UB Sociologist, Nigerian Native Edits Report Urging Country’s Return to Founding Federalist Principles

Release Date: May 6, 1998

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- For more than a decade, the constitutional crisis in Nigeria has provoked outrage from Nigerians at home and abroad, governments, and international human-rights and environmental organizations.

is a feasible response to the Nigerian crisis, one that the U.S. could support and that would not pose any immediate threat to the existing Nigerian military regime.

A new report edited by University at Buffalo sociologist Peter Ekeh, a native of Nigeria, and issued by an international group of Nigerian scholars offers what its authors say is a feasible response to the Nigerian crisis, one that the U.S. could support and that would not pose any immediate threat to the existing Nigerian military regime.

The report, "Wilberforce Conference on Nigerian Federalism," calls for Nigeria's return to its founding federalist principles. It also argues for a policy-making role for expatriate Nigerian scholars who have left Nigerian universities as a result of the ongoing political and economic crisis in their nation and have settled in to new academic lives in North America and Europe.

The report relates the proceedings of a May 1997 conference on the Nigerian crisis organized by Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, and the UB Department of African American Studies, of which Ekeh is professor and chair. Participants included Nigerian scholars and representatives of the Nigerian diplomatic mission to the U.S.

Because the U.S. constantly is reassessing its policy toward Nigeria, the report may have important policy-making influence within U.S. government agencies and among African governments. It was funded by a $45,000 grant from the United States Institute of Peace and has been circulated widely among policy-making bodies here and abroad.

The Wilberforce report argues that the ongoing Nigerian crisis of governance is a result of the erosion of Nigerian federalism under 28 years of military rule. It promotes a return to the strong federalist union of Nigerian states that made the nation one of the most productive and liberated in Africa following its independence from Britain in 1960.

"The federal system worked well," Ekeh said, "because Nigeria is a huge country whose many regions have very different political, environmental, economic and educational needs. These needs have always been best understood and administered to by regional or state governments."

Following independence, he pointed out, Nigeria was operated by a civilian government until civil war and military rule led to the suspension of constitutional rule in 1967. "The problems in Nigeria did not immediately follow from military government, however," Ekeh said. "At one time -- as recently as 10 years ago -- Nigeria was still the African nation that offered the greatest freedom of expression to its citizens. There were strong, regional school systems and effective systems of regional governance that had evolved from traditional chiefdoms.

"It has been over the last 10 years in particular," he added, "that regional government has eroded as the national military government centralized its power. Now, the states have virtually no authority and large central bureaucracies have developed that are ineffective in administering to the many different needs of Nigeria's many and varied geographic and tribal districts. Things are simply falling apart."

In addition to the disintegration of its institutions, which has alarmed many Nigerians, the nation has faced increased international criticism since 1995 when the Nigerian military executed civilians protesting the activities of Shell Oil in their country.

In 1990, the Ogoni people, who inhabit Nigeria's Rivers region, initiated a peaceful resistance against what they claimed was the devastation of their land and water resources by Shell Oil Nigeria, a corporation that generates 70 percent of Nigerian state income.

On Nov. 10, 1995, pro-federalist politician and author Ken Saro-Wiwa, the leader of this movement, and eight other Ogoni minority-rights advocates were hanged by the Nigerian military following a trial that opponents say lacked any independence or impartiality and involved the bribery of witnesses by Shell Oil and the Nigerian government. The Ogoni region now is a closed military zone where Saro-Wiwa's supporters are routinely jailed and tortured. Ekeh said the government also has targeted other dissenting groups, including the Yoruba peoples of southwest Nigeria, a powerful ethnic group that has the ability to generate much international support.

He noted that the U.S. does not support the suspension of civil rights in Nigeria, but because of its refusal to impose economic sanctions, it, along with the Nigerian military, is now the subject of international protest. American states and municipalities with large Nigerian populations have threatened to legislate their own trade restrictions with Nigeria.

Recognizing the many interests vested in a peaceful solution to the Nigerian crisis, participants at the Wilberforce Conference maintained that the primary issue at hand is the initiation of a dialogue among interested nations and among Nigerians themselves.

The need for leadership by Nigerian expatriate scholars has become critical, Ekeh said, "because of the shrinking room for freedoms of expression, thought and action inside of Nigeria and because several institutions of civil society have been severely damaged by 30 years of military rule in our country."

Ekeh, who holds his graduate degrees from Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, is a former lecturer at the University of Nigeria and sub-dean of Nigeria's University of Ibadan, where he headed the Department of Political Science from 1978-82.

The Wilberforce report, published in 1997 by the Association of Nigerian Scholars for Dialogue, has been disseminated widely and serialized in two Nigerian newspapers, as part of the ongoing debate on the future of that country.

A copy of the executive summary of the report of the Wilberforce Conference on Nigerian Federalism may be obtained by contacting Patricia Donovan in the UB Office of News Services at 716-6452626, or by e-mail at donovan@newsb.buffalo.edu

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