May 24 is an important date in the history of Nigeria. It was a day in which a single decree set us on a particular journey.
Unfortunately, due to the poverty in the land, both mental and physical, the date went unnoticed, unmarked and unacknowledged.
You see, May 24, 1966, was the day Major General JT Aguinyi Ironsi, the Head of the Military Government who was “invited” by the acting President, Nwafor Orizu, in the absence of the President, Nnamdi Azikwe, who was on an extended medical leave abroad,and against the advice of the Federal Cabinet members, who insisted that the mutiny had been contained, to take over government following the murder of the PM, two Regional Premiers and some senior army officers, on January 15 of the same year, delivered a speech that changed the course of history.
In the address, Mr. Ironsi, on behalf of the ruling junta, rolled out two decrees, Decree 5 (Constitution;Suspension And Modification Decree) of 1966, and Decree 34( The Unity Decree) of 1966.
While I have no issues with Decree 5, which is the standard practice to legitimize treason, which was what all coups were, no matter the noble intentions of the coupists, It is the other decree that is of interest, because it marked the beginning of fifty years of going down the wrong road.
You see, the decree wiped out, in one fell swoop, thirty years of meticulous negotiations and delicate give and take that moulded the basis of our union. The independent constitution, while not perfect, was a document of compromise in forging and acceptable platform to govern a country of mutual distrust and deep rooted ethnic division.
While one must be charitable to gloss over the ethnic colouration of the drafters of the decree and the advantage it was meant to provide , one must accept that the unity decree, while promulgated to force national unity and curb tribalism, was the precursor of whatever we are going through today, fifty years later.
This is because all the problems we are battling with today; regional autonomy, fiscal federalism, resource control and a weak center, were already discussed and agreed to by our leaders at independence.
What Ironsi did, whatever the intent, was to take us off the road to our destination, and drove us back in the opposite direction.
The unity decree created a strong center and weak states, a decision that led to our current crises of states that are insolvent, local councils that are none functional, and an unwieldy center that is now buckling under its own weight.
In organised societies, fifty years anniversary of such a momentous event would have been marked with seminars and workshops. Universities, Think Tanks and the media would have organised them all over the country to deepen our democratic institutions, And the legislature would have used the occasion to push bills to bring positive change.
Its been fifty years since we took the wrong turn, and it is time we return to the right path.
Fifty years on, it is obvious that the Unity by force mantra is not working, everything is in a state of despair. It is time to try unity based on mutual understanding and compromise. It is time to return to the independence constitution, with realistic and negotiated modifications.
Let me end this with a quote from that address fifty years ago….
” Nigeria is no longer a federation, but a republic”
Whatever came out of Ironsi’s mouth was 99 percent cow dung, but on this one he was right.
Nigeria is not a federation but a republic, but wether we add banana as a prefix depends on how we handle our current challenges.
It is never too late to change.
My Ten Kobo.