Politics and Crisis
By an act of the British Parliament,
Nigeria became an independent country within the Commonwealth on October 1,
1960. Azikiwe was installed as governor general of the federation and Balewa
continued to serve as head of a democratically elected parliamentary, but now
completely sovereign, government. The governor general represented the British
monarch as head of state and was appointed by the crown on the advice of the
Nigerian prime minister in consultation with the regional premiers. The governor
general, in turn, was responsible for appointing the prime minister and for
choosing a candidate from among contending leaders when there was no
parliamentary majority. Otherwise, the governor general's office was essentially
The government was responsible to a parliament composed of the popularly elected
312-member House of Representatives and the 44-member Senate, chosen by the
In general, the regional constitutions followed the federal model, both
structurally and functionally. The most striking departure was in the Northern
Region, where special provisions brought the regional
constitution into consonance with Islamic law and custom. The similarity between
the federal and regional constitutions was deceptive, however, and the
conduct of public affairs reflected wide differences among the regions.
In February 1961, a plebiscite was conducted to determine the
disposition of the Southern Cameroons and Northern Cameroons, which were
administered by Britain as United Nations Trust Territories. By an overwhelming
majority, voters in the Southern Cameroons opted to join formerly
French-administered Cameroon over integration with Nigeria as a separate
federated region. In the Northern Cameroons, however, the largely Muslim
electorate chose to merge with Nigeria's Northern.
Politics in the Crisis Years
During the first three years after independence, the federal government was an
NPC-NCNC coalition, despite the conflicting natures of the two partners. The
former was regionalist, Muslim, and aristocratic; the latter was nationalist,
Christian, and populist. Moreover, the NCNC supported opponents of the NPC in
regional elections in the Northern Region. Although a more natural ideological
alignment of the Action Group and the NCNC was called for by some Action Group
leaders, it held no attraction for the NCNC as long as the NPC was assured of a
Domination of the Northern Region by the NPC and NCNC control of the Eastern
Region were assured. Action Group control of the Western Region, however, was
weakened and then collapsed because of divisions within the party that reflected
cleavages within Yoruba society. This loss of stability in one region gradually
undermined the political structure of the whole country.
The leadership of the Action Group, which formed the official opposition in the
federal parliament, split in 1962 as a result of a rift between Awolowo and
Akintola, prime minister of the Western Region. Awolowo favored the adoption of
democratic socialism as party policy, following the lead of Kwame Nkrumah's
regime in Ghana. The radical ideology that Awolowo expressed was at variance
with his earlier positions, however, and was seen as a bid to make the Action
Group an interregional party that drew support across the country from educated
younger voters, whose expectations were frustrated by unemployment and the
rising cost of living. Akintola, in reaction, attempted to retain the support of
conservative party elements who were disturbed by Awolowo's rhetoric. He called
for better relations with the NPC and an all party federal coalition that would
remove the Action Group from opposition and give its leaders greater access to
Awolowo's radical majority staged the expulsion of Akintola from the party. The
governor of the Western Region demanded Akintola's resignation as prime minister
(although he had not lost a vote of confidence in the regional legislature) and
named a successor recommended by the Action Group to head the government.
Akintola immediately organized a new party, the United People's Party, which
pursued a policy of collaboration with the NPC-NCNC government in the federal
Akintola's resignation in May 1962 sparked bloody rioting in the Western Region
and brought effective government to an end as rival legislators, following the
example in the streets, introduced violence to the floor of the regional
legislature. The federal government declared a state of emergency, dissolved the
legislature, and named a federal administrator for the Western Region. One of
his first acts was to place many Action Group leaders under house arrest.
Investigations by the federal administrator led to accusations of
criminal misuse of public funds against Awolowo and other Action Group leaders.
A special commission found that Awolowo had funnelled several million pounds
from public development corporations to the Action Group through a private
investment corporation when he was prime minister of the Western Region in the
1950s. The regional government seized the corporation's assets and pressed legal
claims against the Action Group.
In the course of the financial investigation, police uncovered
evidence-linking Awolowo with a conspiracy to overthrow the government.
With a number of other Action Group leaders, he was arrested and put on trial
for treason. Authorities charged that 200 activists had received military
training in Ghana and had smuggled arms into Nigeria in preparation for a coup
d'etat. Awolowo was found guilty, along with seventeen others, and was sentenced
to ten years in prison. Anthony Enahoro, Awolowo's chief lieutenant who had been
abroad at the time of the coup, was extradited from Britain and also was
convicted of treason and imprisoned.
In the meantime, the state of emergency was lifted and Balewa,
determining that Akintola had been improperly dismissed, obtained his
reinstatement as prime minister of the Western Region at the head of a coalition
between the NCNC and the United People's Party. The Action Group successfully
contested the legality of this action in the courts, but a retroactive amendment
to the Western Region's constitution that validated Akintola's reappointment was
quickly enacted. As Balewa told parliament, the legalities of the case "had
been overtaken by events."
Later in 1963, Nigeria became a republic within the Commonwealth. The change in
status called for no practical alteration of the constitutional system.
The president, elected to a five-year term by a joint session of the
parliament, replaced the crown as the symbol of national sovereignty and the
British monarchy as head of state. Azikiwe, who had been governor general,
became the republic's first president.
New State Movements
After independence the attitudes of the major parties toward the
formation of new states that could accommodate minority aspirations varied
The NCNC espoused self-determination for ethnic minorities but only in
accordance with its advocacy of a unitary state. The Action Group also supported
such movements, including the restoration of the northern Yoruba area (Ilorin)
to the Western Region, but as part of a multi state, federal Nigeria. The NPC
steadfastly opposed separatism in the Northern Region and attempted with some
success to win over disaffected minorities in the middle belt.
Proposals were introduced for the creation of three states as a means of
restructuring the regions along ethnic lines. The most extensive revision sought
the separation of the middle belt from the Northern Region, a move the United
Middle Belt Congress promoted. Serious riots in Tivland in 1960 and 1964 were
related to this agitation. Another plan was put forward by the Edo and western
Igbo to create the Midwestern Region by separating the whole tract adjacent to
the Niger River from the Yoruba-dominated Western Region. At the same time, Ijaw
and Efik-Ibibio ethnic groups proposed that the coast between the Niger Delta
and Calabar become a new region in order to end Igbo dominance in that area. At
this time, however, only the Midwestern Region achieved formal approval, despite
opposition of the Action Group. The creation of the region was confirmed by
plebiscite in 1963.
The creation of the Midwestern Region reopened the question of the internal
restructuring of Nigeria. One motive for a more drastic restructuring was the
desire to break up the Northern Region. That region, having more than half the
country's population, controlled a majority of the seats in the House of
Representatives. There was also the fear that the Igbo-dominated NCNC would gain
control of the Midwestern legislature and thereby become even more powerful. A
new political coalition, the Midwest Democratic Front (MDF), was formed by
leaders of the Action Group and the United People's Party to contest the
Midwestern Region election with the NCNC. During the campaign, the conservative
United People's Party accepted support from the NPC, a fact that NCNC candidates
stressed in their call to keep northern influence out of the region. Many Action
Group workers withdrew support from the MDF in protest, and some allied
themselves with the NCNC. In the 1964 elections, the NCNC won by a landslide.
The Census Controversy
Because seats in the House of Representatives were apportioned on the basis of
population, the constitutionally mandated decennial census had important
political implications. The Northern Region's political strength, marshalled by
the NPC, had arisen in large measure from the results of the 1952-53 census,
which had identified 54 percent of the country's population in that area. A
national campaign early in 1962 addressed the significance of the forthcoming
census. Politicians stressed the connection between the census and parliamentary
representation on the one hand, and the amount of financial support for regional
development on the other. The 1962 census was taken by head count, but there was
evidence that many enumerators obtained their figures from heads of families,
and many persons managed to be counted more than once.
Southern hopes for a favourable reapportionment of legislative seats were buoyed
by preliminary results, which gave the south a clear majority. A supplementary
count was immediately taken in the Northern Region that turned up an additional
9 million persons reportedly missed in the first count.
Charges of falsification were voiced on all sides and led to an
agreement among federal and regional governments to nullify the count and to
conduct a new census.
The second nationwide census reported a population of 60.5 million, which census
officials considered impossibly high. A scaled-down figure of 55.6million,
including 29.8 million in the Northern Region, finally was submitted and adopted
by the federal government, leaving legislative apportionment virtually
Demographers generally rejected the results of the 1963 census as
inflated, arguing that the actual figure was as much as 10 million lower.
Controversy over the census remained a lively political issue. NCNC leaders
publicly charged the Northern Region's government with fraud, a claim that was
denied by Balewa and by Bello, the regional prime minister.