1914 and Nigeria's Existential Crisis:A Historical Perspective (2)

As Nigeria marks its centenary, NVS reproduces this essay orginally written in two parts in May 2004 by our editoril team member, Dr Moses Ochonu. Enjoy!


The beginning of nationalist activities in Nigeria could be traced to the late 19th century. The key figures in these activities were mostly Liberians, Sierra Leonians and West Indians and their mediums of expression were a few newspapers which enjoyed the readership of the Southern Nigerian elite. A Liberian, John Pain Jackson, founded the first Nigerian newspaper, The Lagos Weekly Record in 1891. This Newspaper became the mouthpiece of the Lagos elites in their mobilization of racial consciousness and in bargaining for more African participation in the colonial bureaucracy. Most of the ideological inspiration for this early nationalism came from the writings and thoughts of Marcus Garvey, Booker Washington, and other American and West Indian Black political activists.

At this time, nationalist thinking was expressed not in terms of nations but in terms of more abstract ideals of black/African emancipation and, as Coleman (1958:184) noted, the struggle for more British scholarship for Africans. There was a distinct pan-West African character to this phase of nationalism. The National Congress of British West Africa and the West African Students Association formed in 1913 and 1925 respectively had broad pan-West African ideals and their members were drawn from Nigeria, Gambia, Ghana, and Sierra Leone. This growing community of local colonial elites associating within political frameworks engendered by colonialism fits with Anderson's theory that colonialism created a sense of community and facilitated the cultivation of political solidarities among educated colonial subjects.

Southern Nigerian nationalism took on a militant character during the debate on the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern colonies between 1913 and 1914, a debate which was a prelude to the actual amalgamation. Members of the Lagos elite protested vehemently against the amalgamation proposal. They made it clear in their protest that the peoples of the North and those of the South were starkly different, had different worldviews and that any nation created out of an arbitrary union of the two territories would not function. At this time the Lagos press had acquired an unprecedented vibrancy through the addition of more publications and this new potency was deployed to prosecute the Southern campaign against political fusion with the North. The Chronicle in its editorial stated that the south was not Muslim and that the principle of Northern administration was anathema to Southerners. Similarly, the Times of Nigeria stated in an editorial shortly after the amalgamation that: "unification was synonymous with a sellout of the South. The subjugation of Southern Nigeria by Northern Nigerian laws, northern Nigerian land laws, Northern Nigerian Administration must be made to supercede every system in Southern Nigeria.

" There was indeed a strong Southern resentment of the Islamic and Islamic-leaning political and legal systems of the North as well as the fear that the British would privilege this system in a united Nigeria, thus subsuming the Western orientation of the South under the "Orientalist" institutions of the North. This atmosphere led to the insulation of the North from subsequent political actions against British rule, resulting in a bi-furcated and insular engagement with British colonialism. But more importantly, the attitude of the Southern elite towards the amalgamation, apart from calling their nationalist credential to question, indicates the contempt of the Southerners for and distrust of the North, a region which they saw as being marked out from the South by religion, culture and principle of political organization. The distrust and contempt was mutual, however.

To be sure, it was not only the Southerners who opposed the amalgamation. A similar resentment of it - albeit muted - pervaded the North. These strong feelings expressed by both the North and the South on the amalgamation was one of the reasons why the British did not merge the educational and bureaucratic systems of the two protectorates in 1914, creating only a weak administrative center that was expected to grow stronger over time and discipline the competing centrifugal narratives and increasingly visible geopolitical fissures. The difference between the North and the South was such that the idea of unifying them lacked administrative or political logic; nor did it appear potentially workable. The amalgamation created a Nigeria which remained, to use a well-worn cliché, a geographical expression with no significant cultural or political cohesion. According to James Coleman, the amalgamation decree ostensibly brought about the colony and protectorate of Nigeria with headquarters in Lagos but the new creation had no bond of unity except the person of Frederick Lugard, the first Governor-General. The only other bond was the common custom controls instituted with the amalgamation. There were, it seemed, two nations within one nation.

When the acrimony generated by the amalgamation died down, the Southern elites, realizing the inevitability of a Nigerian nation, began accommodating –at least in theory - the North in their nationalist rhetoric. But this was not matched by deeds, circumscribed as it was to the rhetorical level. Moreover, the prevailing situation made the convergence of Southern and Northern sentiments which could result in the formulation of a national consciousness impossible.

The southern press, which had acquired considerable influence over the years and was playing the role of handmaiden of Southern radical nationalism, continued to denigrate the North and its ‘conservative' and ‘subservient' aristocracy, thus further alienating the latter from the ongoing Southern efforts against British domination. Second, the status of Ilorin, a Yoruba town conquered by the Fulani Jihadists in the late 19th century - a conquest which blurred the North/South divide along that axis - was turned into an anti-North irredentist campaign by the Yoruba elite who wanted Ilorin included in Southern Nigeria. This further strained the relations between the two protectorates and widened the communication gap between them.

The third factor that militated against the evolution of a national consciousness in the nascent British creation was the different educational orientations of the two protectorates. One strand of the Anderson thesis is that the colonial classroom facilitated the galvanization of different ethnic inclinations into one potent national ideology. The Nigerian case was markedly different as the British divide and rule policy segregated the educational services of the two protectorates and maintained this policy long after the amalgamation, thereby making the kind of educational interaction that Anderson discusses impossible. The educational systems of the two regions were amalgamated only in 1929.

Western missionary education arrived the South as early as the middle of the 19th century as Christian conversions progressed side by side with Western education. Indeed the latter was the medium of missionary work. Southern animism gradually gave way to Christian practices and Western liberal education gained ground rapidly as missionary schools were set up in many provinces. By the first decade of the 20th century, many Southerners had become profoundly educated and a handful of them had gone to London for professional studies. One major feature of this education was that it was largely unregulated; the missionaries were allowed to formulate curriculum and syllabuses as they wished. Thus, subjects such as history, literature and psychology were freely taught. The result was the creation of a large pool of educated Southerners whose intellectual faculties had been acutely and liberally aroused. This ran counter to British educational desire, which privileged the training of clerks and vocational workers for the British colonial bureaucracy. The colonial system simply had no room for this class of professionals and liberally educated Southerners. Hence it has been argued that unemployment and British indifference to and contempt for this class drove its members into the radical anti-British nationalism of the 1920s and 1930s.

The British did not intend to let the ‘mistake' of the South, that is, the unregulated spread of Western liberal education repeat itself in the North, so Lugard, the first Governor of Northern Nigeria, prevented missionaries from operating in the Muslim North ostensibly out of respect for Islam and Islamic education. Pressures from missionaries between 1900 and 1909 yielded no fruit. Lugard and subsequent British administrators of the North took measures to preserve the educational gap between the North and the South in spite of requests by some Northern emirs like Sanusi of Kano for missionary schools. In this period the provision of joint educational facilities for the North and the South seemed quite remote even though the provision of liberal Western education in the North might have brought the people closer to the Occident and, therefore, closer to the South at least ideologically.  As educational integration did not accord with the British policy of disciplining and limiting what they say as dangerous radicalism in the South, the colonial authorities blocked any movement towards educational uniformity. Instead, the colonial government in the North supported Koranic education and made it clear that the North was to be protected against the ‘contamination' of Southern radicalism with which the colonial authority in Lagos had been fighting a recurring battle since the late 19th century. Lugard particularly believed that:The preaching of equality of Europeans and natives, however true from doctrinal point of view, is apt to be misapplied by people in low stage of development, and interpreted to mean abolition of class distinction (Coleman, 137)Similarly, he noted that "the premature teaching of English…. inevitably leads to utter disrespect for British and native ideals alike, and to a denationalized and disorganized population.

" When therefore the government released its educational plan in 1910, a plan which remained in operation with little revision till 1929, it contained the proposal for a carefully controlled education whose aim was literacy in Arabic and Hausa, the training of clerks, training of gardeners, agriculturalists and vocational workers. With the sustained implementation of this educational policy, Northern exclusivity and separate development was secured on a firm footing and the possibility of the ideological and cultural intercourse between North and South put in acute jeopardy.

The long-term impact of the educational exclusion of the North was twofold. First, the North remained grossly undereducated in Western education terms. As late as 1951 there was only one university graduate of northern origin. Second, it strengthened the role of the Northern oligarchy, a pressure group of Northern traditional rulers and their clients, whose opposition to cooperation with the South was as vehement as their invocation of their adopted Eastern, Islamic heritage. This class of Northern elites would later constitute themselves into an obstacle to national ideological integration during the pre-independence constitutional conferences, popularizing an ideology of gradualism that was a euphemism for maintaining a status quo in which they were profitably invested. In fairness to the Northern establishment, the Southern elites and their newspaper propaganda had concentrated more on the denigration of the North and its institutions than on the discrediting of British rule, the North being constantly used as a canon-fodder to attack and illustrate the failures of British policies. Moreover the educational backwardness of the North made it impossible to extend the nationalist newspaper network to the territory, especially since these newspapers were also profit-oriented, market-driven enterprises. But Southern disdain for the North was also partly to blame for this as a majority of the Northern population was Arabic-literate and the Southern elites, had they sought to create a national consciousness and a pan-Nigerian nationalism, could have employed the medium of an Arabic newspaper to reach out to the North. Thus the dilemma of the North, which revolved, according to Moyibi Amoda (1972:42), around the question of "whether (it) could contain the Orient and the Occident without being a victim of cultural schizophrenia," was also a dilemma of the South, which was similarly wary of ‘Northern/Oriental influence.

' It was not until after the Second World War when the British signaled decolonization by initiating constitutional debates and conferences that the Southern elite, recognizing the inevitability of an independent Nigerian nation comprising the North and the South, began to initiate a belated pan- Nigerian nationalist struggle.

The Northern elite, far from being political greenhorns as they were portrayed in the Southern press, interpreted this belated Southern effort as an attempt to manipulate the North for a Southern dominance of a future self-governing Nigeria and therefore refused to cooperate with the Southern anti-British efforts. This attracted further denigration from the Southern press, which described the Norther elites as ‘conservatives' and as people who were not sensitive to their freedom - people who preferred domination over independence. The problem was more profound; it revolved around the unwillingness of the Islamic power structure of the North to subordinate its Islamo-Oriental identity to the looming imperative of Nigerian independence, an independence process that was indexed by Western models of government and jurisprudence and was thus a subject of intense suspicion in the North. The compromise necessary to forge a true national union was not forthcoming from the South or the North. The former was steeped in a learned cultural arrogance that brooked no call for reconciliation with the cultural and religious preferences of the Islamic North. Conversely, the North enjoyed and cherished its exclusivity and despised the Southern attitude towards its worldview. In fact as early as 1943 a key figure in the Northern oligarchy and the editor of the first newspaper in the North, Gaskiya ta fi Kwabo, after refusing to associate with Nnamdi Azikiwe and other Southern members of a Nigerian press delegation to London, told them that We despise each other… we call each other ignorant; the South is proud of Western knowledge and culture; we are proud of Eastern culture. To tell you the plain truth, the people of the North put more confidence in the white man than in their black Southern brothers" (Coleman, 360).   Throughout the constitutional negotiations between 1946 and 1957 the North minced no words in declaring its intention to remain an autonomous and exclusive region, if it must remain in Nigeria. Using its numerical advantage, it virtually held the constitutional talks to ransom, insisting not only on complete regional autonomy with separate foreign policy (to enable it maintain affiliation with the Islamic world), but also threatening to secede from Nigeria if it was not given 50% of the seats in the legislative assembly due to take off in 1953. The British, not willing to see its amalgamation of 1914 undermined, decided to "satisfy the agitation of the North for separate and independent development" by entrenching regionalism and regional autonomy into the constitution of 1946 and maintaining (even reinforcing) it in the revisions of 1954 and 1957.

Regionalism became a centrifugal political phenomenon which further widened the political and cultural gap between the North and the South, so that even on the question of independence it was not possible to forge a North-South consensus. The South proposed self-government in 1956 but the North insisted on the phrase "as soon as practicable"; at which the Southern delegation booed the Northern delegation, calling them stooges of the British. The Sardauna of Sokoto and the leader of the northern delegation declared in response that "the mistake of 1914 (the amalgamation) has come to light.

" This statement reflected the deep-seated conviction of the Northerners that they did not fit with the South and that they should therefore never have been brought together in one colonial state.

This period witnessed the formation and the strengthening of regional parties. The Northern Peoples Congress (NPC), which was hurriedly formed in 1949 to be a platform of Northern bargaining in the new political dispensation was firmly entrenched in the North.

[i] In the south the National Council for Nigeria and Cameroon (NCNC), which prior to the 1950s, had a pan-Southern spread retreated more or less into the heartland of Southeastern Nigeria, while the Action Group (AG) became the dominant party in the Southwest. The South, failing to draw the North out of its cultural and political cocoon, was moving to protect its base. The regional nationalisms of this period differ markedly from the trend in other West African colonies where relatively mass-based, monolithic, and rabidly centralist anti-colonial movements were emerging. In Ghana, Mali and Ivory Coast, these movements transformed into various forms of one-party states at independence and continued to discipline agitations that deviated from the national ideal.

[ii]Meanwhile the North proceeded to build a formidable regional government along lines which accommodated the cultural and ideological affinities shared by its predominantly Muslim population. It strengthened relations with the Arab world and heavily subsidized the pilgrimage to Mecca. Scholarships were awarded to deserving Muslim Northerners to study in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The North, therefore, developed separately from the rest of Nigeria and this trend continued after independence in 1960.

Attempts to reform the Emirate bureaucracy of the north to bring it in line with democratic principles prevailing in local administration in the South was frustrated by the insistence of the Northern oligarchy on maintaining the status quo.

[iii] The south similarly pursued a separate developmental agenda. This situation made the achievement of national integration impossible throughout the 1960s, and the secession attempt by the largely Igbo-speaking eastern Nigeria in 1967 was both a culmination of a long period of mutual distrust, suspicion, and antagonism as well as an expression of the absence of a national consciousness among two broad units of the country. The creation of states to replace the semi-autonomous regions in 1975 mitigated but did not do away with the existence of different nationalisms - different nations which continued to pursue goals that corresponded to different worldviews and political and economic aspirations within an imagined national community.

Conclusion After 1945 when the pan-regional character of British colonialism in West Africa dissolved into the new emphasis on preparing each British possession for self-government, the anticolonial nationalism of each of the colonies began to unfold towards different trajectories. The trajectory followed by Nigerian nationalism differed markedly from those of other West African states; in fact its uniqueness is comparable only to India and to some extent Burma, whose ethnic and religious complexity and the multiplicity of historical experiences within their borders made the kind of integrative nationalism that was going on in other colonies impossible. The case of Nigeria was particularly difficult because it was a battleground, so to speak, between the Orient and the Occident, represented by the North and the South. Having failed (in fact lacking the ability) to block the union of these two different cultural and religious orientations, the Northern and Southern elites sought to preserve their exclusivity and the ‘purity' of their cherished institutions within the political structure imposed by the British. I argued that the North, more than the South, sought political and cultural exclusivity and that this emanated from several centuries of interaction with Arab/Islamic civilization. The Southern elites similarly harbored a deep resentment of Northern institutions and feared possible Northern domination. This situation of mutual antagonism and suspicion resulted in the pursuit of centrifugal aims and militant regional nationalisms which have since independence in 1960 imposed enormous constraints on the Nigerian state, forcing Anthony Smith to conclude that for Nigeria to make the transition from country to nation-state it "will have to invent ethnic ties and sentiments, perhaps by rewriting ethnic histories and conflating ethnic cultures.

" This has not been attempted and should not be attempted because it is doomed to failure. The failure of the existing national symbols (as contrived as they are) to inspire loyalty, patriotism, or emotional attachment is a pointer to the limits of invented devices of cohesion.

For Nigeria to survive, a radical renegotiation of the union is an imperative. The aim is to do away with the modernist, centralist, and unitary assumptions and impulses that inspired the creation of Nigeria in the first place, and to concede significant economic, political, and cultural autonomy to ethnic groups or regions. A new constitution weakening the predatory, distant, parasitic, and stifling central government is necessary. This constitution must guarantee the expression of the multiple political and economic aspirations in the country and return the control and management of natural resources to areas of their derivation.

References:  Amoda, Moyibi. 1972. "Background to the Conflict: A Summary of Nigeria's Political History From 1914-1964" in Okpaku, Joseph, ed., Nigeria: Dilemma of Nationhood, an African Analysis of the Biafran War, New York: Third Press.

Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Revised Edition) New York: Verso.

Bello, Ahmadu. 1962. My Life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chatterjee, Partha. 1993. The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Princeton, N.

J: Princeton University Press.

Coleman, James Smoot. 1958. Nigeria: Background to Nationalism, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Henley, David. 1995. "Ethnographic Integration and Exclusion in Anticolonial Nationalism: Indonesia and Indochina" Comparative Studies in Society and History, 37:5.

Hodgkin, Thomas. 1960. Nigerian Perspectives: An Historical Anthology, London: Oxford University Press.

Lovejoy, Paul and  Hogendon, Jan. 1990. "Revolutionary Mahdism and Resistance to Colonialism in the Sokoto Caliphate 1905-6", Journal of African History 31:2

Smith, Anthony. 1987. The Ethnic Origins of Nations, New York: Basil Blackwell Inc.______1977.

"Introduction: The Formation of Nationalist Movements" Smith, Anthony, ed. , Nationalist Movements, New York: St. Martin's Press Inc. 1977. [i] See Richard Sklar, Nigerian Political Parties: Power in an Emergent African Nation New Jersey, Princeton University Press 1963 p.90-93 for details on the formation of the NPC.

 [ii] For a discussion and analysis of the development of the one-party trend in West Africa in this period see Aristide Zolberg, Creating Political Order: The Party States of West Africa. Chicago, Rand  McNally and Company 1966.

[iii] C. S  Whitaker, Jnr The Politics of tradition and Continuity and Change in Northern Nigeria 1946-1966 New Jersey Princeton University Press.  p.57-60

Moses Ochonu, is  a US based Academic