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The origin of states creation in Nigeria: Confronting the future at 50

The founding of twelve Nigerian states was one of the most daring and historic initiatives implemented by the government of then Col. Yakubu Gowon when…

The founding of twelve Nigerian states was one of the most daring and historic initiatives implemented by the government of then Col. Yakubu Gowon when he announced it in May 1967. This decision was actually symbolic of the desire of Nigeria’s peoples to gain greater autonomy and self-determination in the administration of their regional affairs. However because the crisis of trust in the military that was eventually to provoke the Nigerian Civil War was the most prescient national concern of the period the fact that the decision to create states and close down the four large regional governments was taken by a military government has led many analysts to assume that states creation was actually a tactic aimed at increasing the Federal Government’s likelihood of victory in the conflict. While this might be true to a certain extent the effect of the change in the basic formula of governance that it brought about served a more far-reaching purpose than that of military opportunism. In fact it can be argued that the effect of the change in the regional formula was far more transformational in the Northern region where many more people were affected than in the Western Region where the division into the Western and Lagos states appeared to strengthen and consolidate the regional autonomy of Yoruba self-government. However, even though the number of people affected was far less the political impact of the decision had an equally profound consequence in the Eastern Region. There the consolidation of minority autonomy in the South-Eastern and Rivers States served to undercut what many leaders of minority communities alleged to be the ethnic hegemony of the Ibo-speaking majority in the region. The Ibo territories were then confined to the new East Central State It is this latter fact that has engaged the attention of observers who have continued to attribute the creation of states out of the old regional structure to military necessity rather than to the more positive motive of administrative convenience and the enhancement of communal development, factors which have become the driving forces of the process of state creation over the last five decades. 

This development is a profound reflection of one of General Gowon’s most deeply held motives for his initiative, which was to reduce the oft-expressed fear of regional domination of the South by the North in the political affairs of the nation. As a consequence the creation of a balance in the regional order through the creation of six Northern states and six southern states was carefully thought out.  There had been highly volatile calls for more regional autonomy in various parts of the country ever since independence and the threat of secession created increasing political tensions. General Gowon’s commitment to maintain national unity and avoid further instability led him to seek support for the states creation exercise from a broad cross section of regional leaders before announcing the new order. In the Eastern Region the cry for the creation of the Calabar – Ogoja – Rivers (COR) State had grown increasingly vocal and in the North the aspirations of the Middle Belt movement had also become a major source of popular discontent in the region. General Gowon’s initiative was designed to alleviate these tensions as much as anything else, although it is often presumed that it was a bid to check the influence of Odumegwu Ojukwu in the Eastern Region, that led him to announce in May 1967 that the four Nigerian regions had been split into 12 states

The new states were the North-Western State, North-Eastern state, Kano State, North-Central State, Benue-Plateau State, Kwara State, Western State, Lagos State, Mid-Western State, and, from Ojukwu’s Eastern Region, a Rivers State, a South-Eastern State, and an East-Central State. According to a biographical post about General Gowon on the internet “The non-Igbo South-Eastern and Rivers states which had the oil reserves and access to the sea, were carved out to isolate the Igbo areas of the East-Central state.”  However while this assumption might fit the exigencies of that particularly critical moment in Nigerian history, the subsequent consequences of the original decision, in which the twelve states have metamorphosed into thirty six federating units, have given a new and more profoundly fundamental relevance to the original intention of Gowon’s decisive action. The true impact of the change from large federating regions dominated by monolithic ethnic nationalities into smaller states controlled by governments made up of operatives selected from the communal populace has been to strengthen the autonomy of the so-called minority tribes. It is unlikely that a reversal of this trend will ever be welcomed by a substantial proportion of the ordinary people of Nigeria and for this reason the original decision taken by General Gowon should be regarded as a seminal act of liberation of the fundamental rights of Nigeria’s post-independence citizenry. It is for this reason that the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the founding of those states that still bear their original names should take on significance this year.

Only four states still bear the original names that they were given in 1967. These are Kano, Kwara, Lagos and Rivers States. At a stretch this list could be modified to include Benue and Plateau states which bore the compound name Benue-Plateau as one unit before being split into two later. Geographically hardly any state (with the possible exception of Lagos) has retained its original form and demographic composition. For example the original Rivers State is now made up of Rivers and Bayelsa States, while Kano has been split into Kano and Jigawa States and so on. The transformation of the original twelve into today’s thirty six fundamentally autonomous political units actually represents a monumental transformation of Nigerian statehood from the colonial paradigm of indirect rule, which the regional system represented. The modern Nigerian state has evolved out of a representative formula through which local communities exercise greater control over their internal affairs as well as over their relationship with the central Federal Government. However there has been constant criticism of the actual implementation of these fundamental duties expressed by various interest groups and advocates of both closer national integration and increased self-determinate autonomy. The resilience of the discourse over the relevance and efficacy of the states when compared with the system of regional compartmentalization is illustrative of the ongoing process of nation-building in which Nigeria is engaged nearly six decades after independence. It can hardly be doubted however that the foundation for greater unity of purpose was laid by the establishment of the states as the Federating units when secession threatened the Nigerian nation with imminent disintegration and then erupted into civil war. 

In present day Nigeria supporters of state formation as the basic formula for national unity now propose the strengthening of the institutions of local government, and self-determinate economic empowerment at the state level as solutions for deficiencies that continue to trail the existential profile of the Nigerian State. At the same time there are those who believe that the proliferation of state administrations and polities has created an untenable and expensive form of government that is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. The main objective of states creation since the end of the civil war has been to enhance the delivery of service and good governance to the local populace and to develop improved infrastructure and administrative apparatus at the grassroots. While military fiat has served as the most effective instrument for the creation of states right from the initial exercise it can hardly be denied that the greatest beneficiaries of the devolution of regional control into the hands of state governments have been the local political classes. As a consequence the process of administering the states has been hijacked to a large extent by privileged local elites who claim to represent the masses but who are all too often exploiters rather than representatives of the people. This circumstance has led to growing disenchantment with some aspects of statehood as the source of deficiencies in governance but the real benefits of the creation of new states that were achieved as a consequence of the original exercise have not been effectively disproven. What Nigeria needs today is improvement of the principles of state government rather than the jettisoning of the entire process. In seeking to achieve this Nigerians might be well advised to revive the sense of patriotic need and nationalistic zeal with which the leadership headed by Yakubu Gowon implemented the exercise that created the original twelve states.

At the time that the first states creation exercise was implemented, as we have said before, the most prescient concern in Nigeria was how to prevent the inevitable conflict from resulting in the disintegration of the young nation. The transformation of the system of regional compartmentalization was indeed carried out as part of a strategy for granting autonomy to some groups who had been agitating for separation from their regional overlords for decades. However while the focus appeared to be on those elements in the Eastern Region where the threat of war loomed it should not be overlooked that similar agitations in the Northern Region also gained triumphant relief for years of agitation against what they defined as ethnic oppression. So while the creation of states in the Eastern Region might be attributed to the imminence of war the transformation in other parts of the nation was no less attributable to the presence of the dangers of division and the need to defend the integrity of new states and thus preserve the unity of a new Nigerian entity. The overall impact of the state creation at that time was to lead to more fundamental considerations of the wider implications of independent nationhood in the aftermath of war, especially as the first attacks on Nigerian territory by the secessionist forces were actually incursions into Benue State on the northern border of the East Central State. In an irony of circumstances those who later overthrew General Gowon were the very people who rendered his most controversial decision historically acceptable when they created seven new states out of the original twelve, a decision which was actually based on plans that had been put in place by General Gowon’s administration before it was overthrown. In later years agitation for more states to be created became a preoccupation of local communities in response to the perception that development and resources were being monopolized by particular groups or that territorial potential was being neglected. The response to these crucial expressions of dissatisfaction with the national status quo continually found restitution in the establishment of new states in increasing proliferation until today Nigeria has thirty six federating units of varying viability. 

The inequality of economic status and perceived viability that exists among Nigeria’s states is the source of much of the disenchantment being expressed by some critics of the present system. However the fact that this system has existed for fifty years and has been consolidated by the implementation of additional acts of state creation has generated conventional acceptance of the formula among the average Nigerian populace, and this would be disrupted if reversed. In spite of this, change and transformation is an integral necessity in nation-building and the existence of states as the federating units of the nation does not preclude reform of the processes of governance even though some observers argue that Nigeria’s states might have reached numerical sufficiency at present. A much more stable process of change for the future should consist of the strengthening of the autonomous viability and economic resilience of the existing states. In that light the recognition of the profound commitment to national unity that served as the motivation for the Gowon initiative should be commemorated and celebrated. 

It is with this in mind that we urge those who are in charge of the states that carry the original names to regard their legacy as sacrosanct. They should see themselves as custodians of an important and symbolic act of public empowerment that supersedes the original purpose of the initiative and has become the bellwether of communal integration and harmony in the national polity. Over the five decades since the primary creation of the state structure Nigeria has relinquished the inheritance of the colonial administrative structure and installed a home-grown conglomerate of units that are supposed to reflect the aspirational identity and diversity of the populace more accurately. If this form of national co-existence survives for another fifty years history will absolve and justify the 1967 decision. Although the states that still carry the names that they were given in 1967 are only four, by some curious coincidence three out of the four are locations of the urban economic powerhouses of the nation. Lagos is still regarded as the commercial capital of the entire nation, Port Harcourt in Rivers State is the capital of the hydrocarbon industry, and Kano is the hub of trade and industry for the entire Northern axis of Nigerian economic activity, while Kwara State has quietly developed into a focal point for the transformation of Nigeria’s agricultural development. It would be particularly propitious if in celebrating the 50th Anniversary of states creation the leaders of these states were able to unveil strategies and plans that will increase the economic viability as well as consolidate the political stability of their states over the future decades. At the same time it is imperative that leaders of all Nigerian states should remember that their entities originated with the birth of the twelve original states. In this light the commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of state’s creation should be a celebration for all of the nation and not just for those entities that still carry the original names, If the motivation behind the creation of states is allied to genuine representation of the interests and aspirations of the ordinary citizens of these states the probability that the existing format of nationhood that was initiated in May 1967 can survive and prosper for the next fifty years and beyond will be enhanced.

It is for the above reason more than any other that some observers who are concerned about the issue advocate the convening of a major event in the month of May not to celebrate the founding of the states but in order to reflect on the relevance and viability of the process to the strengthening of Nigeria’s unity and development in the future. The rationale behind such an event would include the need to analyse and comment on the record of Federal governance under the state-based system and how this can be improved and consolidated. While the clamour for the restructuring of the Nigerian state has gained currency in recent times, and some anomalies of the current order have been blamed on the mismanagement of the affairs of individual states, the key sources of discontent within the national order are often attributed to imbalance and inequality between the dominant power of the centre and the dependent status of the states. This is a major factor of political disenchantment that must be corrected as an integral element of the ongoing nation-building that has been, and continues to be the central objective of Nigeria’s post-colonial growth. General Gowon’s initiative of fifty years ago proved to be the beginning rather than the culmination of a movement and the consequences that it generated are still resonating in the socio-political psyche of the nation. State’s creation proved to be not only a successful tactic for justifying the use of military intervention in the fight for the survival of a unified Nigeria but also an enduring implement for extending administrative self-determination to the diverse communities of the nation. The economic, political and socio-cultural consequences of this initiative have grown increasingly complex over the last fifty years. If care is not taken the positive benefits of the transformation could be obliterated by the elements of mismanagement and political dishonesty that have thrived under successive administrations in the last five decades. The best way to commemorate and celebrate Nigeria’s seminal transformation from the system of colonial control to a system that is supposed to enshrine true national self-determination will be for all the beneficiaries of the change (i.e. all the states) to discuss and examine the process and proffer solutions to the problems that still face them in the task of living together in peace harmony and progress.