It is interesting that after more than 60 years, the 1959 general elections remain hot topic. In recent weeks, the old interview of Harold Smith, the British civil servants who participated in that election, was again being discussed in many public fora, including online groups. As Nigeria marks the 60th anniversary of the British departure from our country, Smith’s confession remains hot topic. What is also certain is that the result of their rule and their decisions, especially in the final run to independence, continue to affect events and dictate our relationship with each other.
The three main Nigerian leader were participants and high stakeholders in the 1959 general elections. There were Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the teacher and local government administrator, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, journalist and publisher of the famous West African Pilot and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the lawyer, trade unionist and journalist.
Each of them was the undisputed master of his region; Bello for the North, Zik for the East and Awo for the West. The colonial government was making arrangements to wind down and they wanted a friendly and if possible, pliable successor. Smith was one of the young British officers that were saddled with the assignment to ensure that a friendly regime takes over the reign of government in Nigeria.
Smith alleged that what the British wanted was to have their friends from the North take over power in Lagos. Smith said the British did not want the two main parties in the south, Azikiwe’s National Council of Nigerian Citizens and Awo’s Action Group to team up to form the government at the centre. They would prefer Ahmadu Bello and his Northern People’s Congress. They regarded Bello as less troublesome compared to the flamboyant Zik and the methodical Awolowo. The British felt neither Awolowo nor Zik could be trusted. They feared, against the background of the Cold War that came in the aftermath of the Second World War, that either of them may later have sympathy for communism, the counter ideology of the East then represented by the giant and now defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republic.
Even now after almost 60 years, the British authorities have refused to lift embargo on secret papers about Zik and the last days of the British in Nigeria. What could be so important about Nigeria that the British government want to keep secret despite the passage of time? All the major actors are dead, but their deeds and memories are still portent even today. That some papers, especially those concerning Zik have been embargoed by the British government for another 50 years before they can be opened to the public, raises a lot of questions. This is an indication that there are unpalatable, and possibly dangerous, secrets that must be kept for another 50 years.
In the aftermath of the 1959 elections, Zik was the decider in Nigeria politics. Awolowo wanted to serve at the Federal Government and knew that he can only get there with the support of Zik. He offered Zik the post of Prime-Minister saying he was ready to serve as Zik’s deputy. Bello too reached out to Zik, offering him the titular post of Governor-General. When Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah visited Zik, he was flabbergasted that the great Zik would prefer to be a titular Governor-General instead of Prime-Minister, the repository of executive power. Many years later, one of Zik’s strongest supporters and his successor as Premier of the Eastern Region, Dr Michael Okpara, said he regretted Zik’s action. This was in an interview he granted the defunct New Nation magazine, edited by the legendary former editor of the old Sunday Times, Gbolabo Ogunsanwo.
Could the alliance of Zik and Bello have been orchestrated by the British? What did they have on Zik that made them bend him to their will? Smith said the instrument of the British in the NCNC was the wealthy Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, who was regarded as a free-spending wheeler-dealer. The British allegedly persuaded many of the dominant British companies in Nigeria to donate money to the NCNC through its national treasurer, Okotie-Eboh. Through this slush money, the British were able to have unusual influence on the NCNC and its policies and direction. It may be through this that they had their strong influence on Zik, forcing him to give up the job of prime-minister for the empty glory of being Governor-General. When Nigeria became a republic in 1963, Zik was re-designated President, still downing the same uniforms of naval admiral and army field-marshal. In effect he had pushed himself above the fray of competitive politics.
There were reasons why the British felt more comfortable with the North. Sir Frederick Lugard, the first Governor-General of Nigeria who amalgamated the Northern and Southern Protectorates with the Colony of Lagos in 1914, was born and raised in British India. He saw that the Muslim rulers were more friendly to the British unlike the hostile Hindus. Some of those who came after him were also old Indian or Asian hands. Hugh Clifford, who came after Lugard, was also from Malaysia. Donald Cameron also served in India where he was the registrar of the High Court in Allahabad among other postings. Sir Bernard Bourdillon also served in Malaya. He served in Siri Lanka and Bangladesh before his posting to Nigeria.
All these men bought into the vision of Lugard that the best way to rule Nigeria was through Indirect Rule as was done in Indian through the Rajas. They found the Muslim rulers of India more friendly than the Hindus. When they got to Nigeria, they were eager to translate their Indian experience onto the Nigerian soil. They regarded the Northern Muslim rulers as their natural allies. Despite the violent campaign in the North that preceded the imposition of British rule, including the conquest of Sokoto and the killing of the Caliph, most of the emirs were not unfriendly to the British.
Lugard and his men did three things to win the hearts of the emirs. First, they allowed them to keep their throne despite the embers of rebellion from the conquered Hausa aristocracies who regarded the Fulani rulers as usurpers and branded them illegitimate. Second, the British promised that they would not allow Christian missionaries to preach in the emirates or places claimed by them. The entire territories carved out as Northern Nigeria was also treated as larger extension of the Sokoto Caliphate. Therefore, preaching was made difficult even in areas where the Jihadist never conquered like the Benue valley, the Jos Plateau, Southern-Zaria (now called Southern Kaduna), Borno and a swath part of Adamawa.
The consequences of this policy were far-reaching. Areas of the Northern Protectorate that were never conquered by the Fulani jihadists, were nonetheless placed under their influence and sometimes direct control. The paramount chiefs of the other areas, like the Tivs, the Jukuns, the Nupes, Kataf, Jere and scores of others, were regarded as inferior to the Muslims emirs and treated so. Many of these chiefs were encouraged or even coaxed to become Muslims. The consequence had been that towns that use to have chiefs in the past, like Minna and Kafanchan, now have emirs. Throughout the colonial period, Christian missionaries were not allowed to preach openly in areas regarded as parts of the old emirates.
Sixty-one years after the 1959 elections, we are still living with the consequences. The upheavals and general insecurity in the old North may be part of the repercussions. We need to examine more of our past in other to find ways out of the present sense of unease by most Nigerians. Even during the Nigerian Civil War, the incidence of Internally Displaced Persons, IDP, was unheard of. Now, it has become the general pattern. The Federal Government has been unable to guarantee the security of life and property of its citizens and most of the IDP residents cannot return home.
I have a feeling that the history of Nigeria would have taken a different turn if Nigerians have been left to decide their own fate instead of the invidious manipulations by the departing British colonialists of the 1959 General Elections. The history of Nigeria would have taken a different contour if Zik had indeed being the first Prime-Minister of Nigeria. What one cannot escape is whether it would have been appropriate to keep away from power the NPC, the party that had the largest block of members in the House of Representatives. What is clear is that we were never really left alone to decide the issue of Nigerian leadership. It is not certain whether the situation is different today.