By Afolabi Akinbola
The Yorubas had a history of ‘royal republicanism’ even at the worst of times. Virtually all the Yoruba states patented their unwritten constitution on the old Oyo empire’s despite the fact that Ile-Ife was regarded as the spiritual home of the race. The king’s person was sacrosanct and his office inviolable. He was selected by the chief officers of state whose position like that of the king could be attributed to their genealogy.
In this convoluted but well thought out system, the national oracle Ifa had the final say, although the oracle could be manipulated towards a desired goal. Once the king becomes tyrannical and his rule became unbearable, he could be removed and ordered to commit suicide since there cannot be two kings in a town. There had been many bloody uprisings in the turbulent history of the race to remove an unpopular king.
The commander in chief of the army, especially in old Oyo was not allowed to reside in the capital city. Apart from rapine which became endemic when the whole race was in dire straits, war booty was the chief attraction to the army. The experience of the ill-advised revolt of Afonja against his liege lord at old Oyo, the loss of Ilorin and several Yoruba territories to the Fulanis and the subsequent century of warfare and unbridled mayhem in swathes of Yorubaland left a lasting scar on the race.
The rise of Ibadan and its own thoughtless imperialism contributed to the Yoruba mistrust of the ‘man on horseback’ and an enduring aversion to the military caste and its deadly pretensions.
This aversion, borne out by recent tribulations was carried into colonial rule. It is apposite to note that the pacification of the people was carried out by a Hausa constabulary ably assisted by a minimal contingent from Ghana sans the warlike Ashantis who gave the British a bloody nose in their own country. Thus, the burgeoning colonial army in Nigeria was made up of Hausas.
The Yorubas found in the army were there for the steady pay and the pleasure of ‘lording’ it over their conquered kinsmen and escape the mandatory manual labor that the new masters demanded from their conquered subjects. They filled mainly the artisan and non-combatant echelons of the colonial army. Profession in the army was a last resort not only because it was naturally an army of occupation designed primarily to ‘pacify’ recalcitrant and obdurate people but also to alienate and subjugate them.
In the far North virtually devoid of western education, the army became a profession of first choice. But the bulk of the fighting forces of oppression and suppression were recruited from the so-called middle belt regarded by the colonialists as ‘fighters’. Nevertheless, the middle belt and the north were monolithic in the struggle against the entire south.
The British had skewed everything in their new possessions in favour of the north and the latter were strongly advised to people the army with their people rightly surmising that it had a role to play in the emerging nation despite the Westminster model of the strict separation of the army from partisan politics. The advice was well noted by the premier of the northern region Sir Ahmadu Bello and his retinue.
He toured the few secondary schools in the region identifying potential recruits and advising them to join up and defend the north against a seemingly rampaging southern hordes.
Despite the valiant efforts of the northern premier, the premier military training school in England—Sandhurst could not bend the rules to favor of the north. The bulk of the selected trainees strictly on merit were from the south, with the East providing a substantial amount and the west a distant second. The north had to do with middle belt and Borno recruits.
Frantic efforts were made by the north to send its ‘boys’ to far less demanding training countries like India and Pakistan. Dinned into the heads of these northerners was the belief that they were to be the armed wing of the northern assault on the south in future political battles. Promotions in the force was largely skewed against the south despite their superior western education.
The mindset of the south could be gauged by the dismissive remark of a western politician who observed that the force was peopled by cut-throats and never do wells in the society.
After the mutually assured destruction of the political class in the First Republic, the first sortie of the army in national affairs was spearheaded by a largely Ibo officer class. The subsequent northern riposte six months later was much bloodier and nearly led to the disintegration of the nation. Significantly, Yakubu Gowon appealed to a berserk north after the July 1966 bloodbath that power had returned to the north and that the organized massacres of Ibos in the north should stop.
When Gowon himself was toppled in 1975, Muritala, a ‘true northerner’ came to power only to be assassinated six months later and power fortuitously went to his deputy in the ruling military hierarchy who was Yoruba by birth.
A northerner Shehu Musa Y’ardua was given a double promotion and made Obasanjo’s deputy. Obasanjo was in office but not in power. Native intelligence found him looking over his back when he was in power and he went out of his way to please his ‘masters’. He handed power to a northerner in controversial circumstances in 1979.
Shehu Shagari who succeeded him was toppled barely four years and three months later; to be succeeded by another northerner who did all in his power to shield the profligate predecessor from retribution. Another northerner toppled him in less than two years and annulled an election that took him eight years to organize. Despite many stumbling blocks in his transition programme, a southerner was coasting to an inevitable victory when he, along with northern confederates cancelled the election.
An interim government was viewed as largely temporary by those in the know. The misbegotten ‘government’ of Shonekan was topped and Nigeria got its first ‘maximum’ ruler who was inevitably a northerner. In all these deadly games of musical chairs, the north played a leading role sometimes assisted by southern confederates who were junior to their ‘masters’ in the power play.
When the south gets power, it was always an accident in the political history of the country. Obasanjo in 1976 and 1999; Shonekan in 1993; Goodluck Jonathan in 2008-2015. The north was truly born to rule; making the dream of Ahmadu Bello a self-fulfilling prophecy and contributing virtually nothing to the national upkeep except the looting of the national patrimony and cementing the internal colonization of the entire country. In 2015, Major General Muhammad Buhari came to power and made no bones about the Fulanization of the country with his insensitive appointments by fiat. Since independence, southern presence at the centre of power had been accidental and at the pleasure of the north because of its stranglehold on the military who are the final arbiters of power.
When MKO Abiola was within whiskers of power democratically, the whole process was thrown into avoidable jeopardy. He was able to break the jinx and his martyrdom in the hands of northern oligarchy raised the decibel for more equitable distribution and allocation of resources and an end to internal colonialism.
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