Last week, Nigerians marked four anniversaries. One was the anniversary of the creation of states in 1967 by the military regime of then Lt. Colonel Yakubu Jack Gowon. The second was the anniversary of the return to Civil Rule in 1999. The third of course was Children’s Day. The fourth was the anniversary of the creation of the stillborn Republic of Biafra. I am more concerned about this discourse about the creation of states in 1967.
Gowon came to power in a turbulent period.
Those who brought him to power had staged the bloodiest coup in Nigerian history, assassinating Major-General J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi, the Head of State and the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. He was killed in Ibadan during the coup of July 29, 1966. The coup makers also killed his Ibadan host, Lt. Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, and many other military officers mostly of Eastern Nigerian origin.
The roiling crisis that birthed Gowon regime finally led him to the terminus where he was convinced that the creation of states was inevitable. Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the Lagos boy who had been appointed military governor of the Eastern Region by General Ironsi, saw himself as the counterpoise to Gowon. He believed that Gowon did not do enough to protect the people of Eastern Region, who were resident in the Northern Region, from mindless violence, later to be known as the pogrom.
Gowon, therefore, created 12 states out of the former four regions in order to checkmate Ojukwu. As a point final gesture of peace, he appointed Ojukwu as the Governor of the newly created East Central State. Ojukwu rejected the appointment and declared the Republic of Biafra the same day.
The Nigerian Civil War, which claimed an estimated one million lives in its gory journey of three years, began. Gowon 12-states federal structure survived until February 1976 when General Murtala Muhammed created the 19 states structure for the federation.
What would have been the fate of Nigeria if the 12 states had survived? The 12 states structure was an answer to the yearnings of the minority ethnic groups in Nigeria who felt dominated and shortchanged by the major ethnic groups; the Hausa (and their Fulani overlords), Yoruba, and the Igbo. For the Yoruba of the North who had always advocated for a merger with the Western Region, they were given a new state of their own called the West Central State. It was later re-named Kwara State.
A large portion of coastal Yorubaland; Badagry, Agege, Isolo, Ikeja, Mushin, Ikorodu, Epe, Lekki, and other places were merged with the old Federal Capital Territory of Lagos to create Lagos State. The entire industrial estate of the old Western Region in Ikeja and Ilupeju suddenly became part of a new state.
In rueful moments, I sometimes wonder what would Nigeria have looked like if the 12 states had survived. Who would have become the first elected governor of the Western State in 1979 between the three men who emerged in that space, Olabisi Onabanjo, the journalist, Ajibola Ige, the lawyer, and Adekunle Ajasin, the teacher? Or would Awolowo had preferred to return to Ibadan and pick up from where he ended his tour of duty 20 years earlier?
It is clear now that after so many years of operating the structure of the state following further fragmentations, that the 12 states would have served Nigeria’s development better. Following the annulment of Chief Moshood Abiola’s electoral victory at June 12, 1993, presidential election, it became clear that we need a regional approach to properly situate the Yoruba response to Nigeria’s myriad of challenges. Indeed, many of the leaders realised that Awolowo was right. There was no need to create more states in 1975. But the politicians wanted more states and more states and still more states. The three states of 1976 are now five states. There is scant evidence indeed that the five states are better governed than the original one state.
During the Second Republic, Senator Abraham Adesanya, who was later to emerge the leader of Afenifere, was the leader of the Ijebu State Movement. I was then a correspondent of the National Concord at the National Assembly. We followed Senator Adesanya to the Park Lane residence of Chief Awolowo. The Ijebu State Movement wanted his support. Chief Awolowo, blunt as ever, declined to offer any support. “Abraham,” he said, addressing Senator Adesanya. “You will soon be asking for Ikenne State!” Everyone laughed!
Since then Osun and the Ekiti States have been created. Last week, those who met the Senate Committee in the West again demanded new states, especially the perennial three, Ijebu, Oke-Ogun, and Ibadan States.
It is clear that after the balkanization of states, it has been difficult to build a proper regional response to national challenges. Chief Ajasin, who led the Awoist vanguard after the June 12 annulment, tried valiantly to create a regional response. He succeeded to a large extent, but it would have been a bigger success if there was still a political entity called the Western State. It is getting clearer down the years that the Yoruba people are losing the capacity for a proper regional response. To underscore the quagmire, just consider the reckless parochialism that is dominating the various state universities. Compare that to the old University of Ife, which was a world-class institution with lecturers and professors from all over the world on its faculties. Students from all over the world also enrolled. In my days in Ife, we had teachers from the United Kingdom, the Caribbean, and other African countries. One of our teachers was Okot P’Bitek, the great Ugandan poet and author of Songs of Lawino. I would be surprised if there is any Ghanaian student in any state university in Nigeria today.
Despite our reluctance to accept the fact, the Nigerian situation calls for a regional response. The states are too weak, too puny, and too poor to offer the adequate and necessary response to the national and international dynamics of the modern world. The paradox is that people of the West are living better today than their parents were doing 50 or 70 years ago. When Awolowo became leader of Government Business in 1952, there was no road linking Ikorodu to Lagos. The journey from Ikorodu to Lagos had to be by boat, and the sail was often perilous. Those who wanted to travel by road had to go to Shagamu and from there to Abeokuta and then Otta and Agege. Today, younger people take the road journey from Ikorodu to Lagos for granted. They have forgotten that the road was only dualised by the military regime of Brigadier Mohammed Buba Marwa, the last military administrator of Lagos State, who handed over power to elected Governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu in 1999. The transformation of Lagos since then has been the handiwork of Tinubu and his successors.
Yoruba today have better access to the good things of life than those who lived in the First Republic. There are more cars now, many more kilometers of macadamized road networks, and better access to health and education. However, these have been achieved at a heavy price. The lack of regional response has led to a serious decline in four critical areas. These are the decline in the quality of education, decline in the quality of leadership, decline in productivity, and decline in ethical values.
When we were young, Western State was the centre of cocoa, coffee, cotton, timber trade in Africa. We were producing the best African traditional clothes, the aso oke, sanyan, popoki, adire and others. Every part of Yoruba land had its strength and economic base. Of course, Ibadan and Ikeja were the industrial fortress of the West. In the course of time, Ekiti Division also became the intellectual powerhouse of the Yoruba nation with Christ School, Ado-Ekiti at the epicenter of Yoruba recrudescence. Now, here we are!
Only a return to a proper regional arrangement can restore Yoruba power. Neither the Presidency nor the National Assembly is going to do this for us. The current Constitution does not forbid the merging of states or the creation of pan-states institutions for effective governance and economic prosperity. It is only the Yorubas who can decide to merge their states and recreate the atmosphere for maximum opportunity for our people. President Muhammadu Buhari would not do that for us. It is only the Yoruba people who can do that for themselves. Even God will not do for us what we ought to do for ourselves.