Five years ago, I embarked on a mission of ancestral rediscovery. It took me to Ajase-po in Kwara State. It was a mini imitation of the self-rediscovery exploits of Alex Haley in Roots. You recall the book, don’t you? I’m not convinced I should take this for granted. The book was published in 1976 and was a rave for many years-long enough for members of my generation to get familiar with it. I don’t think I can safely assume same for majority of Nigerians (40 years and below) who may be precluded by two factors. First, those born in 1974 upwards are not likely intellectually curious enough before 1990 when the book’s popularity would have considerably waned. Second is the general belief that the reading culture in Nigeria has been on a steady decline since if not before 1990.
Well then Roots is an autobiographical account of Haley’s family and ancestral lineage dating back two centuries to Kunta Kinte who originated in Gambia, West Africa and was sold into slavery in the latter half of the 18th century. An African-American, Haley died in 1992. Nearer home was Olaudah Equaino who was born in Nsukka in 1745 and died as a freed slave in London 52 years after. He wrote his life experience in a book titled ‘the interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equaino’, which I believe is a prescribed African-writers series text for pre-college African students.
My personal history begins to diverge from that of Haley in the important respect that my immigrant ancestor, also about six generations removed, was lucky enough to be spared the ordeal of enslavement and the traumatic voyage across two oceans. I started my own journey of rediscovery from my family cognomen-oriki-a snap oral rendition of rarefied family history. It was as revealing and straightforward as telling me that I’m from a warrior prince clan which originated from the Adeoba ruling house in Ajase-po. From our present abode at Okemesi, an immigrant settlement town in Ekiti State, I simply went to Ajase to reclaim this heritage in 2009. And what an odyssey it turned out to be.
To my pleasant surprise I learnt, amongst other beguiling revelations, that my centuries old cousins founded the settler city of Porto Novo-the administrative capital of Benin Republic. The indigenous name of Porto Novo is Ajasse-po.
If I were privileged to be a delegate at the National Conference in Abuja, I would have called the bluff of the Lamido of Adamawa, Dr. Muhammadu Barkindo Mustapha with this personal history and let him know he cannot pull rank on me. After all, I can lay claim to being a prince just like him; and if his kingdom straddles Nigeria and Cameroun, so does mine straddle Nigeria and Benin Republic. I have not been able to verify the colour of his blood but mine was royal blue the last time I checked! Even if they are not royalists like me and Lamido, I’m certain that most Nigerians share a similar family heritage of far flung cross border migration. But don’t let me assume that all our readers are acquainted with the Lamido’s royal disclosure at the ongoing National Conference where he is a delegate.
Stung and exasperated at the tendentious attitude of the Southern delegates at calling the unity of Nigeria to question and at worst actively wishing the disintegration of Nigeria, the Lamido rallied and issued a counter threat
“If something happens and the country disintegrates, God forbids, many of those who are shouting their heads off will have nowhere to go…But I and the people of Adamawa and many others have got somewhere to go. I am the Lamido of Adamawa and my kingdom transcends Nigeria and Cameroun. The larger part of my kingdom is in the Republic of Cameroun and a part of that kingdom is in Chad Republic. Mr Chairman, a part of that kingdom, in Cameroun there is a state called Adamawa presently in Cameroun. So, if I run to that place, I will easily assimilate”.
Subsequently I watched a video clip of this outburst and my first impression was that the Lamido was more in mockery and less in earnest. I was immediately cautioned that from the abundance of the heart does the mouth speak. And far away in Crimea, the Lamido was echoed quite trenchantly in the Russian President Vladimir Putin who went a step further to translate the shared irredentist sentiments into the action and deed of annexing Crimea-where the ethnic Russian population predominate. Before the Lamido, there were the towering political figures of Sir Ahmadu Bello and Chief Obafemi Awolowo. The former loudly regretted the mistake of 1914 and the latter argued that Nigeria was a mere geographical expression.
All these three personalities are united in drawing inspiration from the dilemma created by the 1886 Berlin conference on the partition of Africa. It was in that conference that the African continent was sliced and diced (impervious to ethnic and national affiliation) among the European powers of Britain, Germany, France, Portugal and Belgium. The Adamawa province is unique in the respect that it was perhaps the only instance in the history of African decolonialisation where the local people were consulted in a plebiscite to choose where they want to belong. In the run up to the independence of Nigeria in 1960, the peoples of the Southern Cameroun in Adamawa province were given the option (in a plebiscite) of remaining in Nigeria or sign up to join the French administered Cameroun.
They chose the latter.
Now apart from these Southern Cameroun people, I do not know of any group of Nigerians who were of a similar mind to opt out of the Nigerian federation in 1960. What we do know is that rather than entertain this kind of sentiment, the political leadership of the Western and Eastern regions had no better political desire than to govern a united Nigeria. Awolowo and Azikiwe both abdicated the Premiership of their regions in furtherance of the ambition of becoming the Prime Minister of Nigeria. The only reluctant member of the Nigeria trio was Ahmadu Bello-who expressed his reservations by the reverse action of sending his lieutenant, Tafawa Balewa, to Lagos as Prime Minister while he remained in Kaduna as Premier of the Northern Region.
Maybe Nigerians would have lived happily ever after. Maybe not. May be the Tafawa Balewa government should not have intervened in the Western Region factional crisis in 1962 in the way and manner it did. The partisan intervention marked the genesis of a trend in which all the major political crisis that had bedevilled Nigeria resulted from the overreach in the use and exercise of power by the central government. It set Nigeria on the highway of political disequilibrium to which the 2014 National Conference is the latest effort at seeking redress. The Balewa government overreach lasted till January 1966 when it was terminated by the inconclusive, messy and (Igbo) regionally incriminating exercise of the coercive instrument of central power. Hobbled by political inexperience and military bluster, General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi failed to recognise the poisoned chalice of the overbearing use of central power handed to him and its culmination inevitably provoked a lethal counter attack.
The Northern captors of central power would, by omission and commission, overreach and overkill in the counter attack against Igbo military men and civilians and end up provoking the civil war. The lopsided centralisation of power was subsequently institutionalised in the protracted era of military dictatorship. The annulment of the 1993 presidential election outcome-culminating in the General Sani Abacha personalisation of power-represented the outer limits of the exercise of central power beyond which the Nigerian community could not go. Hence the political tumult and turmoil of 1993-1998 that followed. A variant of this power usurpation was transmitted through the 1999 constitution to the elected presidents we have had since the advent of the Fourth Republic.
What then is the panacea or to be more realistic, what is the attainable panacea going forward? The reality of the convocation of the National Conference has provided a structure within which this poser can be addressed even as we are perplexed at the rapidity with which the assembly has fomented a transition from rising expectations to the dampener of rising frustration among Nigerians. Nothing kills consensus and negotiations faster than winner takes all scenario and the tyranny of minority rule. This was what the outlandish 75 per cent threshold of majority rule represented for the resolutions of the conference. In the context of Nigeria, the two thirds or 66 per cent threshold is a fairly elusive prospect and the grudgingly agreed 70 per cent is near insurmountable. What this means is that expectations of change seekers will have to be considerably reviewed downwards to the irreducible minimum.
My sense of the panacea we require is, so to say, to go back to first principles. In specifics, what this entail is a combination of the following; shrinkage and consolidation of the 36 nominal states into six regions; devolution of power from the centre in the proportion of what it was in 1960 and a return to parliamentary system of government. My sense of the attainable panacea comprises the latter two. And the irreducible minimum should be the devolution of power away from the centre commensurate to the 1960 constitution.
The Lamido of Adamawa represents a shrinking but influential political constituency and it is apparent that President Goodluck Jonathan will go to considerable length to pacify any disagreeable constituency.
And whether it is 75, 70 or 66 per cent majority rule threshold that is eventually accepted, such difficult to please constituencies should be able to live with the irreducible minimum of substantive devolution of powers from the centre. The insinuation of a rebellious South sans a Nigeria nationalistic ‘North’ is ahistorical-if the political attitude of Nigerians leading to 1966 is any indicator. Alienation started and intensified with the regressive deviation from the political equilibrium of 1960 encapsulated in the subversive empowerment of the centre at the expense and to the detriment of the federating units. It is impractical to return to this pristine past but we can recapture its principle and spirit in the one area we should all agree.
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