Fifty years after independence, Africa’s most populous country is finally trying to clean up its actby Richard Dowden / September 22, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Fifty years ago, on 1st October 1960, the word “freedom” dominated the pages of Nigeria’s Daily Times. It marked both independence from Britain and the wave of optimism then surging across Africa. “Two great assets we have inherited from the British: parliamentary democracy and the rule of law,” read the editorial. “We shall firmly uphold these principles… ”
Less than six years later the military took over, and ruled for most of the next 33 years. But looking back, it is amazing that Nigeria held together at all. Named in 1914 by the wife of Lord Lugard, the territory has no logical borders, no sense of common identity or purpose. It encompasses 400 languages, widely diverse cultures and deep religious divisions. Nigerians can’t even agree on how many there are of them.
Under military rule a lid was kept on the division between the Muslim north and the Christian south, and on rivalry between the three competing regions; north, east and west. The three-year civil war, sparked in 1967 when the newly oil-rich southeast tried to secede as the Republic of Biafra, left millions dead. But the defeat of the rebels prevented a break-up and, thanks to the generals, allowed oil to flow to the west with little benefit to Nigerian people.