Nigeria review: there is cause for hope as well as despair in Africa's giant

A new book artfully summarises a fascinating and sometimes troubled history

November 10, 2015
Supporters of Nigeria's new President Muhammadu Buhari celebrate his victory after the elections this year. © AP Photo/Ben Curtis
Supporters of Nigeria's new President Muhammadu Buhari celebrate his victory after the elections this year. © AP Photo/Ben Curtis

The Nigerian nation was a concept “as manifest an absurdity as that there is, or can be, a European nation at all events until the arrival of the Millennium." Those were the words of Sir Hugh Clifford, the then Governor-General of Nigeria, to the Nigeria Council in 1920.

With such shaky foundations it is remarkable that Nigeria (a hotch-potch confederation comprising hundreds of ethnic groups and various religions) has managed to stay together, stuck in this existential quandary.

One year after Africa’s most populated country celebrated its centenary, Richard Bourne, former deputy editor of the London Evening Standard and former deputy director of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, has written a fascinating and wide-ranging book charting the birth of this nation and its struggle to remain "One Nigeria."

Nigeria began as two colonial protectorates, the northern and southern, ruled by the first Governor-General Lord Lugard. His so-called dual mandate involved "civilising" the natives while helping British investors to benefit from Nigeria’s enormous natural resources. Yet Lugard—an autocrat and racist—was conflicted in his attitude towards the educated southern Nigerian: “... his loud and arrogant conceit are distasteful to me,” he wrote to his wife. “The lack of natural dignity and courtesy antagonise me”. Lugard had more respect for the emirs in the north and their feudal, horse-riding hierarchy. Unwilling to challenge Islam, he was slow to introduce the Western-style education that southerners were receiving.

Lugard applied a system of  "indirect rule," in which administrators maintained tribal ruling systems. This muddled strategy involved dozens of different treaties with traditional tribal rulers. It was designed to curtail those first-generation, educated Nigerians whose irritation with colonial rule posed a threat. By the 1920s and 30s, riots featured regularly. Nationalist organisations such as the National Youth Movement (members included Nigeria’s first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe) fought for universal suffrage, equality for non-European civil servants and an end to the British monopoly of exports at the native traders’ expense.

Meanwhile in the northern protectorate, the elite enjoyed greater cultural independence. The Northern and Southern protectorates maintained separate identities, a cultural and economic disparity that led to Northern concerns about southerners dominating national employment and politics. Fears of this kind have weakened the Nigerian federation right from the Amalgamation of 1914 up until today.

Bourne demonstrates how Nigeria’s political history has essentially been a perpetual struggle to create a power structure and constitution that accommodates such disparate ethnic groups, cultures and wealth distribution. First, the British split up the southern protectorate into East and West in 1938 to reflect the domains of the two largest ethnic groups, the Igbo and Yoruba. Those three states have since multiplied to 36 today. Still, it has not made it easier to allocate resources between the federal government, the states and local government. By comparison, EU negotiations seem a doddle.

Bourne goes on to discuss Nigeria’s disastrous third quarter-century, which began with the assassination of the first prime minister, Tafawa Balewa, followed by a civil war sparked by the ethnic Igbos’ attempt to secede. From the end of the war in 1970, Nigerians endured an endlessly protracted transition to civilian democracy following the war, and the breakdown of two civilian governments in an era of corrupt military dictatorships that lasted until 1993.

Throughout there has been a heavy reliance on oil, its strategic importance fuelling corruption and social unrest in the oil-rich Niger Delta.

By the time Olusegun Obasanjo became the first democratically elected president in 1999, lengthy bouts of military rule had left a top-heavy system of government. Federal government controls the purse strings while local government is riddled with parochialism and ethnic bias in jobs and education.

Once again, Nigerians sought a unified democracy, this time through "pacted transition"—rotating the presidency between Muslims and Christians. Militant insurgency in the oil-rich Niger Delta cast a fresh shadow over the new democracy, cutting oil supplies by one third in 1999. Today, Islamic terrorism is the latest bete noire to threaten the country’s stability. Yet despite former president Goodluck Jonathan’s anaemic response to Boko Haram’s insurgency, his ability to concede defeat at the general elections showed a country emerging into a more transparent polity. As ever, Nigerians have genuine cause for hope as well as despair.

Bourne has managed to condense a century of turbulent history into a remarkably slim tome. This is not a polemic, and despite his preference for breadth over depth, the author judiciously highlights key moments and personalities in Nigeria’s story. His analysis is backed up with solid economic facts and personal interviews, all of it spiced with compelling anecdotes (my favourite: at Nigeria’s Independence Ball in 1960, prime minister Tafawa Balewa, a pious Muslim, refused to do the traditional first dance with Princess Elizabeth of Great Britain).

If you want to understand Africa’s Giant’s history in one succinct go, Nigeria is a very good choice.