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Colonial Expansion, Opposition to the British

NCNC, Igbo women, Nnamdi Azikiwe, legislative assemblies, Azikiwe

Throughout the early 20th century, Nigerians found many ways to oppose foreign rule. Local armed revolts, concentrated in the middle belt, broke out sporadically and intensified during World War I (1914-1918). Workers in mines, railways, and public service often went on strike over poor wages and working conditions, including a large general action in 1945, when 30,000 workers stopped commerce for 37 days. Ire over taxation prompted other conflicts, including a battle in 1929 fought mainly by Igbo women in the Aba area. More common was passive resistance: avoiding being counted in the census, working at a slow pace, telling stories ridiculing colonists and colonialism. A few political groups also formed to campaign for independence, including the National Congress and the National Democratic Party, but their success was slight. In 1937 the growing movement was given a voice by Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo nationalist, who founded the newspaper West African Pilot.

World War II (1939-1945), in which many Nigerians fought for or otherwise aided Britain, increased the pace of nationalism. The growing anticolonial feeling was most strongly articulated by two groups, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), led by Azikiwe and supported mostly by Igbo and other easterners, and the Action Group, led by activist Obafemi Awolowo and supported mostly by Yoruba and other westerners. By the early 1950s, other parties had emerged, notably the Northern People’s Congress, a conservative northern group led by the Hausa-Fulani elite. The regional power bases of these parties foreshadowed the divisive regional politics that would follow colonialism.

Pressure for independence from within Nigeria was complemented by pressure from other nations, and from reformers in Britain and in other colonies. In 1947 the British responded by introducing a new constitution that divided Nigeria into three regions: the Northern Region, the Eastern Region, and the Western Region. The Northern Region was mainly Hausa-Fulani and Muslim; the Eastern Region, Igbo and Catholic; and the Western Region, Yoruba and mixed Muslim and Anglican. The regions each had their own legislative assemblies, with mainly appointed rather than elected members, and were overseen by a weak federal government. Although short-lived, the constitution had serious long-term impact through its encouragement of regional, ethnic-based politics.

The constitution failed on several counts, was abrogated in 1949, and was followed by other constitutions in 1951 and 1954, each of which had to contend with powerful ethnic forces. The Northern People’s Congress (NPC) argued that northerners, who made up half of Nigeria’s population, should have a large degree of autonomy from other regions and a large representation in any federal legislature. The NPC was especially concerned about respect for Islam and the economic dominance of the south. The western-based Action Group also wanted autonomy; they feared that their profitable western cocoa industries would be tapped to subsidize less wealthy areas. In the poorer east, the National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons wanted a powerful central government and a redistribution of wealth—the very things feared by the Action Group.

The eventual compromise was the 1954 constitution, which made Nigeria a federation of three regions corresponding to the major ethnic nations. It differed from the 1947 constitution in that powers were more evenly split between the regional governments and the central government. The constitution also gave the regions the right to seek self-government, which the Western and Eastern regions achieved in 1956. The Northern Region, however, fearing that self-government (and thus British withdrawal) would leave it at the mercy of southerners, delayed the imposition until 1959.

In December 1959, elections were held for a federal parliament. None of the three main parties won a majority, but the NPC, thanks to the size of the Northern Region, won the largest plurality. Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, head of the NPC, entered a coalition government with the eastern NCNC as prime minister. The new parliament was seated in January 1960.

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