Urhobo Historical Society

Bala and His Rule-Book for Nigerian Politics

By Onoawarie Edevbie
Secretary, Urhobo Historical Society

As I read the essay, The Misrepresentation of Nigeria: The Facts and The Figures and its twin sister, Ignorance, Knowledge and Democratic Politics in Nigeria, both written by Professor Yusufu Bala Usman, I developed a sense of curiosity for the elite of Northern Nigeria that the learned author no doubt represents. My curiosity is derived in part from a weighty postulate that man has the innate desire to work for self interest which according to Jawaharlal Nehru, not only blinds one to justice and fair play but also to the simplest applications of logic and reason.

These essays were supposedly prepared for the Centre for Democratic Development Research and Training (CEDDERT) which according to the professor exists to promote, advance and conduct research for the purpose of finding solutions to the problems of Nigeria. Yet, the Center, fully funded by the Federal Government of Nigeria, is being diverted from its stated mission and is now used from its base at Bayero University, Kano, Nigeria, to serve the selfish interests of some elements in Northern Nigeria. The essays seem to reveal a deep sense of desperation, on the part of the Northern elite, to hold on to a faulty system of governance, one that is being used to meddle needlessly in the affairs of others and to wreck havoc on the lives of so many in Nigeria.

I doubt if there is any political observer out there, who is not aware that Nigeria’s myriad of problems, stem from years of inattention to the structural defects in the country polity, which has allowed power to be concentrated in a few hands. Nigerians, who express concern about the future of their country, are calling for a forum, a Sovereign National Conference, to discuss how to remove the defects in order to pave way for a better system of governance. Professor Bala Usman, as indicated in his various utterances including the recent presentations, objects to this approach and regards these concerned citizens as agent provocateurs who are engaged in a campaign to misrepresent facts about their country with the intention of generating fears about its security and viability as a nation-state.

In order to expose what he considers as fabrications or lies invented by Nigeria’s doomsayers, the professor and his sponsors seemed to have developed a line of attack designed to forestall any meaningful effort to reshape the country in ways that can guarantee an equitable distribution of power. The task before the professor and his group ought to be a formidable one, given the fact that more and more citizens are becoming increasingly unhappy with the quality of life they live. Even then, it is still worthwhile to examine and expose the methods that Professor Bala Usman and his team now use in executing their plan.

Bala’s Rules of Engagement

The strategy that is being used, appears to follow some set of rules that are designed to divert attention from a real discussion of Nigeria’s problems, including the perennial issue of resource control. The rules become apparent as one begins to observe how Professor Bala Usman and his fellow members of the Northern elite try to justify among other things, the Nigerian government’s claim of ownership of resources located in the various Nigerian communities. The amount of distortions has become so pervasive to be ignored if one is not going to allow the Northern establishment the opportunity to create confusion and mischief among people who are genuinely looking for peaceful solutions to Nigeria’s problems. How successful they will be with their  rules of engagement is anybody’s guess but by the very nature of their campaign of disinformation, the rules call for a number of bold and mischievous actions as one can observe from the following:

 Rule One. Pretend that one is a democrat and a patriot when discussing Nigerian issues, and never mind even if one’s actions indicate otherwise.

This rule provides the justification for Bala Usman and his group to cast themselves as the only true lovers of Nigeria and every other person as an enemy of the state. Early in the essay, “The Misrepresentation of Nigeria: Facts and Figures”, the professor proclaimed himself an advocate for democracy when he declares provocatively that

“This [his essay] is to enhance the capacity of the millions of Nigerian citizens committed to democracy and national integration, to more effectively come together to counter this campaign and build the country [Nigeria] as a leading member of the African community of nations and of the world comity of nations, whose people, excel in all spheres of human endeavor”.

Yet, nowhere in the essay did Bala Usman offer any proposal on how he would get his fellow Nigerians to work together for the good of the country. He has, however chosen to oppose the convening of a conference, the very idea that could help to achieve his stated desire of getting Nigerians to unite for the common good.

 Instead of endorsing a pan-Nigerian conference, he went on the offensive to brand those who welcome the need for such a forum as unpatriotic and willing instruments in the hands of those who want to see Nigeria destroyed. In an interview he granted Mr. Tom Chiahemen, and published in Post Express of August 26, 1998, he even touted the national sovereign conference formula as the kind of political tool that was used by the French to block the democratic process in Francophone Africa where the people were demanding an end to one-party dictatorships and military governments!

Assuming that the formula was not properly applied in Francophone Africa, a professor of History, could not have been ignorant of the examples of Canada, South Africa and Venezuela, three countries that have successfully used these types of extra-parliamentary forums to determine the will of their people on national and constitutional issues. Canada held a referendum to seek mandate from the people on whether to give or not to give more power to its French-speaking province of Quebec while South Africa and Venezuela used conferences with de-facto sovereignty to arrive at new constitutions for their countries.

A closer look at the case of Venezuela may suggest an example of what could be applied to Nigeria. Venezuela like Nigeria, is a poor country in spite of its oil wealth. Its president, Hugo Chavez like Olusegun Obasanjo was a former military officer and like Nigeria, Venezuela has a sitting National Assembly at the time when it convened a National Constituent Assembly to write an equitable constitution for that country. The new constitution was the centerpiece of Chavez’s “peaceful revolution”. President Chavez like President Olusegun Obasanjo, had been elected a year earlier on a pledge to rebuild the country after decades of corruption and mismanagement.

The people of Venezuela from the villages in the Amazon rain forests to slums in its capital city of Caracas, were given wide latitude to debate the issues. Grass-root groups, unions and professional organizations were all involved in nominating candidates for election into the constituent assembly, plotting campaign strategies and writing proposals. The 34 indigenous ethnic groups, often ignored in national matters, were also given the opportunity to organize a National Assembly of Indigenous Peoples to elect its own representatives to the National Constituent Assembly.

Thus the new constitution approved in a national referendum by 72 percent of voters, was the result of a democratic process that allowed the people to participate directly in fashioning a constitution for themselves. If this process can be made possible in Venezuela, what prevents it from taking place in Nigeria? It is the fact that many Nigerian politicians, for selfish reasons are not interested in any reform that will bring any measure of fairness and social justice to the masses. Those in power tend to take for granted whatever privileges they have and they do not entertain any notion of giving the privileges up. This show of ingratitude means they hardly recognize the need for change. If constitutional reforms depend on democracy, and democracy calls for dialogue and trust, why is Bala Usman, a self-professed democrat, so afraid of any form of open discussions about the future of Nigeria?

Rule Two: Undermine or downplay the Role of Ethnicity in Nigeria’s Politics

With this rule, Bala Usman will be able to attack ethnicity, arguing that it weakens democracy. To do this, he will have to deny that Nigeria is not a monolithic society but a collection of people of different cultures, religion and economic patterns. In other words, the complexity and diversity of the Nigerian situation will not matter and neither will it be necessary, to accommodate the interests of the various groups that make up the country, when making government policies. The professor claims he based his disdain for ethnicity on a supposed observation that:

“In any electoral constituency in which there are different ethnic and sub-ethnic groups, or clans and lineages, and these are seen as the basic units of political representation, it is very difficult for the voters in that constituency to call a corrupt or incompetent official to order because he was elected because of his origin and affinity and not because of what he can do to promote the security and welfare of all citizens in his constituency”

Just to be sure that I hear him right, is Bala Usman saying that corrupt politicians escape punishment because of the affinity they share with the people who elected them into office? If this is true, he owes it to humanity to tell his audience who else can better understand the problems, interests and aspirations of a group of people well enough to represent them than one of their own. Bala Usman is right to indicate that corrupt politicians do exist among the people but he does not seem to have enough courage to say what prevents the voters from being able to sanction politicians who fall out of order.

Except he wants to fake ignorance of Nigerian politics, Bala Usman knows all too well that many of the corrupt representatives he refers to, were not chosen by the people. They were in fact imposed on the people by the machinery of the Federal Government taking advantage of easier access to resources to intimidate or to interfere in local politics. These representatives, selected through the patronage of corrupt government functionaries cannot be expected to be accountable to their people but to those who put them in office.

Neither will the ideal duty-bound representative of Bala Usman’s creation who would have no ethnic affinity, be seen as a better choice. The chances are slim today for the people of Enugu, to again consider the candidacy let alone the election of Alhaji Umaru Atline, a Fulani cattle dealer, as a Mayor of their city as they did in 1956 and in 1958. It will also be unthinkable, today, to expect the people of Oshogbo to elect another Fulani trader instead of their own son, Kola Balogun to serve as their representative in a local ward.

These examples of ethnic-blind elections in Enugu and Oshogbo are in fact among many others in the southern part of Nigeria.  In contrast, one is yet to know when last, a non-northern Nigerian who has not adopted the Fulani/Hausa  name of Abubakar or assumed some other politically correct cultural identity, was allowed to hold an elected office in the North. While it may not be necessary to contest Bala Usman on this, he and his friends need no persuasion to recognize that people are no longer in the mood to trust the nation-state of Nigeria and are relying more and more on their kith and kin for security and survival. No one, I believe, wants to be told that the near monopoly during the military era by people of northern origin, of all senior positions in the federal civil service, parastals and other government agencies including the armed services, was an act of God and had nothing to do with regional or ethnic consideration in the appointments.

Ethnicity does matter and no one knows this better than Bala Usman and those he represents. Otherwise, they would not have resisted as much as they did in 1966 when Ironsi’s military government attempted to abolish the regions and set up a unitary system of government. A unitary government would have removed all the regional or ethnic considerations that Bala Usman has come to hate to see used in political representation and in government transactions. It is therefore ironic to watch how the northerners who had interpreted  Ironsi’s policies as a conspiracy “to colonize the North”, now try to capture the nation-state for themselves.

Rule Three: Suggest or Create Fallacies and Use Them to Justify Self-serving Policies

Bala Usman and his group must have realized early in the game that they needed some base to anchor their reasoning or course of action in order to gain psuedo-legitimacy if not public support.  Such a base, no matter how fallacious it may appear initially, could end up being accepted as a fact if it is allowed to be propagated long enough and unchallenged. Already, there are a sizable number of Nigerians who are so disillusioned with the way their country is run that they no longer care or bother to determine the source of their woes. Added to this mix is a horde of corrupt politicians and traditional rulers who are ever willing to sell their conscience and people for personal gains. If Bala Usman and his group could somehow capture these undiscerning minds by clogging their heads with fallacies about “the true nature of affairs”, they might, they must reason, hold on to power and continue to rule.

Of the many fallacies put forward to confuse issues, none is as outrageous as Bala Usman’s theory of the geological process, which Bala Usman touts as resulting in the formation of the Niger Delta and the presence of oil in its terrain. This theory that has no credible scientific basis, of course, is intended for one purpose: to justify the Nigerian government’s right, to control, on behalf of the core North, the oil resources in the Niger Delta.  Bala Usman wants the people to believe that:

“The geological process of the formation of the Niger Delta and of the crude oil and natural gas formed in some of its sedimentary formations, actually goes back much further than ten thousand years. But the reality, which those who are using the issue of the federal control of the petroleum reserves found in all parts of Nigeria, including the Niger Delta, to attack the basis of the corporate existence of Nigeria, do not want to accept, is that these sediments with which, and in which, this petroleum deposits are found, did not drop from the sky. These sediments are made up of soil containing vegetable, and other organic materials, including human, and remains which were washed away from farmland, pasture and forests all over Nigeria and outside and carried by the Niger to form its delta and all minerals in it”.

Here Bala Usman is overtly simplistic with the clear intention of misleading and misinforming his audience. As any one can infer from any basic text in petroleum geology, the analysis of the birth and evolution of oil and gas goes beyond the mere information about accumulation of sediments. Bala Usman‘s theory ignores the value of a suitable geological environment for the compression of accumulated solid materials under the proper pressure and temperature to produce petroleum. The places or regions that have petroleum reserves or any type of minerals are the areas that have the proper hydrological structures to generate them. This is why all rivers do not form deltas, and why only a few number of deltas have petroleum reserves.

Certainly as far as potential source materials are concerned, lake sediments can just be as promising as sea-floor sediments. But this is not to say that the source materials like the kind of sediments that Bala Usman talked about, need to be deposited in a marine environment to manifest. Neither is it in order for anyone to assume that all accumulations of oil and gas in continental reservoirs migrated from marine source rocks. Oil, Bala Usman must know, can be found in various areas of different hydrological variations from the deep sea of North Sea to the desert areas of Saudi Arabia and in dry regions of Texas in the United States of America.

While one must therefore dismiss Bala’s theory of geological formation as an absurdity, one should not forgo the opportunity to learn about how manipulative the Northern elite has become. The theory seems formulated to encourage the Northerners to intensify the belief that they are the primary owners of Nigerian oil. The ultimate goal is apply this fallacy to help influence policy on the distribution of oil revenue. After all, the northern states, according to Bala Usman, account for all 60 percent of Nigerian landmass drained by River Niger and its major tributary, the Benue. Should these states not be entitled to 60 percent of the revenue generated from oil formed with the debris derived from their area? Sounds great!

Yes. But this claim is as ridiculous as it is self-serving because the theory on which it is based has not been applied anywhere in the world. It is also selfish because it undermines the contributions of other countries traversed by River Niger and Benue River. River Niger for example, rises from Fouta Djallon Highlands in Guinea and flows through Republic of Mali, the boundary between the Republics of Niger and Benin into Nigeria before it empties itself through a great delta into the Gulf of Guinea. If Bala Usman and his group are to be taken seriously, the Republics of Guinea, Mali, Niger and Benin, too can lay claim to the oil and gas located in the delta which they can  argue, is also being inundated with debris carried from their territories.

Rule Four: Distort Historical Facts and Use Them to Promote the Supremacy and Absolutism of the Nigerian Nation-State.

Bala Usman and his circle of Northern elite threatened by the loss of absolute power in a democratic Nigeria, have resorted to this rule as a means to retain ultimate control of government powers. Nigeria had been transformed from a federal system through successive military dictatorships into a unitary system that concentrated power at the center.  The northerners that had benefited greatly from military rule are determined to prevent any devolution of power to the states, especially if such balance of power will enable the states to resume control and management of territorial resources.

The goal of Rule Four is therefore to find ways to diminish the legitimacy of the states as self-governing units and to establish that the states exist as a result of the center. An editorial based on this rule and run on New Nigerian of April 25, 2001 puts the Northern argument this way:

One of the most basic of the truths about the Nigerian federation is that the center came first, and that the regions and the states were actually constituted and established by the center. It was the center that created and devolved power to the regions and states.  It was not the regions and the states that came together to establish the center. This is the incontrovertible truth which those who are challenging the national sovereignty of the Federal Republic of Nigeria over the land and the national resources of Nigeria, are trying to cover up, for selfish reasons.  ……………………….   They are opposed to this national sovereignty over our land and mineral resources because, it does not allow them to own the land and mineral resources of Nigeria as private property on a freehold basis.

This argument is riddled with distortions in ways that obscure the facts about how the federation of Nigeria came to be. It is therefore necessary to set straight, the record regarding the issues mentioned, namely the primacy of the center and the ownership of land and mineral resources.

First, the Center, is the product of the unification process of the British colonial administration, which brought together the different nationalities, or communities that occupied the landmass now known as Nigeria. The British through different arrangements, some by conquest, others through treaties of cession and some others through treaties of protection brought in the various nationalities.

The British later ignored the treaty-based relationships with the nationalities and imposed a colonial arrangement that terminated their indigenous governments. In other words, the Yoruba city-states, Benin empire, and the western Niger Delta communities of the west; the clan communities of the east and the emirate of the north among others which were autonomous political and economic entities before the advent of colonialism, were reorganized into artificial political units.

The communities in Niger Delta, for example, existed first as autonomous political entities, and later the Niger Coast Protectorate and finally as part of Southern Nigeria Protectorate before the idea of Nigeria as a unified country came up in 1900. Thus the various nationalities were gradually brought together, fairly or unfairly to form the center and not the reverse as the New Nigeria editorial wanted us to believe.

The subsequent rearrangement of the 1950s resulted in a federal structure with three regions. In this system, the regions ceded some measure of authority to the center while retaining major economic means and political authority for themselves. More importantly, each region, as well as the Midwest Region that was created in 1963, operated as a self-governing unit. Each region had its own constitution in addition to the federal constitution that defined how the center should be run. If therefore, there are people out there who feel that Nigeria owns them, it is within their prerogative to do so. But they should not expect others to accept that notion, more so, when they want to dictate the conditions for belonging to that corporate body.

Second, the issue of Ownership of Land and Mineral Resources can be better understood by going over one more time, how the various nationalities were coerced into the colonial arrangement that became Nigeria. The British for example, claimed to have “acquired” ownership of land around the present day Lagos by virtue of the Treaty of Cession signed between Oba Dosumu of Lagos and the British Government in 1861. In the emirate North and other parts of Northern Nigeria conquered by Lord Lugard, the British took over all lands including those belonging to Hausa communities that were  seized earlier during the Islamic jihad of 1804.

While both examples provide evidence of alienation of lands from communities, the British were unable to implement that policy in much of the south including the Niger Delta. When the British Colonial Administration needed land, they obtained it through leases which were transacted under the Public Lands Acquisition Ordinance of 1903, Clause 6 of which states:

Where lands required for public purposes were the property of a native community, the Head Chief of such community may sell and convey the same for an estate in fee simple, notwithstanding any native law and custom to the contrary.

The leases were respected by the Nigerian and British courts as demonstrated in a series of litigation brought to challenge the ownership of the lands so leased, by individuals or communities who were not satisfied with terms of the leases.

Besides, the British signed treaties of protection with various communities in the Niger Delta to protect the people and their lands from hostile forces. Nowhere in the various treaties did the British ask for land in exchange for imperial protection as it was in the case of Northern Nigeria and the Colony of Lagos.

However, Bala Usman and his team have chosen to ignore these facts about the acquisition of land in southern Nigeria. Instead, they prefer to rely on one-sided proclamations that supposedly invested “the entire property and control of all mineral resources on land, and waterways on the British Crown”. What Bala Usman failed to tell his audience is that these proclamations which formed part of Lugard amalgamation exercises were resisted in the south and had to be abandoned. Professor Ekeh, in an earlier essay cited one example of when and how Lord Lugard reversed himself on the issue of land ownership during the creation of a Department of Forestry for the South. The ordinance of 1917 that authorized the setting up of the department, had provisions that protected communal rights, thus effectively nullified the earlier proclamations.

The land practices in Northern and Southern Nigeria, remained essentially different until the Obasanjo military regime came up with its obnoxious Land Use Decree of 1978. The decree imposed land practices that had been in use in the North, on the South where such practices were resisted and kept out of use. The decree which was later entrenched in the 1979 Constitution of Federal Government of Nigeria, vested the ownership of communal lands in the state government. As devastating as the policy is to the oil-producing communities, the states involved have very much complied with it. Neither the states nor the individuals are demanding private ownership of community land and mineral rights as alleged in the New Nigeria editorial.

Yet for obvious reasons, Bala Usman and his cohorts want to move the goal post beyond that dictated by the Land Use Decree. They are determined to capture the control and management of community land and its mineral resources for the center. Now we are being bombarded with different versions of the same sermon delivered from the pulpit of CEDDERT in Kano, Nigeria, around world capitals and other places, about the supremacy and absolutism of the Nigerian State. The Almighty Nigerian State that owns everybody and everything has come to mean a few northerners that Bala Usman speaks for, and their southern collaborators. In all these efforts to grab oil wealth, the least thing Bala Usman and his friends care about is the welfare of the people in the oil-producing communities, whose lives and properties have forever been wrecked by oil exploration.

Concluding Remarks

If there is no difference among the various parts of Nigeria in terms of people, climate, geography and geology, as Bala Usman likes to preach, no one would care about who controls the affairs of the country. The system would be assumed to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of basic amenities and opportunities for all citizens to excel in their chosen areas of endeavor. But it is not so and could not possibly be, given the strife among the different interest groups represented in the system.

John Calhoun who published his work nearly a century ago, observed the same kind of tension among the various interest groups in the United States. He realized that the central problem of American politics was how to find ways of holding the conflicting groups together without the use of force. Calhoun reasoned that any essential decision that would affect the life of the people, would have to be adopted by a “concurrent majority” – by which he meant a unanimous agreement of all parties involved.

However, a government by concurrent majority is possible when no one party is powerful enough to dominate completely and only when all the parties, recognize and agree to abide by the rules of the game. The rules will be such that they will compel each group to tolerate the interests and opinions of every other group. No group will be in position to  impose its views on others, nor will it press its special interests to the detriment of others.

Nigeria is far off but not out of reach of the ideal proposed by Cahoun. I believe many Nigerians want to live in a unified country but demand that the various interest groups come together to renegotiate the terms of co-existence. No one says the task will be an easy one but it certainly will not be helped by the arrogance and acts of intimidation by people like Bala Usman and his cohorts. We now know that when  Alhaji Gambo Jimeta, former Inspector General of Police and also a one-time Minister of Agriculture made threats on the floor of constitutional conference, he was not acting alone. The ex-police officer threatened during the debate on resource control that the north will go to war with any one who tries to deprive the north of its control of Nigeria’s oil wealth.

In spite of these mounting threats, the call for changes to how the Nigerian nation-state is run, is real and will not fizzle away. There comes a time in every nation, a moment of decision, when the nation must come to terms with the truth about its viability as a state. For Nigeria, that time has come to make the tough decisions on its continued existence  and we can only delay it at our own peril. There is a need for a fundamental restructuring of the polity to provide for a citizenry based on justice, equity and fairness for all the nationalities involved.

The changes desired call for serious consideration of all the issues that constitute the terms for staying together as citizens or parts of one country. The issues that guarantee meaningful citizenship for the people of Nigeria include rule of law and fundamental human rights, distribution of power and revenue, goals and management of the economy and other matters dealing with the national question and the relation of the center to the federating units.

Bala Usman and his team may, for selfish reasons, not see these changes as necessary. For those of us who hail from the Niger Delta, they are a matter of survival. We are in the kitchen and we feel the heat of  oppression and persecution. Bala Usman is an aristocrat, perhaps too high a class to understand the pains of those in the kitchen. Besides he has access to very powerful people both in and outside government circles. Because he probably does not appreciate the problems of the oppressed, he may be in need of education. But no, Bala Usman has shown his hands. He is no democrat and has no interests in the welfare of the poor or the oppressed. He is working to preserve the lot of those like himself who believe they have “God-given rights” to exploit and live on others.