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Nigeria (Constitution)

Volume 416: debated on Monday 19 November 1945

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn." —[ Mr. Mathers.]

10.12 p.m.

It is a very long way from the subjects which this House has been discussing today, to the matter I propose to raise on the Adjournment, namely, the question of constitutional developments in Nigeria. I should like to start by explaining to the House the reasons why I am anxious to ventilate this question. In the minds of many hon. Members, raising a matter on the Adjournment, is associated with the receipt of an unsatisfactory reply from a Minister, or the desire to express some difference of opinion with the Government of the day. Such is not my intention tonight. My intention is, indeed, to give the House an opportunity of expressing agreement with what I believe to be the policy of the Government.

In the last House, there was, from all parties, a request that constitutional developments in the Colonies should be discussed in this House and the opinion of this House ascertained before they were finally settled and introduced in the Colonies. As Secretary of State for the Colonies at the time I felt a great deal of sympathy with that request. It could not, of course, be done in every case. Indeed, there are small constitutional amendments being carried through almost all the time in one or other of the 40 Colonies, but I did feel it was well to establish the practice, at any rate in the case of major constitutional developments, of giving this House the opportunity, at some stage before final decision was taken, and in Committee, to discuss the matter. After all, this House bears the final responsibility for the fate of 60,000,000 people in the Colonial Empire, and it is only fair that there should be the chance of a discussion on matters vitally affecting their welfare. Therefore, I adopted a new plan, with regard to this Constitution, of issuing the proposals in a White Paper and suggesting that those proposals should be discussed both in this House and in the Legislative Council in Nigeria. The words used in paragraph 2 of the White Paper were as follow:
"But in view of the important place which Nigeria holds in the Colonial Empire, and of the far-reaching effects which changes of such a fundamental nature as those now proposed are bound to have on the future development of the territory, it has been thought desirable that Parliament and the representatives of the people of Nigeria should be given an opportunity of examining and voicing their opinions on the proposed new Constitution before it is finally approved for submission to His Majesty the King "
Of course, the circumstances under which I gave that pledge to the House were very different from what they are now. It was in the Spring of last year, just at the beginning of the Estimates season, when there would have been no difficulty in securing an opportunity for a discussion on this subject. I quite realise that the right hon. Gentleman who succeeded me at the Colonial Office is placed in a much greater difficulty, and that there is no easy way of providing time for this discussion; but at the same time I felt that even if it was limited to this half hour at a late hour of night, this pledge should be, carried out, and that some discussion, at any rate, should be available to the House before the final decision had been taken. I think the hon. Gentleman the Undersecretary of State, who is to reply, will probably welcome an opportunity of making some statement on the Government's policy. I am, obviously, in favour of these constitutional proposals, as it was under my responsibility that they were brought forward, and I have every reason to believe that the present Government are favourable to them, too, and would, in fact, like to introduce them as soon as possible. We shall certainly listen with great interest to anything the hon. Gentleman has to say upon Nigeria, because he enjoys the distinction, which after exhaustive inquiry I believe to be unique in this House, that he is the only honorary chief of Nigeria sitting in this place. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will call attention to certain Amendments of this White Paper which had already been agreed before I left Office and which, I understand, he too will be incorporating in the new Constitution.

I want only to refer to the two most important factors, as I see them, in this new Constitution. The first is that it provides for a very great degree of decentralisation. Anyone who knows Nigeria will agree that the whole history and geography of Nigeria are such as to make decentralisation essential. They never were, before the British administration, an entity. They consisted of three great separate communities, with different languages, different governmental systems, different traditions and different religions. The proposal of this new Constitution is that while the Legislative Council at the centre should keep, as this House does, a general control over all matters in Nigeria, and should be responsible in the last instance for the passage of all legislation, there should be in each of these three groups, the Northern Provinces, the Western Provinces and the Eastern Provinces, a separate House of Assembly; that in that House of Assembly should take place a preliminary discussion of all Bills affecting that region; and further, that each House of Assembly should have a large measure of financial responsibility, and should have its own regional Budget for regional matters, which it would be entitled to criticise, amend and to pass.

The second main importance of those constitutional proposals lies in the method of election. What is proposed is an eventual system of indirect election by which the village sends its representative to the Provincial Council. The Provincial Council sends its representatives to this House of Assembly, and, finally, to a large degree, the Legislative Council will be made up of people elected by, and sent to it by the House of Assembly. 1 believe that that accords far more with the traditional method of Africa than an attempt to institute, all over, the ballot-box method of this country. That being so, I believe it leads to a much earlier grant of practical democracy than if you attempted, with a largely illiterate population, to adopt our particular principles of voting and our particular methods of selecting representation.

There is only one further point with which I would like to ask the hon. Gentleman to deal in his statement, and that is, the activities of a body known as the National Council of Nigeria. When these proposals were first issued and were discussed at the time in the Legislative Council at Lagos, they were agreed to, I think, by all, including the elected members. Since then this body has been circularising us, has been issuing statements and, in particular, has been making propaganda in the United States of America against this Constitution. From my own knowledge, I should say that they are wholly unrepresentative of the Nigerian people as a whole and represent only one small section, but, in view of a great deal of propaganda which is issued by them, it would be useful if the hon. Gentleman could assess their value. Finally, I hope that this new Constitution will now be introduced; that, when introduced, it will work successfully, and that, having worked successfully, it will serve as a sound basis for yet further advances.

10.23 p.m.

We welcome the initiative taken by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman in bringing the proposed Constitution of Nigeria to the notice of the House. I regret that so little opportunity exists for adequate discussion of these matters, which are of immense importance to the Colonial peoples. I would like to pay my tribute to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman for the part that he himself played in initiating these proposals, and I am certain that it must be very disappointing to him that he has had to leave it to others to finish many of the discussions which he began. During the past few months we have had ample opportunity to study the proposals which have been made, in the light of the criticisms advanced by various organisations, both in this country and in West Africa. The suggestions made for improving the proposals have also been carefully considered, and the proposals have been discussed by the Legislative Council itself in Nigeria and generally approved. During the recent visit of the Governor of Nigeria, we had the opportunity of considering in very great detail, every suggestion, every proposed amendment, every criticism, which has been made in regard to these proposals. One can say that, even if there was the possibility of this House not having time to consider these constitutional proposals, at least, every effort has been taken to weigh up the proposals, the criticisms, and the alternative suggestions. Members of Parliament, too, have had the opportunity of forwarding to the Colonial Secretary their views in regard to what is now proposed. I make that point because, although one would welcome ampler time for discussion of these proposals, it is well that it should be understood that they have received the closest attention of the Government during these few months.

Certain objections have been made in Africa, and, as the right hon. and gallant Gentleman has said, some bodies have been decidedly negative in their attitude towards the suggestions, and have professed to speak on behalf of the great masses of people in Nigeria. I agree with the right hon. and gallant Gentleman that the National Council is not by any means a representative body. It represents a certain educated or sophisticated section of Nigeria, but cannot claim to speak on behalf of the great tribal organizations, in the various regions of Nigeria. Consequently, while its criticisms should be noted, one must say that they are somewhat limited criticisms because of the restricted experience of the people who advance them. I would add that these proposals have been inspired by the work and thought of people of the eminence of Lugard, Hailey, Cameron and Bourdillon. I think they owe something, too, to the present Governor and to the courage and liberal spirit, in which he has faced up to this complicated problem.

The country we are dealing with is a country of 22,000,000 population and embraces an area as large as France, Belgium and the United Kingdom together. It is a complex area of peoples of varying tribes, native customs and so on. Constitution-making for so complex a region is not a particularly easy job. It is well to note what these proposals attempt to do. First, I might say that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman has summarised, very 'briefly, the basis of the proposals, but they are designed to make Nigeria something more than a region with certain frontiers on the map. They are designed to create a country, whereas Nigeria previously was little more than a number of regions strung together. They are designed to give Nigeria a comprehensive constitution, and a unifying central authority and legislature, with an expanding responsibility among the Africans themselves, and holding, within its framework, the diverse regions and parts which are described on the map as Nigeria. They permit the peoples of all these various regions to go forward in accordance with their own particular traditions, and the ideals inherent in their divergent ways of life. These proposals have this added advantage, that they do not hold back the more forward elements in the community, in their march forward to political responsibility because of +the backwardness of certain of the regions inside Nigeria. That, I think, is a great merit of the proposals now before us. Further, they do secure a greater representation of Africans in the discussions and management of their own affairs and greater representation on the councils, some of which will be new and deliberately created, and will give the Africans unofficial majorities as well. The third great principle underlying the proposal is that mentioned by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, that of decentralisation. The proposals will, by local and regional government, give increased responsibility and control over finance and will also strengthen popular control of the common and large scale services essential for the development of Nigeria as a whole.

I think all must agree that variety of races and religions, differences of tradition and so on, make it impossible to concede to Nigeria at this stage, the constitution of a Western European Power, as some Africans have demanded. In the discussions which have taken place, certain amendments have been suggested and have been agreed to, on the White Paper proposals. I will not describe the White Paper proposals because they are in the hands of most hon. Members, but we have, in the discussions, suggested that there should be greater flexibility in regard to the adaptation of native institutions, which are recognised in this constitutional proposal. Not only do we hope that the flexibility will be there to meet changing needs and the new strains and responsibilities which will be placed on these institutions, but also that, more and more, these institutions can meet the claims of youth and the educated people so as to permit them to play a larger part in the local and regional government, and ultimately in the national government.

In the second place the proposed small African majority in the Houses of Assembly and the Legislative Council will be strengthened. Without altering the constitution that majority can be slightly increased in the light of experience, as things develop. That is to say the majority of one African in each of the Houses of Assembly can be increased, by reducing the number of official representatives on these bodies. Again it has been agreed that on the Legislative Council itself, four of the proposed official members shall be excluded, so as to reduce the official representation, and also that one of the four proposed unofficial European members should come off. It is also proposed that in place of the three European representatives of special economic interests, there should be three members, not representing any particular interest but appointed by the Governor so as to bring to the Council experience and qualifications which might not necessarily be represented there as a result of the normal procedure. Those three representatives nominated personally by the Governor, may be Africans or Europeans having regard to the interest which in the opinion of the Governor should be represented. A further amendment which my right hon. and gallant Friend himself conceded before he left office, was that the annual income qualification of the electors in Lagos and Calabar should be reduced from £100 to £50. The provision will remain that the Constitution may be amended within nine years of its adoption.

Yes; by Order in Council. I doubt very much if I should, at this late hour, go more fully into the terms of the Constitution. As I have said, they have been circulated and are pretty well known. All Members of this House, irrespective of party are, I believe, anxious that increasing self-responsibility should be assured to the people in Nigeria as in other parts of the Empire. I think that these proposals are in accordance with the practice of this House, the practice of succeeding Governments, that more and more the peoples of the Colonial Empire should be responsible for their own affairs.

I conclude on a rather personal note. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman mentioned that I was specially honoured in Nigeria when he sent me there less than two years ago. I was privileged to receive the recognition of the African people particularly in Lagos and other parts, of certain efforts I made on their behalf in days gone by. I hope that I hold their confidence and trust still, and that nothing that I do will cause them to surrender that confidence and trust. Their understanding, patience and good will are important. I do not think that I or my colleagues will, in office, betray the principles or purposes for which we have struggled during many years on behalf of the African people. They do not always appreciate the difficulties, or recall the slow emergence of democracy and social justice in Western Europe. But Britain is determined that the foundations of their prosperity and welfare shall be truly laid. I know that, at this moment, there is much strain and unrest and that loyalties are being threatened, but the Nigerian Government is not altogether an alien authority. It is increasingly an expression of the will of the Nigerian people and all its agencies are being brought into line with the desire of this House that great constructive work shall be achieved for the economic and social wellbeing and genuine freedom of the Nigerian people. If Britain plans to attack disease, to spread education, to build a framework for economic development and sound agriculture, and to make the natural resources of greater benefit to the Africans, then the Africans, too, must respond in social responsibility, in discipline, tolerance and partnership in this endeavour. It is in the great tradition of Mary Kingsley and our own social democracy that this constitution is offered, and I ask Nigeria to work it and to bring the country along the road towards the goal of responsible and complete self-government.

10.41 p.m.

It is satisfactory that in this matter of Colonial constitutional development, we have continuity of policy between the two great parties in the country, and I think the Colonial Secretary is to be congratulated on having followed the enlightened policy of my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for West Bristol (Colonel Stanley) who brought this up when he was Colonial Secretary.- One important point I want to stress in the two or three minutes left, is that this is not a slavish imitation of a Western European constitution. I think it is a great thing that Britain has, at last, realised that in Africa we do not want merely the Westminster model in a constitution. We have, in Africa a constitution just as great as ours, based not on the ballot box but on tribal authority; and if I have one regret in regard to this White Paper it is that we are maintaining the system of the ballot box for Calabar and Lagos. It would have been far better if we had gone to the African method of nomination, rather than the method of the ballot box. I know the Parliamentary Secretary and I are not at one on that. Two years ago, there was an election at Kumasi, and I asked my hon. Friend if he observed how many voted. The number who could have voted was 14,600, but only 828 voted. On that occasion, the Parliamentary Secretary expressed himself as being very satisfied with the result. Times change, and we all get a greater knowledge as we grow older in this House. I think he and I are at one in realising that this new Constitution is a great development on what has been done in the past. I hope when this new constitution is working, H.M. Government will encourage the entry into responsible positions of those many gallant soldiers of Nigeria, who have fought with great valour on all fronts in this war. I believe this is a great opportunity for a forward movement in the development of that country.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Seventeen Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.