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NIGERIA: The Free Giant

8 minute read

In sweltering Lagos one night last week, throngs surged toward the gaily decorated race track, where bands played and dancers swayed. Precisely at midnight, a mighty roar went up as a green-white-green flag was hauled aloft to replace the Union Jack. With that, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation (36 million), became independent and took its place in the councils of the world. Solemnly, 40,-ooo voices rose in the new official anthem:

“Nigeria we hail thee,/ Our own dear native land,/ Though tribe and tongue may differ,/ In brotherhood we stand.”

Matter of Persuasion. Brotherhood is perhaps too strong a term yet in a land made up of 250 bickering tribal groups speaking as many languages, with little in common but mutual suspicion and jealousy. But it is an achievement in itself that a unified Nigeria is getting its independence and seems ready for it. Only a decade ago, a rising young politician from the north named Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was threatening a Moslem holy war against the southerners rather than join them in one independent nation. “There is no basis for Nigerian unity,” he sniffed. “It is only a British intention for our country.”

Today. Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, O.B.E., K.B.E., is federal Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, who now says, “There is no threat to unity at all. We solved that problem a long time ago.” His words are echoed by every important politician, giving the lie to the theory that backward African nations inevitably must suffer the chaos of a Congo when the blacks take over.

The British began training the Nigerians in local self-government almost as soon as they pulled the scattered, warring millions into one big (339,169 sq. mi.) colony called Nigeria in 1914. As far back as 18 years ago, Nigerians were admitted to the Governor’s Cabinet. As a result of their wise stewardship, Britain has won a fervent friend and a loyal new partner for the Commonwealth. Last week thousands cheered vivacious Princess Alexandra, cousin of Queen Elizabeth, as she flew in from London to represent the royal family at the celebrations. Even that old nationalist warhorse, Dr. Nnamde (“Zik”) Azikiwe, 55, who cursed Britain for years in his personal campaign for Nigerian independence, proclaimed that “we give credit to Britain for an imperishable legacy of the rule of law and legacy of respect for human dignity and freedom.” U.S.-educated Zik, of all people, is to be the Queen’s personal representative as the nation’s first Nigerian Governor General.

Palm Oil & Slaves. A steaming chunk of West Africa, Nigeria’s topography ranges from mangrove thickets, lagoons and rain forests in the south to lofty plateaus and arid plains in the north. Leader of the north’s Moslems is proud, turbaned Sir Ahmadu Bello, whose religious title is the Sardauna of Sokoto. Eight years ago the Sardauna sent able Abubakar to Lagos as his agent because the Sardauna himself felt he had more important things to do at home among the Hausa and Fulani tribesmen. Only its huge (18 million) population and sprawling area (three-fourths of the country) provide the relatively backward north with its titular balance of power in Nigeria’s loose federation over the two big tribes of the more advanced south, the solid Yoruba town dwellers of the West ern Region and the flamboyant, aggressive Ibo in the rural east, who encountered the civilizing influence of Europe at an early date.

First the Portuguese, then the Dutch, Danes and British moved in to start the scramble for pepper, ivory, palm oil and slaves. It was the British who remained, represented by ship captains, merchants and the “palm-oil ruffians,” who trudged upcountry through swarms of mosquitoes, dropping off bags of cowrie shells and cases of cheap gin as payment to local chiefs who agreed to fill metal drums with palm oil and send them floating downstream to the coast. More whites died than lived, and for generations the place was considered uninhabitable for Europeans. The Governor’s residence in Lagos, wrote a visitor in 1863, was little more than a “corrugated iron coffin,” for at that time the consuls were dying at the rate of one a year.

TV in the Slums. “Our greatest ally was the mosquito, for it kept the white man away,” cracks Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Yoruba leader and spokesman for the Western Region in the opposition’s front bench in the federal Parliament. Today, only some 14,000 whites live in the entire country, and in such cities as the west’s Ibadan (pop. 500,000), with its bright new university just outside the town’s sea of tin-roofed shacks, or the north’s ancient, fabled Keno (pop. 130,000), a non-Nigerian is seldom seen, although the health perils and discomforts have largely disappeared. In Lagos (pop. 350,000), the federation’s coastal capital, even the poor wear bright nylon shirts and drink cold beer at dingy slum dives that boast gleaming refrigerators and blaring radios, while a few miles away, ragged Yoruba villagers live in huts and chop the soil with primitive wooden hoes.

Nigeria is not only the most populous but is on the way to becoming the richest of the new African states. Tarred roads connect all the major towns. Ibadan has the first TV station in Africa; Enugu (pop. 63,000), bustling capital of the Eastern Region, Zik’s center of power, will soon inaugurate a TV station of its own, and a new university nearby is ready for students. Revenue from palm oil and kernels, cocoa and peanuts already has boosted exports to $460 million a year; to reduce the overwhelming dependence on agriculture, Sir Abubakar’s men hope to develop iron ore, lead and zinc deposits, even talk of building a steel mill to supply West Africa’s needs. Oil already pours out of Shell’s wells along the Niger River delta, and the flow of Nigerian crude may reach 500,000 bbl. a day by 1970.

Checks & Balances. Unlike the Congo, where no trained specialists of any kind exist, Nigeria starts with 532 practicing doctors, 644 lawyers, 60 graduate engineers, accountants and surveyors, and thousands of Nigerian civil servants who have been on the job for years. Many Britons will remain to help, either on permanent salary status or special contracts. Snags are bound to persist; corruption, for example, is widespread and even semirespectable among Nigerians who for years have been accustomed to giving a “dash” (bribe) in exchange for a favor from tribal chiefs or government officials.

It will be years before tribalism is wiped out. In the midst of the independence gaiety last week, Lagos got grim word that rioting by spear-carrying Tiv tribesmen of the north had led to more than a dozen deaths and scores of injuries. Even in the capital, the regional spirit is far from dead, and much of Zik’s loyalty to his eastern Ibos inevitably will remain, just as will Awolowo’s to the west, and Abubakar’s to the north. But this also has the advantage of discouraging the development of monolithic one-man authoritarianism on the model of Nkrumah’s Ghana and Toure’s Guinea.

Essentially conservative, Sir Abubakar has little use for men like Ghana’s flamboyant Kwame Nkrumah; he has even less for Nkrumah’s grandiose hopes of merging many nations into a broad Pan-African association. “You can’t expect us to surrender sovereignty we have not yet had time to get used to!” Sir Abubakar laughs, proudly aware that populous Nigeria at the moment of independence automatically became a far greater influence in African affairs than Nkrumah’s little Ghana (pop. 5,000,000) can ever hope to be.

Abubakar has developed both prestige and confidence in office, and although he still pays respect to his old boss, the Sardauna, he acts with complete independence on policy matters. Pledged to join no power bloc, Sir Abubakar is clearly antiCommunist, is known to support Dag Hammarskjold’s policy in the Congo. Generally, his sympathies lie with Britain and with the U.S., which he visited in 1955 to study the water flow of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in connection with a planned dam of his own on the Niger. He will make his second U.S. trip this week, leading independent Nigeria’s first delegation to the U.N. General Assembly meeting in Manhattan.

On a crumbling continent in desperate need of reason and stability, free Nigeria, whose population includes one of every six humans in Africa, will provide a much-needed counterbalance to chaos.

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