I was at the Ibadan Yoruba Summit to deliberate on the call for the restructuring of Nigeria. Though this call has been going on now for many years, it has become more urgent since President Muhammadu Buhari came to power in 2015. If the truth must be told, in the campaign for restructuring, the members of former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s disbanded court have found a new rallying cry far away from the dismal record of their principal. However, it would be wrong to say that the gathering in Ibadan was only another attempt by the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, to make the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, uncomfortable.
In his final years in power, President Jonathan had organised a Constitutional Conference which made far-reaching recommendations that would have affected the wellbeing of the federation if implemented. However, Jonathan successor vowed never to read it nor implement it. I suspect that the only way to make President Buhari to read the report is if Jonathan declares for the APC.
The truth is that the call for restructuring is an old campaign which the PDP did everything possible to suppress and discourage during its years in power. Jonathan later day conversion was apparently because he was looking for another term of office. It is therefore a great irony that the APC whole leading members have always been counted as part of the brigade asking for the re-ordering of the Nigerian federation, is now on the offensive against the demand.
There seems to be a direct relationship between the refusals of the Buhari government to acknowledge the report of the Jonathan Constitutional Conference and the new agitation for Biafra. Indeed all was quiet on the Biafran front during the Jonathan years. The response of the Buhari government was not to call for dialogue, but to display its sword. The Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB was not represented at the Ibadan Summit. Ohaneze, the mainstream Igbo leadership movement, was there and that was considered appropriate. Very few leaders would like to share the same platform with the young man who regards his country as a zoo.
For the Yoruba people, the Ibadan Conference was another opportunity to voice their displeasure about what they perceived as the imbalance in the Nigerian federation. At the heart of the matter was the original foundation of the country created by the British at the dawn of the 20th Century. Lord Frederick Lugard, a veteran of the Indian campaign, was brought in by the businessmen and imperialist forces that cobbled together the various states that became Nigeria. In India, the British forces, after the occupation of the Sub-Continent, still faced hostilities of the Hindus. The Muslims, however, were more accommodating. The British employed the good will of the Rajas to establish Indirect Rule. At the end of colonial rule in 1947, the British paid the Muslims back for their support by giving them their own country, known then as East and West Pakistan, which they excised from the old India. It is now two different countries of Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Therefore when the Indian veterans like Lugard landed on our land with many established kingdoms including the Sokoto Caliphate ruled by an Islamic aristocracy, they seized the opportunity to established British rule. Even areas where the caliphate had been hotly resisted, the British helped to pacify them and handed them over to the emirate system. The new Indirect Rule system simplified governance and served the interest of the British. Thus the Yoruba town of Ilorin, which played a significant role in the Yoruba Civil Wars of the 19th Century, was ceded to become part of the Northern Region. Many historically important Yoruba towns like Offa, Erinle, Kabba, Omu-Aran, Isanlu, Oke-Onigbin, Oro, Egbe, Aiyetoro-Gbede, Yagba and Otun were ceded to become parts of the old Northern Region. It was only in 1945 that Otun was returned to the West and is now one of major towns in Ekiti State.
The British also conceded many important Yoruba towns across the border to the French in the Republic of Benin. Among the towns are Ketu, Pobe, Oke-Agbede and Ajase (Porto-Novo). Indeed one of the most contentious issues at the London Constitutional Conference of 1958 concerned the Yoruba of the North. Chief Josiah Olawoyin from Offa, who later became the Leader of Opposition in the Northern House of Assembly, was a member of the Action Group delegation. He was the leader of the Yoruba of the North and it was a bitter defeat when both the Northern Peoples Congress, NPC and the National Union of Nigerian Citizens, NCNC, agreed that the issue of ethnic minorities should be deferred till after independence despite the protest of the AG.
Nigeria has been struggling to address that issue till date with qualified success. In 1966 after he came to power following the bloody countercoup that toppled General J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi, then Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon set up the Leaders of Thought Conference to deliberate on the new Constitutional arrangement for Nigeria. At that time, the Eastern Region, traumatized by the killing of Ironsi and scores of Igbo military leaders and the thousands killed in the North in the pogrom, wanted a loose federation. The West, North and the Mid-West, wanted the federation to continue but with reduced powers at the center. The conference collapsed when the military governor of the East, Lt. Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, withdrew his delegates from the conference. At the eve of the Nigerian Civil War in 1967, Gowon split the four regions into 12 states, six in the North and six in the South. He put the Yoruba of the North in the new West-Central State and appointed Colonel David Bamigboye as the first military governor. The state was later renamed Kwara.
Today, the situation appears worse. Instead of bringing the Yoruba of the North to the West, another state, Kogi, was created to further divide them. In Kogi, the Yoruba towns and communities were merged to create a new state and serve a particular interest. At the Ibadan Conference last weeks, leaders of the Yoruba in Kwara and Kogi states spoke about the need to remember the past and not forget that God made the Yoruba one people. “We want to return home,” they said.
That is a tall order. Many leaders believe that the only way to address the problem of ethnic aspirations is to hold a Constitutional Conference. It is noteworthy that none of the major political parties has made constitutional reform a major plank of seeking elections. Neither the PDP nor the ruling All Progressive Congress, APC, has tabled before Nigerians their roadmap to the reform of the Nigerian federation. Those who have been asking for this consistently have been the Yoruba elite and ethnic minorities of the South-South. The writer and environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, believed that every ethnic group should be granted the right to run its own internal affairs within the Nigerian federation. Despite the occasional threats from some extremists, most Nigerians believed it is in our collective interest to keep Nigeria alive and prosperous.
After General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the victory of Chief Moshood Abiola at the June 12, 1993 elections, many Nigerians concluded that the annulment was made possible because of the imbalance nature of the Nigerian Federation. After General Sani Abacha seized power in 1993, it was seen as an historic opportunity to organise a proper Constitutional Conference. A member of the Yoruba Leadership met with General Abacha negotiates the nature of the expected Constitutional Conference. In the end, it was agreed that the new junta would organize a Conference with “full constituent powers” and all the members would be elected by direct suffrage. Abiola was ready to concede his historic mandate if that would give Nigerians a new Peoples Constitution. Chief Olu Falae, former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, was one of those leaders appointed by the Leadership to seek election and participate in the expected Constitutional Conference. In the end, Abacha eat his words. He would not allow a free Constitutional Conference. Instead, he padded the place with government appointees. When the Leadership sent a delegation to Abacha’s powerful deputy, General Oladipo Diya, trying to persuade the junta to keep its words, they met a brick wall. Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin, then the leader of Afenifere, the mainstream Yoruba cultural and political movement, gave the directive that the Abacha Conference must be boycotted.
Since 1999, attempts had been made to effect constitutional changes without success. Indeed, when Chief Bola Ige, the deputy leader of Afenifere, joined the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, it was with the hope that he would be able to influence the government to pursue constitutional reforms. Though Ige succeeded in getting the reforms of the Laws of the Federation, he could not make headway with constitutional reforms. His old comrade in the Afenifere Leadership, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, was asked to head a committee to work on Constitutional Reforms, but they never really succeeded. Part of the problem was that the President and his party never campaigned with the agenda of Constitutional reform.
Those who believe in Constitutional reforms must be ready to come up with the formula to achieve it. It is wrong to say only the government must find the solution. It is also not helpful to say that only the Federal Government can carry out this assignment when the Federal Government is the main beneficiary of the current system. Unless we want a revolution, we have to find a way to reform the current Constitution using the provisions of the Constitution. The Ibadan Conference failed to provide us with a road map, but that is what is needed now if the campaign for restructuring is not to loose strength like a tired storm.