The greatest surprise about Nigeria at 100 is that it exists at all

According to Richard Bourne, Africa’s vast, fractured nation is lucky to have survived colonialism and the rampant corruption that followed independence

17 October 2015

8:00 AM

17 October 2015

8:00 AM

A giant was born in 1914, an African giant. The same year European powers set about each other in the trenches a framework was laid out for a nation that over the next century would grow into Africa’s mightiest economy, one with a population so prodigious it will soon overtake every other barring China and India.

The founding on 1 January that year of the colony of Nigeria was an act of extreme imperial chutzpah. Desert emirates in the north and coastal kingdoms in the south had for years been under nominal control as British protectorates, but for London to unite such diversity was to believe a mosaic has no cracks. The story of Nigeria, first under Britain, later as an African nation independent since 1960, has largely been the story of those cracks.

Any attempt at a history risks being grimly repetitive. The Nigerian cycle of political crisis, economic mismanagement and civil strife might appear relentless. To the outsider, Biafra and Boko Haram, Abacha and Abiola, coup and corruption can merge into one. So Richard Bourne is to be congratulated for avoiding such sameness in his ‘new history’. By focusing on the streams that have shaped the nation, he captures one that is multi-dimensional in its fault lines, tantalising in its possibilities yet exasperating in its performance.

He lays out how traders drove Britain’s interest in Nigeria, one begun by the Scottish explorer Mungo Park’s 18th-century charting of the Niger river. It did not end well for Park, who would drown in the river — an omen perhaps for Britain’s relationship with the delta and its vast hinterland.

Just as in India, Bourne shows how in West Africa it was commerce that came first, with colonialism only being retro-fitted. Instead of Robert Clive’s profiteering East India Company, we have palm-oil monopolists fixing prices, the Royal Niger Company and colonial officers gerry-mandering elections. So diverse were local chieftaincies, fiefdoms and monarchies that it took the wife of a British governor-general to name the ensemble. In an 1897 letter Flora Shaw suggested one drawn from the mighty river — Nigeria.

The colonial period 1914–1960 is not given soft treatment. While Nigerian businessmen prospered more than Africans in most racially charged parts of the continent, Bourne argues that a significant failure of British administration created in part the conditions for Nigeria’s modern malaise.

Having set up such a massive country the colonialists were at fault for not dealing with the north-south divide, one separating a relatively wealthy, nominally Christian south, from a poorer, more conservative, Muslim north. Bourne describes colonialism’s expedient acceptance of the north’s less attractive features — de facto slavery — in exchange for local emirs willing to bend to British control. All over Africa the same mistake would be made by outsiders: instability bad, stability good, even if takes a ghastly local dictator to provide it. So when independence came there were no meaningful national political parties and, tragically, no national leaders, no Gandhi nor Mandela.

It is a trope among critics of modern Africa that colonialism left no graduates, no ‘educated’ locals capable of taking over at independence. Nigeria undoes this solecism. Bourne cites tens of thousands of pre-1960 Nigerians with tertiary education, a sizeable cadre that would yet prove incapable of developing their country.

Those talented local leaders dwelt on their own fiefdoms. Civilian rule was tried in the 1960s only for the army to step in brutally when regional horse-trading led to gridlock. Bourne tells how the school-age son of a murdered Nigerian prime minister was given sanctuary by a kindly prep-school headmaster in England.

If chutzpah was shown by colonialists, the failing Nigerian leadership would show it in spades when it came to corruption. Not for them the occasional porn video or moat-cleaning claimed on expenses. Bourne takes us through the monumental skulduggery that filched much of the trillion US dollars the country has received in oil income since 1960. He writes of ‘Mr Ten Per Cent’, a politician who decimated tenders; the widow of a dictator caught fleeing with 38 suitcases stuffed mostly with cash; and a recent report that in a country with 36 states, 23 governors face accusations of graft. Yet with an MP earning a million pounds a year, the venality of local politicking is hardly surprising.

If anything Bourne is guilty of understatement when he calls Nigeria’s first hundred years ‘turbulent’. But to focus on the corruption and political crises is perhaps to miss the point. For a country so vast and diverse, Nigeria’s greatest achievement is its continued existence as a single nation. If that diversity can be harnessed, then the next hundred years promise a spectacular new history for Africa’s giant.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £12.99 Tel: 08430 600033. Tim Butcher’s books include Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart and Chasing the Devil: The Search for Africa’s Fighting Spirit.

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Show comments
  • Skridlov

    Nigeria is an international disgrace and has been so for decades. When the schoolgirls were first abducted by The Bokos ten days elapsed whilst the lethargic thieves who constitute its government did nothing at all. They were waiting for the “international community” to do something for them. But this is the least of Nigeria’s shortcomings. The last figure I recall seeing for the oil revenues stolen was $80 billion p.a. Unless I’m mistaken the UK is still sending this kleptocracy “aid” contributed by our hapless taxpayers. Meanwhile many of Nigeria’s more successful thieves move their loot to the UK, where our government protects it for them. Here they can occupy lavish mansions in Mayfair and Hampstead – un-encumbered by council tax. But we’re expected to approve of all this “diversity” at the risk of being accused of “racism” (a word, like “awesome” and “iconic” that needs removing from the English vocabulary.) I have an old friend who is Nigerian who has lived in Europe for over 40 years – and one of the cleverest engineers I’ve ever known; both his attempts to undertake legitimate business in Nigeria have been stymied by theft accompanied by lethal threats, plain and simple. He’s abandoned any hopes he once had of returning to live in the country of his birth. I wish this scenario was an exception but the same story applies almost throughout Africa. Of course it’s all down to the evil “colonialists”, neo- or post-. Meanwhile half the population of Africa would like nothing better than to move (legally or by stealth) into the lands of the colonialists, their own cultures having produced almost nothing of any value.

    • Mongo

      I’ve come to the conclusion that corruption is inextricably in the DNA of sub-saharan Africans, and they are incapable of organising a functioning democracy without the intervention of white Europeans. When the Europeans leave – or hand power over to blacks as in South Africa – it all goes to sh!t.

      of course that view is totally racist, but unfortunately it’s true.

  • beeranddarts

    Nigeria’s sole redeeming feature is that its corruption exists on a truly indiscriminate and egalitarian scale, which allows British companies and individuals an opportunity to wet their beaks in it’s misappropriated wealth. I have worked there, and seen first hand this ugly truth. It is otherwise a filthy, ruthless and violent death-pit. That it has been allowed to fester for 100 years as a mess of our creation truly puts us to shame.

    • Mongo

      always interesting to hear from people who actually have first hand experience of a place, unlike many of the bien pensants (eg. Obama: ‘Africa is on the move’)

  • You cannot ‘harness diversity’ any more than you can harness chaos. Diversity is always an obstacle to growth. Unity, of people, purpose, tradition and belief, is what drives development and creates wealth. That is why East Asia and until recently Europe have succeeded, and almost all the others, except European offshoot societies, have failed. And will continue to fail.
    The unquestioning hat-tips to ‘diversity’ across the western mainstream media are just like the obligatory tributes to communism in the old leftwing press. Everybody knows it doesn’t work, but nobody dares to step out of line.

  • Maybe I’m being naive but surely any big country with a huge population is almost bound to be a giant. It’s almost as if the writer has forgotten to divide the giant-ness of Nigeria by its population. When this is done he will see that this ‘giant’ still has the standard of living of a Third World country. If Switzerland were to merge with Bosnia, Albania, Serbia and all the other relatively poor European countries around it it too would be a giant, though a poorer one per head of population than it was before merging. Equally, when people bang on about Britain’s economy growing I would bloody well hope that it is since the population is also growing. If the economy weren’t growing we would all be poorer. My point is that if Nigeria ever were to split this would make its economy smaller but the people wouldn’t necessarily be any poorer.

  • mecha-rigsby

    Nigeria. Well known for the export of:-
    1. Fat obnoxious women in national dress BELLOWING into phones.
    2. Credit card fraud. Thamesmead is apparently the credit card fraud capital of Europe. I’ll give you 3 guesses as to the demographics of Thamesmead.
    3. AIDS.

    Cheers, Nigeria.

    • Mongo

      you forget to mention the rampant NHS abuse – the ‘Lagos Run’, aided and abetted by the useless UK govt. A nation of fraudsters, crooks and con artists. No wonder it’s corrupt to the core. I would never trust a Nigerian in any capacity.

      I’ve also found that Nigerians, particularly those who work in the NHS, are utterly useless and appear to live on a different planet, giving a whole new meaning to atrocious customer service. Of course they would never be hired in the private sector. To be fair, that may apply to other African nationals – I’m not always able to distinguish.

      the joys of mass immigration

  • Mongo

    I fear Nigeria may collapse into a civil war in the near future when the Religion of Peace factions declare northern Nigeria a new caliphate and attempt to secede. The result will be millions of displaced people, and guess where they’ll all head?