Last week, in a classic reminder of how Nigeria has been divided since independence, Olusegun Obasanjo faulted the current ethnic composition of the country’s top leaders. “The Senate president is from North-east; the acting chief justice of Nigeria (CJN) is from the North-east; the president of the country is from the North-West,” the former President pointed out. “They are all from what we call the core north. How can you have that kind of arrangement and then be absolutely insensitive to it?”
In response, two major socio-political organisations from the west and east agreed with Obasanjo, while another from the north, the region under suspicion, waved off Obasanjo’s concerns, another perfect example of how the country responds to accusations of ethnic domination.
This culture of distrust is deep, even if it isn’t based on any empirical evidence of oppression. For example, in 1960, after independence, the north had only 41 secondary schools, while the east and west each had four or five times that number; at the primary level, the western region alone had 1,250,000 children, while enrollment in the north, which was the largest (by land spread and population) had 250,000.
As a result, when the British left, southerners were better primed to take up civil service positions across the country. This terrified northern leaders. The south, they believed, was about to take over. So they went round the region, encouraging students to take up career opportunities in the civil service, including in the army. Especially the army, some might argue. During one of his tours, the then Premier of the Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, is said to have told a group of students at Bida: “My children, the future of this country will be determined by who owns the army, therefore, I call upon you to join the army.”
So when the country’s first coup, engineered by self-proclaimed revolutionaries, occurred in 1966 and the casualties were mostly from the north, it was a reinforcement of the idea that elements from the south were bent on crippling northern power. “Political power had been the north’s safeguard against the south’s economic and educational advantages,” Jonah Elaigwu, a former Professor of Political Science at the University of Jos, has written. “With the military coup . . . the Northern Region’s political advantage was destroyed.” A counter-coup followed and, as both sides threatened secession, a civil war broke out in 1967.
While the country has managed to stay together for more than five decades, this strong sense of suspicion, mostly peddled by political leaders, is inimical to the country’s stability. But, taking into account Nigerian history, is it unjustifiable? Perhaps not. It’s a vicious cycle set into motion by the British in 1914.
Still, a country where the shape of your face or tongue is more important than the quality of your ideas and character, is one that will continue to flounder beyond the 21st century. ✚