Swans Commentary » swans.com February 8, 2010  



Nigeria: A Nation In Custody


by Femi Akomolafe





(Swans - February 8, 2010)   It is difficult not to feel sorry for ordinary Nigerians nowadays. This unfortunate West African country of between one hundred and forty to one hundred and fifty million people continues to be held hostage by a cabal of totally unconscionable elite with an insatiable appetite for petty thievery and gargantuan greediness. And it is looking increasingly clear that there is no limit to what this shameless political class will do to satisfy its selfish ends. No calamity, it seems, is beyond them to wreak on their compatriots in order to hold on to their illicit power.

Nigerians cheered when their movie industry (Nollywood) blossomed within a decade to become the second or third largest in the world. This, however, should not have surprised any watcher of that unlucky nation where the difference between the artistic and the realistic is very blurry indeed.

Nigeria defies either easy definition or categorization. It is a land with enough complexities and contradictions to give social scientists enough headaches to last a lifetime. Except for true-born Nigerians, nothing about the country described by one of its founding fathers as a mere "geographic expression" makes any sense whatsoever.

The country ranked Africa's second largest crude oil-producing nation is constantly beset by fuel shortages. Many Nigerians go through life without tasting pipe-borne water. And in this age and time Nigerians still dance for joy when the electricity company gives them their pitiful daily allocation of light.

In any modern (let's us not use "civilized" here) nation, the question of governance is long-settled and straightforward with well laid-down rules that political actors invariably obey.

But this apparently simple matter has been turned into a major production in the country that prides itself the "giant of Africa." This is the lowdown:

On November 23, 2009, the Executive President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Umaru Yar'Adua, took ill and was ferried to a hospital in Saudi Arabia. At least that is what Nigerians were told.

Nigeria is not the first country where the chief of state will fall ill, and it's not going to be the last, but the greatest irony and total shame here is that the most populous nation in Africa lacks the medical wherewithal to cater to its people and, perhaps more importantly, its leaders.

The visionless leaders of this sad and dysfunctional country have not deemed it fit to build a first-rate hospital, even if motivated only by a desire to earn good money by exploring cutting-edge medical sciences/technologies, thereby providing first-class medical services for citizens and foreigners alike. Two and half years into his presidency, Yar'Adua has been to both Germany and Saudi Arabia on three occasions to seek medical assistance for his kidney problems.

On those occasions his doctors have managed to patch him up sufficiently enough for him to resume his patchy duties at the presidency. On this occasion, however, the medical odyssey took longer than his handlers hoped (prayed?) for, and the long absence left a huge constitutional gap that sent Nigerians seeking urgent answers. Yar'Adua doctors say he is suffering from acute pericarditis -- inflammation of the lining of the heart. To dispel rumors of his incapacitation, his ministers went into overdrive trying to outdo themselves in their fidelity to him.

But when days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, impatient Nigerians demanded to be told the truth about their president's whereabouts. They demanded to know why he's talking to his ministers (as they claimed) and not to them. Yar'Adua officials did not help matters by the incoherencies emanating from the highest levels of the Nigerian government. The attorney general's assertion that he was in constant communication with the missing president drew laughter of derision from Nigerians who retorted that they did not vote for a virtual president.

Nigerians were further infuriated when one of their dailies, The Nigerian Tribune, went to town with the story that President Yar'Adua was not at the hospital in Saudi Arabia where he was supposed to be receiving treatment. According to the paper, the Nigerian president was never admitted at the hospital to begin with. There has been no denial from government officials on the Tribune's story.

They were further scandalized when it emerged that Yar'Adua's officials had allegedly forged his signature on the budget. They had earlier told Nigerians that they had taken the bill to his hospital bed where he had appended his signature.

The call for (any) action to remedy the impasse grew in crescendo. Lawyers filed three separate lawsuits for the president either to be produced or impeached. When finally a very weak Yar'Adua granted a much sought after interview to the BBC, Nigerians were affronted, as they questioned what colonial mind-set informed their president's choice of a foreign media in talking to them.

But things need not have been allowed to degenerate into this farce. Under sections 144, 145, and 146 of the 1999 Constitution, the drafters made provision for the absence of a president through illness or whatever. This was informed by the impeccable logic that power, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

The aforementioned sections of the Constitution clearly spelt out what should be done in the absence of a president: power should be transferred to the vice president.

In other normal countries, this is considered a routine matter. But like in most things, Nigerians have managed to turn this into a theatre of the most absurd.

When Yar'Adua journeyed to his hospital sick-bed, he didn't hand power over to his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, thereby creating a very serious succession and constitutional crisis, and Nigerians have become very worried and despondent people indeed.

The swearing in of a new chief justice (CJ), a religious riot in Bauchi state, and the arrest of a Nigerian would-be suicide bomber on a flight to the U.S. were actions that called for swift presidential action. But the outgoing CJ had to swear in his successor; an act considered by many lawyers a breach of the Constitution. Nigeria's slow (in)action must have informed the US decision to place the country on the list of those to be watched closely, a move that subjected Nigerians (including Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka) to humiliating body searches at airports across the world.

The power vacuum at the zenith of Nigeria's government is causing anxiety not only among citizens but also among policy makers in countries with a vested interest in Nigeria.

For example, the U.S. is showing serious concerns. A report authored by a former US ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, and a member of the very influential US Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) revealed that much. The analysis posted on the CFR website on December 30, 2009, stated:

Yar'Adua appears likely to leave office soon. Nigeria's king makers -- the country's competing and cooperating power brokers -- seem poised to reassign presidential duties and responsibilities elsewhere because the ailing president can no longer exercise them. Yar'Adua's removal from office would result in a political and constitutional crisis for the United States' most important strategic partner in Africa and one of its largest suppliers of oil.

The CFR expressed its worries about the consequences of a military intervention in Nigeria on the American economy and the well being of Africa.

The CFR was not alone in worrying about the jitters within the military: the Nigerian chief of army staff, Lt-Gen Abdulrahman Dambazzau, recently disclosed that politicians were wooing soldiers to intervene over the succession logjam in the presidency.

It is indeed a sad commentary on the Nigerian political elite that ten years after the re-introduction of civilian rules, when Nigerians should be enjoying the dividends of democratic rule, the nation is embroiled in a needless constitutional crisis.

It is necessary to delve into a bit of history in order to understand what informed the current political logjam.

Geography and history conspired to make Nigeria a very difficult nation to rule. Colonialists, to begin with, never had the interest of the people they forcibly colonized at heart. But in the case of Nigeria, the British simply ignored natural landscape like the two great rivers (Niger and Benue) in their attempt to cobble together a country to satisfy their imperial interests. And as has since been revealed by British records, British colonial officials avidly played their divide-and-rule game in the country, and they did all within their power to ensure that they bequeathed a nation that sits literally on top of a powder keg.

Former Nigerian Attorney General and Minister of Justice Richard Akinjide recently wrote an explosive article with the mind-boggling title, "The Amalgamation of Nigeria Was a Fraud."

Akinjide is both a QC (Queen's Counsel) and a SAN (Senior Advocate of Nigeria) and he belongs to the inner circle of Nigeria's elite. The article is so astute that it should be quoted at length:

Our problems did not start yesterday. It started about 1884. Lord Lugard came here about 1894 and many people did not know that Major Lugard was not originally employed by the British Government. He was employed by companies. He was first employed by East Indian Company, by the Royal East African Company and then by the Royal Niger Company. It was from the Royal Niger Company that he transferred to the British government. Unless you know this background, you will not know the root causes of our problems. The interest of the Europeans in Africa and indeed Nigeria was economic and it's still economic. They have no permanent friends and no permanent interests. Neither their interests nor their friends are permanent.

Nigeria was created as British sphere of interests for business. In 1898, Lugard formed the West African Frontier Force initially with 2,000 soldiers and that was the beginning of our problems.

Anybody who wants to know the root cause of all the coups and our present problems, and who does not know the evolution Nigeria would just be looking at the matter superficially. Our problems started from that time. And Lugard was what they called at that time imperialist. A number of British soldiers, businessmen, politicians were very patriotic. But I must warn you; they were operating in the interest of their country. Lugard became a Lord. Nigerians, too, should operate in the interest of their country. When Lugard formed the West African Frontier Force with 2,000 troops, about 90 percent of them were from the North mainly from the Middle belt. And his dispatches to London between that time and January 1914 are extremely interesting. Lugard came here for a purpose and that purpose was British interest. Between 1898 and 1914, he sent a number of dispatches to London which led to the Amalgamation of 1914. The Order - in - Council was drawn up in November 1913 signed and came into force in January 1914. In those dispatches, Lugard said a number of things, which are at the root causes of yesterday and today's problems. The British needed the Railway from the North to the Coast in the interest of British business. Amalgamation of the South (not of the people) became of crucial importance to British business interest. He said the North and the South should be amalgamated. Southern Nigeria came into existence on January 1900 ...

So when Benin was conquered in 1896, it made the creation of the Southern Nigerian protectorate possible on January 1, 1900. If you remember, Sokoto was not conquered until 1903. So, there was no question of Nigeria at that time. After the conquest of Sokoto, they were able to create the northern Nigerian protectorate. Lugard went full blast and created what was to be known as the protectorate of Northern Nigeria. What is critical and important are the reasons Lugard gave in his dispatches.

They are as follows: He said the North is poor and they have no resources to run the protectorate of the North. That they have no access to the sea; that the South has resources and have educated people. The first Yoruba lawyer was called to the Bar in 1861. Therefore, because it was not the policy of the British Government to bring the taxpayers money to run the protectorate, it was in the interest of the British business and the British taxpayer that there should be Amalgamation. But what the British amalgamated was the Administration of the North and South and not the people of the North and the South. That is one of the root causes of the problems of Nigeria and the Nigerians.

When the amalgamation took effect, the British government sealed off the South from the North. And between 1914 andl960, that's a period of 46 years, the British allowed minimum contact between the North and South because it was not in the British interest that the North be allowed to be polluted by the educated South. That was the basis on which we got our independence in 1960. When the North formed a political party, the northern leaders called it Northern Peoples Congress (NPC). They didn't call it Nigeria Peoples Congress. That was in accordance with the dictum and policies of Lugard. When Aminu Kano formed his own party, it was called Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) not Nigerian Progressive Union.

It was only Awolowo and Zik who were mistaken that there was anything called Nigeria. In fact, the so-cared Nigeria created in 1914 was a complete fraud. It was created not in the interest of Nigeria or Nigerians but in the interest of the British. And what were the structures created? The structures created were as follows: Northern Nigeria was to represent England; Western Nigeria like Wales; Eastern Nigeria was to be like Scotland. In the British structure, England has permanent majority in the House of Commons. There was no way Wales can ever dominate England, neither can Scotland dominate Britain. But they are very shrewd. They would allow a Scottish man to become Prime Minister. They would allow a Welsh man to become Prime Minister in London but the fact remains that the actual power rested in England.

That was what Lugard created in Nigeria, a permanent majority for the North. The population figure of the North is also a fraud. In fact, a British Colonial Civil Servant who was involved in the fraud was trying to expose it but he was never allowed to publish it. The analysis is as follows: If you look at the map of West Africa, starting from Mauritania to Cameroun and take a population of each country as you move from the coast to the Savannah, the population decreases.

Or conversely, as you come from the Desert to the Coast, right from Mauritania to the Cameroun, the population increases. The only exception throughout that zone is Nigeria. Nigeria is the only zone whereby you go from coast to the North, the population increases and you come from the North to the Coast, the population decreases. Well, geographers, anthropologists and population experts, draw your conclusions.


Akinjide is not alone in this type of analysis on why colonialists always manipulate things to ensure that power is handed over to trusted minions, Oginga Odinga, in his book, Not Yet Uhuru, said the same thing.

Thus pampered by the British colonialists, the elite of northern Nigeria have come to regard the governance of the country Nigeria as their birthright. We see this arrogance displayed in the state motto of Sokoto, one of the northern states: "Born to Rule."

This reluctance of the northern oligarchists to countenance political power shifting to the south is precisely at the genesis of the crisis currently engulfing the country. Yar'Adua's deputy, Goodluck Jonathan is from the delta part of southern Nigeria, hence the unwillingness of the president's largely northern handlers to hand power over to him as stipulated in the Constitution.

Actually, it is much more involved than that. Inheriting a very shaky political legacy, the country's political elite have been trying a careful balancing act by tacitly agreeing that power is to be shared between the two halves of the country: North and South.

The unwritten rule that has been largely observed is that a northern ruler will provide a deputy from the south and vice versa. The ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) was believed to have extracted from former president Olusegun Obasanjo (a Yoruba from the south) a pledge to support a northern candidate as the price for their support for his first presidential bid in 1999.

Having failed in his bid for a third term, Obasanjo honored the pledge by single-handedly foisting on Nigeria the candidature of the then ailing governor of the northern state of Katsina, Umar Yar'Adua with the governor of the southern state of Bayelsa as his deputy.

In the intricate calculus that is Nigerian politics, the north feels that they are being cheated if another southerner should succeed Obasanjo (a southerner) even if only in acting capacity, hence the reluctance to transfer power to Goodluck Jonathan as the Constitution prescribed.

The unwillingness of the north to relinquish power is matched by the demand by the Deltans that their man, Goodluck Jonathan, must take over as the Constitution and common sense dictate. Having given the Nigerian state a dose of the violence they are capable of inflicting, the militant Delta youth are not likely to agree to play second fiddle in any attempt to short-change them in the matters they deem crucial to their hearts. They have vowed to secede from the federation should their man be denied the opportunity to rule Nigeria.

Nigerians of northern extraction have ruled the country for thirty-nine of its fifty years of self-rule. And this virtual monopoly of power is causing disquiet across the land, especially among the southerners who question what the northerners have got to show for their long years at the helm.

Were the northern elite to use political power to achieve developmental transformation of the country, few would complain. But Nigeria is a country that is truly de-developing (or is it un-developing?) where infrastructures (including three refineries) built at great cost have been allowed to collapse so that some well-connected people can make easy money from importation.

Despite northerners ruling the country for long years, the north remains the most impoverished part of the country. But as people from the south see it, their northern brothers are ruling only to satisfy narrow personal, ethnic, and religious agendas.

Southerners are today seriously questioning the necessity if belonging to a country where they will continue to play second-fiddle, and where their only lot is incessant religious riots directed against them by their supposedly compatriots. That they are today being lumped together with al Qaeda suicide bombers is more than they are prepared to swallow. Many are starting to seriously question the integrity of the Nigerian state. The only solution, to them, is a sovereign conference where nothing less than the question of Nigeria's corporate existence should be discussed. Already secessionist groups are emerging across the land with the Yorubas (in western Nigeria) demanding their O'dua state, while the Igbos (former Biafrans in the east) have formed another organization, The Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) is holding sway in the eastern part of the country. The hotchpotch of a state the British brutally created is unraveling.

These are ominous developments that bode ill for the country. This is why the silence of leaders of both the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union in the current impasse in Nigeria is worrisome. The West African sub-region is just trying to recover from the wars that ravaged the region in recent years; it cannot afford another one, most especially not from "Big Brother" Nigeria.

By the sheer size of its population and given the pent-up anger among its component parts, another war in Nigeria will be not be a "joking matter at all," as they say in West Africa.

It's time for everyone concerned about the future of Africa to speak up.


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About the Author

Femi Akomolafe (see his profile on Swans) is a computer consultant, a writer and social commentator, an avid reader, and a passionate Pan-Africanist who lives in Kasoa, Ghana. Femi is known to hold strong opinions and to express them in the strongest terms possible. As he likes to remind his readers: "As my Yoruba people say: Oju orun teye fo, lai fara gbara. It means that the sky is big enough for all the birds to fly without touching wings." Femi Akomolafe's views, opinions, and thoughts can be accessed on the blog he maintains: http://ekitiparapo.blogspot.com/.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published February 8, 2010