Nigerian House of Representatives: How it began in 1954

Nothing like experience and you could say that of the man called Arthur Fredrick Richard, the Governor of Nigeria from 1943 to 1948. For 13 years, he had been: Governor of North Borneo, Fiji, Jamaica and Gambia. With his many years of service and knowledge about human and ethnic mixture, it was not difficult for him to set Nigeria towards a path that could then have led to only success, though it could be one thing to show someone the right path and another for the person to choose or follow the path.

Between 1922 and 1943, there was no significant movement toward constitutional development or self governance. Nigeria was completely overpowered and dominated. Our once-upon-a-time warriors had become effeminate and none of our lettered ones could match even a glorified messenger sent in from London.  It was that bad!

 

But when Richard came in, he seemed to have understood the complexity involved in governing a society like Nigeria. This, he worked on. Before him, Sir Hugh Clifford, in 1922, had introduced a constitution which, for the first time in all British Africa, provided for the election of African members to a Legislative Council.

Clifford’s constitution was very important, it was the first time any Nigerian would have a say or contribution of any sort in whatever went on in the inner circle of Nigerian government. You could not ask question and you actually had nothing to contribute. But this constitution made provision for people’s representatives to be elected instead of nominated and thereby marked the first step toward, representative government in Nigeria.

And the few Nigerians who understood what it could be to be part of a new decision-making body in your own affairs were very elated, despite the inadequacies of the new constitution. Yes, to those who knew too much, the new governing rules had limitations that could only inhibit progress. It showed Nigeria still had a long way to go before becoming a free nation. Why?

 

Well, this constitution provided a Legislative Council of 46 members. But out of this 46, 27 of them would be the officials of the government. This meant that if there would be any votes on matter of importance, the government officials in the Council would have enough votes to have their ways.

Of course, there were 19 non-official members, but out of this 19, another 15 would be nominated by the government from various spheres and you could bet on it, they would always be among the friends of the government. Indeed, only four, out of this 46, would be elected by the people. And in their election lay so many hindrances.

 

First, three Nigerians were to be elected from Lagos by male adult voters.  Then, those male voters must have lived in Lagos for at least 12 months. But that wasn’t the real problem; the biggest hurdle was that to qualify as a voter, you must have an annual salary of £100. In Nigeria of 1922, you could count those who earned that much on your fingertips.

In addition to the three, a fourth Nigerian member, the only elected member outside Lagos, was to be elected from Calabar. The four of them would be Nigerians, for other officials and most of the non officials would be non Nigerians. But they were those that would determine the fate of all Nigerians.

Immediately Arthur Richards made known the intention of his government to dump the old constitution and come up with the novel political arrangement, the nationalists of the time set their own political machinery in motion. One of these was Herbert Samuel Heelas Macaulay who quickly gathered his friends together and on 24 June 1923, they formed the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP).

On this day, Joseph Egerton Shyngle, one of the most brilliant lawyers of the day, was elected the President and Eric More, another lawyer, was elected the Vice President. Others were J. T. Caulcrick, Adeyemo Alakija, Curtis Crispin Adeniyi Jones and Thomas Horatio Jackson, a journalist and publisher. It was a new moon in Lagos and the party set forth for the September 1923 election.

 

Of course, some people, somewhere, would argue that this wasn’t the first political party in Nigeria because there had been congregations of sort by some groups in Lagos. This was true because in 1908, there was an organisation called the People’s Union. It was formed by a man called John Randle. He was the son of Thomas Randle, an Oyo man, who later settled in Aroloya, Lagos and bore John in 1855 at Regent, Sierra Leone.

John grew and went to Edinburgh University where he graduated in Medicine in 1888. He returned to Lagos soon after and was appointed Assistant Surgeon in the Colonial Medical Service, but because of the annoying discriminatory practices in the service, which Randle always violently criticised, he was dismissed in September 1893 and thereafter started his private practice.

It was while on this that the Governor, Walter Egerton, on 20 July 1908, proposed to increase water rate in Lagos. He said in an attempt to improve sanitation in Lagos, his government would provide pipe-borne water for the people and those who were to enjoy the water must foot the bill. The chiefs in Lagos felt insulted; why should they pay for water when they were surrounded by it?

Randle, who had been spurring for a fight with the colonial government, got some of his friends together and joined the Lagos chiefs to agitate against the proposed water rate. On 26 November, 1908, they held a mass rally at Enu-Owa and resolved to form the People’s Union under the leadership of John Randle. Another prominent doctor, Orisadipe Obasa, was made the Secretary.

Obasa, whose father was a descendant of Elekole of Ikole in Ekiti, was brought to Lagos where in 1878, he became one of the foundation students of the newly established Methodist Boys’ High School. He obtained M. R. C. S and L. R. C. P in 1891 from Saint Thomas Hospital Medical School in London. He returned to Lagos in 1892 and established a private medical practice.

With these two as the leaders of the People’s Union, it became a pain in the neck of the colonial administrators, to the extent that there was a riot where residences of British officials and traders were damaged. This forced the governor to shelve the so called water rate and wait for other day.

 

Again, in 1913, when the government attempted to take over the land of the people of the South as done in the North, the People’s Union guarded its loins and mowed down the proposal through serious agitation and the mobilisation of the traditional institution, calling on all obas and chiefs all over the South to rise and prevent the White from seizing their ancestral heritage from them.

For two consecutive times now, the Union seemed to be succeeding in all its efforts, especially in its ability to call out the people of Lagos to protest anything that displeased them. But the administrators had also marked them down, waiting for the appropriate time to strike at them. It came during the World War I, when all agitations were banned. Not only that the government was able to silence them, it caused the diminution of the Union’s influence and it became moribund.

Despite the metamorphosis of the Union into another group called Reform Club under the leadership of Randle and Obasa, it could still not pass for a political party, since it was a situational organisation, being formed in time of crisis. It had no manifesto or a political plan of how to wrench the power of government from the colonial rulers.

This was different from the NNDP, which on the day of formation, listed its political agenda for the people of Nigeria. The party planned to establish municipal self-government in Lagos, the introduction of compulsory education, the opening of the judiciary and the higher branches of civil service to qualified Africans, the abolition of the segregation in residential areas, etc.

It was this manifesto that drew lots of people to the party. Because of the name of Herbert Macaulay, it was not difficult to get followers and the Alaga (Chairperson) of the Ereko Market Women, mobilised the estimated 8,000 Lagos women for the party. She was Madam Alimotu Pelewura, who was an Awori but was born and bred in Lagos.

So in September 1923, the country went to the poll and the NNDP won all the three seats in the Council. Those who won the election into the House were Dr. Curtis Crispin Adeniyi Jones, Joseph Egerton Shyngle and Eric Olawolu Moore. Calabar’s case was a bit different, because there was no political party in the city. For this, independent candidates were encouraged and a man named Kwamina Ata- Amonu was elected.

Apart from Adeniyi-Jones who was a doctor, the three other Nigerians on the Legislative Council were lawyers. This House was inaugurated in October 1923 and it became the first House of Representatives. The selfless interest in politics of those days and the fire of patriotism in them could be showcased in the fact that all these persons were highly qualified professionals, who never for one day left their offices and that Herbert Macaulay, who started it all, did not seek elective post.

But the expectations of the party members were not met. With the ambitious manifesto flaunted before the Lagos public and the glaring reality that nothing could be done in the House by these four members, the deficiency of the Clifford’s Constitution stared the leaders in the face and they quickly warmed up for serious union fight.

As early as 1926, the party leaders had begun a serious campaign against the government of the Whiteman in a black man’s land. It continued up till 1928 and there was another election. This time, there was no other political party that could successfully challenge the NNDP or that could stop its three candidates.

Joseph Egerton Shyngle was now dead. He had died in 1926 and was replaced by T. A. Doherty. In the election, Adeniyi Jones polled 888 votes, Eric Moore, 883 votes and T. A. Doherty, 832 votes. They were to spend another five years in the Legislative Council, but serious events started to happen that now made their stay in the council very uncomfortable and traumatic. Even then, they were elected again in 1933.

By this time, the arrogance and irritation of the white officials had become so much that it was becoming impossible for the Nigerian elites to stomach their unbecoming attitude. Virtually at every point in time, they discriminated against Nigerians and were by the day becoming soldiers of occupation, rather than the administrators of the land.

It was the new attitude of the Europeans that brought about the scathing criticism of the government.  When they first came in the 19th century, they had been glad to find very few educated Nigerians, for this allowed them to do most things unchallenged. But by the 1920s, educated Nigerians had increased in number and they were becoming a class of ‘Europeanised Nigerians,’ as they came to be called.

The Europeans would not have had any problem with that, but the fact that these Nigerians were now claiming equality with them revved their anger and hatred to a combatant movement. The change of these Nigerians was such a shock to the British officials who had all along looked down on the educated natives as a child who was being taught civilisation.

The British could relate with kings and emirs who did not know and never pretended to know or wanted to understand the British culture. But they could not understand the educated Nigerians; neither could they really accept them as members of their own class simply because they had received European education. And this was where the real problem started from.

Those who disliked the educated Nigerians most started describing them as “an idle middle class with no roots in and no love for their own country, (and) good for nothing except imitating European vices.”  They were thus kept out of important government posts. They were not allowed to live in the same area with them! They wouldn’t want to have them in the same club! No social contact and the gap grew wider.

By 1934, the Nigerian Youth Movement came into the picture and an element of violent protest was introduced. By the beginning of the 1940s, the British officials were getting the picture clearer: these Nigerians were serious about participating in their own affairs.

This was the situation Arthur Richard met on the ground in 1943 and by 1945, in March of that year precisely, he presented his proposals for a new constitution. In many ways, it was a great advance on the 1922 Clifford’s. At the same time, it marked an important turning point in the story of Nigeria’s constitutional development, for it began the new road to regionalism.

This constitution was still being tested in 1948 when a relatively younger governor appeared on the Nigerian scene on February 5. He was John Macpherson. Immediately he came, he put the Richard’s Constitution to critical examination and reforms. He set up a committee to look into how Nigerians could be recruited and trained for senior service of the government. He had eight Nigerians in this committee and Nnamdi Azikwe was one of them.

On record would it remain that Macpherson was the first governor to appoint into his Executive Council four Nigerians and later promoted Dr. S. L. Manuwa to be Director of the Medical Services. As Head of the Medical Department, he was also a member of the Executive Council. For the first time, a Nigerian had become head of a government department serving the whole country; this was a source of hope for other Nigerian civil servants.

He was also working seriously on the improvement of that constitution left by Richards and after the preliminary consultations through village councils, divisional, provincial and finally regional assemblies, a Constitutional Conference, representing the whole country, met in Ibadan in 1950. It was attended by 53 delegates sent by each region. Its final recommendation was approved by the British Colonial Secretary, who merely referred it back to the Legislative Council to be further examined. And in January 1952, the Macpherson Constitution came to force.

It was this constitution that created a quasi-federal system of government for Nigeria, with a central legislator and an executive council. And the legislature would be called the HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, consisting of 148 members.

It was the first time the word, “House of Representatives,” would be used in Nigeria’s political vocabulary and from then, we have been having the members of the House of Representatives Between October and December 1954, when election was conducted throughout Nigeria.  On Wednesday, November 10, 1954, the East voted. On Thursday, November 11, 1954, the West voted.  And from  November 20, 1954, staggered elections began in the North.

In all, 139 persons were elected out of the 142 members and on Wednesday,  January 12, 1955, the Governor General, Sir John Macpherson opened the first session of the House of Representatives in Nigeria.

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