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Published On: Sun, Mar 16th, 2014

The mistaken short speech on 1914

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Bloodbath blights Jonathan’s Katsina visitThere is no speech on the state of our union that has been as widely quoted as the address by Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto to the House of Representatives sitting in 1953.

“The mistake of 1914 has come to light and I should like to say no further”, he thundered. This was his response to a purported motion for Nigeria’s independence by Chief Anthony Enahoro.

That speech has been reported and over reported by journalists; political scientists have analyzed and over analyzed it; when Nigerian nihilists decide to unleash anarchy on the land, they find an alibi in that short speech.

The original author of that spontaneous oratory has been traduced, vilified, taken to the cross and nailed for all these years of our independence. As Nigeria embarks on yet another round of conference on the state of our union, he will be taken to the Golgotha, again and again on account of that short speech.

The Sardauna himself would not be surprised if he woke up today to find out that this short speech is today receiving such lavish attention almost sixty years after it was made. In his autobiography, My Life, he confessed that this speech was the shortest but most important in his political life.

What would surprise him is the fact that the speech is often isolated from the circumstances in which it was made.

My good old friend, the late Prof Omo Omoruyi provides a bit of this background in his book, The Tale of June 12. He argues that before the advent of the whiteman and the colonial order, there were relatively independent units, call them states/empires, in the territory that currently makes up Nigeria. Anthropologists and the Ibadan History Series provide us with the history and form of political organisation of the different groups.

Following the Berlin Conference of 1884, Lugard, then a Captain, paid his first visit to Nigeria to organize on behalf of the Royal Niger Company, troops of subjugation to be used in extracting treaties from the Chiefs of the North. The various groups in Nigeria had no inkling that Britain was trying to amalgamate them.

Britain’s implementation of the Berlin Treaty was done through independent administrators:

The Oil Rivers Protectorate, renamed Niger Coast Protectorate in 1895 and was ruled by Consul with headquarters in Calabar

The colony of Lagos ceded to the British Crown in 1861 through a highly fraudulent treaty was ruled by Governors responsible to the Colonial Office based in Sierra Leone (1866-1874) and Gold Coast (1874-1886).

The Niger territories were ruled between 1886 and 1899 by agents of the private company and were responsible to the Board of Directors

in London. This corresponds to the present day Northern Nigeria.

Sir Frederick D. Lugard had, earlier as a Captain, worked for this company in negotiating a series of treaties with traditional rulers in 1897. He was, as a Brigadier-General, appointed the first High Commissioner of the Niger Territories of the Royal Niger Company to be called Northern Nigeria with effect from January 1, 1900.

This was the day the term Nigeria was first used in official communication. It would appear that the term was meant to refer to the North of Nigeria and later the other two governments were renamed Southern Nigeria and Lagos.

They were merged to form Southern Nigeria in 1906. From 1906, Northern Nigeria and Southern Nigeria were technically two autonomous entities responsible separately to the Colonial Office.

Credit for what is Nigeria of today must be given to Lord Lugard who conceived and designed it between1900 and 1912. By 1912 when Lugard emerged on the southern scene there was something called Northern Nigeria (which was over 14 years old) in the minds of the traditional rulers and of the traditional elites in the North. On the other hand, there was nothing called Southern Nigeria in the minds of the traditional rulers and of the educated elites in various parts of the South. The various groups in the South were treaty-based states who related to Britain independently.

This was why he campaigned to be given the assignment of incorporating the various units in south constituting Southern Nigeria into Northern Nigeria. His plan was meant to incorporate the various units and people of the southern territory into a unified North. Some how, that did not work out. He had to first create a southern Nigeria belatedly (almost twenty years after Northern Nigeria was in existence) and then try to forge a marriage between the two strange partners.

The dynamics that produced the internal contradictions of this forced marriage were yet to be resolved at the dawn of independence in the 50s. The disparate groups had different visions about the road ahead for Nigeria. On the issue of independence for example, Southern politicians wanted independence instantly while those from the North advocated a more cautious approach.

In parliament, issues were joined; still to their credit, the firebrand radicals from the south and the amiable conservatives of the north were able to reach a compromise. They resolved that if any issue of national significance was to be debated, it should first be discussed by the three leading parties – NPC, NCNC and the AG in camera.

It was therefore a big surprise to the Sardauna as leader of the NPC when he got into parliament on that day to find before him a motion slated to be moved by Chief Anthony Enahoro – demanding that Nigeria should be declared an independent state immediately. Enahoro of the AG was supported by his party leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the leader of the NCNC, Dr Namdi Azikiwe. The duo stood up and delivered long speeches in support of Enahoro. When it came to the Sardauna, he could not stand the perfidy. He delivered the shortest but most important speech of his political life. Amazingly, all the long speeches of the other two gentlemen are forgotten; only the Sardauna’s words have become immortal.

If only the leaders of the other parties had taken the NPC into confidence and thrashed out the grey areas that faced Nigeria at its foundation, maybe the Sardauna would not have called 1914 a mistake. Viewed from that perspective, I believe that speech has been greatly misunderstood.

Today sixty years after his speech, Nigeria is going into another conference to discuss the issues the Sardauna wanted discussed before we got independent.

I support President Jonathan’s conference; but I have misgivings about how the delegates were arrived at. Nigerians have a right to discuss ALL aspects of the state of our union. There should be no ‘no go areas’. Let those who want the country disemboweled come forward and tell us how this can be achieved without a war that will destroy all of us.


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