Nigeria: Uncertain times for the volatile continental giant

By Prof Changamire

Prior to the European conquest, modern-day Nigeria was home to an estimated three hundred ethnic groups often times with widely differing languages and internal systems of rule. For one thousand years before the British occupation, the territory, roughly divided into three regions that to this day largely define independent Nigeria: north, east, and west. In the north, the main ethnic groups—the Hausas, the Fulani, and the Kanuri, linked culturally, religiously, and economically to North Africa, for the most part after the Berbers’ conquest by the Arabs in 600 AD. Although its constituents had traded and often lived among each other for centuries, the land of Nigeria had never existed as a single political unit. The societies congregated within its borders had a different ethos and varying levels of development.

An Englishman named George Dashwood Goldie Taubman founded Nigeria. He wanted to establish a British commercial empire stretching from the Nile to the Niger River Delta. After travelling around North Africa, Goldie journeyed to the Guinea Coast to revive a company owned by his sister-in-law’s family that traded in palm oil from the Niger Delta. After the abolishment of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, palm oil, needed to lubricate and drive the Industrial Revolution, had replaced human slaves as the main commodity of exchange between Africa and the West. In return, the British imported into Nigeria, millions of gallons of cheap gin. Goldie banded together the various English companies operating in the Niger Delta, effectively creating a monopoly whilst using gunboat diplomacy to subdue the local African chiefs and keep out European rivals.

At the 1884–1885 Berlin Conference, the British assumed control of the Niger River basin. Goldie, however, was far more ambitious. He solicited the help of Frederick Lugard and a small army of African soldiers known as the West African Frontier Force, Lugard moved up the Niger to conquer the interior. In 1914, he amalgamated the northern and southern territories in the name of the British Crown, setting the borders of present day Nigeria. The joining, however, was not for nation building. The simple reason was that the north’s colonial budget was running at a deficit and only a link with the profitable South could eliminate the needed British subsidy.

The British administered northern Nigeria through a system called indirect rule that allowed the traditional authorities, the sultan and the emirs, to continue running things more or less as they saw fit. This required less British personnel and translated to less pressure on the fiscal purse. The British shielded the north from the advance of Christian missionaries and Western education from the south. They fanned ethnic prejudice by housing southern immigrants to the north in segregated living areas commonly known as sabon gari, or “strangers’ quarters. It is in this context that Ethnic and religious prejudices have found fertile ground in Nigeria, where there is neither a national consensus nor a binding ideology. This politicised tribalism translated into the Biafra War (1967–1970).

Since gaining independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria has been theatre to at least one million deaths in one of Africa’s biggest civil wars, the assassination of two government leaders, six successful coups and four failed ones compounded by thirty years of army rule. Somehow, the country has stayed together, despite decades of government by a coterie of military and civilian elite who transformed the military in the orthodox sense of the word, to an armed political party. These leaders have behaved, to borrow a phrase from Basil Davidson, like “pirates in power.” Ergo the people are not so much governed as ruled. It is as if they live in a mismanaged corporation with armed bosses who have barricaded themselves inside the company safe.

Nigeria is demonstrably not a developing nation; it is in fact under developing if the statistics are anything to go by. Despite some $300 billion in export revenues since the discovery of oil in Oloibiri, Bayelsa State in 1956, over 62% of Nigeria’s 170 million people still live in extreme poverty. Literacy is below that of Burundi or the DRC. At one point the navy’s fifty-two admirals and commodores outnumbered serviceable ships by a ratio of six to one. The air force had 10,000 men but fewer than twenty functioning aircraft. Modern day Nigeria is a tool for plunder for the ruling elite, as much as it was a commercial enterprise for the British. Now renewed calls for the cessation of Biafra have surfaced. Nigeria remains trapped in the quicksand of political malaise, poverty and ethnic rivalry.

Nigeria on Tuesday – 30 May – marked 50 years since the declaration of an independent Republic of Biafra, The pro-Biafra groups have their support base from many youths who were born after 1970, they cite the region’s underdevelopment as legitimate, the federal government has countered by saying their situation is not atypical to the South East only. The former military dictator cum civilian president Muhammed Buhari is accused of being a Northern president only and conveniently forgetting that the whole of Nigeria is his constituency.

Rephrasing John F. Kennedy’s famous statement on its head, Nigerians need to know what their country can do for them, whether Nigeria itself is a worthwhile enterprise before the country can hope to be prosperous and stable.

Nigeria is on an altogether more dangerous trajectory. The only long-term solution in Nigeria to the crises that arise in a multi-ethnic state is for the various parties, however many they may be, to sit down and negotiate how they want to govern themselves and how they want to share their resources, and to decide whether they ultimately want to live together. One does not need training in the sophistry of clairvoyance to affirm that the shape of contemporary and future Nigerian affairs will largely depend on how Nigerians interact with one another. Until they begin that process of internal reconciliation and building a conducive conversational framework, at best Nigeria will lurch from crisis to crisis. At worst, it will disintegrate.

  • Prof Changamire is a founding editor, political analyst and social commentator for Khuluma Afrika