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History of Nigerian Nationalism

History of Nigerian Nationalism

Herbert Macaulay became a very public figure in Nigeria, and on June 24, 1923, he founded the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), the first Nigerian political party. The NNDP won all the seats in the elections of 1923, 1928 and 1933. In the 1930s, Macaulay took part in organizing Nigerian nationalist militant attacks on the British colonial government in Nigeria. The Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM) founded in 1933 by Professor Eyo Ita was joined in 1936 by Nnamdi Azikiwe that sought support from all Nigerians regardless of cultural background, and quickly grew to be a powerful political movement. In 1944, Macaulay and NYM leader Azikiwe agreed to form the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) (a part of Cameroon was incorporated into the British colony of Nigeria). Azikiwe increasingly became the dominant Nigerian nationalist leader, he supported pan-Africanism and a pan-Nigerian based nationalist movement.

Herbert Macaulay, the founder of Nigerian nationalism.

Nigerian nationalism radicalized and grew in popularity and power in the post-World War II period when Nigeria faced undesirable political and economic conditions under British rule. The most prominent agitators for nationalism were Nigerian ex-soldiers who were veterans of World War II who had fought alongside British forces in the Middle East, Morocco, and Burma; another important movement that aided nationalism were trade union leaders. In 1945 a national general strike was organized by Michael Imoudu who along with order trade union figures became prominent nationalists.

However Nigerian nationalism by the 1940s was already facing regional and ethnic problems to its goal of promoting a united, pan-Nigerian nationalism. Nigerian nationalism and its movements were geographically significant and important in southern Nigeria while a comparable Nigerian nationalist organization did not arrive in northern Nigeria until the 1940s. This regional division in the development and significance of Nigerian nationalism also had political implications for ethnic divide – southern Nigeria faced strong ethnic divisions between the Igbo and the Yoruba while northern Nigeria did not have strong internal divisions, this meant northern Nigeria that is demographically dominated by the Hausa was politically stronger due to its greater internal unity than that of southern Nigeria that was internally disunified. The south that was ethnically divided between the Igbo and the Yoruba, though the region most in favour of Nigerian nationalism; faced the north that was suspicious of the politics of the south, creating the North-South regional cleavage that has remained an important issue in Nigerian politics.

In 1960, Nigeria became an independent country. Azikiwe became the first President of Nigeria. However ethnic tensions and power struggles soon emerged and became a crisis in 1966 when Nigerian military officers of Igbo descent overthrow the democratically elected government of Tafawa Balewa who along with the Northern Premier Ahmadu Bello and others were subsequently assassinated. The killing of Northern politicians enraged Northerners resulting in violence against the Igbo by northerners. The military government sought to end the ethnic unrest by dismantling the federal system of government and replacing it with a unitary system of government, however this reform was short-lived as the government was overthrown in another coup that saw Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon become the Norths compromise with the south to lead Nigeria.

By 1967, many Igbos had lost faith in Nigerian nationalism and in May of that year, Igbo separatists formed the Republic of Biafra that demanded secession from Nigeria. The Biafran crisis was the most serious threat to the Nigerian unity since Nigeria became independent in 1960, as other ethnic groups threatened that they too would also seek secession should Biafra successfully secede. Nigeria responded to the separatist threat with a military campaign against the Biafran government, resulting in the Nigerian Civil War from 1967 to 1970. The war ended with the defeat of the Biafran separatists. Between one and three million Nigerians died in the war.

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