It seems odd to speak of the beginning of an old or modern country in the same sentence with the concept of innocence. A child knows little because he is too little to know. But countries and societies like Nigeria were clear-eyed at birth.
The United States first beat its chest with rhetoric before rumbling into war. Greece muscled itself into being. The Sokoto Caliphate invoked Allah in a jihad of blood and sword. Bismark coalesced troops to build an army with a state. Yet, there is a sense in which a new state is innocent. Not in the sense of a new-born child who screams every other eye awake at 3:17 am, but in the sense of a new-born people, cobbled together to pursue a future that enchants and mystifies simultaneously.
In justifying why he wrote Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe urged us to return to when the rain started to beat us. Perhaps a good way to look at the convulsion around the country over restructuring. In the melee of voices, few have examined why the centre has become so juicy.
At independence, the centre was little. The regions boomed. Chief Obafemi Awolowo turned the western region into a model of governance. The east emulated. The north rollicked in its agrarian riches. The regions relished their relative autonomy. Things fell apart later. As columnist Kunle Abimbola noted, the national question took centre stage when IBB suffocated June 12.
But it was because the Southwest saw it as the inflexion mark signifying that the Yorubas were seen as second fiddle. We have to go a little back in time to understand this. The Richards and Macpherson Constitutions helped with setting the stage for a federal state, so the regions cared for themselves. The centre held because it attracted only a few. More importantly, the centre was perceived as belonging to all.
Hence after he was done with his work in the Western Region, Awo headed for the centre to run for prime minister. Also by mid-1960’s, the Igbos dominated the civil service. While the Middle Belt had a huge number in the army, the officer corps boasted an array of Igbo soldiers. No surprise that when the coup erupted in January 1966, Igbos headlined the actors.
Irony that the Southwest is not impressed with the centre these days. So, it hails a return to regionalism. The Igbos who once puffed in the centre have rejuvenated Biafra drum beats. Why?
It can be traced to a resource that belonged neither to the east or west: oil. When oil was discovered, the centre was not supposed to get more than 30 per cent of its proceeds. Fifty per cent belonged to the land owners, according to the law based on the Raisman report on derivation revenue.
What followed was a caliphate coup of oil. With the military takeover, the proceeds came down to 1.5 percent to the oil-bearing areas until Abacha made it 13 per cent. We must blame the regions, East and West, for kowtowing to the greed of oil and abandoning their economic war chests: cocoa in the West, and palm produce in the East and Midwest, and rubber in the Mid-west. So greasy was the North with oil that it slipped out of the groundnut pyramid. If all decided in their indulgence to follow oil, the Northwest decided it was going to dole it out. It had the power of the army to fulfil this destiny. Lewis Obi called it the Caliphate army in the June 12 era.
In all of this, the minorities counted for almost nothing. It was a great tragedy that canvassers for justice – East and West – also saw the minorities in the Niger Delta as feeding bottles.
We must understand that the most egregious sin happened when former President Olusegun Obasanjo, in his roguish elegance, schemed a minority to the top. Goodluck Jonathan squashed the opportunity. The same minorities and the Southeast missed the opportunity to set the template for a fairer country. Rather, their elites waxed into carpet baggers and continued where the majorities left off. When Jonathan fell, the South-south and Southeast now began to complain about neglect. We must situate in this hypocrisy the rise of an opportunist bumpkin like Nnamdi Kanu.
So, the centre is oil, and the Northwest elite became the North’s worst. They took the centre by force. The frustration of the East, West and minorities in the centre revved up the decibel of clamour.
We can see that the Northwest elite is the only region that resists restructuring. The voices of IBB and Lamido Sanusi, who support a structural rethink, are outliers. If we want restructuring, we must compel the Northwest to submit. In his new book: Nigeria: The Restructuring Controversy, former IGP Mike Okiro gathers the main voices on the subject. The Northwest distinguishes itself with an eloquent silence. Unless we hold the Northwest to account, the centre will not hold for all.
If oil spelt poor governance, ditto the national question. Pre-oil was our age of innocence on both. We are now looking back with anger. Philosopher Albert Camus characterised it thus: “every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being.”
But it is a nostalgia with prejudice. Biafra does not trust Oduduwa does not trust Saifawa, etc. Paul Unongo laments that Awo gave no ear to his plea to create the Middle Belt region during the constitutional conference for independence because he had secured the West. Awo is not around to respond. We are still a babel and until a united front compels the Northwest elite, the clamour may become impotent.
If we cannot get back our innocence, at least we can work on our prejudices. As the French philosopher Denis Diderot noted, “one makes up for the loss of one’s innocence with the loss of one’s prejudices.” We can’t all lose our prejudices, but we should chasten them to help us work together for a fairer union.