9 AUGUST 1975, Page 8

Nigeria (1)

Back to the dark ages?

Alec DouglasHome

Of all the colonial territories to which Britain conceded independence Nigeria seemed to be the most likely to succeed in maintaining stable government and in safeguarding the essential freedoms.

Certainly the start was propitious. It fell to my lot to introduce the country into the United Nations, and I shall never forget the dignity with which Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa accepted the responsibilities of establishing a government which would fulfil, in both its domestic and international relations, the expectations of the world.

But he was assassinated. General Ironsi suspended the democratic constitution and substituted military rule, and that pattern was repeated in turn by General Gowon and now by General Mohammed.

When General Gowon seized power he expressed the most admirable intentions, and hopes were raised that he would retain authoritarian rule only for so long as it took him to restore a civilian government which would command sufficient support to be able to govern firmly and fairly.

Perhaps we in Britain have pinned too many hopes on African individuals with personality, but he was a refreshing young man with many qualities which were reminiscent of Sir Abubakar. He was unlikely to be corrupted by power; he was a practising Christian inspired by high ideals and a simple code of conduct. He stood for clean politics and the policy of the good neighbour. His last words to the Organisation of African Unity are reported to have been: "My advice to you at this stage is to ask you to give to your people good government and to uplift Africa and mankind," That was typical of the man and of his private and public 'image'. How then did he fail?

He was certainly unlucky in that his administration was struck by the tragedy of the lb° revolt. Through no fault of his own he was compelled to devote his energies to war rather than to reconstruction. He had no alternative but to assert the authority of the federal government and in doing so he actually enhanced his personal reputation. He was careful during the battles to inflict the minimum of physical damage; in victory he was magnanimous and refused to enact revenge upon the 1bo tribe, and in the aftermath he was able to restore unity through his policy of reconciliation. In all of this he was to be commended and he served his country well.

To the peace was added the bonus of large revenues from oil, and hopes were again high that Nigeria would make the grade as a stable country which would be an example to the rest of Africa. He was popular in the Organisation of African Unity, and one of his last acts was to authorise a payment of £36 million for the benefit of his poorer African neighbours. In 1973 I paid a visit to Nigeria, and op the surface all seemed to be well, but there were a lot of stories of discontent The General himself was untouched by corruption, but there was evidently a lot of it in the administration. There were many com plaints of inefficiency in the middle and lower ranks of the civil service. There was impatience in the armed services because of a log-jam in promotion caused, it was said, by officers finding it too comfortable at the top. Nor was the army popular for the privileges and favours given to it which others could not enjoy. There were even at that time rumours of plots. I came away uneasy, not so much about any

particular defect but because General Gowan himself and his main advisers seemed scarcely to appreciate the magnitude and urgency of the task of social, economic and politic reconstruction to which they had set their hand. I therefore expected trouble sooner, but r was reassured when the General came to London on a State visit in 1974 when he seemed to have gained in stature and confidence.

That this latest coup took Lagos by surprise suggests that in the last year or so the complaints had become less vigorous, but there was one announcement which stirred indignation among students and the intelligentsia. It was to the effect that General Gowon felt bound to go back on his promise of a year ago that he would re-instal civilian government by 1976. None of this will have touched the mass of the people deeply but many in Lagos must have felt that the inaction of the President was tantamount to issuing an extension of licence for more corruption, more , inefficiency and indefinte army rule.

The strange thing is that General Gowon risked leaving Nigeria because he cannot have been ignorant. He must have known about the plotting and have recalled how General Amin seized power in similar circustances. General Mobutu was a more prudent man.

The danger of Nigeria of this latest coup is clear — namely that the Federation may fragment. Neither the Muslins in the North, nor the Houssas, nor the Ibos have ever been really happy in federal harness, but after the Civil War they acquiesced in it. They did so partly because the central government had been challenged and had won, partly because oil revenues held out the prospect of better conditions in the poorer areas, and partly because the personality of General Gowon (and in particular his magnanimity in victory) was a unifying force. He was too a member of one of the minor tribes, and was thus more likely to achieve fair play. Federal experiment in other areas of the world have run on to the rocks, and it will take a high degree of statesmanship to hold the country together. There are bound to be anxious months before anyone can say that the structure will hold. It is certainly a British interest that it should do so, for our economic stake, quite apart from our substantial import of oil, is high. It must also be in the interest of other African states that Nigeria should remain united anid prosperous. But many African countries must be deeply worried about the possibility of a revival of tribalism. This is the unmistakable pattern in Africa. General Amin in Uganda ruthlessly eliminated tribal opposition. After the deposi tion of Emperor Haile Selassie by the army, Ethiopia is rent by civil war. Tribal conflict is tearing Angola apart. In Zaire, General Mobutu has had to put down tribal unrest with an iron hand, while in the last few days trouble has flared up again in the Sudan. In spite of twentieth-century political change, the basis of Africa's society is still tribal, and violence still rears its ugly head.

Happily there are people in authority who can recognise the red light of danger when they see it. President Keyatta, for example, knows that tribal warfare is to be shunned like the plague. Mr Vorster, the South African Prime Minister, is well aware that the future of the continent lies in reconciliation between black and white Africans, and that the foundation ought to be laid now.

Some OAU leaders talk glibly of violence to settle the problem of Rhodesia. But President Kaunda has lately understood the horrible repercussions of a fight between Mozambique and Rhodesia upon Zambia, President Nyerere must by now be convinced that to sow the seeds of violence is to reap the whirlwind. Such men' must take charge of African affairs, first because there is no one else to do it, and second because unless they do so the continent will disintegrate into a mess of tribal war.

It is a moot point whether Nigeria is a warning to the rest of Africa or vice versa, but it is clear that unless African leaders arrest the spate of violence and discard revolution in favour of evolutionary political forms as the democratic rule of law, then Africa will revert to the dark ages.