By Prof. Tunji Olaopa
In 1939, after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, as dumbfounded as the rest of the world, characterized Russia as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”—an inscrutable state that defined her own international relations rules and played by them. Nigeria does not share anything in common with Russia in terms of her notoriety in world affairs. Russia’s political history, from Josef Stalin to Vladimir Putin, has been one long trajectory of aggressive foreign policy. Nigeria is a postcolonial state that has many crippling structural and institutional legacies to contend with in her attempt to make developmental progress. And yet, it is in these very attempts that Nigeria keeps confounding those who have invested thoughts, intellect, efforts and sagacity into making Nigeria realize her greatness. Since independence, 61 solid years, Nigeria’s ship of state has kept floundering, even with the best of the governance vision of succeeding governments and development planning.
To make matters worse, the inauguration and national progress of the Nigerian state has been further enmeshed in series of conspiracies that seem to complicate the post-independence predicament and how to get out of it. And what we have come to know as the “Nigerian condition” or the “Nigerian Factor” is all the worse for it since it has been invested with some mysterious quantity that continues to undermine all that has been done politically to transform Nigeria’s fortune. For Dean Haglund, the Canadian actor, “The beauty of any conspiracy theory is that because it can’t be proved, that just makes it more ‘real.’ It’s not a question of believing or not believing, really; it’s more a question of just accepting a series of probabilities that lead to an undeniable conclusion.” In the case of Nigeria, the worry is the extent to which the conspiracies about the founding and development of the Nigerian state has occluded the real issues as to what we really need to do—what the political class needs to do—to get Nigeria out of her present condition.
Colonialism and the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates is the most significant factor that defined Nigeria’s postcolonial reality. Outside of the historical narrative of how the colonial arithmetic strung together ethnic nationalities and infrastructural conditions for the sake of facilitating the development of the European metropolises, so many other conspiracies have been cooked up in the underbelly of colonization. Did the Nigerian nationalists betray the postcolonial future of Nigerians with backdoor negotiations? Were they led on a leash to do what the colonialists actually wanted for Nigeria? Were the nationalists, from Anthony Enahoro to Herbert Macaulay, and from Ahmadu Bello to Nnamdi Azikiwe, too eager to replace the colonialists that they failed to look deeper into the dynamics of independence and the encoded landmines? Indeed, the negotiations that brought independence for Nigeria, through the so many constitutional conferences, were too burdened by historical gaps to achieve certainties.
One of the other historical refrains, like British-induced conspiracies, is the idea about the Islamization of Nigeria. The Fulani Jihad war of 1804 to 1808, led by Uthman dan Fodio, not only defeated the Hausa kingdoms, but also led to the creation of the Sokoto Caliphate. The decline of the old Oyo empire also facilitated the foothold of the Caliphate into Ilorin. So far, so good. This is all historical fact. But there are those who still insist that the march of the Caliphate is not ended. Its endgame is the Islamization and Fulanization of the whole of Nigeria. When in 1986, the then military head of State, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, took Nigeria into the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), the conspiracy theorists had their “proof”! But then, the “proof” keeps getting stronger with the rising insecurity occasioned by the Fulani herdsmen and the hesitation of the Buhari administration to decisively intervene.
But then, it is not only the Hausa-Fulani that have generated conspiracies in Nigeria’s political development. In 1966, Gen. Aguiyi-Ironsi promulgated the notorious Decree 34 that unified Nigeria out of her former regional status. The decree was supposed to put to rest the crises that regionalism supposedly plunged Nigeria into. There were several indications that conspiracy theorists identified as a secret plan to foster an Igbo take-over of Nigeria. First, Ironsi stocked very sensitive federal posts with Igbo functionaries—from his three-man advisory committee, all Igbo; to the Minister of Justice, Chief Michael Onyiuke, who replaced Dr Taslim Elias, a Yoruba. Second, out of the four regional military governors, two rejected the decree, one was noncommittal; only Lt. Col. Ojukwu, another Igbo, welcomed the decree. By July, 1966, a counter-coup had occurred, and the civil war, founded on the fear of Igbo domination and Biafra secession bid, was about to happen. From Ironsi to the present-day Biafra, nationalism seem like one connected trajectory for many conspiracy theorists. And, as the argument goes, it becomes a dangerous political game to allow an Igbo presidency given the possibility of using that pedestal to realize the vision of Biafra and Igbo self-determination!
Even the civil service is not left out of the conspiracy. When the war ended in 1970, Gen. Yakubu Gowon became the head of state, reinstated the federal system, and had enough petrodollar to facilitate the rehabilitation of the Nigerian state. He also had the technocratic and strategic policy intelligence back end instituted by the famous super permanent secretaries. But, as the conspiracy theory goes, when the Gowon administration was toppled in 1975 by Gen. Murtala Muhammed, it was time to get back at the civil service and the super permanent secretaries who stood between the war generals and Gowon in the chain of command! And the 1976 purge of the civil service was the get-back strategy to whittle down the service. Of course, the theorists had nothing to say about the genuine need to downsize a system that was already over-bloated as a result of the Nigerianisation Policy and the principle of representativeness.
We can cap this trajectory with the Yoruba factor in Nigerian politics, and the litany of theories about the marginalisation of the Yoruba. The story moves from Awolowo to MKO Abiola and the Obasanjo presidency via the betrayal of IBB. Again, as with the other grand theories, it was Olusegun Obasanjo, a willing stooge of the Northern cabal, that undermined Awolowo’s chance of becoming president in 1979. And the same Obasanjo harvested the gains of the Yoruba’s chance of the presidency when the June 12 victory of MKO Abiola was annulled by IBB.
The entire gamut of conspiracy theories both indicts the Nigerian political class while simultaneously projecting elite nationalism as a mean by which the futility of conspiracy can be unmasked in outlining Nigeria’s path towards national development and progress. The fundamental issue is that of how to undermine these conspiracies by outlining a strategic theory of change and socio-political reengineering praxis that will take Nigeria out of the national doldrums.
When we put together the Conspiracy History of Nigeria (CHoN), then we are confronted with a straightforward conclusion that Nigeria’s predicament is an irresolvable one—a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. However, this is one conclusion that is very far from the truth. And that truth is derived from the many iterations of political histories in the march of civilization. From the Greek city-states to the rise and fall of the Roman empire, and from the dynamics of the Ottoman dynasty to the old Oyo empire, we have tales and trajectories of how national elites became the game changers in the evolution of national predicament and transformation.
The crass vision in the CHoN can be transcended by a politically genuine appraisal of Nigeria’s plural situation and development failures that serve as the basis for engendering first, a sincere dialogue about what ails this great state; and second, how we can generate a national health and integrity system to commence a healing process. All that is needed urgently are leaders who believe in the possibility of Nigeria and are willing to stake their reputation on that possibility.
Olaopa teaches at National Institute For Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos