What Britain did & didn’t do to Nigeria.

Nigeria is full of energy, enterprise and dynamism.  Like most big states it struggles to create national unity from a plethora of cultures and languages.

With a total population of 206 million – rising fast – it will soon have the third largest population of English speakers and Christians in the world.  At 100 million, roughly the same number as Nigerian Christians, it already has the third largest Muslim population.  If Muslims and Christians can’t live together in amity in Nigeria Africa is in even deeper trouble than the troubled Middle East.

When Nigeria became independent in 1960 the population of the British Empire was reduced by more than 50%.  Under British rule none of its weaknesses as a political entity had been resolved.  Arguably some of the worst had been intensified or created by the British. Nigeria today is fixed in British minds as the land of scams, corruption, and, for my generation, military coups and starving Biafran children.

Kidnapping is one the few features to gain international attention, a dark market economy with ransom tariffs set according to the profession of the victims.  A professor is worth more than a priest.  Big gangs raid schools and charge bulk prices for returns.  Banditry and armed robberies afflict several areas. Pastoralists, fighting over land-use, kill agriculturalists and vice-versa.  Da’esh-linked terrorists still cause havoc in the North-East and around the northern borders. Inter-ethnic killings are increasing. Nigeria is a fragile state.

You might imagine that the recent amalgamation of Britain’s Foreign Office and Department for International Development would be justified by a coordinated response to Nigeria’s mix of security and developmental problems.  You’d be wrong.

Discounting its own expertise in humanitarian aid and the training of police and security forces, the British government plans to cut development aid to Nigeria by 58%.  This despite thousands of displaced people fleeing violence in Borno State, a Federal army too underequipped and unmotivated to fight terrorism successfully, as well as a police force that needs intensive training.  But British support is receding.

Max Siollun, in his recent What Britain did to Nigeria, traces the origin of Nigeria’s ills to the early colonial period, the century of British engagement from the 1820s to the 1920s.  Siollun’s treatment is balanced and illuminating but his book will provide fodder for fashionable arguments between academics of the colonialism-bad and the colonialism-good schools – though lack of relevant statues will limit conflict to the seminar room.

Siollun shatters the comfortable assumption that the transition from pre-colonial to colonial government in what became Nigeria avoided the monstrous bloodshed in, say, the Congo under Leopold II of Belgium.  In my own online Emirs, Evangelicals & Empire I underestimated the violence of the British takeover.

Siollun tells of the racism, brutality and arrogance of many local British ‘Residents’, colonial officers – both civil and military – from the early Royal Niger Company to Lord Lugard’s West African Frontier Force.  But because most of the fighting fell on mercenary troops, mainly Hausa, with longstanding inter-ethnic and local animosities, the burnt villages and piles of corpses, after crushed uprisings and punitive raids, belonged to Africans.

The culturally very different North and South of Nigeria were amalgamated in 1914, not in some grand imperial vision, but, as Siollun suggests, to save on administrative costs.  Indirect Rule was not a British strategic plan – though it divided and ruled with near impunity. Britain just could not afford enough colonial officers.

The Colonial Office budget determined governance.  And there was the bonus that someone else did dirty work like tax collection and recruitment of forced labour. Punishment of those who saw little difference between this and former enslavement was severe.

Unsurprisingly there was considerable resistance to British rule, much of it caused by repression and extortion but used to justify severe and often disproportionate military response.  The Fulani of Sokoto Caliphate in the North-West suffered the most because their structured military force and cavalry encouraged set-piece battles against the British ‘square’ and the unforgiving Maxim gun.  The South-East lacked regular fighting forces and local guerrilla warfare was far more effective against British-led troops, especially along its narrow densely forested paths.

​‘Dash’ given to chiefs who provided the Royal Niger Company with exclusive rights of trade in palm oil was the prototype of today’s endemic bribery.  Treaties that few chiefs could read and understand gave coercion and fraud a veneer of lawfulness.   The earliest colonial era scam was to imitate messengers from British-appointed ‘warrant chiefs’ imposed on, for example, Igbo societies.  The scammer donned a red fez and insisted on payments of different kinds with the spurious threat that failure to pay would involve heavy punishments from the chief with British support.

There were also mitigating development and reforms.  Slavery, twin infanticide, and the burial of servants/slaves with their chief in some South-Eastern societies were gradually eliminated.
Colonial provision of roads, railways and education was transformative.  Christian missions followed by government schools brought educational change to the South.

Today most southern states have high rates of adult literacy.  The contrast with some Northern states is striking.  According to EduCeleb, a Nigerian educational news agency, in Sokoto 80% of women aged 18-24 are illiterate but only 1.8% in the South East’s Imo state.  Nationally the adult literacy rate was 22% at Independence in 1960.

Sixty years on, years when Nigeria stumbled from one disaster to another somehow surviving, somehow holding together, that heritage wears thin as an excuse.  The latest crisis looks particularly dangerous.  Nigeria’s Catholic Bishops informed by  detailed information from their parishes around the country published a formal statement this February. They are not in the habit of crying wolf.

“The very survival of the nation is at stake. The nation is pulling apart. Widespread serious insecurity for long unaddressed has left the sad and dangerous impression that those who have assumed the duty and authority to secure the nation are either unable – or worse still unwilling – to take up the responsibilities of their office. Patience is running out.

The call for self-defense is fast gaining ground. Many ethnic champions are beating loudly the drums of war, calling not only for greater autonomy but even for outright opting out of a nation in which they have lost all trust and sense of belonging. The calls for secession on an ethnic basis from many quarters should not be ignored or taken lightly.

Many have given up on the viability and even on the desirability of the Nigeria project as one united country. No wonder many non-state actors are filling the vacuum created by an apparent absence of government.

The Federal Government under President Muhammadu Buhari can no longer delay rising to its obligation to govern the nation; not according to ethnic and religious biases but along the lines of objective and positive principles of fairness, equity and, above all, justice. It is not too much for Nigerians to demand from Mr. President sincerity both in the public and private domain. There are no more excuses”.

Sadly the British Government has plenty of excuses for finding something better to do than worry about the future of what is arguably the most important country on the African continent.

Ian Linden
a visiting Professor at St Mary’s University,


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