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EMMF: Making a Difference in Nigeria

A history of Nigeria



The Portuguese discovered Nigeria in the 1480’s along with one of its indigenous races, the Edo.  The Edo kingdom was noted for its brass and ivory work and for its barbaric customs of human sacrifice, but for white traders its chief interest was as a source of slaves and pepper.  Long subject to the Yoruba civilization that had Hamitic origins and had established itself between the 7th and 10th centuries along the Niger River delta in the south, the Endo probably did not establish a state independent of the Yoruba until in the early 15th century.  The Yoruba maintained a loose federation until the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when they were united under the Alafin of Oyo.  The Oyo Empire, however, did not extend to the coast where the Endo in the west and the Igbo in the east were relatively autonomous.   The north had been settled by Hausa-speaking people.  Although they were a mixture of Arab, Hamitic and Negro stock, the Hausa spoke a common language of Hamitic origin.  In the early 16th century, the Hausa were partially conquered by the great Moslem empire of the Songhai of western Sudan.  It was not until the early 19th century that the Hausa states were completely conquered in a Holy War by the Fulani who had peacefully settled among them from the 13th century onward.  Despite their subjection to the Fulani emirs, Hausa administration was retained, and the Fulani turn largely to slave raiding.  While the Fulani were conquering the Hausa, the Oyo state to the south was also coming under control of a Fulani emirate established in Yorubaland.  


British interest in Nigeria dates to the mid-16th century when the first English merchants visited Benin.   Although slow to adapt to the rigors of the African climate, by the end of the 18th century British traders were in the majority.  Nonetheless the English had no formal political commitment to Nigeria until 1861 when it became expedient for them to annex its major port of Lagos in an attempt to stop the slave trade.  This opened the interior of Nigeria to British traders who formed the United African Trade Company in 1879 that succeeded in ousting most Europeans from their trading posts.  In 1886 the company was chartered by the British government as the Royal Niger Company and empowered to maintain law and order wherever it could obtain the right to do so through treaties with native rulers and to levy taxes to defray the expenses of government.  The company quickly established a protectorate in the North where it developed a trade monopoly with the Sultan of Sokoto and many other rulers.  In the south it proclaimed a protectorate in the Niger delta and controlled the palm oil trade.  In 1888 Yorubaland was placed under protection of the British following a pact with the Alafin of Oyo, while in 1892 the king of Benin accepted a British protectorate and promised to forgo slave trading and human sacrifices.  Three years later the Alafin repudiated British rule but was greeted by an expeditionary force that forced him to submit.  Shortly thereafter King Overami of Benin failed to keep his promises.  When a British counsel and his entourage, dispatched to give Overami an ultimatum, were massacred on their way, a British force captured the king and sent him into exile. 


Nigeria came under complete British dominion in 1900 when the responsibilities of the Royal Niger Company were assumed by the crown: the Niger Coast protectorate in the south and a similar protectorate for the north where the Fulani emirs held sway and were reluctant to accept complete British rule.  However by 1906 the emirs were subdued through a combination of force and diplomacy that allowed the Fulani to administer their territory provided they accepted certain broad principles and policies laid down by the British government.  By 1914 both the northern and southern parts of Nigeria were governed by a governor-general appointed for the entire country and two lieutenant governors under him, one for each part of Nigeria.  After World War I a new legislative council was established, but no serious efforts toward self-governance was entertained until after World War II when the country was divided into Northern (Hausa), Eastern (Igbo), and Western (Yoruba) Regions, each with its own house of assembly which in the main was made up of elected members.  A series of constitutional maneuvers culminated in the birth of the Federation of Nigeria with Lagos as its capitol and a full ministerial system headed by the first Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Balewa of the Northern Region.  In 1957 the Western and Eastern regions were given full internal government while the North waited until 1959 to accept it.


In 1960, The Federation of Nigeria became an indepedent nation of the British Commonwealth.  A coalition government was formed by the Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC), the dominant party among the predominantly Moslem Northern Region, and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), the governing party of the Eastern Region where the Igbo were the strongest racial group.  The lone opposition party, the Action Group of the Western Region, was led by the Yoruban Chief Awolowo.  The NPC-NCNC coalition proved fragile, however, when the Northern Region sought to unjustly manipulate the census of 1963 in an attempt to win additional seats in the federal assembly.  In the Western Region the Action Group became divided, and Chief Awolowo was charged with treason.  With Awolow in prison, Chief Akintola, head of the splinter group and more accommodating to the northern leaders, sought to manipulate the elections of 1965, the results of which were widely held to be fraudulent.  The Northern leaders and their allies in the West held sway in Nigeria until on January 15, 1966, a military coup d’etat was staged by junior military officers and three prominent pro-Northern politicians were executed: Federal Prime Minister Balewa, Northern Prime Minister Sir Ahmadu Bello, and Chief Akintola.  Although not a co-conspirator in the coup, army commander-in-chief Major-General Johnson Thomas Umunakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi assumed control of the military government, repealed the constitution, banned political parties and arrested many political leaders.  Within seven months, however, Ironsi was killed in an army mutiny, and a new military government was installed with Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gowon at its head.  Gowon restored the federal form of government.


The Civil (Biafran) War in Nigeria


In October, 1966, after a massacre of Igbos in the north, Lieutenant-Colonel Odumegwo Ojukwu, head of the Eastern Region government, ordered all but Igbos to leave the Eastern Region.  Shortly thereafter he assumed authority over all federal institutions, transportation, and tax collections in the Eastern Region under the guise that the federal government, as embodied in the northern-dominated Supreme Military Council (SMC), was attempting to stymie the economy of the Eastern Region in an effort to undermine its political power.  Ojukwu’s initiatives were denounced by the SMC that in turn was unable to resolve the continuing dispute over the scope of regional authority.  Despite its approval of plans aimed at preserving the federal system and restoring civilian government, some of these measures reduced regional powers and further alienated the Eastern Region.  By May, 1967, despite attempts at reconciliation between the federal government and the East, Ojukwu called the remaining economic sanctions and presence of federal (northern) troops in the Eastern Region unacceptable and sought the permission of the Eastern Consultative Assembly to lead a secession from the federation.  Shortly after the Assembly granted its permission, Gowon announced that the country would be divided into 12 states: 6 Northern, Eastern and the remaining Western.  The boundaries established by his edict would deprive the East of the lucrative palm oil trade and cut off their access to rivers and streams needed for the transport of other agricultural products.  The Eastern Region seceded from the federation on May 30, 1967, and proclaimed itself the indepedent Republic of Biafra.  The federal government established an economic blockade and started military action against the largely Igbo race of Biafra thereby plunging Nigeria into a long civil war.  Before the war ended in early 1970 with the defeat of the Biafrans and the restoration of the Federal Military Government (FMG), the number of dead from hostilities, disease, and starvation during the thirty-month civil war were estimated at three million.  The end of the fighting found more than 3 million Igbo refugees crowded into a 2,500-square-kilometer enclave.  Prospects for the survival of many of them and for the future of the region were dim.  There were severe shortages of food, medicine, clothing, and housing.  The economy of the region was shattered.  Cities were in ruins; schools, hospitals, utilities, and transportation facilities were destroyed or inoperative.  Overseas groups instituted a major relief effort, but the FMG insisted on directing all assistance and recovery operations and barred some agencies that had supplied aid to Biafra.  Because charges of genocide had fueled international sympathy for Biafra, the FMG allowed a team of international experts to observe the surrender.  Subsequently, the observers testified that they found no evidence of genocide or systematic destruction of property, although there was considerable evidence of famine and death as a result of the war.  Under Gowon’s close supervision, the federal government ensured that Igbo civilians would not be treated as defeated enemies.  There were no trials and few people were imprisoned.  Ojukwu, in exile, was made the scapegoat, but efforts to have him extradited failed.  The federal government granted funds for reconstruction and much of the damage was repaired.  Rehabilitation of 70 percent of the industry incapacitated during the war was accomplished in about three years.  Social services and public utilities slowly were reinstituted, although not to pre-war levels.


Nigeria Since the Civil (Biafran) War


Military rule continued in Nigeria through a succession of generals until General Olusegun Obasanjo, acting in the manner of his predecessor, General Murtala Muhammad, drafted a constitution in 1976 that was ratified in 1979, thus paving the way for the elections of that year and the return to civilian rule.  The Second Republic, however, lasted only until 1983 when it fell victim to regional rivalries, corruption, and a fall in oil prices.  The economy faltered and confidence fell to the point that an estimated $14 billion was taken out of the country between 1979 and 1983.  On December 31, 1983, the military seized power again and held control of the government until May, 1999, when General Abdulsalami Abubakar relinguished it to an elected leader, the retired General Olusegun Obasanjo.  Speaking at his inauguration President Obasanjo declared the day as the “beginning of a genuine renaissance” in Nigeria.  “Today we are taking a decisive step on the path of democracy,” said the 62-year-old Obasanjo.  “We will leave no stone unturned to ensure sustenance of democracy, because it is good for us, it is good for Africa, and it is good for the world.”   The Third Republic has given the Nigerian people a renewed optimism, and they are busy attempting to repair their social institutions like the ENMC.    





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