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Revisiting the Nigerian 1959 federal election

By Anthony Akinola
11 September 2017   |   3:40 am
This article aims to conclude that “federal character” is both desirable and inevitable in the context of our nation.

Prime Minister of Nigeria Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (2R), Princess Alexandra (C)PHOTO:

This article aims to conclude that “federal character” is both desirable and inevitable in the context of our nation.  However, the article itself is an attempt to revisit the 1959 federal election as a platform to arriving at that conclusion.  The historical 1959 federal election took Nigeria from colonial rule to independence in 1960.  Its aftermath still provides useful lessons, even for the distant future.

One significant element in the 1959 election was the participation of key regional politicians, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, erstwhile premiers of the Eastern and Western regions respectively.  What attracted them to the election was the prospect that either of them could become the “first prime minister” of independent Nigeria.

The other member of Nigeria’s historical triumvirate, Sir Ahmadu Bello, preferred to continue in his position as premier of the Northern Region.  His “able lieutenant”, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, led their political party at the federal level of governance.  Tafawa Balewa became Prime Minister in 1957 and had the singular distinction of being the only one to have held that position in the history of Nigeria.  The parliamentary system was terminated for good in January 1966 and was subsequently replaced with the presidential alternative.

In an era when political party support revolved mainly around ethnic or regional loyalties, the odds were heavily stacked against the aspirations of Awolowo and Azikiwe.  The North had 50 per cent electoral representation at the expense of the Southern regions, the Eastern and the Western.  Significantly, Azikiwe’s National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroon (NCNC) and Awolowo’s Action Group (AG) were bitter rivals in the South, both relying on alliances with minor northern political parties such as the Northern Element Progressive Union (NEPU) and the United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC) respectively.  The North was eminently controlled by the ethnocentric Northern People’s Congress (NPC) whose leader was Sir Ahmadu Bello.

In Nigeria’s peculiar situation, no political party was realistically placed to form the government, thereby compelling a coalition of convenience between political parties.  Both the AG and NCNC contemplated forming the government with the support of their northern allies but this did not materialise in spite of Chief Awolowo’s willingness to concede the premiership to his older rival, Azikiwe. Bello threatened to take the North out of the federation if the proposed arrangement between the NCNC and AG was effected.  However considering the bitter rivalry between the two political parties, it would have been one hell of a coalition government!  In the end, a coalition of convenience was consummated between the NPC and NCNC/NEPU alliance.  The NEPU was the radical party opposed to the NPC’s conservatism in the North.

Awolowo led the opposition which constituted mainly the AG and the UMBC, the latter agitated for a separate Middle-Best region out of the North.  Customary intolerance for competition and competing ideas meant that opposition coming from Awolowo and the Action Group was considered to be the opposition of the Yoruba to the federal government.  Consequently, any attempt to curtail the influence of the Action Group was directed against its ethnic stronghold.  There was an attempt to redraw the Western regional boundary by merging a part of it with the north, and the creation of the Mid-Western Region in 1964, popular though it was, had punitive intentions.  The more disturbing and violent agitations for state creation in the North and East, principally by the peoples of the Middle-Belt and Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers respectively, were gleefully ignored by the NPC/NCNC coalition.

By 1962, the ruling coalition government had succeeded in infiltrating the ranks of the otherwise disciplined Action Group.  Of course, the breakup of the party can be explained by diverse reasons but the more relevant explanation has been the ideological one.  There were elements within the party which urged the leadership to abandon its ideology of “democratic socialism” and team up with the ruling coalition in the interests of the Yoruba.  The subsequent intra-party disagreements arising from this position sparked off a domino effect of conflicts that culminated in a bloody civil war between 1967 and 1970.  The census crisis of 1962/63, the disputed federal election of 1964 and the rigged election in the Western Region in 1965, were the most outstanding conflicts that killed off Nigeria’s First Republic in 1966.

Our experience of the acrimonious politics briefly reviewed above makes one wonder why some are still nostalgic about the parliamentary system of government.  The great Sir Arthur Lewis in his book, Politics in West Africa, concluded that the adversarial politics of “government” and “opposition” was unsuitable for a divided nation like Nigeria.  The great Nigerian scholar, Professor Ladipo Adamolekun expressed support for the “Lewisian” consociational viewpoint in one of his books and, of course, this writer shares their view of a “grand coalition” as the better option.

The presidential system with divisions of power between the three arms of government (executive, legislative and judicial) appears to be more inclusive than the parliamentary alternative.  Recent governments, just like their predecessors, may have under-performed but the relationship between members of the political classes would appear to have been more courteous and tamed than it once was.  The politicians of today rarely come into the open to insult other ethnic groupings and that, in this writer’s view, is a positive development.

The fact remains that nations differ in their complexities.  The United States of America, foremost and most accomplished federal nation in the world, may be as heterogeneous as Nigeria but the truth of the matter is that the former’s ethnicity is “dispersed” while that of the latter is “compartmentalized.”  The idea of a rotational presidency makes great sense in Nigeria and federal character in political appointments can only be rubbished by those with little understanding of the scale and nature of rivalry between peoples of different backgrounds.

Rotational presidency, federal character or ethnic balancing, help unity in Nigeria.  What constitutes our differences, ethnicity in particular, will not disappear no matter how hard we wish it away.  R V Denenberg’s book Understanding American Politics (1984) is quite a useful contribution which one warmly recommends to readers.  Here is one revealing extract from the book and it concludes this essay – “… In this ‘melting pot’ the peoples of the world were to be ‘Americanised’, amalgamated into a new national alloy.  But out of the crucible came an unexpected product.  ‘As the groups were transformed by influence in American society, stripped of their original attributes, they were created as something new, but still as identifiable groups.’  Politically these Irish Americans, Italian Americans and Polish Americans behave as interest groups, measuring their power and well-being against that of others.  In the large cities where the ‘ethnics’ are concentrated, a political party usually finds it prudent to recognise this heterogeneity by running a ‘balanced ticket’; an Italian for mayor, a pole for the City Council President and Irishman for Comptroller.”