Monday Column By Emmanuel Yawe
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On January 15 1966 a mutinous group of Nigerian soldiers led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeagwu and Emmanuel Ifeajuna took up arms against democracy in Nigeria.
“Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 per cent; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles…”, declared Nzeagwu in his broadcast to announce the coup on Kaduna radio.
About 22 of the people he declared as enemies to his group were killed on that night, some while with their wives in bed.
He also spoke to the media at a press conference. I met Mr. Clement Kwaghsha Ende, a Tiv reporter then with the Northern Nigeria information service who was at the Nzeogwu 1966 press conference. We met in the early 80’s when I became a reporter in Kaduna. He said the mutinous major spoke so vehemently against the government’s treatment of Tiv people who were in riot against the government that a rumour started circulating among the reporters that his mother was a Tiv woman. Mr Ende said he helped dispel the rumor since he knew the Nzeogwu family very well.
It is one of those ironical twists in Nigerian history. The young military men involved in the mutiny were complaining of government’s handling of the Tiv revolt. The Tiv wanted a separate region from the giant north. We call it today restructuring. When their demand was not met, they revolted in what has become known in history as Tiv riots. The first of the riots took place just before Nigerian independence in 1960 while the second started in 1964 and was still on at the time of the coup in 1966.
The whole idea of a Tiv riot was aimed at breaking down the federating units to a more manageable level. In this, the Tiv were not alone. Nigeria at independence was made up of three regions as federating units – the North, the West and the East. In the north, the Tiv wanted a creation of a Middle Belt State, while in the West the minority elements wanted a Mid west state and the creation of Cross River and Rivers (COR) state in the East region was the demand of the minorities of the Eastern Region.
Amazingly, when the democratic civilian government was overthrown and a military government came in place, General Aguyi Ironsi who came into power as Head of State rolled out what he called the Unification Decree No 34 by which the whole country became a unitary state, the regions were collapsed into a single regiment and the Head of state was to rule as a commander – military style.
This was a complete negation of the democratic process and decision agreed `upon in 1954 that a federal structure was most ideal structure for a multi cultural and multi ethnic Nigeria. The military using a double-barrel gun fired a single shot that killed the democratic and federal systems of governance in Nigeria. More than anything else, Decree 34 set Nigeria on the slippery road to civil war. The war further entrenched military rule in Nigeria and even though it came to an end in 1970, military rule continued to 1979. Thus even though the military government that decreed Decree 34 and a Unitary system of government came to grief soon after, the military government that took over even when it created more states continued to rule the whole country under a command and not federal system. This is how the country drifted away from the federal principles of running its affairs even under democracy.
It has become difficult to break away from this tradition. The elite, the federal bureaucracy has enjoyed so much power and wealth under this undemocratic means imposed on the country by the barrel of the gun of 1966 and not the democratic decision of 1954. There has been resistance and anytime there is an attempt to return to federalism, a lot of hurdles are raised.
Additionally, the creation of additional federating units in Nigeria has been done by military governments and not democratic means. Thus in a federal system where every federating unit operates with a form or measure of independence our federating units are so weak that most of them exercise no independence in the running of their affairs. The states are so many and are so financially weak that without the monthly federal allocation, they will not survive. When Buhari came to office in 2015, there was so much poverty in the states that he had to arrange some special funds to bail out states which were unable to pay salaries. This defeats the whole idea of federalism.
The tragedy of Nigeria is that we often refuse to look at the fundamentals of a problem when faced with one. In the conferences before independence in 1960, the northern delegation like all others indicated their preference for federalism. In fact the north delegation was more emphatic on this principle. It was this insistence that every federating unit should move at its pace that led to self-government been given to the regions – the federating units in a staggered form.
But unfortunately, we are refusing to look at what brought us here. The easy way is to see the collapse of federalism in Nigeria as the handiwork of the northern political elite who are said to have no scruples in their drive for power. The truth however is that from a historical point of view, it is the undemocratic change of government in 1966 that brought the death of democracy and federalism in Nigeria.