The founding of twelve nigerian states was one of the most daring and historic initiatives implemented by the government of then col. Yakubu gowon when he announced it in may 1967. This decision was actually symbolic of the desire of nigeria’s peoples to gain greater autonomy and self-determination in the administration of their regional affairs.
However because the crisis of trust in the military that was eventually to provoke the nigerian civil war was the most prescient national concern of the period the fact that the decision to create states and close down the four large regional governments was taken by a military government has led many analysts to assume that states creation was actually a tactic aimed at increasing the federal government’s likelihood of victory in the conflict.
While this might be true to a certain extent the effect of the change in the basic formula of governance that it brought about served a more far-reaching purpose than that of military opportunism. In fact it can be argued that the effect of the change in the regional formula was far more transformational in the northern region where many more people were affected than in the western region where the division into the western and lagos states appeared to strengthen and consolidate the regional autonomy of yoruba self-government.
However, even though the number of people affected was far less the political impact of the decision had an equally profound consequence in the eastern region. There the consolidation of minority autonomy in the south-eastern and rivers states served to undercut what many leaders of minority communities alleged to be the ethnic hegemony of the ibo-speaking majority in the region.
The ibo territories were then confined to the new east central state it is this latter fact that has engaged the attention of observers who have continued to attribute the creation of states out of the old regional structure to military necessity rather than to the more positive motive of administrative convenience and the enhancement of communal development, factors which have become the driving forces of the process of state creation over the last five decades.
This development is a profound reflection of one of general gowon’s most deeply held motives for his initiative, which was to reduce the oft-expressed fear of regional domination of the south by the north in the political affairs of the nation. As a consequence the creation of a balance in the regional order through the creation of six northern states and six southern states was carefully thought out.
There had been highly volatile calls for more regional autonomy in various parts of the country ever since independence and the threat of secession created increasing political tensions.
General gowon’s commitment to maintain national unity and avoid further instability led him to seek support for the states creation exercise from a broad cross section of regional leaders before announcing the new order. In the eastern region the cry for the creation of the calabar – ogoja – rivers (cor) state had grown increasingly vocal and in the north the aspirations of the middle belt movement had also become a major source of popular discontent in the region.
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General gowon’s initiative was designed to alleviate these tensions as much as anything else, although it is often presumed that it was a bid to check the influence of Odumegwu ojukwu in the eastern region, that led him to announce in may 1967 that the four nigerian regions had been split into 12 states
The new states were the north-western state, north-eastern state, Kano state, north-central state, Benue-plateau state, Kwara state, western state, Lagos state, mid-western state, and, from Ojukwu’s eastern region, a rivers state, a south-eastern state, and an east-central state. According to a biographical post about general Gowon on the internet “the non-Igbo south-eastern and rivers states which had the oil reserves and access to the sea, were carved out to isolate the igbo areas of the east-central state.”
However while this assumption might fit the exigencies of that particularly critical moment in Nigerian history, the subsequent consequences of the original decision, in which the twelve states have metamorphosed into thirty six federating units, have given a new and more profoundly fundamental relevance to the original intention of Gowon’s decisive action.
The true impact of the change from large federating regions dominated by monolithic ethnic nationalities into smaller states controlled by governments made up of operatives selected from the communal populace has been to strengthen the autonomy of the so-called minority tribes.
It is unlikely that a reversal of this trend will ever be welcomed by a substantial proportion of the ordinary people of nigeria and for this reason the original decision taken by general gowon should be regarded as a seminal act of liberation of the fundamental rights of nigeria’s post-independence citizenry.
It is for this reason that the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of those states that still bear their original names should take on significance this year.
Only four states still bear the original names that they were given in 1967.
These are Kano, kwara, lagos and rivers states. At a stretch this list could be modified to include benue and plateau states which bore the compound name benue-plateau as one unit before being split into two later. Geographically hardly any state (with the possible exception of lagos) has retained its original form and demographic composition. For example the original rivers state is now made up of rivers and bayelsa states, while kano has been split into kano and jigawa states and so on.
The transformation of the original twelve into today’s thirty six fundamentally autonomous political units actually represents a monumental transformation of nigerian statehood from the colonial paradigm of indirect rule, which the regional system represented. The modern nigerian state has evolved out of a representative formula through which local communities exercise greater control over their internal affairs as well as over their relationship with the central federal government.
However there has been constant criticism of the actual implementation of these fundamental duties expressed by various interest groups and advocates of both closer national integration and increased self-determinate autonomy. The resilience of the discourse over the relevance and efficacy of the states when compared with the system of regional compartmentalization is illustrative of the ongoing process of nation-building in which nigeria is engaged nearly six decades after independence. It can hardly be doubted however that the foundation for greater unity of purpose was laid by the establishment of the states as the federating units when secession threatened the Nigerian nation with imminent disintegration and then erupted into civil war.