The Willink Commission was set up in September 1957, by the British Colonial authorities, in order to look into the fears expressed by ethnic minorities regarding a possible future domination by the majority in the three regions of the Nigerian Federation, in a post-independence scenario. The commission was also tasked with alleviating such fears.
Minority fears about unequal treatment and domination in the three powerful regions of Nigeria were expressed at the 1953 constitutional conference, when considerable power were given to the regions. In 1957, during another conference, the British colonial secretary appointed Harry Willink, assisted by Phil Mason, director of the Race Relations Institute, Gordon Hadow, deputy governor of the Gold Coast, and Mr J.B. Shearer, to look into the fears of the minority groups. The following terms of reference guided the commission.
The commission reported on the imbalance in the three regions and also the situations creating the impetus for the creation of separate states by different groups. However, the commission was guided from its inception against making recommendations for state creation and, in its report, it stated that states-creation would in fact not be a solution to the fears of minorities, as additional states may only spur further demands by other minority groups within the newly created states. It was the Commission’s goal to allay the fears and promote Nigerian unity, in a way that the new nation would play an important role in the international scene. And this can be done by balancing power among the several different groups within a Nigerian State, not allowing for one group attain more power than the others.
The commission recommended areas of distinguishable cultures and concerns to have their cultures and territory preserved. With such end in sight, the Commission recommended the creation of an advisory council for the MidWest, special and minority areas – where the Federal and Regional administration would be responsible and liable for the region’s and the people’s’ social and economic development, along with the obligation to guarantee their well-being and cultural advancement. It also recommended the establishment of a unified and centralized police – so as to avoid the politicization of security forces -, and the promotion of minorities to position of power in order to balance any inequity in power.
The commission stated that about 9-15 popular demands for state creation were expressed. In the West, a Yoruba Central state, the Ondo Central and MidWest State, should be created; in the Eastern Region there were demands for the creation of the Calabar, Ogoja and Rivers States; and in the North the creation of a Middle Belt State.
In political terms the situation was more complex. In the North, the powerful Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) opposed state creation while its counterpart in the East, the NCNC, called for the creation of 17 states. In the West, the Action Group supported the creation of the Calabar, Ogoja and Rivers States, and also the Middle Belt State. The AG also favoured the creation of a clause in the constitution that would leave an open window for further state creation.
Although more states were created since long after the Willinks Report was issued, there are still some situations in need to be assessed.Half a century later one can still see that Nigeria has failed to integrate its minorities in an efficient way. Ethnic groups in the Niger Delta continue demanding better conditions and more access to wealth; politicized ethnic movements insist on threatening bloodshed if the 2015 Presidential results are not favourable; and ethnic/religious clashes are recurrent in the Middle Belt Region. In sum, the situation is worse than fifty years ago.
Nigerian intellectuals and politicians need to go back to the country’s origins and start from the beginning. The Willinks Commission Report can work as a useful basis if Nigeria wants to remain united. Sometimes the most useful and better books are the ones we neglect in favour of more enticing covers.