Skip to content

Issues in Nigeria’s Federalism Before 1967: Resources Control, Minority Question, Democratization and Elections

Michael Aloye Orieso PhD

Department of International Studies and Diplomacy

Faculty of Arts and Education

Benson Idahosa University

Benin City


 Charles Osarenomase Osarumwense

Department of History and International Studies

Faculty of Arts

University of Benin

Benin City

Edo State


The issues of resource control, minority question, democratization and elections are intractable problems that have become a reoccurring decimal in Nigeria’s political history. These issues are key variables in explaining and understanding modem Nigeria political development. This paper therefore seeks to explain the historical development of these variables and their roles in shaping and contributing to the political equation before the civil war in 1967. This is necessary so as to help give better understanding of the environment and the appropriate background in analyzing the historiographical issues relating to the Nigerian civil war. The paper adopts the historical and analytical research methods. It utilises primary and secondary sources of information. The paper establishes that resources control, minority question, democratization and elections were fundamental issues in the Nigerian political landscape before 1967. It also established that these issues played a major role in the emergence of the Nigerian civil war in 1967. The paper concludes that question of resources control, minority question, democratization among others, are key factors in nation building. It recommends that the Nigerian government should take seriously the issue of true federalism and adopt a true federal system for a better Nigeria. 


Keywords: Resource control, minority question, democratization, elections, federalism.



Prior to the Nigerian civil war in 1967, fundamental issues such as Resource control, minority question, democratization and elections were major issues in the Nigerian political landscape.   We are not contending that these issues were variables that occasioned the Nigerian civil war, but we recognized their unenviable role in the destabilization process of the Nigerian polity. For example, the resource control issue as a dilemma has coloured the spectrum of the Nigerian political landscape since 1914. The problem it created lead to the struggle for power and, minority agitations, state creation and financial relations during the constitutional conferences in the 1950s. On the other hand, the issues of democratization and elections, apart that they expanded the landscape of political participation and mobilization of the people for nation building, they brought disastrous consequences both in material and human resources in Nigeria. All these issues will help to throw light on the political history of Nigeria before the civil war in 1967.


Resources Control

The issue of resource control can be put simply as the difficulty of the different states to agree on how to share the revenue accruing to the country or to the Distributable Pool Account. In a nutshell, what are the principles that should guide the allocation of resources from the
Distributable Pool Account among the federating units of government? This is the dilemma, a dilemma which has bedeviled the spectrum of Nigeria’s political landscape since her emergence as a nation state. It is a dilemma whose root could be traced to the very foundation of the nation in 1914.1 Initially, the burden of running the administration of the nascent nation was on the eastern part of the country. During this early period, the easily exportable products were of the various wild palm nut which were abundant in the eastern region.2 But by 1922, the three existing regions had become self-sufficient in exportable products such as groundnuts, cotton and tin ore in the northern region, in the western region, there were exports of cocoa, timber and rubber, while the eastern region still had its dominance in palm products export. The Richards Constitution of 1946 formally introduced revenue allocation with its attendant consequences. The revenue allocation formula created a problem which later became a struggle for power and resources among the federating units and central government. Initially, the problem of revenue allocation was mild, but it instigated minority agitations, its attendant issues of state creation and the financial relations of the federating units during various constitutional debates of the 1950s.

In finding solution to the problem caused by this revenue allocation formulation, the Phillipson Commission was inaugurated. The commission in 1946 recommended, among other things, the principle of derivation for revenue allocation. This allows a region to benefit proportionally according to its contribution to the central revenue. To ameliorate the bitter struggle for fiscal allocation, the Phillipson recommendation was incorporated in the Constitution. A new agitation emerged as a result of new fiscal arrangement. This fiscal allocation was “debated by the delegates in the Constitutional Conference in Ibadan in 1956, for which the north seriously questioned the derivation principle because of its poor revenue base.”3 However, the derivation principles were left in the Constitution. In view of this, the political elite in each region struggled to gain power in order to control the resources of their regions. The Lyttleton Constitution of 1954 led to further intensification of the struggle for power and resource control at the regional level since the Constitution increased fiscal autonomy for the regions in the spirit of true federalism. But at the centre, the northern region continued to be dissatisfied with the fiscal arrangement. Therefore, immediately after independence, “revenue allocation remained “not only a source of contentious issue of struggle and conflict but a determinant of the fiscal relations among the tiers of government.4 In fact, it determined the power struggle between the various ethnic nationalities that make up the federation. After independence in 1960, the Revenue Allocation Review Commission (Binn’s Commission of 1964) which was set up, accepted the derivation principle in its revenue allocation formula, especially in allocating revenue from the proceeds of independent royalties and custom duties as was enshrined in the 1963 Republican Constitution. Also, the Binn’s Commission of 1964 in line with Philipson commission upheld the principle of derivation at 50 percent to the region of production, 35 percent of Distribution Common Pool Account and 15 percent to the Central Government. This was the system of revenue sharing formula of the Nigeria’s fiscal federalism before the incursion of the military in civil politics. Both at the regional and central levels, the political elite through their political parties sought to control both their region and the centre in order to gain economic benefits. As Ola Balogun points out, majority of the party leadership and elites in the First Republic “were businessmen, traders, lawyers and traditional rulers” and the “the open and continued use of party patronage to secure contracts and economic benefits for these leadership groups and their clients, illustrate the functions of these parties.”5 Therefore, government patronages became the sources of economic wealth, and various ethnic leaderships have to struggle to share the national “cake.6

As a result of this government patronage, the matter of control of resources in the federal structure became aggravated by the struggle for political power.7 The contest for political power was coterminous with the contest for economic control and survival of a group. This political and economic struggle reached a crescendo of open confrontation among the various ethnic political elite. In this confrontation, the various political elite were unwilling to maintain a semblance of restraint and chivalry of the western European capitalist democracy on which Nigeria political structures had been modeled. The Action Group Party crisis in 1962 is the outcome of the elite political struggle for the nation’s cake. As succinctly described by Eskor Toyo:

The first led by Akintola, wanted the Action Group to join the federal government of Balewa in order that the Yoruba chiefs and businessmen might share in the federal ‘chop-chop’ . . . why should that federal “chop-chop” or the “national cake” as the capitalists call it, enjoyed only by the Ibos and the Hausas and Fulanis… Second group led by Awolowo, wanted to build up its power among the people, use this power to unseat the NPC/NCNC coalition government and grab the whole of the federal chop.8


Nigerian political elite have shown that in the struggle to have a big share of the nation’s cake, that there were no limits to methods for gaining political power. To them, the motive behind the struggle for political power was economic incentives. Apart from this struggle for political power as a means to sharing the nation’s resources, the other hydra- headed monster was the affliction of corruption. Before 1966, corruption in the political system became reflected in form of bribery, kickbacks from contractors and contract inflation, electoral malpractices, nepotism, thugery among others. One could contend that these vices were more inimical to the nation than conflicts generated by resource control.

However, these twin evils continued to plague the nation before and after the military coup d’etatin 1966. Many elites believed that the way to reduce the agitation for the sharing of the national cake was to create more states out of the existing three regions, a feat which was achieved by the creation of a fourth region called the Midwest in 1963. “The creation of their own state will guarantee them equal access to the national lagesse9. Although a fourth region was created in 1963, but the region thus created was such that the northern region was still bigger than the other three regions put together, thereby creating a square table with one leg longer than the rest. The table will not stand stable and. this created more instability in the nation. The imbalance thus created by the lopsided regions had serious negative consequences for the nation. The evils which afflicted Nigeria and brought the ruin of the First Republic may be put in a nutshell as follows: the abnormal imbalance in the constituents of the federation.10


Minority Issue  

The creation of regions gave sharp focus and emphasis on ethnicity and regionalism, further driving the nation apart rather than uniting it. The creation of regions was carried out in such a manner that the northern region was bigger than the east and west regions joined together.

This “created a tripod with one long leg and two short ones.11 This awkward contraption was certainly in violation of the model, where a part is greater than the centre. The creation of uneven regions was to set in motion a process of instability which the nation has yet to recover from. The unequal nature of this arrangement affected the policy of allocation of national resources. The constitution of 1946 finally accepted division of Nigeria into three unequal regions: the northern region dominated the Hausa/Fulani, the eastern region dominated by the Igbo, and the western region dominated by the Yoruba. The other ethnic groups were to melt into these three regions where they became ethnic minorities. These ethnic minorities felt betrayed by the British colonial administration who had decided against the creation of more regions to accommodate their yearnings.

These ethnic groups became affected and enmeshed in the evolving politics of discrimination and exclusion, the policy of discrimination and exclusivity suffered by the minor ethnic groups, triggered off an avalanche of agitations for separate regions within the federal framework.12 The fact that in each region one ethnic group dominated brought the inevitable
consequences of the regionalization of polities and the politicization of ethnicity. Expectedly the regionalization of nationalism heightened the extant differentiations and the corollary of this differentiation was the regionalization of political parties. This further intensified the rivalries and suspicion among the diverse ethnic groups especially among the major ethnic groups. The minority ethnic groups became caught in the political vortex of ethnic rivalries.

The problem caused by imbalance and unequal ethnic distribution and domination, consequently led to the formation of new political movements orchestrated by the minority ethnic groups. In the north for example, the middle Belt people’s party, the united middle Belt Congress was formed. The Tiv Progressive Union and the Idoma State Union emerged all of which campaigned vigorously for the creation of Middle Belt State, Adamawa, Benue, Kaba, Niger and Plateau provinces. Also, the Ilorin TalakaParapo demanded that the Ilorin provinces, most of whose inhabitants have cultural and ethnic affinity with the Yoruba, be merged with the Western Region or alternatively, be constituted into a separate state to be known as kwara State. In the west, the Otue Edo and the Mid-West State Movement campaigned vigorously for a Mid-west State for the people of Benin and Delta provinces. Likewise in the East, there were Pressures for the creation of regions, the Calaba-Ogoja River State Movement demanded a separate region for the people of Calabar and Ogoja Rivers provinces to be known as COR region.

The rivers people congress and the Conference of Rivers Chiefs and Peoples also battled for the Rivers province to be constituted into a separate region. In the western Delta, the movement for the creation of a separate region emerged in 1952 with the formation of Benin/Delta Peoples Party to champion the Cause of ethnic autonomy from the western region. This movement was renamed the Midwest State Movement in 1956. According to Usuanlele, “the fear of domination by the majority ethnic groups led to the early movements and agitations by the minority ethnic groups.”13

The minorities in the west and east became encouraged in their quest by the constitutional concept of federalism in 1954 Constitution. This instigated them to intensity their agitation for the transformation of power relations among the ethnic groups to new structural basis of more than three regions through the state creation process. The aspiration of the state movements ushered in the possibility of a new political order for equitable and fair treatment in terms of access to power, privileges and resources.14 In fact, there was much pressure on the Colonial government for a proper and better structured federalism from the minority ethnic groups via the creation of the states. This matter of creation of new states was also a matter of urgent importance in the legislative house. K.S.Y. Momoh pointed out in the House of Representatives that in true federation “there should be no region that should be so large as to be able to override the wishes of any two or more regions put together”15.  In the Central Legislature, on August 5 1958 when the issue of independence was debated, Mr. U. O. Ndem from Calabar constituency expressed the sentiments of the minority which frowned on the refusal of the Colonial government to create more states. Mr. Ndem expressed the view that reading through several constitutions, he had “not found any state running a federal constitution with the same population, diversity and the same size as Nigeria with only three region16. He stated that “if we say we have adopted a federal constitutions we must go the whole length. We must make a real and ideal constitution as obtaining in other Countries”17

All these pressures did not move the British Colonial government to recommend for more States or regions. If the British wanted to create more states there was ample opportunity to do so .What was in their mind was how to give independence to the ‘natives’ and wash their hands off the colony. There was enough time to have restructured the country with the creation of more states, something that was actively canvassed by all interested groups, particularly the political parties and minority movements from the 1940s onward.18

As Nigeria moved gradually to independence, the various political parties particularly the minority ethnic movements begin to mount pressure on the British government to look into the minority issue. During the Constitutional Conference in 1957, the British government set up a commission chaired by Sir Henry Willink to look into the facts about the fear of minority ethnic groups and make recommendations as to how to allay these fears. Unfortunately and regrettably, the commission did not see the creation of states for the minority ethnic groups as a solution to their problems in the country.19 In fact; the British presented Nigeria with the choice of creation of more states and the choice of immediate independence. Independence had been scheduled for October 1960 and any shift in that date would have been unacceptable to the majority of Nigerians. The bait or lure of being independent was too attractive and compelling, therefore. The Nigerian leaders accepted the independent federal constitution with all its imperfections. Thus, the imbalance that was created by the lopsided nature of the regions had serious negative consequences for the nation.


Democratization and Elections  

The introduction of the electoral system in Nigeria since 1922 had two major
consequences. On the one hand, it helped to expand the landscape of political participation and mobilizing of the people in the building of a new nation state, but on the other hand, it brought disastrous consequences both in material and human resources. The desire to capture power and therefore control the resources by the various ethnic groups has been the most compelling factor in the politics of competition. The introduction of the elective principle in 1922 constitution helped to engineer the emergence of political parties and galvanized the democratic process in the country. The elections of 1923 instigated the formation of the first Nigeria political parties. For example, the Nigeria National Democratic Party was led by Herbert Macaulay. ‘This party contested and won the three seats which were allocated to Lagos in the legislative body.

In furtherance of the development of the political system, the Colonial government enacted a new constitution in 1946 and for the first time a central legislature was established for the country. This new constitution led to another round of elections in the country; twenty four members formed the Central Legislative House out of which only four members were elected three members from Lagos and one member from Calabar. The remaining twenty members were to be appointed by the colonial Governor. Although the elective principle had been established, its restrictive nature is reflected by the number of elected members into the legislative house vis-â-vis nominated members. Majority of Nigerians have not been enfranchised.

When the MacPherson Constitution was being discussed, there was a sign that the franchise would be much broadened, but when it was introduced in 1952, popular franchise was still restrictive, especially at the regional level. Voting for the one hundred and thirty six members of the central legislature was still exercised through primary electoral colleges. In the east and in the north, electoral suffrage was extended only to adult male who paid taxes. In the west, candidates for the Electoral College were chosen by acclamation. In 1954, the Lyttleton Constitution was promulgated.20 It established a universal adult male suffrage above twenty one years and payment of taxes in the south, while in the north, voting was through the Electoral College and only adult male who paid taxes were allowed to vote.

With the constitutions of 1946, 1952 and 1954, the politicization of ethnicity and regionalization of politics were accepted by Nigerian political e1ite. During this period, two new political parties were established, each having its base in the leaders’ homeland. The NPC and AG were formed by Tafawa Balewa and Chief Obafemi Awolowo respectively21, with their home regional support. NCNC gradually also became more ethnically and regionally based.

The first general election in Nigeria after independence was the 1964/65 general elections. Understanding the events of the elections, that is, the way and manner the political elite conducted themselves, helps to explain in much detail the unfolding history of Nigeria before the January 15, 1966 coup d’etat. The elections could be described as a very dangerous show of brinkmanship. For nearly over one and half years, the nations “tottered perilously on the brink of disintegration and bloodshed”22, which, indeed finally came in the form of the civil war in 1967.

What happened in the post-independence election was display of the centrifugal and disintegrating forces which had been brewing in the polity in the 1940s and 1950s. The elections were so fraught with dishonesty, thuggery and electoral manipulations that even the political participants called for its annulment. Sir Francis Ibiarn, the then Governor of the Eastern region called for the nullification of the elections. The Chairman of the Electoral Commission, Mr. F.E. Esua accepted irregularities in the elections. Canon B.A. Adelaja quipped that, “his Christian and clerical conscience would not allow him to be identified with rigged elections results.”23

In spite of these observed frauds and problems, the election results were announced and won by NNA and NNDP alliance. These events emphasized Huntinton’s position that military takeover of government happens in polities where there are constant conflicts among parties for political power as to the legitimate and authoritative means for achieving resolution of conflicting interest.24 In the absence of a mediating force or authority, the nation, according to D.A. Anglin, “tottered perilously on the brink of disintegration and bloodshed.”25 The final catalyst that brought the fall of the First Republic is usually traceable to the Western region general elections in 1965. The elections produced more violence than any other election in the country. Lives and property were lost and the police was unable to contain the maddening violence of the irate populace. The Western region had been described by Mackintosh as “the cockpit of Nigerian politics.”27 The only force that could quell the violence was the army, but instead of the army being called by the federal Government to quell the Violence, the military decided to carry out a coup d’etat on the 15th January 1966, thus bringing to a close a chapter in the constitutional development of Nigeria and ushering in a new and more chequered development.

The military intervention in 1966 was a disaster for the development of true Federalism consensus building and the policy of brinkmanship and conciliation. The military intervention generated and heated the political landscape, especially with the unification decree which destroyed the Federal structure of governance. This action by the military lit the keg of gun powder that nearly destroyed the nation as one entity. The military takeover of political control in 1966 is usually blamed on the political developments preceding 1966. Whatever the merits or demerits of the military incursion into the political arena, the crisis and the civil war that subsequently followed were consequences of the inexperience of the military in politics.

The military coup d’etal brought in Major General S. T. Aguiyi – Ironsi as the military Head of State. He styled himself as Head of state and supreme commander. By Decree No 1 1966 he abolished parliament and suspended the constitution and appointed military officers as governors to govern the regions. On 24 May 1966, he promulgated Decree No 4, unifying the country and abolishing the regions. The unification Decree produced immediate reaction from the North which saw the decree as an attempt to dominate the North by the South, especially by the Igbo ethnic group. The Nigerian federation was dead. The subsequent events leading to the civil war in July 1967 were the outflows of the unification attempt and rejection.

In conclusion, part of the national question, as one would put it especially the issue of resource control, Minority issue democratization and elections are intractable issues. Even though they became very relevant immediately after independence in 1960, they collectively date back to the colonial era. The seeds of crisis were sown by the British and they germinated under their watch but they were unable or unwilling to solve the crisis generated by their divide-and-rule policies.

The antagonism and the struggle for power and control of resources is a consequence of the way and manner power relations were distributed through the lopsided and skewed federal contraption created at the wake of colonial departure. This situation excluded the process of dialogue and negotiation required in building democratic institutions in a plural society.

The political elite in Nigeria after fighting the British colonial administration for freedom, lost focus and dissipated their energies on a war of who succeeds the colonial rulers. A condition thus created made it impossible for Nigeria political elite to come together as a cohesive body and therefore the interests of the evolving nation were gradually sacrificed on the altar of ethnic and individual selfishness.

The various ethnic political leaders maneuvered for dominant positions at the expense of the nation and to the detriment of the minority ethnic groups. This attempt of dominance by the major ethnic group fuelled the already contentious issue of resource control. This further instigated the desire of the minority ethnic groups to agitate for separate regions or states.

The electoral experiences in Nigeria did not engender the feeling of nationalism and cooperativeness rather; they have been one of fear, ill feeling, hate and forlornness. The experiences in competitive electoral politics in Nigeria brought the worst in political thuggery and violence, characterized by wanton destruction of lives and property.

The Nigerian political elite had believed and erroneously too, that with the fall of imperialism and colonialism they would be able to surmount their differences and embark on economic and political development. But on the eve of independence they were confronted with extra-ordinary and complex problems which they did not understand or know how to solve. The failure to solve these problems accounted for the breakdown of law and order in the First Republic, leading to the military takeover, and the end of the First stage of the Nigeria dilemma and setting the next stage for a new catastrophic drama in the political equation.



  1. M. A. Afolabi, “Inter-Group Relations in the 20th Century Nigeria: A Historical Survey,” in Olayemi Akunwumi, Okpeh Ochayi Okpeh and GwamnaJe’adyibe (Eds) Inter-Group Relations in Nigeria During the 19th And 20th Centuries (Markurdi: Aboki Publishers, 2006, Pp 157.
  2. Ibid.
  3. T. N. Tamuno “British Colonial Administration in Nigeria in the twentieth Century” in Obaro Ikime (Ed) Groundwork of Nigerian History, 404.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. O. Balogun, the Tragic Years: Nigeria in Crisis: 1966 – 1970 (Benin: Ethiope Publishers, 1973) 814.
  7. Ibid.
  8. E. Toyo, “Nigerian Soldiers, Peace and Tuture” Quoted in O. Balogon, the Tragic Years: Nigeria in Crisis Pp 16 – 17.
  9. R. Suberu, “States Creation and the Political Economy of the Federalism” in K. Amuwo et al (Eds) Federalism and Political Restructuring in Nigeria (Ibadan: Spectrum Books 1998) P 278.
  10. G. O. Olusanya, “The Nationalist Movements in West Africa”, O. Ikime (ed) Groundwork of Nigeria History, 556.
  11. K. Ezra, Constitutional Development in Nigeria, 244 – 255.
  12. R. Uwechue (Ed), Africa Today (London: Africa Books 1991) 1456.
  13. U. Usuanlele, “The Edo Nationality and the National Question: A Historical Perspective” in Eghosa Osaghae and Ebere Onwudieve (eds) The Management of the National Question in Nigeria (Ibadan: The Lord’s Creations, 2001) 207.
  14. O. B. Osadolor, The Niger Delta Question: Background” to Constitutional Reform (Ibadan: Programme for Ethnic and Federal Studies, 2004) 9.
  15. Ibid.
  16. O. B. Osadolor: The Development of the Federal Idea and the Federal Framework” 44.
  17. Ibid.
  18. S. S. Coleman, Nigeria: Background to Nationalism, 379.
  19. K. Ezra, Constitutional Development Nigeria, 244 – 255.
  20. G. O. Olusanya “The nationalist Movements in West Africa” in O. Ikime (ed) Groundwork of Nigerian History, 562.
  21. A. H. M. Kirk – Greene and D. Rimmer, Nigeria since 1970: A Political and Economy Outline (London: Hodder and Stronghton 1981) 73.
  22. K. Ezra, Constitutional Development in Nigeria, 20 Coleman, Nigeria: Background to Nationalism 349, 358
  23. Ibid.
  24. D. G. Angling, “Brinkmanship in Nigeria: The Federal Elections of 1964 – 65” Quoted in O. Oyediran (ed) Nigerian Government and Politics under Military Rule, 1966 – 1970 (London: Macmilliam Publishers; 1979) 19.
  25. S. P. Huntington, Political order in Changing Societies (New Haven, Yale University Press 1968) 194
  26. D. G. Angling, “Brinkmanship in Nigeria: The Federal Elections of 1964 – 65” Quoted in O. Oyediran (ed).
  27. S. O. Machintosh, Nigerian Government and Politics (Evanston: North Western University Press 1966) 550.


Published inNumber 1Volume 2