UKNC-O HISTORY LESSON: BIAFRA THE CASE FOR INDEPENDENCE - PART 3

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THE AD HOC CONSTITUTIONAL CONFERENCE

On 12th September, 1966, the proposed Constitutional Conference began its sittings. Gowon called upon the Conference to discover a form of political association best suited to Nigeria in the light of recent developments. A Unitary form of Government and a complete break-up were expressly ruled out. He suggested four possibilities:

(i)         Federal system with a Strong Central Government.

(ii)        Federal system with a Weak Central Government.

(iii)       A Confederation.

(iv)       An entirely new arrangement which may be peculiar to Nigeria.

On the following day (13th September) the Northern Delegation circulated their memorandum which, as one would have expected in the light of the past attitudes of the North to the Constitutional affairs of Nigeria [See eight point proposal adopted by North on 23rd May, 1953. (Debates, Northern House of Assembly, 23rd May, 1953.)], recommended [Ad Hoc Conference on Nigerian Constitution, Nigerian Crisis Vol. 4.]:

(a)        That each of the existing four regions should be constituted into an autonomous state.

(b)       That these states should be served by a Common Services Organization.

(c)        That each member State of the Union should have its own Army, Air Force, Police, Civil Service and Judiciary; but that there should be a joint Navy composed of personnel in proportion to the population of each State.

(d)       That each member-state should reserve the right to secede completely and unilaterally from the Union.

At the suggestion of the Eastern delegation, the West, Lagos, Mid-West and East delegations prepared their own memoranda for comparison with that submitted by the Northern delegates. All these memoranda have been published in full by the Eastern Government (Ad Hoc Conference on the Nigerian Constitution, Nigerian Crisis Vol. 4, Government Printer, Enugu). With the exception of the Mid-West who reserved their position on the majority of issues, all the delegations were in broad agreement on a loose confederal association of states.

The Conference agreed to adjourn on Friday, 16th September after it had become clear that the Northern delegation was introducing delaying tactics (see Chief Awolowo’s comment quoted above). It was agreed the Conference should be resumed on Tuesday 20th. During the weekend members of the Northern delegation returned home for special consultations and on Monday the 19th Lt. Col. Hassan Katsina, Military Governor of the North, flew to Lagos to confer with Lt. Col. Gowon.

When the Conference re-opened on Tuesday the 20th the Northern delegation announced that they now wanted an “effective central government”, immediate agreement on the creation of states and that secession should not longer be written into the constitution. This appeared to amount to a complete volte-face on their proposals of seven days before. The West, Mid-West and Lagos delegations associated themselves with the Northern delegations’ proposals. The East “maintained that until the North spelt out in some more detail what they meant by ‘an effective central government', the position of the East was unchanged namely, that given the realities of the present situation in Nigeria only a loose form of association can work, and if by ‘effective central government’ the North meant something very different from a loose form of association, the East could not possibly agree to it” (Op. cit.)

The following day the North submitted a memorandum on their revised proposals after which “it was clear that the apparent unanimity of the other delegations the day before was not real". (Op. cit.) It was then agreed at the suggestion of the East that the Exclusive Legislative List (the list of subjects which under the previous Constitution were the legislative province of the Central, Federal, Government) should be examined by the Conference, subject by subject, in order to determine which responsibilities of government the various delegations would like to see remaining the preserve of a future central government.

To quote again from the preamble to The Ad Hoc Conference on the Nigerian Constitution:

“After their preliminary run, only eight or nine subjects were left on the Exclusive Legislative List, notably such subjects as accounts of the government of the Federation, copyright, patents, trade marks, weights and measures and similar non-controversial subjects.”

A sub-committee was then delegated to study the views of the Delegations on the Exclusive Legislative List and report back to the Conference in plenary session on Wednesday, 28th September.

The sub-committee subsequently reported unanimously to the Conference and it was later also agreed that an interim report on the deliberations of the Conference should be prepared. This interim report was submitted to Lt. Col Gowon on Monday, 3rd October, when the Conference adjourned for three weeks for further consultations in the Regions.

Both the sub committee's report adopted by the Conference and the interim report (issued in part to the press on the adjournment of the Conference) are transcribed in full in the Eastern Government's publication already referred to. The Federal Government pamphlet, Nigeria 1966, gives only the text of the Government Statement on the Interim Report.

The 14 subjects which it was unanimously agreed should remain the responsibility of the central government were of the nature already mentioned. As the Eastern publication says: " It is interesting to note that although the statement Issued to the Press said that 14 items were agreed, the list was not given. Apparently, the type of items on the list did not give comfort to those who wanted to claim that the conference had agreed on a 'strong centre’ or ‘an effective central government'."


Nine other items of greater significance were left as central government responsibilities subject to provisos permitting “the regions to operate in these fields or otherwise safeguarding Regional interests". The fields in question were Aviation, External Affairs, Immigration, Meteorology, Nuclear Energy, Emigration, Posts, Telegraphs and Telephones, Railways and Highways. Certain items which had previously been central government responsibilities were agreed to be transferred to the regional governments. It was also agreed, significantly, that the Armed Forces should be organised on a regional basis and their operational control vested in the regional commanders. Only for purposes of external defence in an emergency was it agreed that regional armed forces should be controlled by a joint Central Defence Council. No decision was reached concerning customs and excise and revenue allocation.

No agreement was reached on the creation of further States. The Eastern delegation held that “the issue of the creation of new States is an internal responsibility of the Regions. The initiative for the creation must come from the Region within which the State is to be created". The East also raised the point, significant in the light of the Conference’s agreement on the transfer of several responsibilities from the central to the regional governments, that "the splitting up of the country into new States will automatically have the effect of transferring functions which the smaller states cannot be expected to execute with their limited resources. This would, once again, engender inter-regional rivalry and political warfare to control the centre”. Indeed, it could well have been argued at the time, as it is being argued today, that a dispersal of the powers of a central government is incompatible with the creation of a larger number of states or regions. A. Nigeria divided into a greater number of units must necessarily be a country with a strong central government, to exert a unifying influence upon the constituent states.

The sudden “volte-lace” of the Northern delegation requires some explanation. The point has already been made that Northern spokesmen have consistently pressed for regional autonomy since Nigeria was united in 1914. In so far as Eastern evidence suggests that Northern politicians combined with Northern officers to plot the destruction of the Ibo element in the army on 29th the purpose of the plot was assumed to have been either control of the whole country, or, failing that, secession of the North from the South. The outcome of the coup was part success, part failure. The bloody extent of its success has already been dealt with at some length. Its failure was in Enugu where a preponderantly Northern garrison failed to assassinate Lt. Col. Ojukwu; it also partly failed by not taking into account that by handing leadership to Lt. Col. Gowon the Hausa plotters were placing a Middle-Belter in command of troops a very high proportion whom were also Middle-Belters.

The publication, The North and Constitutional Developments in Nigeria (Government Printer, Enugu), makes the following comment:

“This sudden volte-face of the North calls for understanding if the correct lessons are to be learned from past and recent events in the country. As a result of the coup of 29th July, Lt. Col. Gowon, a native of the Middle Belt, had come to power in Lagos. Backing him was a powerful army 80 per cent of which were infantrymen drawn from the Middle Belt. Although the Hausa-Fulani are in control in the North, it is the Middle Belt that is in control in Lagos. For a long time the peoples of the Middle Belt have been vigorously agitating for the creation of a separate Middle Belt Region which would free them from the grip of the Hausa-Fulani, but the latter have been ruthlessly scotching such demands. The Middle Belt people now saw the ascendancy of Gowon in Lagos as their last chance to achieve their political ambitions, and consequently they pressed the issue of the creation of states on the Northern Delegation in Lagos. Confronted by the military might of the Middle Belt the Hausa-Fulani members in the Northern Delegation yielded. If the North must be split, the Delegation also urged that the other Regions should suffer the same fate."

A year later, Mr. Walter Schwarz, writing in the Guardian speaks of the coup d’état which followed upon the Northern coup of 29th July which he named “the coup of the minorities". It may well be that the “coup of the minorities” was implemented just two months after 29th July by the one minority that was in a position to force the issue, namely the Middle-Belters.

A further reason which has been put forward as influencing the North against carrying through their original plan to associate only in the loosest possible fashion with the South is the advice of expatriate economists who convinced Northern leaders that it would be suicidal for the North not to control its outlet to the sea. The rumours of the influence of expatriate advisers are persistent although so far unverifiable.

LISTEN TO AUDIO RECORDING: Biafra Case for Independence Audio - part 3

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