A recent book by Nigerian historian Max Siollun looks at how the brutal history of British imperialism’s ‘conquest and rule’ has shaped the country. SOPHIE SIMCOX draws out its relevance today.
What Britain Did To Nigeria: A Short History of Conquest and Rule
By Max Siollun
Published by C Hurst and Co, 2021, £20
‘Nigeria is a failed state’. This was the headline of an article in the May 2021 edition of the US Foreign Affairs magazine, as two US academics, one of them previously US ambassador to Nigeria, attempted to warn the US ruling class that Nigeria is becoming “a fully failed state of critical geopolitical concern”. They went on: “All failed states harbour some form of internal strife, such as civil war or insurgency. Nigeria now confronts six or more internal insurrections and the inability of the Nigerian state to provide peace and instability has tipped a hitherto very weak state into failure”.
The authors are panicking about crisis in Nigeria because of its importance. One of the two biggest economies in Africa, its population is already estimated at over 200 million, making it the seventh most populous country in the world. By 2050 it is predicted to surpass 400 million. GDP has been falling every year since 2015 and, according to the World Bank, by the end of this year real income per person will have fallen to the same level it was in the 1980s. More than half of all Nigerians, and two thirds of the young, are unemployed or underemployed.
Muhammadu Buhari, the President of Nigeria, has twice won elections on an anti-corruption platform, but corruption has continued unabated on his watch. Transparency International’s latest ‘Corruption Perceptions Index’ ranks Nigeria at number 149 out of 180 countries. According to a member of the Presidential Advisory Panel on Corruption, between 2006 and 2011 over 1.3 trillion naira ($3.2 billion dollars) was stolen by just 50 politicians. Corruption is a deeply embedded part of the dysfunctional character of Nigeria, where for example, the basics of infrastructure – roads, rail, power and water supply – are barely existent, and it is completely normal for developers and politicians to pocket money for building works and then fail to finish, or even to start, the project concerned.
Buhari’s government has not had any significant effect on corruption, but fearing mass movements from below, it is increasingly repressive. In October 2020 the #EndSARS youth movement erupted initially against police brutality, calling for the disbandment of the particularly corrupt and brutal Special Anti-Robbery Squad. On 20 October the Nigerian army opened fire on a peaceful #EndSARS demonstration killing at least twelve protestors. Since then there have been a number of violent police and military attacks on peaceful protestors and striking workers. On university campuses repression against student activism has been ramped up. One indication of this was the still unexplained murder of Nurudeen Alowonle Yusuf, in August this year, outside Lagos State University where he had been a longstanding student leader. Nurudeen was a member of the Democratic Socialist Movement, the affiliate of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) in Nigeria.
State repression is not, however, able to force an ordered society from the top. On the contrary, the Gulf of Guinea is now the most dangerous shipping zone in the world, so rife is piracy. In the North East of Nigeria the Islamist insurgency continues, with around 1,400 Nigerians estimated to have lost their lives to it in the last eighteen months alone. At the same time, partly as a consequence of climate change, conflict between agricultural farmers and herdsmen is on the increase. In the North West, and increasingly beyond, Fulani armed bandits unleash terror on rural communities, killing, rustling cattle, and kidnapping for ransom. As poverty intensifies kidnappings have also spread more widely, perpetuated by criminal gangs from all ethnic backgrounds. Over the last five years the numbers affected have increased tenfold.
The crisis in society has fuelled movements campaigning for independence from Nigeria. The Biafran campaign in the South East of Nigeria is strongest. The memory of the horror of the civil war that took place from 1967 to 1970, feeds a strong feeling among a section of the Igbo people that separation is necessary. However, there is also currently a growth in support for independence for the Yoruba people in the South West of the country. Buhari’s regime has met both with repression, particularly in the South East.
Calls for separation are only one side of the situation, however. One hundred and seven years after the formation of Nigeria, there is a strong Nigerian national consciousness among many, combined with enormous dissatisfaction at the state of Nigeria and widespread discussion throughout society on what can be done to overcome the crisis. Many focus on ending corruption. This was a central demand of the #EndSARS movement, for example. However, there is no possibility of transforming Nigerian capitalism into a ‘normal’ capitalist country akin to what exists in European countries. Building a society able to harness the enormous talents of Nigeria’s huge population will require a break with capitalism and the building of a democratic socialist society.
British imperialism’s legacy
In reality, the bankrupt character of Nigerian capitalism is inextricably linked to Nigeria’s exploitation by the world’s strongest capitalist countries both today and historically. What Britain Did To Nigeria: A Short History of Conquest and Rule, is a recent, readable book by Max Siollun. He steers clear of the situation today (and is praised by an assistant to Buhari on the book’s cover!) but nonetheless provides very useful tools for understanding the current situation by giving an unvarnished account of British imperialism’s brutal exploitation and conquest of what became Nigeria.
Unsurprisingly the subjugation of Nigeria is never taught in British schools, but it is not taught in Nigeria either. For twelve years until 2019 the teaching of any Nigerian history was actually banned in state primary and secondary schools, and prior to that generally only formed a small part of ‘social studies’ lessons. Now it has been reinstated, but this has not been carried out in most schools. For many young Nigerians the book’s contents would therefore be a revelation about British imperialism’s role in their country’s history.
The book’s central argument is that the “core foundational ingredients of Nigeria’s existence and problems were laid” in the period of British colonial rule. Siollun begins by pointing out Nigeria’s importance to British imperialism and that “when the country became independent in 1960, the British Empire shrank more than 50 per cent and Africa’s independent population doubled”.
He deals only briefly with the horror of the transatlantic slave trade, which was focused in the region of West Africa of which Nigeria is now part. In the 54 years between 1676 and 1730, 730,000 slaves were shipped from the Kingdom of Benin (centred on what is now Edo state in Southern Nigeria), “42 percent of all slaves taken from the African continent during that time period”.
The main focus of the book, however, is on the 150 years between the end of the transatlantic slave trade and Nigeria’s independence in 1960. European capitalists’ trade in people, he explains, “was replaced by trade in goods”. West Africa became more important for the imperialist powers as the industrial revolution developed. Palm oil and rubber were vital for machine lubricant, soap and pneumatic rubber tyres. Various British ‘explorers’ in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century attempted to navigate the River Niger. Siollun outlines the largest of the hundreds of pre-colonial societies that they found, some of which had existed for over a thousand years before the British arrived.
RNC corporate terrorists
One private company, the Royal Niger Company (RNC), was granted the charter to exploit the areas it had taken control of on behalf of the British crown. Siollun describes the actions of the RNC as “at times” resembling “corporate terrorism”. This is an understatement. The RNC undertook countless “raids between 1886 and 1899. The targets of these raids were usually villages or ethnic groups that clashed with the company or seized its property. The Company often inflicted staggering collective punishments. Its standard modus operandi was to punish an entire village for the action of one or a few of its residents by burning the village down, destroying farms, and seizing or killing livestock. For example in 1890 the Constabulary destroyed the Igbo town of Aguleri after one of its residents punctured one of its palm oil barrels with his knife”.
Abhorrent practises which are today reported in the Western capitalist media as somehow ‘Nigerian’ were first inflicted on the peoples of the area by the RNC. For example, “in October 1885 the company kidnapped three young boys from the village of Mblama in the Niger Delta, held them as hostages, and refused to release them for seven months”. This was not an isolated incident. Complaints about the practise of “seizing certain children as hostages” were raised in the British parliament. Siollun reports, however, “a strange determination by the British government to either shield the RNC from censure or turn a blind eye to its outrages”. In reality there was nothing strange about it. British capitalism might want to distance itself from the brutality of the RNC, but they were happy with the results; the strengthening of British imperialism and the resulting profits. The secretary of state for the colonies, Joseph Chamberlin, was an RNC shareholder.
While the RNC was particularly brutal, the process was not fundamentally different in the other two areas under the ‘protection’ of British imperialism, the Colony of Lagos, and the Niger Coast Protectorate, although both were ruled directly by appointees of the British government rather than the RNC. In late 1899, with its dirty work complete, the British government revoked the RNC’s charter and purchased most of its assets, including the hated constabulary. The RNC went on to become part of the massive multinational Unilever: a clear reminder of how far the foundations of modern capitalism are mired in the blood and brutality of colonial exploitation.
The foundation of Nigeria
Overall it took sixty years for British imperialism to conquer what became Nigeria: from the annexation of Lagos in 1861 to the conquest of some communities in Igboland in the 1920s. In 1900 Britain declared two ‘protectorates’ in Northern and Southern Nigeria. Then in 1914 these were merged to create Nigeria. Sir George Goldie, the founder of the RNC, had said that the two countries “were as widely separated in laws, government, customs, and general ideas about life, both in this world and the next, as England is from China”. Yet they were merged because “the need for British colonies to be self-financing made amalgamation a priority”. Many commentators point to what Siollun calls “the mistake of 1914”. There is no doubt that tensions between North and South are a major fault line running through a country created by British imperialism’s drawing of lines on a map for its own financial and administrate convenience. It is far from the only legacy of imperialist rule, however.
Siollun writes that fewer than fifty British soldiers were killed over sixty years of wars of conquest. He describes how, “since Britain used indigenous soldiers to fight these battles, after each battle both sides of the battlefield would be littered with native corpses”. It was not only militarily that British imperialism relied on local forces. Siollun points out that “by 1925 there were only 200 British administrators in Nigeria for a population estimated at 20 million”.
This approach was adopted by British imperialism by necessity, not choice. The climate was difficult for the British. Between 1895 and 1900 Siollun estimates that “between 7.5% and 10% of British people living in Nigeria died every year”. In addition by 1913 the British empire ruled over a quarter of the world’s population. It was unable to find the personnel to send large numbers to Nigeria, so instead relied on ‘indirect rule’.
This took a different form North and South. In the largely Fulani controlled North, Siollun explains, “as the rulers of a Muslim theocracy, the emirs already had a judicial system with alkalis (judges), a revenue generation system, and several titled officials. The Sokoto Caliphate’s sophistication ironically rendered it ideal for direct rule”. British imperialism therefore ruled via the existing feudal theocracy, allowing the existing emirs to largely remain in place and to carry out “the most unpopular features of colonialism, such as tax collection, and delegate them to native rulers”. This does not mean that the Emirs had real freedom to act; the British retained the right to depose them. As one British army captain put it, “they must be our puppets and adopt our methods and rules”. When they failed to do so they and the people they ruled were slaughtered. For example, in 1906 a village called Satiru was raised to the ground, and around 2,000 men, women and children were killed.
There were consequences for the way British imperialism relied on the existing Fulani structures. This included their reliance on Northern troops to fight on their behalf in the rest of Nigeria. Siollun estimates that, “when Nigeria became independent in 1960, approximately three-quarters of the fighting troops were Northerners, while the majority of officers in the army’s support and technical unit… were southerners”. As he explains, “the ethnic layering of the army contributed to several military coups in Nigeria” and to “a civil war in which over a million people died”. It remains a problem so serious that, “Nigeria still applies an ethnic quota to military recruitment and positions” in an attempt to make a future military coup by one section of the ruling elite more difficult.
It also meant that little economic development took place in Northern Nigeria. Today levels of poverty are far higher in Northern Nigeria than in the South, with 77% of the population living in poverty. In the South of necessity imperialism put more effort into creating local elites that would represent their interests, mainly via Christian churches providing ‘British’ education for a layer, at the same time as existing religions were persecuted. Even today the idea that southerners are more ‘educated’ remains.
At the same time, in the South East in particular, British imperialism found a problem that there were no local ‘chiefs’ through which they could rule because “South Eastern Nigerian society instead consisted of small, politically autonomous villages”. The solution was, “if it could not find chiefs”, to “simply manufacture them”. Where they could not find a chief they appointed “warrant chiefs”. Siollun gives a comic example of a town crier being mistaken as a “man of influence” and appointed chief. More generally though those appointed were “careerists and rascals”, or people who had given “information about anti-British insurgents”. These most rotten elements of society were then given “enormous and unprecedented powers”, creating scope for “new types of extortion and fraud” to arise on a huge scale. Siollun points out much of the ruling elite of Nigeria today are descended from these warrant chiefs.
What Siollun calls the “popular colonial narrative”, that “colonialism brought infrastructural development to Nigeria in the form of improved railways and bridges”, actually happened to a very limited degree. What was done was built to enable the movement of troops, British personnel and cash crops for export, and was carried out by forced labour. But whereas in India, for example, British imperialism oversaw the building of more than 77,000 km of railway track, in Nigeria only 4,000 km were ever built (most of which today is in total disrepair).
Revolts against British rule
While Siollun concentrates on what British imperialism did, he also gives some space to the numerous wars, rebellions and revolts which took place against the colonial power. He shows that, long before the growth of a mass independence movement in the wake of the second world war, there was considerable opposition to colonial rule. Revolts took place across Nigeria, but were most frequent in the Niger Delta. Armed resistance decreased in the 1920s but protest continued, “characterised by civil rights and civil disobedience campaigns”. Siollun particularly points to the prominent role of women in these movements.
In 1929 a major movement took place in the South East against women being forced to pay tax and spread over 6,000 square miles. While it began among Igbo women other ethnic groups became involved. The British responded by firing on peaceful protests, killing more than fifty women. A similar movement, also led by women, also took place in Yoruba areas in 1918 and again in 1945. The latter was led by the wife of a founding member of the Nigerian Union of Teachers, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. One of their sons was Fela Kuti, the world famous radical musician.
Siollun does not deal with the role of the workers’ movement, but it was considerable, particularly in later years. In 1945 for example, after years of high inflation and wage restraint, a massive general strike brought the country to a halt for over a month, successfully forcing some wage increases. The working class was a relatively small minority of society, but had enormous support from other sections of the oppressed. In Eastern Nigeria, for example, solidarity with the strikers was organised on a large scale, with them being sold food at low prices and allowed not to pay rent.
Had Nigerian independence led to the development of healthy economic growth, the numerous ethnic tensions created by the legacy of British imperialism might have tended to recede. Instead, however, Nigeria is in deep crisis. The Nigerian ruling elites have proved incapable of developing society. While there was some limited development in the brief oil boom years after the 1967-70 civil war, today manufacturing is incredibly weak and what exists is low value-added. Nigerian capitalist Aliko Dangote, the richest man in Africa, has built his empire on manufacturing salt, sugar, flour, pasta and cement. Most manufactured goods, however, including foods, are imported, including 97% of milk consumed.
Shortly before independence of course, crude oil was found in Nigeria, creating a huge source of wealth for the elites. Oil accounts for 95% of Nigeria’s exports. Yet despite the importance of oil to the economy there is currently no fully functioning refinery in Nigeria, meaning that refined oil has to be imported from aboard. The responsibility of the imperialist powers for this situation is not just historic, but current. The British/Dutch owned corporation Shell is responsible for 50% of Nigeria’s oil production in a nominally joint venture with the NNPC (the Nigerian state oil company), with the American multinationals Chevron and ExxonMobil making up most of the rest. There is a clear link between the colonial rule of the past, where warrant chiefs lined their pockets for furthering the interests of British imperialism, and the relationship between the major multinational corporations and the Nigerian elites today.
While oil wealth distorts Nigerian society, it also acts to hold the elites together. Fear of a break up along ethnic lines has led to the creation of a constitution designed to keep Nigeria tied together. Nigeria is a federation, now made up of 36 states, and with significant powers held by the state governments. To register as a political party it is a requirement to have members in two thirds of the states. In practise the two major parties – the People’s Democratic Party and Buhari’s party the All Progressives Congress – are cabals within which different sections of the elite share out the loot.
As horse trading takes place behind the scenes it suits the elites from particular ethnic groups to encourage ethnic tensions. For example, at the moment there will undoubtedly be some Southern politicians who see in the increased calls for independence for the mainly Yoruba South West an opportunity to further their own interests by pushing for a presidential candidate. The trigger for the Yoruba separatist movement is the increased kidnappings and murders by criminal gangs mainly of Fulani extraction under the presidency of Buhari, a Fulani who has tended to promote the Northern elite. Cynically using ethnic discontent to jostle for position is one thing, however, separation altogether another. Around 75% of oil is extracted from the Niger Delta whose population is not from the largest ethnic groups. For elites from other regions break-up of the country would therefore mean their noses being shoved out the trough.
Nonetheless, as the economic crisis of Nigeria intensifies, not just as a result of episodic lower oil prices, but in the future as environmental crisis forces capitalism to become less reliant on oil, it is possible that jostling could again be replaced by civil war.
The role of the workers’ movement
However, it is not only the crisis of Nigerian society – a mix of capitalism and remnants of feudal relations – that has fuelled the current increase in ethnic tensions. Responsibility also lies with the leaders of the Nigerian workers’ movement. This is a potentially very powerful force. In the years running up to 2012 a series of massive general strikes rocked Nigeria. Then in 2012 a week long general strike against a threatened fuel price hike brought the country to a complete standstill. The strike was solid across every ethnic group and part of the country. There were numerous instances of inter-religious unity, with Christians protecting Muslims while they prayed, for example. However, the strike ended after the labour leaders accepted a few crumbs, widely seen as a rotten deal. Since then, frightened by the power of the masses, and utterly unwilling to lead a struggle for power, the trade union leaders have repeatedly retreated. The resulting vacuum has inevitably led to an increase in those looking to a national or ethnic route out of their problems.
The Democratic Socialist Movement has a long proud history of fighting for a programme in the interests of all the peoples of Nigeria. This of course includes standing for the right of self-determination for all the ethnic groups that British imperialism bound together in Nigeria. That does not automatically mean advocating independence however. In the case of Biafra, where the calls for independence have most support, the DSM campaigns for a democratic referendum to allow Igbo people to decide whether they wished to secede. Across Nigeria DSM calls for a Sovereign National Conference dominated by representatives of the working people to democratically discuss and determine whether Nigeria should remain as one and on what economic, political and social basis.
In the current situation of growing violence, DSM calls for democratically constituted, multi-ethnic and non-sectarian defence bodies to defend all those communities facing kidnapping and violent attacks. There have been examples of how this could be possible. In January 2021 for example local members of different ethnic groups, including Fulani, in Ibarapa in the South West came together to combat Fulani bandits.
Whether as part of a single Nigerian state or not, the diverse nationalities that make up Nigeria, will face a miserable future on a capitalist basis. However, the powerful Nigerian working class is a force capable of leading the oppressed masses in the struggle for a new democratic socialist society, where the enormous potential wealth of Nigeria could begin to be harnessed to meet the needs of all, and the rights of nationalities and groups would be respected.