In Europe, the tensions that would become World War II were already apparent. In fascist Italy, Benito Mussolini dreamed of reviving the glory of Rome and he looked to Africa for colonies to conquer. In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia, a proud nation that symbolized the best of Africa. For more than 2,000 years, Ethiopia had preserved both its culture and independence, dealing with the West as an equal. Now white imperialism crushed Ethiopia. Shock waves hit West Africa.
In 1939, when World War II was declared, Nigerians were urged to support Britain in the name of a better postwar world, a world that would include democracy and self-determination. Meanwhile Nigeria’s federal government imposed draconian wartime control. Transportation and wages were tightly regulated; a monopoly was imposed on all aspects of West African agriculture; small African exporters shared in less than 1 percent of trade. Two British banks — Barclays and the Bank of British West Africa — virtually monopolized Nigeria. These banks generally avoided lending to Africans, whom they considered risky.
Nevertheless, Nigerian hopes for independence were raised by the publication of the Atlantic Charter — an agreement between President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The third clause affirmed “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.”
But political independence required economic independence. The labor movement blossomed, with unions joining together to form the Nigerian Trades Union Congress. Educated Nigerians, who were excluded from the higher ranks of government, used these unions as a vehicle for political protest.
Nineteen forty-four saw the founding of the NCNC, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, a neighboring African territory. This was the first all-Nigerian political party, championing nationalism and dominated by the spirit of Nnamdi Azikiwe, its general secretary. Nigerians were inspired by the progress toward independence in Asiatic countries such as Ceylon and India. As World War II progressed, they watched Britain lose its Far Eastern colonies to the Japanese. When the prized colony of Malaya fell, white prestige fell with it. After all, one of the justifications for colonialism was that Western powers could protect the so-called backward people of the world. Where was that protection now?
Moreover, both of the new superpowers, the USSR and the United States, were speaking out against colonialism. In Britain, the Labour Party — with its strong anti-imperialist views — was coming to power. One of the party’s leaders, C.R. Attlee, declared in the London Daily Herald,
We in the Labour Party have always been conscious of the wrongs done by the white races to the races with darker skins. We have always demanded that the freedom which we claim for ourselves should be extended to all men. I look for an ever increasing measure of self-government in Africa.
Meanwhile, Nigeria was acquiring a new sympathy for communism, an ideology that appealed to nations with a history of subjection to imperial powers. Sir Arthur Richards, Nigeria’s governor, tried to soothe the situation by drafting a document that became known as the Richards Constitution. The document was not debated in Nigeria; in England, it was passed after being discussed for a mere 29 minutes in an almost empty House of Commons. Nationalists didn’t like its contents: for example, it did not provide for the direct election of officials.
Nationalizing natural resources
In March 1945, the same session of the British Parliament that approved the Richards Constitution also passed four so-called Obnoxious Ordinances. Three of them — the Minerals Ordinance, the Public Lands Acquisition Ordinance, and the Crown Lands Ordinance — were steps toward nationalizing natural resources. The Minerals Ordinance read, in part, “The entire property in and control of all minerals, and mineral oils, in, under or upon any land in Nigeria, is and shall be vested in, the Crown.” Natives cried out that the British were trying to grab Nigeria’s minerals and land.
Two months later, 30,000 union members struck for 37 days in a general strike. Since the participating unions controlled vital services, such as rail services, the strike paralyzed much of the nation. Suddenly, both Europeans and Africans realized that natives could successfully defy the system.
Mbonu Ojike, author of The Road to Freedom, outlined Nigeria’s minimum demands:
The African must be independent of the West in his fundamental economic thought. He must appreciate and preserve his economic heritage, protect it and develop it in the light of contemporary economic trends. We should not be afraid if his economy is likened to any form of —ism. All he needs is growth. Capitalism, socialism, or communism, whichever answers his call most effectively, let him pursue it unafraid of name-calling propaganda.
Unrest and political protest
In 1947, the British granted independence to India and Pakistan and appeared willing to grant independence also to Burma and Ceylon. Nineteen forty-eight became a turning point in Nigeria. The Richards Constitution, approved in 1945, was supposed to be in effect for nine years. But in 1948, the new governor, Sir John Macpherson, announced intentions to revise that controversial document and to recruit Nigerians into the senior ranks of the civil service. In August, the Education Ordinance was passed — the first major educational plan that applied to all of Nigeria.
The concessions came too late. Admirers of Azikiwe had formed a radical group called the Zikists. H.R. Abdallah, president of the movement, declared,
I hate the Union Jack with all my heart because it divides the people wherever it goes. It is a symbol of persecution, of domination, a symbol of exploitation. We have passed the age of petition, the age of resolution, the age of diplomacy. This is the age of action — plain, blunt and positive action.
Ten Zikist leaders were arrested on charges of sedition.
By 1949, six European firms handled about 66 percent of Nigeria’s imports and nearly 70 percent of her exports. In November 1949, a labor disturbance erupted in the Eastern Province and a police detachment opened fire on the striking miners, many of whom were killed or wounded. When protest swept across Nigeria, including a series of Zikist riots, the Zikist movement was declared illegal.
In 1951, another constitution — the Macpherson Constitution — attempted to pacify Nigeria, without success. At this point, three major political parties had sprouted in Nigeria, each with a strong regional base. In the East was the NCNC; in the West, the Action Party, called AG; in the North, the Northern People’s Congress or NPC. No party claimed a nationwide majority. Moreover, each party was dominated by a single ethnic group — a circumstance that did not encourage nationalism. In 1952 — Nigeria’s first general election — each party won a large majority in its own region and nowhere else. Again, the North talked secession.
The British government convened a constitutional conference in London, producing the Lyttleton Constitution of 1954. The three regions were now equally represented in Nigeria’s central legislature, but they no longer needed approval to enact their own bills. A federal election produced a coalition government between the NPC and NCNC — that is, between the North and East.
In 1957, a constitutional review conference was called and a national government formed to prepare Nigeria for independence. The three regional parties — the NPC, NCNC, and the AG — joined together under the leadership of Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.
In August 1957, both the West and East became self-governing, with the North following suit in 1959. Federal elections were held but, again, no one party had enough votes to form a government.
Independence and civil war
During the first minutes of October 1, 1960, the Union Jack was lowered. The green and white flag of the Federation of Nigeria flew in its place over African soil. Nigeria had become a sovereign federation. It covered almost 360,000 square miles and contained more than 55 million people, making it the most populous nation on the African continent. Three years later, Nigeria became a republic.
But could it hold together? For centuries, Nigeria’s political destiny — including its union — had been driven by British interests and British home politics, which had acted to destroy the traditional political and economic structures of Nigeria that had defined a complex network of societies and their interrelationship. Could a Western model of democracy hold the African nation together?
Power grabs, resistance, violence, and corrupt elections defined the politics of independent Nigeria’s first years. In January 1966, the federal prime minister and other key political figures were assassinated in a military coup. A new government was declared, but the head of the army, Major General Aguinyi Ironsi, quickly imprisoned the coup leaders. Within months, there was a coup within the army itself and Ironsi was dead.
On August 1, Colonel Yakubu Gowon, the most senior Northern officer, assumed the leadership of Nigeria. Gowon won over the West but tensions grew with the East. When it was rumored that Israel and the United States planned to back the East in a war against the rest of Nigeria, the North reacted with rage against its Ibo population, which had Eastern roots. Estimates of Ibo dead range from 10,000 to 30,000. Estimates of those who fled to the East range from 600,000 to 2 million.
An undeclared civil war existed between the North and the East, which wanted to secede. Secession was more than an emotional issue; it was also an economic one. Most of Nigeria’s oil industry was located within the East or off its shores. For centuries, the East had been the poorest area of Nigeria but now it could become the wealthiest. On May 30, 1967, the East declared itself to be the Republic of Biafra.
The East hoped that international oil companies would pressure their governments to support Biafra. But the United States was enmeshed in Vietnam; the Soviets were preoccupied with quelling Czechoslovakia; and most European powers were wary of a conflict that other Africans proclaimed to be an African matter. Britain was an exception. It supported Gowon’s government — the “Federals” — against Biafra.
Near the outset of hostilities, the Federals imposed a massive blockade on the East, which kept out food, medicine, and essential goods. Meanwhile, war destroyed the harvest of the East. Each night on world news, audiences around the world saw the results: the unblinking eyes of children waiting to die; the pleas of a mother as she showed her starving newborn to the cameras; the hoards of flies coating the faces of those too weak to wave them away. At its peak, foreign observers estimated Biafra’s death toll to be 30,000 a day.
Humanitarian organizations rushed food and medical supplies to Biafra but they were ineffective because of the corruption within the Biafran army and because of hindrance by the Federals. The Nigerian air force went so far as to shoot down a Red Cross DC7 in broad daylight, claiming it was an accident due to mistaken identity.
Britain continued to back the Federals with Maurice Foley, undersecretary of the Foreign Office, explaining, “We have links extending over 100 years, we have 16,000 people in Nigeria, great investments, and much trade of enormous mutual benefit to Nigerians and ourselves. We have no other honourable option.” When the Soviets also extended aid to the Federals, Britain became even less likely to withdraw.
Ultimately, Biafra surrendered unconditionally. The war lasted longer than two and one-half years. There is no accurate record of how many died.
On Independence Day, October 1, 1970, Gowon outlined a nine-point program for a new Nigeria. In 1975, he was overthrown in a bloodless coup. His successor, a Northern general, ruled for 201 days before being killed and replaced by the army’s chief of staff. Nigeria was staggering under an unstable but nevertheless persistent military rule.
Finally in October 1979, in the wake of a nationwide election, Nigeria returned to civilian rule. But the cycles of history kept turning. On December 31, 1983, the military seized power once again. Instability, elections, assassinations, labor protest, and accusations of corruption have continued.
The ultimate fate of Nigeria is unclear. As in many areas of the world that have been shaped — and brutally so — to serve the interests of foreign powers rather than the indigenous populations, the solution may lie in precisely what has been destroyed: the traditional relationships that were defined by the area’s unique religious and cultural beliefs. One hopes the people of Nigeria will be able to merge the best of the Western civilization with a renaissance of African traditions.
This article was originally published in the December 2004 edition of Freedom Daily.