A founding member of the Arewa Consultative Forum and elder statesman, Alhaji Tanko Yakasai, now 96, talks to TED ODOGWU about Nigeria’s journey from independence and how the country has fared
What do you reminisce about when you think about how Nigeria became an independent country?
Ever since Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1961, we started a policy of development, kick-starting with the 1950 general elections, where three major political parties emerged and became prominent in 1951. That was the time Nigerians were elected by the Nigerian people to govern the country. Those who contested the 1951 election led and while those who did not win remained united. Then, there was a crisis in 1954 at the time of a motion for independence by Chief Anthony Enahoro. That motion was not Enhoro’s motion, it was a party’s motion but the party decided that Tony Enahoro should move the motion. Compared with the age of his leaders and elders, like Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Chief Samuel Akintola and the rest of them, he was much younger but he moved the motion anyway and that was the beginning of misunderstanding in Nigeria.
What do you mean?
To be honest, I will blame the Action Group leaders for bringing that all important motion, without consultations between the component parts of what made up Nigeria. Also, it should be remembered that the British started the conquest of Nigeria from the western region, and they extended it to the eastern region up to Calabar (in Cross River). But by 1951, the British had concluded their conquest of what we now have as Nigeria. The British moved on to start their conquest of the North, at that time they didn’t bother about the North. They started it after succeeding in conquering the South. They started the conquest of the North from 1901 and concluded in 1903. Thereafter, they decided to run the two territories separately until 1914 when they decided to join the two protectorates to form Nigeria. Even at that time, we lived in peace with one another. That situation continued up till the time of the struggle for independence and up to the time when we got our independence in 1961. Prior to independence, the main concern was the struggle for independence. After independence, it was the struggle for development. Leaders in the North, West and East all embarked on one programme or another for the development of their country. There were no quarrels as of then and that continued until 1953.
But the northern delegation complained that they were more than half of the territory in the country and a very important item, like the motion for independence, should have been a product of consultations and a consensus bidding mechanism. A large base, like northern Nigeria, which had 55 per cent of the total land mass of Nigeria, demanded that, as a matter of fact, they should have been consulted on the issue of independence. They asked that the motion for independence should be amended, that instead of the British granting Nigeria independence by 1956, it should be as soon as practicable. So, if from 1953 to 1956, we were granted independence, it goes without saying that it would have been granted for the benefit of the educated elite in the southern protectorate of Nigeria, since the North had only one graduate and one graduate would not have been enough to manage the governance of half of the population of Nigeria and more than two-third of the land mass of Nigeria. That was the reason why the then Sardauna (Sir Ahmadu Bello) and his colleagues and the entire northern members decided to stage a walkout against the rejection of the amendment to that motion.
How did the other legislators react?
Well, they (northern members) were booed by the parliamentarians. So, from that time, they had to be evacuated by a special arrangement and protection by the police to their Legico flat, where the British created accommodation for all members of the House of Representatives. And the northern delegates were taken from Lagos in the night by train to the North and they decided on arrival in the North that they would never go back for a meeting in Lagos because their security would not be guaranteed. And that was the beginning of the crises in Nigeria. Before that time, we lived peacefully with one another. But because of the decision of northern members of the House of Representatives not to attend any meeting in Lagos, the British government decided to convene a constitutional conference in London. Political parties were given a number of people to send as their representatives to the conference. On arrival in London, they debated all issues about the constitution but decided to come to Nigeria to conclude the conference and that was in 1954. What was, however, the most important decision at the conference was the acceptance by the British government to make a special arrangement for the northern members to go in a special train from the North to Lagos over their fear of molestation. I am trying to emphasise the fact that we had been living together in peace and harmony even after independence, which we attained in 1960. We continued until 1966 when the military decided to involve itself in the politics of Nigeria.
Now, our responsibility should be to see how we can rebuild the unity of this country for everybody to feel at home everywhere in Nigeria. To do that, we must reconcile ourselves with one another. We must believe everybody is a Nigerian and their right to live wherever should be respected. This is the problem this country is facing now. I believe that after all these years of gaining independence, it is a shame for Nigeria to have people thinking that fellow Nigerians do not have the right to go and earn a living in other parts of the country. But if I cannot be allowed to live in peace in an area to earn a living, it simply means my people too will not allow a stranger to come to their area and engage in an occupation, that means a crisis. No country will make progress in a situation of crisis but the worst is Nigeria, a country with so many languages, so many young youths, and different cultures.
What should be the concerns of Nigerians now?
Our major concern for now should be how to cement the unity of the country, and how to bring back the trend that we had been enjoying prior to independence. They say conflict sometimes redefines the situation so that people can understand. If I could have my way, one, I would demolish all the current political parties in the country and create a two-party system in Nigeria. When (Ibrahim) Babangida mounted the saddle of leadership and introduced a two-party system – Social Democratic Party and National Republican Convention – Nigerians accepted that without any quarrel. We lived together and contested the election and for the first time, a southerner contested an election in Nigeria and secured more votes from the north than a candidate that came from the North, which is a significant achievement in terms of nation-building. If I could have my way, I would abolish the political parties that we have in the country and insist, like Babangida did, in creating two political parties and liberalise rules that would govern the two parties, in such a way that people would not lord it over one group of people or the other. This is part of what I could do.
Apart from abolishing the existing political parties in the country, I would abolish the 36-state structure in Nigeria and I support the returning of six geo-political zones in the country as the federating states. At the moment in Nigeria, 80 per cent of Nigeria’s revenue is expended on bureaucracy, spent on running the administration. The bottom line is you cannot develop with 20 per cent out of the total revenue, where you commit 80 per cent for recurrent expenditure. This is what is happening at the federal and state levels. With this situation, no country can develop. I want a situation, where the bulk of the revenue of this country is dedicated for development to construct good roads, build railway stations, provide electricity all over the country and so on. That was the intention of Tafawa Balewa when he became the prime minister.
What else made his style of governance to stand out?
Balewa started as the minister of transportation but coming from the North, he thought that to put Nigeria forward, he would develop agriculture as the mainstay of the economy of the country. He could do that until he devised the means of transportation that would convey products from one area to another area and get them exported and that was why we started by building Kainji dam for a dual purpose. It was not Kainji alone; if you look at the first national development plan, Kainji dam would provide two important ingredients of development in Nigeria. One would be generating electricity, because without electricity you cannot develop the country. The second thing was irrigation for farming, whereby Nigeria could provide an opportunity for Nigerian people. With that, we could have expanded. The Kano Tiger dam project was part of that programme. It was picked from Tafawa Balewa’s first National development programme. There are so many things that we can do but what is a setback to us is the issue of spending all our resources on bureaucracy. Any nation that commits 80 per cent of its resources on bureaucracy will never progress.
What’s your take on Nigeria at 61?
So far, we have not achieved what we actually hoped to achieve. If you look at Europe and America, they run a two-party system. In England, they have the Conservative and Labour parties. In America, we have the Republicans and the Democrats, and in France, it’s the same thing. In Germany, it’s the same. The tendency is for two political groups. They are enough to make you develop your country and roll out a good programme.
Without the military interruption, do you think the political structure shortly after independence would have succeeded?
I have always said that what we are operating is a military constitution and the civilians that came to power right from 1999 to date are few and they came to cover the good offices of the military. From 1999, we had (Olusegun) Obasanjo, (Umar) Yar’ardua, (Goodluck) Jonathan and (Muhammadu) Buhari – two from the South and two from the North. But why we are not able to play politics is because these political parties are not a creation of the people of Nigeria. They came about by military fiat. I happen to have been a member of one of the two political parties. I know how the two political parties emerged through military intervention. The richest people in Nigeria are either from the military or people who are very close to the military. Until we create a situation where we have a political party that is created by the people, which would help us to formulate a programme, if one creates a political party without its own ideology and programmes, it is nothing.
There is a recurring agitation for separation, what do you think could be responsible for that?
The agitations had nothing to do with the military interruption in politics. Those behind this agitation are the minority in the country, not ethnic minorities but younger people, who got university education, were anxious to conclude their degrees, go into the system to secure lucrative jobs, get a car and good house, all of which is not happening for now. The younger people, when they graduate, are not finding the envisaged opportunities.
It’s left for them to produce a blueprint on how to restructure Nigeria. What type of Nigeria are we desiring? They just go about calling for restructuring without producing a blueprint or roadmap. You can’t just go about calling for the restructuring of a country that has been existing for ages, without telling the people how the country should be recreated. To me, I have hope in Nigeria because there is nobody yet to produce an alternative to Nigeria. Has anybody produced an alternative that will make Nigerian people to be richer and live a better life? Has anybody produced a programme toward a better Nigeria? To me, I do not know any Nigerian who has produced a roadmap. If you know, please enlighten me.