics in the postcolonial period marked the period of colonial rule. First, British colonial rule nurtured north-south separation, which has remained the classic cleavage in the country. In particular, after Lord Frederick Lugard's pact with northern emirs to protect Islamic civilization, the north was shut off from much of the Westernizing influences to which the south was exposed. This protection gave the southern peoples a head start, especially in Western education. During the struggle for independence, northern leaders were afflicted by a constant fear of southern domination. Many of the northern responses to national politics to this day can be attributed to this fear. At the same time, with the creation of three regions that saw the northern region larger in size and population than the two southern regions, there was also a southern fear of northern domination. The image of a homogenous north, although contradicted by the cultural diversity of that region, continued in 1990 to feature prominently in most southerners' perception of national politics.

Second, in creating largely artificial regions, the British fostered the cleavage between ethnic majority and minority groups. Each region contained the nucleus of a majority group that dominated in its respective region: the Hausa/Fulani in the north, the Yoruba in the west, and the Igbo in the east. The major political parties that emerged in the regions and controlled them were based on these groups. With regional autonomy, the major groups became the major "shareholders" of the federation. Power-sharing and political calculations have consequently centered on ensuring a balance of power among these groups. The minorities, feeling oppressed and dominated, agitated for separate states in the regions. Although a panel was appointed in 1956 to inquire into the fears of the minorities and to explore ways of allaying them, their requests were not met until after independence.

Third, the uneven rates of development among the groups, which generally coincided with regional boundaries, strengthened the forces of regionalism. The creed became north for northerners, west for westerners, and east for easterners. Despite the periodic creation of more states during the postcolonial period, these regionalist feelings continued to affect national politics, especially in the distribution of national resources. One manifestation of this tendency was the ceaseless disagreements and rancor over revenue allocation.

Another consequence of these regional and ethnic divisions was the fragmentation of the national elite. Unlike a few other African countries, Nigeria had no fully national leaders at independence. Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo, who had the greatest potential for becoming a national leader, was forced by regionalist pressures to become a sectional leader. The other leaders during the postindependence period--Ahmadu Bello, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Obafemi Awolowo, Michael Okpara, Samuel Akintola, and Aminu Kano--are best remembered as sectional leaders, even though they are usually called nationalists. This fractionalization of the political elite in turn reinforced ethnicity, regionalism, and religious conflicts, as these sentiments were often aroused in the competition for power, material resources, and privileges.

The colonial heritage, therefore, produced a country that was only weakly united. At some points, the regional leaders threatened to secede from the federation: in the early to mid- 1950s northern leaders contemplated separation after their humiliation by southerners because of their refusal to support a motion for achieving self-government in 1956; in 1954 the Western Region threatened to separate itself if the colony of Lagos were not made a part of that region. There were strong countervailing factors that prevented breakup of the federation. First, British colonial rule had held the country together as one unit. Second, the regions had economic complementarity. In particular, given the export orientation of the colonial economy, the landlocked northern region depended greatly on the southern regions that had access to the sea. Third, in the final days of colonial rule, Nigerian leaders recognized the advantages conferred by the country's large size and population.

Data as of June 1991


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