Dead on Arrival

By Tunji Olalere 


  • Title: Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria: The Failure of the First Republic
  • Author: Larry Diamond
  • Publisher: Nigeria Next Quarter
  • Number of pages: 376
  • Year of publication: 2015
  • Category: Politics

‘If all moral and material advantages depend on those who hold power, there is no baseness that will not be resorted to in order to please them; just as there is no act of chicanery or violence that will not be resorted to in order to attain power’ – Gaetano Mosca, The Ruling Class.

The story of Nigeria is one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. Captured in verse, in plays and prose, polemics and paintings, it has intrigued generation after generation of thinkers and players how a geographically endowed country, with one of the richest deposits of natural and human resources, has stumbled from misfortune to disaster, from self-mutilation to near-annihilation, and continues to totter on, swaying from the intoxication of empty vainglory, on a path of under-achievement.

In this new, Nigerian edition of his seminal work, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria: The Failure of the First Republic, Larry Diamond examines the factors that led to the fall of the First Republic and builds a framework for understanding the demise of Nigeria’s first attempt at democracy. A professor of sociology and political science at Stanford University, Diamond’s doctoral thesis provides the raw material for this work, and expectedly, it is as robust in theoretical analysis as it is rigorous in its scrutiny of historical facts. The language is a notch above the layman’s, but lures even the average reader with the promise of treasures to be unearthed, and it does not disappoint.

Diamond begins with an introduction to the subject matter, including his hypothesis, then he discusses the peculiarities of the Nigerian geopolitical experiment, and in subsequent chapters reviews each of five watershed moments in the polity that tested the integrity of Nigeria’s social fabric, and the consequence of each strain. He then concludes by using his theoretical framework to grasp the import of the disaster inevitably arising from the series of events. The book is furnished with a comprehensive bibliography and an exhaustive index.

Underpinning the analyses of the culprits in the demise of the First Republic is the theory of cross-cutting cleavages, popularised by Seymour Martin Lipset in his book, Political Man. Simplified, the theory states that when individuals or large groups have a large number of cross-cutting, politically relevant affiliations, they are pulled in conflicting directions and thus have an interest in reducing the intensity of political conflict by increasing their tolerance of opposing forces.

In understanding the structure of Nigeria as it existed at independence, Diamond takes the reader on a historical journey through the creation of the northern and southern protectorates in 1900, to their amalgamation in 1914, and the division of the southern protectorate into eastern and western regions in 1939. Although one country on paper, Nigeria was effectively ruled as two different nations with democracy well entrenched in the south while in its infancy in the north, where the traditional structures were preserved and rule was through a Native Administration system. The preservation of feudal structures in the north, sanctioned by Lord Lugard, stunted educational and economic growth, such that by the late ‘50s, the south was well ahead socioeconomically, with the north anxious about being dominated, post-independence, by the former. To address this, the British made an egregious blunder by allowing the north pass into independence as one region.

Therefore, at independence, the Northern Region represented 53.8% of Nigeria’s population. This demographic imbalance continued to tilt the country towards chaos, as the other two (later three) regions faced the certainty of either exclusion from federal power, or an inferior role in the union. These anxieties boiled over during the census crises of 1962 and 1963 where massive enumeration frauds were perpetrated by each region in a bid to create a population result favourable to their ambition to seize federal control. These ridiculously padded figures signaled the underlying goal of the premiers of each region to dominate the others and seize the bounties of the state for their phantom populace. The tricks employed in achieving this end remain widely used in Nigeria today. Till date, Nigeria’s census figures are disputed, and will remain so as long as population decides allocation from a federal pool. The manner in which the regions handled this census debacle set the tone for the subsequent bitter engagements that would culminate in the collapse of the republic.

Perhaps, at independence, Nigeria should not have continued as a single country given the litany of irreconcilable differences that were obvious to the eye since the amalgamation of the protectorates. In this, the colonial masters were culpable, and perhaps in more, as, pre-independence, they did not develop any national sensibilities but rather allowed the different regions to calcify into an unwieldy, ethnic, regional, and political amalgam. This was the classic case of coinciding cleavages in which ethnic identity, regional boundaries, and political parties all converged into one mega-cleavage, reified over time, and with succeeding political crises, into an unbridgeable chasm of differences that eventually erupted in the volcanic apocalypse that consumed the First Republic.

As foremost post-colonial scholar Ali Mazrui observed in 1983, ‘It was the policy of the British to encourage, or even create ethnic loyalty and consciousness as part of their colonial rule’. The begging question, however, was how to manage these complexities in a way that produced fluid and bridging cleavages rather than reinforcing ones.

Curiously, religion failed as a cross-cutting cleavage as it existed in the shadows of ethnic orientations. It served as a tool deployed within the north to nefarious ends where peasants were manipulated to protect the Islamic faith from assault by the southern ‘infidels’. It was not surprising that Ahmadu Bello, the northern premier, would espouse an Usmaniyya movement of Islam which was inclusive, trans-ethnic, and attempted to unite the Muslims of the Caliphate (Qadiriyya) and those of the Emirate (Tijaniyya). The Hausa-Fulani saw themselves as the custodians of the faith and thus, concluded they had little in common with the Muslims of other regions, choosing to pray in separate mosques. The Eastern Region, which was predominantly of the Christian faith, reached the same conclusion about Christians from the Middle Belt or the Western Region; thus, this could not be employed for the greater good of the nation. Awolowo’s verdict in 1947 in his book, Path to Nigerian Freedom, resonates till today, ‘Nigeria is not a nation, it is a mere geographical expression’.

The other culprit implicated in the collapse of the First Republic was the state and the overarching role it played in class formation. In 1960, Nigeria was a poor country per capita. However, the British had left a bloated and overbearing state which controlled much of the country’s wealth. It was therefore imperative that in the face of statism, control of the state became a path out of poverty. The government, through the monopsony of its marketing boards, controlled the supply market, setting the price for commodities and depriving farmers of cashing in during the agricultural boom of the 1950s. Hence, the state became the tool for class formation. This led the foremost political scientist, Richard Sklar, to coin the term, ‘political class’, which referred not only to those in power but those who derived their position in society not by their relations to production but to political power. As stated by Claude Ake in a 1981 address:

[T]he Nigerian state appears to intervene everywhere and to own virtually everything including access to status and wealth. Inevitably [politics] becomes warfare, a matter of life and death.

Whether considered in light of the Marxian or Weberian frameworks, there was no national trans-ethnic economic class in Nigeria at independence. Instead, each region had its own class, composed in the north of members of the traditional aristocracy (slightly modified to accommodate the wealthy merchants, the Attajirai), and in the south, of those who held political office or benefited from its patronage. As observed by Sklar, ‘Class relations, at bottom, [were] determined by relations of power, not production’. A new university graduate began in the civil service at a salary 20 times the annual earnings of the average farmer. Many of those jobs were obtained by nepotistic affiliations or tribal origins. In 1964, 54% of all wage earners were employed by the government; the state thus became the instrument for class formation and consolidation. Political office in the south became the reliable route to membership in this dominant class. Diamond observes that those individuals who had the closest interaction with the British, for example, students who had gone abroad to study, returned with acquisitive appetites and tended to seek ostentatious display of wealth. This poverty mentality and the wish to exert and retain influence were best summarised by Chinua Achebe in A Man of The People in 1966:

A man who has just come in from the rain and dried his body and put on dry clothes is more reluctant to go out again than another who has been indoors all the time. The trouble with our new nation [was] that none of us had been indoors long enough to be able to say ‘To hell with it’.

Ethnicity was thus a weapon formed and deployed by the political class. Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa conceded that:

It seems to me the greatest offenders [are] the Nigerian politicians who in order to gain advantage over their political adversaries, would exercise no scruples in fanning the fires of jealousies and suspicion.

They created and manipulated ethnic prejudices to win elections. None of the so called founding fathers was innocent of this, and when it became obvious that the demographic advantage belonged to the north, it was only a matter of time before calls for secession arose from these regional leaders.

For thousands of years, the space bounded by the Nigerian nation-state had always been home to multi-ethnic nations, with trade blossoming between clans, villages, and empires. The contrivance, by the politicians, of a competition for scarce state resources shared on the basis of ethnic identity and density only served the political class who saw their people as pawns in the power play. They brainwashed them with stories of ethnic subjugation and exploitation, and in the case of the north, with threats of religious infiltration and corruption. Every event in Nigeria was then viewed and analysed through a conjured ethnic lens.

Diamond subjects five major historical events to rigourous analyses. The first of these was the Western Region’s crisis of 1962–63 where Ahmadu Bello and Michael Okpara, premier of the Eastern Region, ganged up against Awolowo of the Action Group, who was the leader of the opposition. It culminated in the declaration of a state of emergency in the Western Region, a tool that would enjoy preference in the hands of Olusegun Obasanjo 40 years later. The manner in which the justice system was manipulated to ensure Akintola’s premiership, imprison Awolowo foreshadowed the use of state apparatuses to persecute politicians who had fallen out of favour with the state.

The farcical Federal Elections of 1964, which were boycotted unsuccessfully by the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA) would confirm the fears of the other three regions, as the north demonstrated with single-minded ruthlessness that it could achieve a majority with little help outside its region. The impasse tested the character of President Azikiwe and the manoeuverings of that period continue to reverberate in Nigerian politics today. This was only aggravated by the debacle of the western parliamentary elections, where Akintola, with implicit support of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), had perfected the machinery of electoral brigandage and plundered the votes of his people. The region rose up in open rebellion, and in a final explosion of an unfortunate, but perhaps deserved, fate, Akintola would be consumed by the conflagration he had set off to destabilise his own region for political gain.

Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria also gives portrayals of the vaunted heroes of Nigeria’s independence. In reality, many of the founding fathers of the nation appear to have been motivated by much of the same primal concerns that consume the politicians of today. Many of these men crumble into a heap of disappointment on close scrutiny. Awolowo’s seat in the pantheon of the gods is smeared by charges of crony capitalism by the Action Group (AG) in the west. After reviewing the facts of the day, Diamond concludes that, ‘there was little doubt that Awolowo was at the hub of an intricate financial network that diverted vast sums of public money to his party’.

Azikiwe comes across as a conflicted leader who, bound by the neutrality of his office as president, harboured an allegiance to the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC). However, since he served at the mercy of the ruling party, NPC, he was reduced to a forlorn figure, afraid to lose the trappings of state office should he confront the numerous illegalities that riddled the government he was appointed to head. The duo of Ahmadu Bello and Tafawa Balewa give perspective to the curious claim that northerners have always had political power in Nigeria. Guilty, perhaps, of holding a secret wish to complete the ‘Conquest to the Sea’ started by Usman dan Fodio in the Sokoto Jihad, Bello’s ambition and blatant bigotry, with the federal muscle of his sidekick, Balewa, at his disposal, would find unfortunate expression in the disruption of regional democracy in the west. Balewa’s character also mirrors that of subsequent Nigerian leaders who were considered to be good individuals caught in the web of a corrupt system.

We can look back with nostalgia at a great nation that never existed, an idyllic country of autonomous regions each thriving on agriculture, and not waiting for handouts from a strong centre. In truth, Nigeria was just the ad-hoc state that it is today, an association of semiautonomous, competitive, authoritarian regimes who brutally put down opposition and see politics as a means to forming a socioeconomic class. These politicians become increasingly disconnected from their constituents’ suffering at degrees both baffling and callous. For example, during the general strike of 1964, the Minister of Labour, Chief Joseph Johnson, treated the union leaders with disdain, choosing to tour the USA rather than negotiate.

It is true that the repeated use of the military to put down rebellions, and resolve political imbroglio, made it obvious to some Majors that the political class was not fit to rule, and they began to see themselves as more than mere janitors of the realm. But ultimately, the republic fell because it had lost legitimacy in the eyes of the people. The outpouring of joy that greeted its demise would only be surpassed perhaps by a similar intervention, this time by metaphysical conspiracy, in 1998 when Sani Abacha succumbed to death’s wand.

Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria is a dispassionate postmortem of the carcass of Nigeria’s first attempt at democratic self-rule. It is brutally honest in its examination of the contribution of the different factors that plunged the infant nation headlong into death. It is obvious, however, that the country as it was structured was born to fail, that its DNA had condemned it to a life of dizzy spells, and dislocations, and that its failure had received generous help from the first generation of politicians who displayed wanton avarice and selfishness, digging into its flesh at every opportunity to satisfy their bellies. The real tragedy is that Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria reads like a commentary on 2018 Nigeria.


Photograph: ‘Opportunist’ by Carolyn Lehrke


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Tunji Olalere writes from Lagos.