For one month, delighted Londoners watched the 80 ceremonially dressed Nigerians—some with necklaces of animal teeth, others with feathered straw hats, at least one with a jeweled crown—parade into Lancaster House for their historic conference.
Everything possible had been done to make them feel at home.
For the Colonial Office’s big reception at the Tate Gallery, all nude statues were carefully screened so as not to offend Moslems. The Lord Mayor served up a banquet of stewed peanuts, and one paramount Chief—His Highness James Okosi II of the Onitsha —fulfilled a lifelong ambition: to ride the escalator at the Charing Cross underground station.[?]
In the end, the Nigerians got what they had come for: on Oct. 1, 1960, the largest (373,250 sq. mi.) of Britain’s remaining colonial territories would get its independence (TIME. Nov. 3). But behind the scenes the conference had revealed ominous signs of trouble to come.
From the start there was a clash between the personalities of the Premiers of the three regions —each obviously more important than the scholarly Federal Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.
In Western eyes, Obafemi Awolowo of the Western Region seemed the most statesmanlike: as the conference began, the London Times carried a full-page ad proclaiming his declaration for freedom under the title “This I Believe,” prepared with the help of an American public relations man.
In contrast, U.S.-educated Premier Nnamdi (“Zik”) Azikiwe of the Eastern Region seemed to have learned more in the U.S. about Tammany tactics than Thomas Jefferson, and was somewhat under a cloud as a result of a British tribunal’s 1956 investigation into corruption in his administration.
The North’s Premier, the Sardauna of Sokoto, a haughty Moslem of noble birth, could barely conceal his contempt for his less aristocratic colleagues.
▪︎Insults & Accusations.
Under the great chandeliers of the Lancaster House music room, where Chopin once played for Queen Victoria, the Premiers bickered, shot insults back and forth like poisoned darts.
When the conference took up the ticklish problem of how to protect the rights of minorities among Nigeria’s 250 tribes, Awolowo suggested creating three new states. The North’s Sardauna, not wishing to relinquish any of his own territory, vetoed the idea. Nor did he like the plan for a centralized police force under the federal government: he much preferred to use his own force, which, answerable only to him, can pop a man in jail with no questions asked.
At one point, the Sardauna accused Awolowo of sending his supporters to Israel to be trained as saboteurs in the North —a charge fabricated out of the fact that Western Nigeria has imported agricultural experts from Israel to advise its farmers. Awolowo countercharged that the Sardauna flogs his prisoners.
At receptions the delegates sipped their orange juice, icily aloof from one another. In elevators conversation would suddenly stop if a delegate from another region got on.
▪︎Compromises & Contests.
But as the weeks passed, the Sardauna grudgingly consented to let the constitution carry a bill of rights, though he was so thoroughly opposed to giving the vote to women that the conference decided that this was, after all, not necessarily a “fundamental” right.
The delegates then agreed on a centralized police force, but one that would be administered by a council of representatives from each region.
Finally, with their own independence from Britain assured (as well as that of the adjacent British Cameroons, should they choose to become a part of Nigeria), the delegates started for home.
Until Nigeria’s federal election takes place next year, the three Premiers will continue jockeying for power, and the fate of Nigeria could well hinge on who comes out on top. Last week, even as the National Planning Committee of Independence opened its contest for the design of a national flag (first prize: $300), many Nigerians had grave reservations about what lay ahead.
For all its jubilation, Nigeria’s West African Pilot felt obliged to warn: “Independence without difficulties is a dream of Utopia.”
▪︎Time Magazine Editorial on Nigetia – Monday, Nov. 10, 1958