The Secret of the 1914 Amalgamation – Comrade Reuben Ziri
By Adagbo ONOJA
There is a sense in which Reuben Ziri is a study in contradictions. When he entered the Department of History at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in the late 1980s to pursue a Masters Degree, Dr. Mahmud Modibbo Tukur, the late National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU), instantly took note of him, saying that the title of his proposed research was like attempting to break away from the ABU, Zaria School of History in its approach to the study of the emirates of northern Nigeria. Mahmud’s comment was significant in the context of the disputations in that highly politicized Department regarding the real character of the ruling elite in pre-colonial Nigeria, particularly in the Sokoto Caliphate. With the title “History of Bida Emirate in the 20th Century: A Study in Colonialism and Transformation of Social Classes, 1900-1960”, Reuben instantly cut the image of an icon if he proved that the ruling elements in the emirate of Bida could not be denied a class status independent of British colonialists.
The first contradiction was that he could not get a job in the Department when he completed the programme after six years of research, which was a record time by ABU, Zaria standards. In a Department dominated by razor-sharp tendency politics, his inability to get engaged as a doctoral student and/or on the basis of the innovativeness of his thesis was interpreted as victimization. Whether this is true or not, that first contradiction produced the second – a soundly educated Nigerian becoming a hunter in his local area which he confirmed in this interview. “Yes, I am a hunter. I have a gun and I have the license for it”. He became a hunter when he could not get an academic job for which he was most suited while he was not thinking of any other thing. He tried teaching in a secondary school in his home state of Niger but as he himself put it, he ran the risk of being dismissed. So, he had to retire.
At some point, the circle where he was known, organized for him to work at Community Action for Popular Participation, (CAPP), the Abuja based the grassroots NGO. But his arrival in CAPP coincided with the internal upheaval which made working there a non-option. Then he went back to hunting, where he was as at the time of this interview in 2006. He eventually got employed in the Department of History in the Niger State owned Ibrahim Babangida University in Lapai but the story of a Masters Degree holder being a hunter was the original prompter for the interview when he made a sensational appearance at the time in the Civil Society Session on the Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative Bill. The question was how did Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, the Executive Director of Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, (CISLAC), manage to extricate him from his communion with nature to the Jos meeting. But, in the interview, it was the same the future of Nigeria at issue today that ended the main discussion in the over two hours encounter with this educated hunter, leaving the story of his hunting a matter for another day that will never be anymore.
Reuben Ziri died in June 2012 from an absolutely treatable infection. Like most brilliant minds who can, therefore, explain the social world, he took many things for granted and paid dearly for it. But memories of him linger as in this interview where he puts on the scale, the men who have held Nigeria’s destiny in their palms such as the political leaders in the first republic, Shehu Shagari, Generals Gowon, Murtala, Obasanjo, Buhari, IBB and Obasanjo again. This is the fullest version of this same interview, an edited version having been published before by The Nation for which the interview was originally conducted by this reporter as its Managing Editor then. Readers would observe some sentences here and there that look out of place but in all such cases, it should be noted that the interview was conducted nearly eleven years ago.
The study of countries such as Nigeria was dominated in the late 1960s by the position of scholars like James O’Connell who postulated “the inevitability of instability” as a consequence of cut-throat competition for power in a context of rapid modernization. Has he not been proved right?
I think he has but the whole thing is not as if instability was inevitable. I think it is because people worked more in the direction of instability. It was avoidable.
Why would you say people did not work for stability?
Well, there is this sentimental and subjective approach to politics and power since independence which seems to draw from this idea that the 1914 amalgamation was a mistake and that the British could have done otherwise. With that sort of attitude, Nigeria has been denied the best of her elite. But the truth is that 1914 amalgamation was never a mistake but a product of a reality that the British could not ignore. The relationship between the various sections tended towards what the British arrived at. At the end of the 19th century, we were heading towards integration.
What were the indicators?
Trade. Trade was the dominant indicator.
Sufficiently to sustain integration?
Yes. Trade on the Niger or the trans-Atlantic trade which created trade routes between Yoruba land and Hausa land through Nupe, linking Adamawa. Then there was Nupe and Igala axis and the subsequent relationship with Igboland. This is what explains the emergence of population centres of demographic mix, the presence of various groups in Onitsha, Ibadan, Lagos, Bida, Ilorin and the capital cities in the Sokoto Caliphate. So, as early as then, we were cosmopolitan as one can see from the existence of traditional settlement or Hausa Quarters in the cases of non-Hausa emirates and of Yoruba Quarters in the case of Sokoto Caliphate areas. So, talking about amalgamation and to use it to build a Nigerian nation or to do otherwise has to take cognizance of this reality.
Two questions from that analysis. The first one is that you are saying that the Sabon-Gari phenomenon is not necessarily discriminatory.
The Sabon-Gari of history was not discriminatory. The Sabon-Gari of the British creation is the problem. Because you can see the emergence of prominent political and economic figures in say Lagos, Onitsha and so on who had migrated into these areas either as commanders or merchants. For instance, the Nupe phenomenon in Lagos as symbolized by the Alli-Baloguns and other descendant generations had to be acknowledged especially in relation to certain rights such as land ownership, many of which ended up in courts such as the famous tapa tussles in Lagos.
The second question is whether you are not disagreeing with the central argument of Professor Okwudiba Nnoli that the population centres you are talking about became the cradle of ethnicity in Nigeria, from Lagos to Ibadan to Kaduna and so on.
The fact is that if you develop or attain a certain level of political development which loses its dynamics for further development, you are bound to have crisis, crisis of degeneration. Regionalism, the emergence of a political elite and the virtual static nature of the economic space to continuously absorb the elite created all sorts of problems. The emergent cities were developing, not through a simple reproduction of the autochthonous populations but from migrations and settlements. How big was Lagos between 1914 and 1920 or Bida or Minna or Kano or Jos? Then came the politics of independence and the question of representation and ascription into the top echelon of the bureaucracy, the Police and so on of the elite that took over from the British. That was how the exclusivist approach in terms of who is an indigene and who is not came to be developed in the urban centres and used subsequently in politics. So, Nnoli was right but it does not contradict what I said about the demographic mix of the population centres around 1914 which was the main basis of the British action in amalgamation. Because the question would have been how to successfully de-mix these population centres.
So, is it also the politics of competition that explains this observable detachment of the typical elite to the Nigerian nation? There is too much I-don’t-care in the attitude, even in the way they loot as if the nation is disappearing tomorrow.
The objective of the policy of indirect rule is what explains that attitude. It is clearest when you study the Bida Emirate. The conquest of the various components of what became Nigeria was followed by the collapse of these polities, their ruling classes and institutions. British colonialism did not have the political capacity to regenerate anything comparable to the pre-colonial class structure and its institutions. Meanwhile, the collapse had also led to the collapse of the production of tropical products which was what the British were here for. To arrest this crisis, the British simply went ahead and started replicating the structures they were confronting in the Sokoto Caliphate. That is what Warrant Chiefs in the East means and even the position of Obas in the South-West. So, the elite that emerged assumed aristocratic character.
What does that mean?
What it means is that British colonialism bound the elite across the regions to serve as mere protectors of interests strange to the people. Instead, there was mutuality between this emergent aristocracy and the British. In other words, it is dangerous to deny this aristocracy a class character within the limits of their subservience. This is the explanation for the attitude you are referring to among the ruling elite in Nigeria.
After so many years of independence, this class should have weaned itself.
The aristocracy reproduces itself. It submits only to superior political or military powers.
But it is not aristocratic power but ethnicity that seems to be overwhelming the country, to the extent that reports are suggesting the break-up of the country.
The idea of Nigeria breaking up is a crisis of consciousness. The reality on the ground goes against that ideology. A political ideology based on building rather than breaking has greater chance with the least difficulties. Breaking Nigeria is going to be like breaking water into its different components. That is why in spite of all the shouting about Nigeria breaking up, nothing like that is happening on the ground. How do you break down an economy predicated on regional specializations and whose operators do not have a local but national vision. The Igbos, for instance, are traders because they are not farmers. Farming does not thrive in Igbo land. In the Yoruba area, you have a large detachment of the populace that have had exposure to western education for a long time and you cannot restrict such a populace to anything called a Yoruba space. So also the Fulanis for whom there is nothing like homeland. This is not to talk of the Middle-Belters who have nowhere to go. All the ethnic groups produce for a Nigerian market, not for their local areas. It is not the same situation of a family bringing up a child to work on the family farm. More than the economy, you also have a national culture, whether we are aware or not, there is a national culture made up of shared values, emotions, sensibilities and aspirations and they are strengthening.
Supposing the breakers want to go for broke
But that is as far as false consciousness goes but anybody suffering from the illusion of ethnic separatism will go the way of all other supremacist ideologies. Supremacist tendencies always end up in disasters. The idea that Germans were superior which was what drove Nazism crashed. So, also the idea that the whites were superior to the Blacks in South Africa. In their own case, the multi-racial democratic transition was so well managed that the disaster was contained but Zionism is heading for the same disaster.
So, regional and cultural tendencies have the same fate awaiting them in Nigeria although the implication could be local. But even then, a break-up of Nigeria would have serious consequences especially in British West Africa because of the historical pattern of population movement. The kind of tribal and ethnic fixations which restricts a person can ignite a fire that has no end once it starts. It is not correct as someone said recently that we would all suffer, we have to specify the suffering by comparing it to other supremacist movements like Nazism, Apartheid and Zionism. Why would people walk to crisis instead of preventing it? Right from the 1980s, you have people writing thesis on patterns of wars but not on peace.
Who wrote such theses?
They are many but they are those who do not read history. The idea of Nigeria breaking up is an example of the kind of work they do. As prophets (most times of doom), they will go back to work on their prophecy or they will cease being prophets.
What do we do then?
Sometimes, you can’t suggest but the fact is that, historically, Nigeria is that society, if you are looking for one, where there are too much of the objective circumstances for change but none of the subjective factors to support it.
The military has been a longer actor in Nigerian politics than any other group. Can we say that this crisis of subjective factor is essentially their failure?
Yes, we can say that.
But they say they have saved the nation from breaking up
It is not true
How do you mean?
Now, if you take the military intervention of 1983, it came to forestall a popular revolt. That is why they clamped down on students and labour viciously. If the indiscriminate arrest and detention of political office holders was excused by the issue of corruption, were the students and labour also corrupt?
That is rather a portrait of Buhari
Yes, it is because he smothered the way for IBB’s SAP. Buhari ignited fascist fight against labour, students and the press. So, when IBB came, he had less to do in that regard because the programme of regimenting the society and the psychological impact of punishing people who had not been found guilty had sunk in substantially.
Okay, why don’t we take a historical sweep of each of the regimes, beginning with the first republic?
The problem of the first republic was the problem of weak nationalists
What of Gowon and the civil war?
The civil war was intra-elite intrigues which had to do with the discovery of oil. Ojukwu can continue to deny this but he is only being dishonest. The idea of succession was not a wholly local idea in relation to the oil discovery and so various forces came to play in the first coup. I think Gowon then had basically one agenda which he managed in a way that satisfied the leading elite groups.
What of Murtala?
Murtala was a spontaneous populist.
Would he have sustained the basic tenets of populism?
That does not arise since he is dead. It is now a matter of speculation.
What of OBJ in the first coming?
He was the one who actually launched this contempt for civil procedure which was why they had to fight the civil service and all that. Today, he is talking about Due Process as if it is a new thing when it was the military under him that destroyed Due Process. The system said you cannot spend public money without documentation but they came and said there was red tapism in the system. That is how people like OBJ who wanted to spend public money off record descended on civil procedure and civil society.
How did he inherit this mindset but not Murtala with whom he worked closely?
The Murtala coup was a convergence of forces and interests which hid under Murtala as a person. There was certainly a tendency or a consensus there which felt that the civil service or the bureaucracy had grown too strong and out of proportion to its role as an instrument of the Nigerian state and they decided to respond to it by creating insecurity there.
That is you are saying it was a conscious group political decision
Oh yes, it was deliberate. The complex thing about Murtala in relation to the role of individuals in history is that if he were there, if he remained alive, there might have been remedies but he was not there. But the important point here is that such is the problem with populism in that other political tendencies which may be negative can take refuge under populism because populism does not go beyond what meets the eye.
What of Shagari? Was he a leader?
Shagari was a leader, a liberal of the humanist attitude but that’s where he ran into trouble within his own political class. Because his disposition to power provided room for the emergence of political forces capable of torpedoing classical ruling group control. This was what the military came to stop because no ruling class loses power through the ballot.
What were the expressions of these forces then?
There was going to be a political upset. There was an article in the Sunday New Nigerian newspaper. It was titled, “The Nupe About Turn”. It captured the fear of the establishment then because they were confronted with a situation in which a Jerry Gana, a villager, a peasant who had already become a professor, strictly on merit, defeated a Turi Muhammadu, a former Managing Director of the revered New Nigerian Newspapers, in the 1983 Senatorial election and they could neither rig nor over turn the results. That sort of upset sent signals. And they got the signal.
Specifically, how did he represent a threat to the establishment?
Jerry Gana was then coming from the left. It is just that he has been co-opted in much the same way that Awo, J.S. Tarka, Abubakar Zukogi and similar other political combatants were co-opted shortly before or during the civil war. But within five months or so after the end of the civil war, they were all dropped from the cabinet either at the federal or state cabinets. Jerry may have survived long in government but that is the extent that people like Jerry have been able to play along and it is the extent of such few exceptions that the Nigerian establishment has been dynamic. Jerry was certainly a challenge but he has been co-opted. He has been ennobled.
Are you talking of the Northern establishment or the Nigerian establishment?
The truth is that it is not easy sustaining the distinction between the Northern and the Nigerian establishment because the Northern establishment is not exclusively Northern. Zik, Akintola, Ikoku, Asika were not Northerners in ethnic terms but it was Ikoku, for instance, who gave the greatest fire to Gowon’s war diplomacy. He was the one who went to Europe to expose the French. What you could probably say is that, by its origin and nature, the Northern oligarchy was more compact and hence its own role. The British strategy of education in the North whereby only the sons of emirs and chiefs went to school has also entrenched them. This was not the case in the South-West in particular where everyone had access to education, from peasants to monarchs. In the North, the schools were centres where people were deliberately prepared for life of leadership. There were spread out, from Katsina Ala to Keffi, Katsina, then Ilorin, Maiduguri, Adamawa, Bida, Zaria and so on. The students came from mixed grounds in metropolitan terms. You had students from Maiduguri going to the one in Ilorin, students from Adamawa going to Katsina and a lot of criss-crossing. That is why John Paden refereed to it as a cohort of a sort. That is the Northern extraction of the Nigerian ruling elite which, by its political coherence and the numerical strength of the region has sort of been in the vanguard. But it is a co-opting class, typical of ruling class politics. While Ojukwu was shooting his opponents in the East during the war, the establishment in the North was co-opting its challengers, including the NEPU until their services were no longer required.
You said he has been able to play along?
Yes of course, he has. Jerry of today is not the same Jerry of 1982. He has not remained what his emergence in 1982 symbolized. Today, he is an establishment man.
So, Shagari made a ruling class mistake!
Yes because he was weak in ruling class terms. I think the real reason the military came was these popular forces emerging here and there. Jerry Gana is just an example. What was going on in Kaduna and Kano frightened them. That is why they came with regimenting the society through WAI, queue culture and sanitation. Otherwise, how can you ensure cleanliness in Nigerian cities with the kind of rural-urban migrations and joblessness? The slums can only get slummier, not cleaner with brooms. Secondly, if indeed they came to check corruption, why didn’t they dismiss the politicians in power then and organize an election immediately? In that case, there would have been no need for an IBB coup.
Can we move to IBB?
You people in the media call him Maradona but the truth is that you could always see where he was going. It is not that Hitler or Mussolini was not smart but they could not have done what IBB did. A leader has to be extremely unpatriotic to subvert the students’ movement by creating cults in its place, provoking genocidal tribal wars and so on. So, with IBB, poor leadership was idealized and elevated to an art. The leadership roles of anticipating crisis in the system and forestalling erosion in national values were subverted. Unfortunately, this was celebrated and orchestrated as long as he ran the show.
He said he was delegating authority, not responsibility.
That is a logically plausible or correct argument. But we cannot go and start finding out which government officials did this or did not do that. What is known to history is that he was not only the head of the Nigerian state at certain time, he was also the Commander-in-Chief. This meant that he had under him the armed forces aside from the traditional intelligence agencies to find out who was doing that and to punish him or her. And if he didn’t do that, then we are right to hold him responsible.
Abacha was patriotic but there was this paternalistic attitude which his leadership was most guilty of. You pay people their dues and you expect them to come and thank you for it. He could not purge himself of it. Two, if citizens are going to make sacrifices for the sake of development, it has to be done by conviction. That is why Zimbabweans are suffering but they are still voting for Mugabe. Talking of sacrifice in the context of the situation where the undergraduate son of the head of state can go and buy a jeep of N8million when workers are earning N5000 is nonsensical. It was a peculiar problem in Abacha regime.
I am leaving out Abdulsalami regime for obvious reason of the length of time he had. Our last candidate is President Obasanjo in his second coming.
I call it OBJ 2. It is in OBJ 2 that the OBJ 1 script is fully playing out. He was the first leader to go to the IMF. If he were so patriotic, that would not have been so.
But he developed infrastructure in his first coming
Then why is he not able to do that now? You see, developing infrastructure was a continuation of the trend of economic planning since Gowon. If we must explain the dismal failure that OBJ 2 has been, it must be in the circumstance of 1970s.
What was the circumstance of the 1970s?
OBJ must be a very calculating person. I think that he could see how Gowon was dealt with by northerners, how Murtala was also dealt with by the same northerners. He must have concluded that he would only go for decisions which General Danjuma and Shehu Yar’Adua vouched for. So, he could not bare his fangs. So, OBJ 2 is the real OBJ.
From your portrait, it seems impossible to make any serious distinction between all the past military rulers.
Somebody has argued that in the post-colonial state, military coups take place because of the relatively weak position of the political and economic class to rule by systemic means without recourse to systematic coercion. He is talking of coercion in a persistent and consistent form, represented by military rule. So, you cannot make a sustainable distinction at all.
But even then, we can decipher differences
Yes and that is what gave rise to the kind of response Buhari gave. They do not just repress but also try to reposition the establishment.
But at each stage, there is the central logic at the background
Precisely and you could see how that central logic became manifest under IBB, this whole institutionalization of economic reform. Even they themselves became frightened that some of them started saying SAP must have human face. How can it have human face?
But there is the argument that it is better to have some capitalism than none at all.
Yeah but you cannot have capitalism hinged on making some people rich, stinking rich and leave the rest of the people with nothing. It is a paternalistic approach which says we need rich people to develop. Even in Britain, the efficiency you have is not just a factor of a market economy. The roads, the tunnels and bridges had nothing to do with profit but a commitment to integration of the British society. Actually, trying to midwife a capitalist system in a bureaucratic state like Nigeria is what I cannot understand. It simply contradicts the fact that, as a developing nation, we have a challenge to advance beyond our present level of primitivity, our technology usage, our integration. But you have a global system controlled and tailored by this idea of end of history insisting that every other society must join the US, as slaves. Because that is what globalization means and the protests and challenges to globalization from within the West itself is a testimony to this. In that case, the political elite in third world countries who promote globalization are in every way comparable to the slave agents who captured the African slaves for the Portuguese merchants at the Coasts although their illusion of capital flowing just because they proclaim market reform won’t work.
Do you find anything surprising about how the nationalist response to market forces that was developing among students and labour has almost completely evaporated?
It is because fascist method has been used by the kind of unpatriotic elements you find in government today, many of them having been cultivated to do that. The kind of poverty you find in Nigeria is deliberate. It is in Nigeria that you find a government refusing to pay salaries on the ground that there is no money. So, a vast number of people remain perpetually cash strapped. And if you pay someone 5000 naira a month, what can he buy with it? This is fascism in subtle ways and it is not something that farmers and workers can fight.
How far has democracy mitigated this trajectory?
My idea is that you cannot expect democracy in the morning of the night of a dictatorship, despotism over 30 years. We just had a break in 1979-1983. You cannot, therefore, have democracy in the morning of such a long night. Democracy or even civil rule cannot survive where the civil society has been weakened, where the elite are deeply clannish, thinking only of their villages. So, I think we risk anarchy or at best dictatorship. This is not merely wishing it if you look at the way OBJ is going. Why leave the responsibility for security uncared for? For example, the only capital crime you commit in this country without reprisal is to start killing people on ethnic or religious grounds and nobody will arrest you. They will even call you to a meeting. Or a government minister will go on air to say they know those doing it, and if they do not desist, government would deal with them. But this is not the same treatment they will adopt if students, workers or peasants had gathered in ABU, Zaria or central Lagos to hold a meeting.
What is the mitigation?
If the elite and individuals, especially some people who have become powerful by the nature of our society, can begin to moderate their behaviours, we can avoid disaster. If they do not, the rains will beat all of us.