History of Nigeria

Agitations to discuss the “political structure and future” of Nigeria have always been with us long before we attained independence on October 1, 1960. On that historic day, the British flag, the Union Jack, was lowered in Nigeria and the Nigerian flag hoisted in its place. The flag was an adaptation of the winning entry from Michael Taiwo Akinkunnmi — a 23 year old student at the time he designed the flag — in a competition held in 1959.


These agitations, unfortunately, represent only “sectional interests” and not “national interest”, and they usually come in the form of demands for national conferences. This is largely due to mutual suspicion and lack of trust for one another – we discuss, negotiate and relate on the basis of “where we come from”. Tribalism – expressed in different forms — is still a huge sentiment in our national life and an ever present danger to a united Nigeria. As a country with over 300 ethnic groups and tribes, our diversity, ideally, ought to be our strength but our experience has shown that it is our weakest link and Achilles heel as we continue to confront the challenges of nationhood created by the British colonial administrators.


The four countries colonized in West Africa by the British before they achieved independence – British West Africa was the collective name — were The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana (previously known as Gold Coast) and Nigeria. The British introduced a policy of assimilation in order to seduce us with their culture and civilization – it probably explains why we still have strong ties with England and remnants of colonial mentality in our society. We can look back and trace our history from 1914 when the Northern and Southern Protectorates were amalgamated by the British colonial administrators, who used military force and economic diplomacy as leverage over their colonies. Nigeria became a British Protectorate in 1901 and our colonial masters ruled us for 60 years until 1960. English Language was first introduced to Nigeria by the British traders who began to arrive in the 16th century.


The first step towards achieving the amalgamation was merging the small Lagos Colony and the Southern Protectorate into a new Colony of Southern Nigeria in 1906. However, it should be noted that the Northern elite did not accept British rule; there was resistance and this led to a compromise solution in the form of indirect rule – using local rulers to govern the colonies. This explained why Sir Fredrick Lord Lugard, a British colonial administrator, was appointed to oversee the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria and subsequently as Governor General of the now combined Colony of Nigeria from 1914 – 1919. The amalgamation did not enjoy the support of the political class and the media – it was essentially a creation of the colonial administrators for their convenience to achieve economic imperialism.


The name Nigeria was coined in the late 19th century by British journalist Flora Shaw who later married Sir Frederick Lord Lugard. In an essay that first appeared in The Times on January 8, 1897, she suggested the name Nigeria for the British Protectorate on the Niger River. Colonialism had its good and bad sides. On the one hand, the white men introduced capitalism; took away our prized artifacts, changed our social systems, sold our people into slavery in the new colonies of the world and degraded our natural resources. On the other hand, colonialism opened our eyes to cleaner environment; improved sanitation habits, disease prevention and treatment, and increased life expectancy.


The amalgamation of 1914 created its own crisis; the early nationalists and even some British administrators were opposed to the idea for the following reasons: the educated elite were not given roles in the administration; and even after the amalgamation, the colonial administrators recognised the Northern and Southern Protectorates as two autonomous units and administered them separately. The nationalists began to advocate for a national dialogue to discuss the future political development of the amalgamated territories as a unified Nigerian nation and demanded to participate in their own affairs.


These agitations were largely ignored by the British colonial rulers but the British West Africa conference of 1920 marked a turning point in the struggle for independence which Ghana achieved first on March 6, 1957. The sub-regional conference made specific demands for future self-determination of their respective countries. By 1922, the British introduced the Sir Hugh Clifford Constitution in Nigeria which established a Legislative Council and elective representation. This led to the formation of the first political party in Nigeria – the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) – in 1923 led by Herbert Macaulay (November 14, 1864 – May 7, 1946); a politician, engineer, surveyor, architect, journalist and musician who is widely regarded by many Nigerians as one of the fathers of nationalism in Nigeria.


However, Northern Nigeria was excluded from the jurisdiction of the Legislative Council and was administered by issuance of proclamations by the Governor until the introduction of a new Constitution at the end of the Second World War in 1945. Meanwhile, the country was divided into three regions (Northern, Western and Eastern) in 1951 – a fundamental and major re-structuring step. As agitations continued by Nigerian nationalists for self-government and independence, the colonial administrators came up with different constitutions to address their demands. The Sir Arthur Richards Constitution (1946) was opposed leading to an improved version. The Macpherson Constitution (1951) which allowed for “responsible government”, not “self government”, came into being. Still not satisfied with the new proposal, our nationalists became even more agitated and vocal with the demand for an independent Nigeria.


On March 31, 1953, late Chief Anthony Enahoro of the Action Group moved his famous motion for Nigerian independence. Unfortunately, this motion was not unanimous as it created its own crisis between 1953 and 1957 and threatened the existence of an emerging Nigerian nation. The crisis, in part, led to the Lyttleton Constitution (1954) – the third Constitution in eight years — where federalism was adopted as the solution to the raging crisis of confidence and lack of trust among Nigerian nationalists, in addition to the resistance and lack of co-operation by the colonial masters. The goal was to achieve independence by 1956 which was not accepted; 1959 was then proposed which was again rejected by Lennox Boyd, the Colonial Secretary. However, the Western and Eastern Regions were granted full internal self-government in 1957. By 1959, the Northern region was also granted full internal self-government.


Nigeria became an independent country and member of the Commonwealth nations by October 1, 1960 through the instrument of the Independence Constitution. Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe was appointed Governor General of the country representing the Queen of England as Head of State, a position he held for three years. Whereas Dr Azikiwe was subsequently appointed Ceremonial President when Nigeria became a Republic in 1963, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa led the country as Prime Minister from 1963 to 1966. At independence, the three regions were largely independent of the federal government which did not provide any comfort for minority ethnic groups. The minority groups feared domination by the majority ethnic groups in the three regional powers. These concerns were expressed at the 1953 Constitutional Conference which led to the agitation for the creation of states. Only the Midwest region was created on August 9, 1963 before the First Republic collapsed due to regional hostilities in a nation still battling to find its bearing after independence. Unfortunately, Nigeria succumbed to military rule three years later.


The political process was terminated in a bloody coup of January 15, 1966 led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and four other Majors in the Nigerian Army. The coup ushered in the military regime of General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi who promulgated the Unification Decree 34 of May 1966 abolishing the federal structure and regional governments. Thus a unitary state was born with immediate effect! Six months later, a counter coup followed in what looked like the battle for the soul of Nigeria. The second coup was triggered by a feeling of selective elimination of senior military and political officers from some regions by the leaders of the first coup. This was followed with agitation by the leadership of the Eastern region. The motivation for the agitation was linked to reported cases of mass killings in Northern Nigeria of Ibo indigenes and reprisal killings in Eastern Nigeria. It was now looking like Nigeria was not ripe for independence, a position canvassed by the Northern elite when Chief Enahoro moved the motion for independence in 1953.


Lt Col Yakubu Gowon, at a very young age of 32 years, mounted the saddle as military ruler of Nigeria in 1966 after the second coup. He repealed the Unification Decree 34 and restored federal system and regional government; but the events that followed the July 1966 coup and how they were handled threatened the corporate existence of Nigeria. Lt Col Emeka Odimegwu Ojukwu, the then Governor of Easter Nigeria, was not convinced that there was equity in the Nigerian union. Even the Aburi Accord consummated in Ghana on January 4 and 5, 1967 did not help the situation. The fragile nature of Nigeria was tested by the civil war which lasted from May 1967 – 1970 under Yakubu Gowon’s leadership. Lt Col Ojukwu had announced that the Ibo stock was pulling out of Nigeria as he declared the Republic of Biafra. In the ensuing civil war, over three million people died, most of them civilians. The war ended after Biafra surrendered and Ojukwu escaped to exile in Ivory Coast.


Gowon had, in 1967 as the war was gathering momentum, broken Nigeria into a twelve state structure and appointed Military Governors to administer them. Only the East Central State which was the epicenter of the war had a civilian administrator, Mr Ukpabi Asika. Immediately after the war, Gowon embarked on a mission of reconciling the country by introducing the famous “Three R” policy – Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation – to heal the wounds created by events before, during and after the war.


His goal was to unite the country but the Gowon regime failed to return the country to democratic rule as earlier promised giving the impression that the military regime was not willing to relinquish power. The regime was overthrown in a military coup in July 1975. The General Murtala/Obasanjo regime that took over from Gowon put in place a Constitution Drafting Committee and convened a Constituent Assembly which saw the country back to democratic rule.


In October 1979, the Second Republic was inaugurated and Alhaji Shehu Shagari emerged as the democratically elected President. The government was overthrown in a December 1983 coup that ushered in the military regime of General Muhammadu Buhari. Barely two years later, in August 1985, the regime overthrown in a military coup that brought in the regime of General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida whose transition to civil rule failed. This may explain why the presidential election of June 12, 1993, was annulled by General Babangida; an election widely believed to have been won by Chief M.K.O Abiola.


The annulment triggered a major national crisis which gave birth to an Interim National Government (ING) — a political contraption created by General Babangida as his exit strategy – instituted on August, 27 1993 and led by Chief Ernest Shonekan. The ING was overthrown on November, 18 1993 after only 83 days, thus paving the way for the military regime of General Sani Abacha, whose sudden death in June 1998 ushered in the transition government of General Abdulsalam Abubakar. The Fourth Republic was thus inaugurated when General Abubakar handed over power to a civilian government headed by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo on May 29, 1999 as President, Commander in Chief of Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.


After Chief Obasanjo’s tenure of two terms (eight years) in office ended in 2007, succeeding civilian governments were headed by Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (2007 – 2009); Dr Goodluck Jonathan (2009 – 2015) and President Muhammadu Buhari (2015 till date). It is on record that former President Obasanjo and President Buhari have had the distinction of presiding over the affairs of Nigeria as military rulers and civilian Presidents.


Whether military incursion into the political development of Nigeria was good or bad is a judgement call everyone has to make. When Nigeria was made up of three regions, it appeared the Premiers provided visionary leadership based on available resources and the result was significant infrastructural development across the country. The dream for a united and prosperous Nigeria is still achievable but we must put the country first in all that we do. As patriotic citizens, let us be guided in our actions always by Nigeria’s motto: “Unity and Faith, Peace and Progress”. May God bless Nigeria.