Remembering Gowon’s Conference And Nigeria’s Future

Former Military Head of State, Yakubu Gowon
Former Military Head of State, Yakubu Gowon

By Eric Teniola

Mr. Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) was the first Prime Minister of Singapore and he governed Singapore from 1959-1990. In January 1966, he visited Nigeria as part of the Commonwealth delegation to discuss Rhodesia’s unilateral declarations of independence. Rhodesia is now called Zimbabwe. He stayed in Lagos like all the Commonwealth leaders for three days. It was after their departure that Nigeria’s Prime Minister, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, was assassinated.

His views on Nigeria was published in 2000 in a 729 page book titled ‘FROM THIRD WORLD TO FIRST’ which I am sure many Nigerians have read. On page 352 of that book, he described Nigerians as ‘different people playing to a different set of rules’. On page 357 of that same book, he said Nigeria’s ‘tribal loyalties were stronger than their sense of common nationhood’.

To most of us Mr. Yew’s verdict on Nigeria is nothing new. This month is fifty years of the anniversary of the ad-hoc constitutional conference in Nigeria. The Conference was summoned by the then Lt-Col. Yakubu Gowon less than sixty-five days after he took over power. The Conference met between September 12 and 28 and again between October 28 and November 4, 1966. At that time there were four regions in Nigeria mainly North, Mid-Western, West and Eastern Region.

No delegation from the east attended the second session of the conference because of the political situation at that time. Sixteen major issues were discussed at that conference. They were – Form of government and component units, Head of state, Central government, Central legislature, Judiciary, Central civil service, Finance(power to raise revenue, the allocation of revenue and national debt), Defence, Police, External affairs, Immigration and emigration, Banking, currency, monetary policy, external loans, Transport and communications, Higher Education, Concurrent powers and Planning(including the equitable distributions of capital investment).

The Northern delegation included Sir Kashim Ibrahim, Alhaji Inua Wada, Mallam Aminu Kano, Chief Joseph Sawuan Tarka, Alhaji Abdul Razak and Chief Josiah Sunday Olawoyin. The Lagos delegation included Alhaji Femi Okunnu and Alhaji Lateef Jakande.

The Eastern delegation was led by Professor Eni Njoku. Other members from the east include Chief C.C. Mojekwu, Chief E. Eyo and Chief Matthew Mbu. The Midwest Delegation was led by Chief Anthony Enahoro, Dr. Mudiaga Oge was part of the Midwest delegation. The Western delegation was led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo and it included Professor Hezekiah Oluwasannmi assisted by Professors Ayo Ogunseye,Sam Aluko and Akin Mabogunje.

The following were proposals of each region as it affects the form of government and component unit –

EAST: An Association of the existing Regions, with a right to secede. Opposed to the creation of new states on three grounds:

(a) inadequate time:’ will involve a long-drawn-out process of inquiries, commissions and plebiscites, taking up many months or even some years which we cannot afford under the present crises’.

(b) entails a strong central government: ’not in the interest of harmony and peace of the country to have a strong central government. The splitting up of the country into new states will automatically have the effect of transferring functions which the smaller states cannot be expected to execute with their limited resources. This would, once again, engender inter-regional rivalry and political warfare to control the Centre.

(c) fails to satisfy all minorities: it is impossible to devise any political arrangement which will be devoid of minority problems….these problems can best be contained and satisfied within larger regional units’. The points raised above notwithstanding, it should be provided in the future constitution of the country that any Region can agree to split into more States which may be accepted into the future Nigerian association on equal terms as the existing Region if the people of such an existing Region and the areas concerned so desire…the initiative for the creation must come from the Region within which the State is to be created.

MID-WEST: A Federation of the existing Region, Lagos continuing as Federal Territory or becoming a Region. N.B. The Memorandum considered a redrawing of the constituent units desirable and set out the following criteria: ethnic, linguistic, and cultural affinity or homogeneity, historical association (e.g. Hausa/Fulani, Efik/Ibibio), viability of states both absolutely and relatively, geographical contiguity, comparability in size, reciprocal self-determination (i.e. not only should each minority group be given the opportunity to determine its future but also a majority group must be given the opportunity to determine whether it is willing to associate with a minority seeking such association.

On the basis of these criteria, twelve states might be created (4 in the North, 2 in the West, 4 in the East, the Mid-West, and Lagos). Although desirable, such a rearrangement was considered impracticable in the prevailing circumstances.

NORTH: (i) Original proposal. A Union or Association of the existing Regions, ‘and such other States as may be formed subsequently’, with a ‘right to secede completely and unilateral’.

The ‘right of self-determination of all people in the country must be accepted and a referendum or plebiscite shall be the method through which the wishes of the people concerned shall be ascertained. These rights include the right of any State within the country to secede. But the implementation of these principles shall not delay the determination of the future of Nigeria. All necessary guarantees shall, however, be written in the future constitution to establish the right of self-determination by any section.’

(ii) Revised proposal. A Federation with an ‘effective Federal government’. The above-mentioned method of creating new states was to be ‘discussed and formally adopted’.’ Grave doubts about the wisdom of creating states based on “ethnic and linguistic affinities”. In any arrangement based on this principle, there are bound to be large numbers of small pockets of minor ethnic and linguistic groups who will necessarily find themselves grouped uncomfortably with the larger and dominant ethnic groups.

Whilst in the past, such tiny tribes were undisturbed within larger units not based on tongues, they are most likely to develop genuine fears of tribal domination in any political arrangement based on the principle of language. Most of the smaller ethnic and linguistic communities have coexisted peacefully without any ill-feelings towards their bigger neighbor only because they and their neighbours belong to a larger political entity’.

‘In the exercise of ascertaining the wishes of the people for the creation of States as well as the actual creation of States, no Region except the Mid-West should be left out of the operation.’

WEST: (i) Original proposal.

  1. First alternative: A Federation with ‘the immediate creation of more States (including a Lagos State) based on ethnic and linguistic affinities, account being taken also of territorial contiguity and economic viability’. Also ‘clear-cut and less cumbersome provision for the creation of additional states in the future under conditions which should be clearly set out in the Constitution’.
  2. Second alternative: A ‘Commonwealth comprising the existing Regions and such other Regions as may be consequently created, with Lagos forming part of the present Western Nigeria’. Each State should have a right unilaterally to secede… at any time of its own choice.’

(ii) Revised proposal. A Federation; ’the creation of more States (including a Lagos State) based on ethnic and linguistic affinities, account being taken also of territorial contiguity and economic viability’ was’ strongly recommended’. ’In the event of states not being created, Lagos shall form part of the Western Region.’



    On November 30, 1966, Lt. Col. Gowon adjourned the conference and disclosed that ’they had run into difficulties which made it impossible for them to meet.’

    It was the failure of the conference that led to the Aburi meeting in Ghana.

    Dr. Mudiaga Oje told me in 1977 that if the ad-hoc conference had succeeded, the Civil war could have been avoided. Suffice it to say that the issues raised at that conference are still relevant till today.

    Eric Teniola, a former director at The Presidency, stays in Lagos.

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