PROFESSOR Banji Akintoye is a renowned historian and a member of the Southern Leaders Forum. In this interview, Akintoye maintains that Nigeria may eventually break up if it is not properly structured. He also gives an insight to the controversy over who were the original settlers of Lagos and the forthcoming Handshake Across the Niger which seeks to promote unity and collaboration between Yoruba and Igbo.
You are an advocate of restructuring, what are your views on it ?
When you have the type of country that we have, with many different people living in it, they have evolved their own pattern of expectations and their own kind of responses to the modern world, the only way you can fix such a country is to have a proper federation so that each people will be able to manage their own affairs and then contribute their own to the building and prosperity of Nigeria. Our founding fathers recognised that in the late 1940 after WWII when they were called together to discuss the future of Nigeria. As at that time, there was no Nigeria because the British were ruling the Southern and Northern protectorates but there was nothing between the two. But after Second World War, when it became clear that they could no longer keep their African empires, it was the first time the leaders were called upon to discuss the future of Nigeria. The British themselves began to think of the future of Nigeria and the consensus was to have a federation. There were no details of the component parts of the federation but it was agreed that we should form a federation and whatever component part we had should manage its own affairs.
So, we had a situation in which the British created three regions in Nigeria. There were a lot of agitations that the north should be broken into two so that there would be a Middle Belt region and North East region. There was also some noise that the Western Region should be broken into two so that there would be a Western region and a Mid Western region.
The British did not want to go into such details for two reasons. First, they did not have the political will any more to go on and also they had their own ideas that the north must remain as it is and be dominant in Nigeria.
So, for those reasons, they rejected it, they even set up a commission when the noise was becoming irresistible. The Lord Willink Commission went round and said what the people were saying needed to be addressed. The British did not want to address anything but they just wanted to get out. They wanted to put the north in charge and get out and the reason they wanted to put the north in charge was because the north was the least educated region whereas in the south there were a crowd of lawyers, doctors, professors and so on. The north did not have such thing and they were afraid of the south.
So, the British decided to tap into that fear and they used it for their own advantage. They were leaving and they needed the economy of Nigeria because their own economy was down. So, a sort of pact developed between the British and the leadership of the north.
The British left but before that happened, in the years when the three regions operated from 1952 to independence, there was a greet deal of progress. Each regional leadership did well for its people.
The right thing would have been to continue with that but the northerners who became the dominant group after independence thought that to continue with that would not be easy for them. The British could have done it but they didn’t do it.
So, it was an attempt to control the regions that led to the crisis in the Western region in 1962 that the region should be under the control of the federal government. All that resulted ultimately in a major crisis in the Western region with people rioting and the federal government abdicating authority to the military which then gave the military the courage to carry out a coup.
Now, when the military carried out a coup, a very unfortunate thing happened, they came to the conclusion that they could only rule Nigeria the way they knew. The military wanted to control Nigeria centrally and that is where the trouble started. It created trouble. The military has destroyed the economy of our nation, they destroyed our federation, and they have destroyed trust among our people and created anger and bitterness, enmity all over Nigeria. They have created a reign of corruption and they have now led us to the point which looks like our country is going to break up. So, the answer is that we should go back to the federation.
But some people have expressed fears over restructuring.
They are not afraid. It is not that they are afraid of restructuring, the northerners have a lot to gain from the present situation, they don’t want to lose it. It is not that they are afraid.
You recently declared that Nigeria may break up, what informed such remark?
I fear and I still fear as I speak today that if we continue like this without restructuring the federation and loosening the centre a little, Nigeria will break up.
What attracted you to the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo?
What attracted young people like me to Awolowo was because he was talking sense about our country, you couldn’t be sure of what others were saying but you could be sure of what Chief Awolowo was saying. He wanted a federation with each section able to carry on its own affairs, in its own way and moving forward in its own way and developing Nigeria into the greatest Black Country in the history of the world, which attracted people like me to him. That is the reason why I believe today that I was fortunate to come to his side because he gave me a great picture of my country and our future.
I think it is the only way forward, anybody who thinks there is any other way is lying, is just deceiving himself. Nigeria will break up unless we go back and create a proper federation.
The president has said he won’t implement recommendations of the 2014 National Conference. Where does that leave us?
What he is saying is that ‘I maintain the position of the Hausa/Fulani people and therefore, a restructuring of the country is not on the slate’. It is not a statement of principle; it is a statement of sectionalism.
Away from that, as a renowned historian, what do you make of the controversy of the real owners of Lagos?
The different nationalities in Southern Nigeria and part of the Middle Belt evolved about the same time and they spread out and took part of the forest as their own. The Yoruba took part of the forest which is now known as Yoruba land; the Edo took their own part of the forest further to the east and so on and so forth. The Yoruba section spread out to the coast, the Edo section spread out to their own part and that was it. Part of the Yoruba section that took over the coast were the Ilaje, Itsekiri and so on. Those are the Yoruba coastal people. The Awori are the coastal section of the Yoruba nation and they were settled in the island all the way to Ota. At about the 10th AD, a time came when the Yoruba began to evolve kingdoms, that is a long story but the first kingdom they created was Ife and with the example of Ife, then spread out and people began to create the Oduduwa kind of kingdom all over Yoruba land. Three such kingdoms emerged in the Awori country; one in Ota, which was the oldest, another one in Isheri and then finally, another one on the Lagos Island and Iddo island which became the kingdom of Lagos with an Awori king.
Many centuries later, about the middle of the 15th century, the Europeans came to the coast of West Africa and the Edo coast became a good trading center for them. Later, the Lagos coast became a good trading center for them. Those two areas became their important trading coast. So, trade developed along the coast, a lot of people traded both in Lagos and Edo coast and so, the Ijaw, Ijebu, Ilaje, Ikale, Egun moved massively to Lagos. It became a cosmopolitan kingdom though it was not one of the powerful kingdoms like Oyo or Ilesha. So, we don’t have the details of what happened around 1600 to 1603 but it looked like a succession dispute between two Awori princes for the throne. Each side was supported by foreigners in the place and the side that the Edo supported to become the Oba won. In the course of fighting, one Edo chief died and the Awori Prince, who was their ally helped to take the body to Benin. In Benin, he was received by the king of Benin, who thanked him. So, that was how the Edo element came into the royal kingdom of Lagos.
My problem with the Oba of Lagos is that I was in a book launch over three weeks ago where he was talking loudly that the Oba of Benin came and conquered Lagos. He said this year, he would be celebrating his 10th anniversary on the throne and that is when people will know the power of Benin. I asked, what is the power of Benin in Lagos? I think the Oba of Lagos and the other leaders of Lagos, under the leadership of the governor of Lagos, have a duty to Lagos and the duty is that in modern leadership there should not be any quarrel about your ancestry. Who cares about your ancestry? What is the importance of your ancestry? The important thing is that you are the king of Lagos today and Lagos is becoming one of the greatest cities on earth and we have a duty to promote it. What type of promotion am I talking about? Leaders are promoting their cities and countries today. The richest country in the world is the United States of America and it is still advertising, telling people to come and invest in America and then, the traditional ruler of Lagos is talking about his ancestry. Who cares about his ancestry? He should be talking about Lagos being a great place to invest, a great place to do business. That is what we should be hearing from the king of Lagos this time, that is the modern thing to do. That is what other rulers are doing all over the world, that is what the Oba of Lagos should be doing for Lagos and not introduce some meaningless controversy that has no importance in the modern world. That is all I am saying to him.
You are one of those organising a programme tagged ‘Handshake Across the Niger’, what informed this programme and what are the prospects?
When God’s time comes, it comes and we are just instruments in his hands. Today, somehow, a good relationship is developing between the Yoruba and the Igbo because each of them recognizes that they are becoming slaves in Nigeria. Somehow, we are working together. Some young Igbo people in the USA came to the suggestion that one Yoruba man and one Igbo man died in circumstances that have never been celebrated and that they deserved to be honored and celebrated. I am talking about Aguiyi- Ironsi and Adekunle Fajuyi, who were killed together on July 29, 1966 by northern soldiers. So, they suggested that it must be celebrated and that there should be a memorial for them. That is what we are doing. The handshake across the Niger is a big thing and the Igbo people are gradually realizing that while they are fighting one another, the Hausa/Fulani are turning Nigeria into a colony of their own with the Igbo and Yoruba being turned to slaves in the colony. The earlier they liberate themselves, the better for Nigeria and themselves. That is the background to all this. The Yoruba and Igbo are becoming close but gradually, it will get closer and closer. The Igbo and Yoruba will learn to respect one another in this country and they will learn to join hands to get things done, particularly, they will learn to join hands to get Nigeria properly structured so that each can manage its own affairs in Nigeria.
The Yoruba and Igbo are the two most modernized nations on the African continent. They promote modernization, education, progress and other good things on this continent more than any other nation.
It is a pity that they are in the same country and they are fighting one another. So, finally, they are beginning to show that they will stop fighting one another and work together, which will be a good thing for Nigeria and Africa.