Nigeria gained independence in 1960 but the chronicles of events that led to this freedom were a mixed bag of some irony and a huge chunk of passionate resilience for power from the British colonial authority.
In May 1953, riots broke out in the ancient city of Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria. The riots resulted in clashes between northerners; generally opposed to Nigeria’s independence; and Southerners who supported immediate independence for Nigeria. The riots lasted for four days and many lives were lost.
Leading up to independence, several debates were held. During these pre-independence debates, Southern political leaders tried to press ahead with the independence drive, but their counterparts from the North were on the opposite side of the decision. They feared “domination by the south” and so they tried to slow the process, looking to the colonial regime to protect them.
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On March 31, 1953, a prominent member of the Action Group – a prominent political party established in Ibadan in 1951, Chief Anthony Enahoro, moved the motion that Nigeria should become independent by 1956 at the federal parliament in Lagos. Other members of the AG supported this motion including majority of the members of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, another political party at the time.
However, the Northern People’s Congress would not agree with its compatriots. It felt that the region (northern) was not yet ready for self-governance and therefore, did not accept the motion. This decision essentially torpedoed Enahoro’s suggestion that independence should happen in 1956.
Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, leader of the NPC then proposed an amendment to Enahoro’s motion, suggesting instead that self-governance should be granted “as soon as practicable”, replacing “in the year 1956” from the earlier bill.
This suggestion escalated tensions and disagreements and resulted in a strain on the relationship between the northern and southern leaders especially after a northern member of the House moved a motion for adjournment. This was viewed by both the AG and the NCNC as delay tactics, leading to a total walkout by all members of both parties.
While leaving the House, the northern delegates were confronted by hostile crowds from Lagos, who jeered and insulted them. Embittered by this, members of the northern delegation, in an “Eight Point Program” in the Lugard Hall, Kaduna, sought for secession but were met with disinterest.
Undeterred and refusing to give ear to the concerns of their northern counterparts, a delegation of the AG and NCNC led by Samuel Akintola, took a decision to tour the north to campaign for self-government. This tour is believed to be the immediate cause of the Kano riots.
Being obvious that there was already tension in the region because of the hostility faced by the northern delegation in Lagos after objecting to self-governance, Akintola’s tour bus arrived in Kano on Friday, May 15, 1953.
That day also, the NPC supporters were on an initially orderly demonstration which was quickly followed by small skirmishes on Saturday, May 16. The disturbances that led to the riot started out at the Colonial Hotel that Saturday. The hotel was the venue of a meeting by the AG.
On the morning of the meeting, the Kano Native Authority withdrew permission for the meeting, and a mob gathered outside the hotel and without any provocation, started throwing stones. During the fracas, two people believed to be Southerners died. The mob then moved on and attempted to gain entry into Sabon Gari – one of the major towns in Kano, but were subdued by the Native Authority police.
The situation became a more serious inter-ethnic crisis on Sunday, May 17, when mobs from Fagge, an area dominated by Northerners, attempted to break into Sabon Gari with some success. It is important to note that though the mob’s original chants were against the Yoruba, the casualties in the Sabon Gari area were mostly Igbo because the rioting soon deteriorated into looting.
The skirmishes spilt into areas such as Fagge where small unorganized ethnic clashes occurred. The Native Authority Police and the Army were called upon and prevented further degeneration.
On Monday, May 18, 1953, the colonial government declared a state of emergency in Northern Nigeria and troops were deployed to Kano. Forty-six people were killed during the riot which was pronounced as an ethnic clash by the Colonial Government but downplayed as “a political riot between those who wanted self-government in 1956, and those who wanted imperialism to continue,” by the Lagos-dominated local press.
After the riot, the NPC issued a list of demands and said they would not return to the Federal Parliament in Lagos unless their demands were met. The demands included autonomy for each region with respect to all matters except defense, external affairs and customs. These demands were met.
The issues which caused the Kano Riots of 1953 still exist in Nigeria today. While there were complications along the way, such as the Western Parliament elections which effectively split the burgeoning Igbo/Yoruba alliance, largely, the distrust between the North and the South of Nigeria still exists.
Six and a half decades later, fear of domination by the other; a refusal to listen to, and try to understand the other’s point of view; the ready use of violence by politicians to press home their demands; the failure to hold some individuals accountable for the violent deaths of their countrymen, exist in today’s Nigeria.