Nigeria: Oshun's Birthday Anniversary And Reverberation of Ethnic Nationalism

Lagos — It was tributes galore for political activism on Friday, March 26, when Secretary of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) and chieftain of the Action Congress (AC), Olawale Oshun, celebrated his 60th birthday in Lagos. The event attracted political friends across the South West such as National Chairman of the Action (AC), Bisi Akande; former Governor of Lagos State, Bola Ahemd Tinubu (represented by former Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Leke Pitan); Governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Raji Fashola; Former Governor of Ondo State, Niyi Adebayo; Pastor of Latter Rain Assembly, Tunde Bakare and a host of other dignitaries.

Organised by Afenifere Renewal Group, the highlight of the event was the Birthday Anniversary Lecture delivered by Prof Ropo Sekoni, entitled 'The Nationality Question: Imperatives for National Restructuring'. It was an attempt to explain the nationality question, which has dominated public debates in recent times.

Sekoni's discourse took the audience through Nigeria's development from ethnic states to regional governments, and finally to the present structure, which Sekoni described as a highly centralised federalism.

The lecturer drew attention to three persons who have written on the same issue lately: Pa Anthony Enahoro, Cornelius Adebayo and Bisi Akande, noting that Enahoro strongly held the view that the solution to Nigeria's problem was not to ignore or deny the existence of ethnic diversity but to boldly acknowledge its existence and properly manage it in the search for unity.

Tracing the sources of some of present day discontent, Prof Sekoni observed that, "It was because of the need to make sure that Nigeria survived that the British Colonial policy makers and administrators bent over backward to prevent the Northern Protectorate (later the Northern Region) from bringing the experiment with Nigeria to an end."

He recalled that on several occasions the leaders of the North asked for concessions at every point that the British wanted to create structures and policies to ensure the survival of the experimental nation-state, Nigeria. Even with the country's first constitution, the Clifford Constitution of 1922, the North, he said, refused to participate in the first deliberative council over nation-wide administration, and added that to prevent the region from reverting to the situation before 1914, the Richards Constitution of 1946 tried to create three regions with some measure of recognition of the special needs of the three regions. He quoted Governor Arthur Richards as saying that the best way to strengthen the unity of the country was to "encourage the regions to develop each along its characteristic lines."

The retired don expressed the view that the Richards Constitution was to assuage the feelings of the North whose leaders insisted on a lion share of legislative seats or nothing.

"The consequences of this on Richards part," Sekoni remarked, "is an implicit recognition of the failure of the Lugardian Principle of centralism and the need to replace this with some measure of de-centralisation or regionalisation. Richards' romance with regionalism was later built upon by the Macpherson Constitution of 1951, which gave more legislative and executive responsibilities to the three regions while still giving more concessions to the North that was given 45 seats, at the Central Council while the Eastern and Western Regions each got 33 seats.

Sekoni also recalled that during the negotiations for the 1960 Constitution, each of the three regions opted for the sharing of responsibilities between the Federal and Regional governments, and pointed out that one of the minority reports by Mbonu Ojike and Eyo Ita affirmed that "Grouping of Nigeria along ethnic and linguistic units would serve to remove the problems of boundaries and minority dangers now threatening Nigeria," but expressed regrets that with respects to all the recommendations made, the Conference held in Ibadan could not adopt a linguistic basis for restructuring the regions, such as adding Yoruba in the North to the Western Region and Igbo of Western Region to Eastern Region. He stated that the conference was also unable, largely because of the recalcitrance of northern emirs to accept the redrawing of the political map of Nigeria along ethnic and linguistic lines, as suggested by the Western Region and the Ojike/Ita Minority report. The British colonial office, nevertheless, was able to respond to the insistent demands of Southern nationalists for commencement of a process of self-rule and at the same time to the demands of the Northern Region for a federation that favoured their hegemonic interests. The 1963 Republican Constitution - which consolidated all the efforts of the past - provided for 50 per cent derivation principle for oil-producing regions.

Digging deeper, Prof. Sekoni highlighted three significant points when Nigeria had suffered the pain of centralisation: the amalgamation of 1914, the brief rule of Ironsi in 1966, and the years 1979 to date when military regimes imposed their constitutions on Nigeria before leaving the stage. He said the 1960 Constitution had 44 items on the Exclusive List and 28 on the Concurrent; the 1963 Republican Constitution had 45 items on the Exclusive List and 29 on the Concurrent, but the 1979 Constitution had 66 items on the Exclusive List and only 30 on the Concurrent while the 1999 Constitution had 68 items on the Exclusive List and only 30 on the Concurrent.

Commenting on this gradual centralisation of Nigeria, Sekoni said: "The truth is that at the 50th Anniversary of Nigeria's Independence from Lugard's Great Britain, the country's Constitution is nearly as unitary as the ruling arrangement under Lord Lugard. The gains made for federalism under governors Richards, Macpherson, and Robertson between 1946 and 1960 had been wiped out between 1979 and 1999."

In his conclusion, he advised, just as Enahoro once did, that Nigeria is not going to lose anything by encouraging its citizens to add the privileges of Nigerian citizenship to that of the various ethnic nationalities to which they belong. He recalled Obafemi Awolowo's theory that if a country is unilingual and uni-national, the constitution must be unitary but that if a country is bilingual or multilingual, the constitution must be federal.

The lecturer emphasised that the lecture was an attempt to persuade Nigerians on the need to put more energy into building the case in political and media debates for the imperative of political restructuring, and expressed the hope that with consistence in Nigeria's political manifesto and media campaigns, Nigeria could avoid the experience of Yugoslavia.

All in all, it was a beautiful day in the life of the celebrant who was mostly proclaimed as a 'silent activist' for having the reputation of pursuing his political intentions with calm but consistency.

Oshun is the National Chairman of the Afenifere Renewal Group (ARG) and lately, a leading influence in the Save Nigeria Group (SNG). He was Chief Whip in the House of Representatives during the truncated Third Republic and was one of the unpacifiable elements that demanded the revalidation of the June 12, 1993, Presidential Election believed to be won by Late Moshood Abiola.

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