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#2023: Remember the first Republic Debacle – Part 2 

By Martins Oloja
02 October 2022   |   4:04 am
As I was saying last week, some facts of the history of 1964 election can be part of our useful guide to us at this critical time when politicians seem to be concerned only with how to win election without considering the consequences...

Martins Oloja

As I was saying last week, some facts of the history of 1964 election can be part of our useful guide at this critical time when politicians seem to be concerned only with how to win election without considering the consequences of the 1964 election, which set the tone for the paradise we lost – federalism in 1966. Our politicians are gathering war chest and strategy to rule Nigeria at all cost. They have the resources to plunge into another do-or-die election warfare. They do not have political assistants to tell them about how we lost the majesty of democracy in our First Republic through the historic 1964 election.

So, let’s continue with the reading of our history lessons of that time so that we can unlearn some of the bad political habits that got us into this reproachful valley where most of our best and brightest minds are the only ones that get visa to the First World where they now gain our brains. Embedded in the history as told by Larry Diamond are ‘grand coalition’, ‘political competition’, ‘federal system’, ‘political conflict’ and ‘colonial rule’.
Recall this background in our lesson note last week: Following the late 1964 election, crisis broke out on January 1st, 1965, when the contents of a speech to be delivered by President Azikiwe were revealed. The core issue was that Azikiwe vowed to prevent the Prime Minister from forming a new Government on the basis of the election results. Reviewing the repeated frustration of attempts to ensure a free and fair election, and Sir Abubakar’s rebuff of his request for postponement and UN supervision, he said they had finally agreed to allow the Federal Electoral Commission (FEC) to take ‘appropriate action’. But when the FEC failed to postpone the election and three of its members resigned, he felt morally compelled to reject the election result (and by extension, Sir Abubakar’s entitlement to form a new government). The Prime Minister’s response was that postponement of the election had never been discussed between them; that only the FEC could call off the election and only the courts could remedy irregularities…

And so as the confrontation hardened following the election debacle, President Azikiwe made his own play for control of the armed forces. Summoning the British Army Commander, Major-General Welby-Everard, Navy Commodore Wey and Police Inspector-General Edet to the State House, Azikiwe ‘is alleged to have pointed out that they owed allegiance first to him as President of the Republic’ and Commander-in-Chief. Anticipating such a claim, the service chiefs had sought constitutional advice, which confirmed that operational command of the three services was clearly vested in the Prime Minister (in that parliamentary system of government).

Consequently, Commodore Wey told the President he could take orders only from the Prime Minister. As an expatriate, General Welby-Everard did not wish to get enmeshed in a political dispute and politely withdrew, but then circulated to all his officers an explanation of the constitutional position.

Following this failure to use the armed forces, a compromise was worked out on Sunday, January 3, with a six-point formula for resolving the deadlock. Its key provisions were: that ‘a broad-based national government . . . be formed on the results of the last election’; that the legality of the election be determined in the courts and the results upheld, except where the number of voters was so small as to require another election; that arrangements be made within six months for a Commission (and then a constituent assembly) to review the Constitution and the electoral machinery; and that the Western Regional Government be dissolved ‘to enable the people of that Region to express their will as to who should govern them’. All these were agreed to but nothing was implemented.

There were two political formations in 1964 and Diamond argues that a superficial analysis of party alignments might suggest that historic regional cleavages had finally been bridged with the formation of the two grand alliances. In fact, the opposite was true. The year-long Federal Election struggle was essentially a confrontation between the nuclei of the two alliances, the NPC of the North and the NCNC of the East. As the conflict progressed, it increasingly polarised around these two dominant poles. While political or ideological themes were raised in the campaign, they did not cut across traditional regional, ethnic, and party cleavages as they had during the General Strike. When proponents of class-conscious, ideological themes finally aligned with one side, ideology melted into sectionalism. The regional and ethnic character of the conflict was evident throughout, from the preliminary skirmish in the Mid-West through the violence and ethnic vituperation of the campaign to the tense final weeks of crisis, rife with threats and rumours of Eastern secession.

Diamond argues that an important feature of the conflict, foreshadowing the subsequent tragedy of secession and civil war, was the recurrent political isolation of the Igbos, who were left at critical moments to face their ethnic antagonists in the North and West without appreciable support from their party brethren and political allies in the Mid-West and West. This was demonstrated in the ethnic controversy of March 1964, when even NCNC loyalists joined the Western Region’s tirade against Igbo domination of the country. It was evidenced again in the electoral showdown, when the bulk of the Action Group leadership balked at the boycott proposal. But it was most visible in the continued ambivalence of the Mid-West NCNC, dominated by minority ethnic groups.

The most proximate cause of the election crisis was the polarisation of conflict between the two alliances, and especially between the ruling parties of the North and East. No general rule of social action is more graphically demonstrated in this period of Nigerian history than the close connection between the degree of polarisation of conflict and the difficulty of its peaceful, constitutional resolution. The components of conflict polarisation — the gathering of forces around opposite extremes, the disappearance of moderate or mediating forces and of salient cross-cutting cleavages, the erosion of the rules of competition and of belief in the possibility of mutual benefit — had been steadily developing through the successive political conflicts since Independence. While the deterioration was not yet so complete as to obliterate any possibility of compromise, it had made political conflict extremely intense, explosive and crisis- prone… This is our sad story: More than fifty years after the 1964 lection and loss of federalism and its benefits, we are still crisis-prone, political conflict is still part of our democratic culture. What is more, despite all the journal articles on the crisis of the state, seminars and political conferences on restructuring of the troubled federation, the ruling class hasn’t shown any sign of political will to fight poverty nurtured by corruption.

In the last 23 years, we have seen the promise, rise and fall of democracy in Nigeria. Just as we saw the Second Republic gasp for breath and then collapse under the weight of unchecked political greed and rampaging malpractices in the 1983 elections. No lessons learnt by our politicians who continue to promote electoral impurities to get power they abuse. The consequence of that was military rule, which brought this country to a ruin and along the way, arrest and imprison the man elected, under its very auspices in 1993, with a broad popular mandate to fix our peculiar mess. ‘We saw that man, M.K.O. Abiola, die needlessly and almost avoidably in prison. We both then watched from outside Nigeria while the worst tyrant in Nigerian history, General Sani Abacha, took plunder and abuse of power to unimaginable depths….’as Diamond once noted in 2014.

That is why at this time of growing disaffection with the performance of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, it is important that all of us—even young ones who have no memory of those days of dread and depravity—appreciate this lesson of their own history, and that of other countries: However troubled the national situation may become, however scandalous or inept may be the performance of elected government, there is no hope of reform or renewal under any military rule. Let us note that as they just took over yesterday again in Burkina Faso In West Africa.

The trouble with Nigeria today is chronic deficit of honest and effective governance. We have learned in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Thailand, and in so many other countries around the world that there is no military shortcut to governance reform. Let those bidding to succeed Buhari and his ruling party men note that the challenge lies with the civilian institutions and actors of democracy: parties, politicians, legislators, judges, civil servants, and civil society. Like all other elements of the Nigerian state, security institutions—the military, police, intelligence—are in need of reform and modernisation, including significant investment in training and equipment for the challenges they confront. With sincerity in the purpose of the nation’s chief executive and commander-in-chief, Nigeria can make it as one of the most significant countries in the world. But it is the civilian political actors who must summon the will, the strategy, the resources, and the credibility to lead this process.

And here is the thing, our story will change significantly if we can begin to organise free and fair elections. Let’s make a brief stopover in India, a member of the Commonwealth (a former British colony too) and a member of BRICS, that is also a complex agglomeration of peoples, cultures, and languages. India is also beset with a number of challenges, and it has seen a disturbing outbreak of corruption they call ‘the enemy within’ over the last decade. Doubtless, corruption and inefficiency have slowed down economic growth and human development in India. But the country has a serious state (structure) and it has constructed an efficient apparatus for managing elections despite their huge population (of more than one billion, almost the population of Africa) and complex diversity.

The result of credible electoral system there has been almost 75 years of continuous civilian rule, and a record of stable, federal democracy interrupted only briefly by Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule. This is how a stable democracy nurtured by a clean election management system can trigger development. India is today a digital technology hub and consequences of that are loud in the digital technology world.

As we lamented everywhere yesterday the consequences of crisis of state when we celebrated our 62nd independence anniversary, politicians who are desperately scheming to rule Nigeria at all cost from May 29, 2023 should remember how their ancestors also desperately set the tone for the collapse of that beautiful First Republic. The Republic had brought about the first television station in Africa, first stadium in Africa, among other firsts. They should also remember that India has no reason now to continue to blame the colonial masters for their ‘enemy within’ because the majesty of their democracy and the rule of law have continued to trigger development in the country. Shall we blow it again in 2023?

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