West Africa and Colonialism

Until recently, Western scholarship ignored West Africa. The blind spot reflects Europe’s historical view of Africa as a continent to be exploited, not examined. To Europe, Africa was a market for products and a source of raw goods. In short, it was an object of mercantilism – the economic system by which colonial powers economically exploit weaker regions. Thus, West Africa was defined in terms of economic goods – the Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast, the Slave Coast. Beneath the definitions imposed by mercantilism, however, lay a remarkable network of peoples and cultures that amazed and even frightened the West.

Black Africa – sometimes called the “heart of Africa” – is one of four distinct areas on the continent. The other three are the Mediterranean coast to the North; East Africa; and South Africa. The Mediterranean and the East have been known to the world since Biblical times, and South Africa was one of Europe’s earliest colonies. But, until the 19th century, Black Africa was almost unexplored.

West Africa bulges into the Atlantic Ocean and offers a doorway into Black Africa. At first, Europeans frequented the approximately 500-mile coast of lower West Africa but rarely traveled inward because the rivers were impassable. Those who conquered the many barriers found wild animals, unpredictable natives, and tropical disease. Ultimately, however, the Niger River would provide access into the heart of Africa, and the area surrounding the river would become known as Nigeria.

Nigeria comprises the lower section of West Africa. Europeans created Nigeria as a political unit in 1914, but since the Stone Age it has been peopled by a multitude of ethnic groups with distinct customs and languages.

Until about 2000 B.C., the Sahara region was fertile and probably well inhabited, with the peoples of Northern and Western Africa trading freely. Then, as the Sahara began to dry, the desert severed most of West Africa, especially the south, from contact with the outside.

What is known about the early history of southern West Africa comes from oral traditions, which are often unreliable. Nevertheless, they render a sense of the south’s separate development. People seemed to live on roots, wild animals, and fruits, with the main crafts being pottery and woodcarving.

Empires, such as that of the Ibos, arose. The Ibos were organized into a lineage system with the nuclear family as the basic unit. A cluster of families constituted a family group; a collection of family groups made up a lineage; lineages formed a village; villages formed a town. Religion was a main foundation of social control but the Ibos were also bound together by a well-established economic system in which the village market was the center of socializing as well as of trade.

A London commission later described the network of crucial paths that connected such marketplaces:

You must pass through it by files. It is like a town a thousand miles long. The paths lead to perfectly definite spots, from one village to another. Every village is a road-block; the path comes to the village . . . regathers itself, and leads out the other side.

In 1472, the Portuguese arrived in West Africa on an exploratory expedition; perhaps, through West Africa, they could find a trade route to India? Instead, they encountered the African empire of Benin on the coast. Hitherto, most trade had been overland. Now the Portuguese established “factories” – as European trading stations were called – to purchase slaves and other commodities for which they traded firearms. Benin was uniquely suited to the slave trade. It had access to the ocean and rivers, and dominated the slave-supplying forest regions. Soon, a large and well-equipped army allowed Benin to expand.

The Dutch and British followed. Europe was hungry for pepper, ivory, timber, gold, and slaves. The slave trade soon dominated, largely because the trading nations were also colonizing the New World across the Atlantic. The colonization was a brutal process during which much of the indigenous population died. This created a labor shortage, especially on the sugar-cane plantations that fed the European sweet tooth.

Estimates of the total number of slaves exported from Africa range from 14 million to 24 million, with half or fewer surviving the cruel Atlantic passage. Many more died in the wars and raids that netted slaves or in the forced marches to ports and the brutal waiting camps.

Slavery in Africa

Slavery was not new to Africa but it differed from the European variety in at least three major ways. First, the Europeans transported slaves over long distances under inhumane conditions. Second, slaves within Africa had well-defined privileges and rights, while slaves within European societies were virtually nonhuman. Third, European slavery was immense in scope. It affected four continents: Europe, Africa, North America, and South America; it spanned centuries. It is scant exaggeration to say that much of the wealth of the British Empire was built on the slave trade.

Meanwhile, West Africa was desolated. The slave trade first affected the peoples who lived on the Atlantic seaboard, then it moved inward along the banks of major rivers. Those kidnapped were the healthy and young, leaving tribes without productive members to care for the old and weak. Constant warfare and the slave trade disrupted all traditional social and economic life. Power now became concentrated in the hands of traders whose business concerns were called “houses” – the house system being the clearing place through which Europeans carried out major financial transactions, such as granting credit. The traditional economic system, which was based on villages that traded with each other through various established currencies, was destroyed. Ideas and culture had also been exchanged along with goods; they, too, disintegrated.

James S. Coleman, in his study Nigeria: Background to Nationalism, pointed to the lasting impact on modern Nigeria:

Many educated Africans believe that the slave trade is the main explanation for their so-called primitiveness. They bitterly resent the stigma of inferiority implicit in the fact that their race was once a race of slaves. They feel that they were victims of history, held back while other peoples were advancing.

By the end of the 18th century, all of West Africa seemed in flux, not only because of the widespread collapse of traditional societies but also because of warfare between competing kingdoms over “good slave” land.

Ending European slavery

At the same time, Europe experienced what has been called the Age of Enlightenment, which emphasized freedom and the equality of men under law. These ideas would spark the American and French revolutions; they also brought slavery into question, especially in Britain. Having dominated the Atlantic slave trade, Britain would become instrumental in banning it.

In 1772, Somersett v. Knowles – a test case – was brought before British Lord Chief Justice Mansfield to establish whether slaves were free men under British law. Mansfield ruled that slaves who set foot on English soil became free. The ruling signaled the beginning of the end of European slavery. In 1776, Adam Smith published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, in which he argued that the work of free men was cheaper than that of slaves. Economic arguments became mixed, with the religious ones being advanced by Quakers.

The obstacles were incredible. Many politicians were personally involved in the slave trade, which they argued was necessary to the British economy. In 1790, Britain had approximately 170 million invested in the slave-dependent West Indies alone. Back at home, in just one city – Birmingham – 100,000 muskets a year were manufactured to barter for slaves. In Lancashire, textile mills ran at full-tilt to produce material both to trade for slaves and to clothe them.

Nevertheless, a moral and political tide had turned. In 1807, the slave trade became illegal for English merchants. In 1833, it was abolished throughout the British Empire, and Britain pressed other nations to abandon the trade as well. To the utter bewilderment of West African chiefs, the British started making treaties for them not to provide slaves. The British now adopted three basic strategies toward West Africa: first, they attempted to substitute other goods, especially palm oil; second, they took over parts of Africa, ostensibly to aid in the production of the substituted goods; and, third, missionaries increased their efforts to save African souls.

But, without the slave trade, most British merchants had little interest in a ravaged West Africa. Investment flowed instead to America, Europe, Australia, and Canada. The two elements within British society that kept interest in West Africa alive were explorers and missionaries.

Exploration and trade

Even after hundreds of years of exploitation, Europeans had not mapped the region’s two main rivers – the Niger and the Congo. The conventional method of exploration – that is, by simply sailing up rivers – did not work well in West Africa. Many rivers had unnavigable, swampy deltas at their mouths and, farther inland, giant waterfalls plunged down to the plain. But the greatest barrier to exploration was disease.

Nevertheless, in the 1820s, the British government funded an expedition under Captain Hugh Clapperton, which became the first European venture to reach Lake Chad in the heart of Black Africa. Hinting at the richness of African culture, Clapperton described a city in this near mythical region:

The market is well supplied. Bands of musicians rove between stalls to attract purchasers to particular booths. Here are displayed coarse writing paper of French manufacture, brought from Barbary; scissors and knives of native workmanship; unwrought silk of a red color . . . armlets and bracelets of brass; beads of glass, coral, and amber; finger rings of pewter and a few silver trinkets, but none of gold . . . coarse Moorish dresses, pieces of Egyptian linen . . . sword blades from Malta, etc.

Missionaries spread not only Christianity but also the virtues of hard work, a combination called “the Bible and plow.” Missionaries believed that teaching Africans to make money by other means would prevent slavery; happily for British merchants, it would also enable them to buy British goods.

Anti-slavery efforts often coincided with British merchant interests. For example, the British tried to persuade the influential king of Dahomey to stop slave trading. The king refused, arguing that this would give an advantage to his rival in Lagos, who would continue to trade. Lagos was a strategically placed island, of great importance to trade on the coast, with a king notoriously hostile to British merchants. In 1851, the British captured Lagos. The new king signed a treaty that denounced slavery and favored British trade. Although the anti-slavery aspect of such treaties often dissolved – the slave trade withered only after American slaves were emancipated – nevertheless, the anti-slavery treaties tended to cement British power in West Africa. British power was also aided by the close-to-constant hostility among indigenous peoples that left them unable to unite in opposition.

Nineteenth-century Europe revolutionized trade through the development of steam power that sent trains across continents and large cargo ships across the sea. Construction projects, such as the Suez Canal, were proposed to link Africa and Asia to a trade-hungry Europe. With the advent of quinine, which effectively removed the worst threat of malaria, demand for tropical goods grew.

Then, in 1867, vast diamond fields were discovered in South Africa and huge resources of gold were reported. Europeans began to dream of diamonds and gold strewn across Africa. Suddenly, the interior of Africa was being pierced by iron tracks. The political theorist Karl Marx commented on the changes that such railroads brought in their wake:

You cannot maintain a net of railways over an immense country without introducing all those industrial processes necessary to meet the immediate and current wants of railway location, and out of which there must grow the application of machinery to those branches of industry not immediately connected with the railways. The railway system will therefore become the forerunner of modern industry. Modern industry . . . will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labour.

Back on the European continent, nations were racing to industrialize, to establish new markets for their goods and shut out their rivals. This renewed interest in colonies that could be forced to provide raw materials and cheap labor as well as buy finished goods. Inevitably, West Africa became entangled in European politics. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 occurred at the beginning of what has been called the “scramble for Africa.” When Prussia defeated France, the French soothed their honor by seeking conquest abroad. The astute German chancellor Otto von Bismarck encouraged such ventures because they stoked hostility between the French and English, both of whom he viewed as enemies.

The Europeans colonized with an arrogance born of nationalism and the technological age. Charles Darwin’s popular theory of evolution was twisted to mean that the “more evolved” white man had a right to preside over the “less evolved” African. Economic factors also fueled anti-African sentiments. For example, the British felt encumbered by indigenous barriers to commerce: that is, by the sophisticated and well-established local market network. From French Senegal down to the Niger River, a series of markets exchanged native goods for Western ones, and the markets were not necessarily under British authority. In fact, many Africans were becoming anti-British, especially when English traders used armed force.

George Goldie and the RNC

In 1877, Sir George Goldie, an adventurer and an extreme British nationalist, appeared on the Niger River. In 1879, he merged English traders into one monopoly company under his control. He made sure that the British government smiled upon the monopoly; for example, he deprived both France and Germany of access to the area. John E. Flint, Goldie’s biographer, described the company:

Its own treaty powers were so extensive as to transcend the sphere of purely commercial activity. At the same time, the Government’s treaties secured British protection to the area, and therefore the Company was also entitled to protection.

Goldie’s company built up an impressive fleet of gunboats.

Meanwhile, the Anglo-French rivalry continued. For example, Britain and France sought to jointly control Egypt because of its strategic importance for access to the Middle East and the Far East. But in September 1882, Britain moved unilaterally to take over Egypt.

To relax growing tensions, the major European powers (along with the United States) decided to carve up Africa at the negotiating table. The Berlin West African Conference, under the chairmanship of Bismarck, lasted from November 1884 to February 1885 and partitioned West Africa into separate but vague European spheres of influence. Britain’s authority over the South was recognized. It was now incumbent on each party to establish its authority before a rival could interfere.

On the Niger River, Goldie’s hundreds of treaties with local chiefs – along with his gunboats – held sway. In 1886, Goldie was rewarded when his business was chartered as the Royal Niger Company (RNC). He immediately declared the RNC to be the government of this area. Natives of the delta were to pay custom duties to Goldie and to obtain trade licenses from him. Britain declared a protectorate over the Niger districts, including Lagos.

But reliable profits require social stability, and tribal warfare kept erupting. Thus, the British extended their control over the hinterland, which became the Niger Coast Protectorate. One group of tribesmen, called Brass-men, was among those displaced by British commerce. Their homes and their livelihoods now belonged to the RNC. When outraged tribesmen destroyed one of the Company’s factories, the RNC retaliated in what was called “the Akassa Massacre of 1895.”

British politicians at home began to realize that British companies in West Africa could not control the vast territories over which they claimed jurisdiction. This made the area vulnerable to foreign competitors, especially the French. A British resident wrote home,

It is hardly realized in England how very slight the control of the RNC is over the interior districts. . .. It is nil five miles from the river.

In England, Joseph Chamberlain – a staunch imperialist – had become colonial secretary. He had plans for West Africa.

Establishing political control

After 1900, the RNC officially lost its charter. The released territory was divided into the Northern and Southern Protectorates of Nigeria; Lagos was a separate possession. As for the name “Nigeria,” some credit the London Times with coining it. On January 8, 1897, the Times suggested,

The name “Nigeria,” applying to no other portion of Africa, may, without offence to any neighbours, be accepted as co-extensive with the territories over which the Royal Niger Company has extended British influence, and may serve to differentiate them.

Ensuring British economic interests meant establishing political control, but Nigeria contained a number of ancient highly developed kingdoms, particularly in the North. Indeed, differences between the South and North made the British approach each area in a distinct manner. For example, the South was predominantly Christian, the North Muslim. Moreover, the South had been under British influence for centuries and a loose system of dealing directly with the natives had been established. Northern Nigeria felt colonialism much later, and the British wanted to co-opt channels of government that existed there.

The government back in England wished to subdue the North, but not by force. Frederick D. Lugard, the high commissioner of Northern Nigeria, contrived to ignore these wishes. In May 1902, he was given a casus belli when a British official was shot because of a mistranslated word. The British response was brutal and the region’s religious leader, Sultan Attahiru, decreed a hijra, or flight by the Muslim population. When the British pursued, the sultan pleaded for his people to be allowed to flee: “With a fugitive or peddlar you will not fight. I am simply running away; he who is running away, will you stop his journey?” The British gave no quarter either to the refugees or to other resisters. Throughout Nigeria, the sheer brutality of the British response made people hesitant to resist.

The North fell easily for several reasons: first, the emirates fought separately and sometimes against each other; second, some pragmatic rulers aligned with the British; and third, the North used the outdated tactics of walled cities and cavalry charges against British heavy artillery.

Eventually, the British established a system of “indirect rule” in the North through which existing rulers exercised their authority under the loose supervision of British agents. In the Southern protectorate – which included the East, West, and Lagos – British rule was more direct, with the upper administration of government being entirely British. This was especially true in the West, where the British presence was entrenched. In the East, where there had been little government structure for the British to pre-empt or work through, the British somewhat arbitrarily established “chiefs,” thus destroying the traditional system of village democracy.

Musa Mburi – a village elder – remembered,

Before the coming of Europeans we had no chiefs, but when they came they installed chiefs. When they waged wars against any village, the person that stayed behind and did not run away was installed the chief.

Another elder recalled,

When asked who was their Chief, the people sometimes put forward a man who was the most important man in their village; sometimes (most often) they just looked blank; and sometimes they put forward the village idiot, to see what happened to him.

The new chiefs became rich and powerful but, for the average native, colonialism brought forced labor, the loss of land, and taxation.

Development in North and South

The North and South developed as though they were separate nations. For example, western education – usually conducted by Christian missionary schools – was excluded from the Islamic North, but in the South, where government and commerce required English-speaking employees, such schools flourished. Educated Southerners became indispensable to the British administration, performing the lower routine functions of government. When masses of “properly educated” Southerners flooded northward to assume civil-service positions, Northern leaders worried that a united Nigeria would be dominated by the Westernized South.

From a British perspective, however, the separate development of Nigeria worked well. Indirect rule in the North secured British interests even if it did not benefit the indigenous populations. If a ruler was loyal to the British and paid up, then the British didn’t care if he was corrupt or brutal to his own people.

The method of “paying up” in the South, which had no tradition of direct taxation, involved the imposition of a standard currency in which all taxes were to be paid. To get this currency, every family had to work for wages or produce cash crops. The people bitterly resented the burden of taxes, fully half of which went to pay white officials.

An Irish missionary exclaimed,

The government has done little to help these poor pagans. Do they not exist to pay tax, work on the railway, absorb the products of English factories, and provide the raw materials to produce others, with the final aim of enriching some Company Directors and providing well paid jobs for some thousands of young people without resources? Which one is primitive?

The British claimed they brought transportation and communication systems, education and technology to the backward natives but the roads and railways were used to ship raw materials to British industry. Moreover, they were built by taxing natives and using forced labor. All real economic power was concentrated in the hands of foreign firms. Nigerians complained that they did not control their future, and yet their past was eroding.

In 1914, the North and South were amalgamated into the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria, with Lagos as the capital and Lugard as governor general.

World War I

On August 4, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany thus commencing World War I. By extension, all of the British Commonwealth and its colonial possessions were also at war.

Officially, Nigeria remained loyal to Britain although only a few thousand Nigerian soldiers saw service. Some Africans, however, viewed World War I as an opportunity. Major uprisings occurred and, although they were brutally crushed, the propaganda of the war had a revolutionary effect. The Allies trumpeted the ideals of liberty and equality in order to elicit support, with President Woodrow Wilson and Prime Minister David Lloyd George championing the specific right of all nations to self-determination. Indeed, in 1918, Lloyd George extended that principle to include colonies, although he later excluded Africa.

World War I awakened the political consciousness of colonial peoples. Throughout Asia and Africa, colonial peoples took their first stumbling steps toward independence. In 1918, the first Pan-African Congress issued a resolution:

The natives of Africa must have the right to participate in the government as fast as their development permits, in conformity with the principle that the government exists for the natives, and not the natives for the government.

Meanwhile, Nigeria was opening up to foreign investment as never before. When it was discovered that the light Ford car could maneuver through African bush paths, Fords flooded Nigeria. Thousands of miles of road were constructed. Telegraph, telephone, and railroad systems linked to regions. The consequences were profound. Exports of tin, cotton, and groundnuts soared.

The new Nigeria required a new voice. The freshly created National Congress of British West Africa sent resolutions to London to request several reforms: chiefs elected or deposed by the people; a judiciary separate from the executive; a resident university; and, equal treatment for Nigerians in the civil service. The resolutions were rejected but the Nigerian people continued to reevaluate their relationship with white imperialism, especially with Christianity. Perhaps it was possible to forge a form of Christianity that left behind European influences and embraced many of the African traditions?

The worldwide depression of 1929 did not make Nigerians fonder of Western ways. The price of exports dropped; consumer goods became more expensive; taxes soared, and the people – many of whom bordered on starvation – began to resist. When rumors flew that women would be taxed as well as men, a violent revolt called the Women’s War of 1929 was sparked. A woman rebel declared,

Our grievances are that the land is changed – we are still dying. It is a long time since the Chiefs and the people who know book have been oppressing us. We are telling you that we have been oppressed. The new Chiefs are also receiving bribes. Since the white men came, our oil does not fetch money. Our kernels do not fetch money. If we take goats or yams to market to sell, Court messengers who wear a uniform take all these things from us.

The uprising was crushed by police who killed 50 women and injured at least as many.

The British themselves had introduced the most revolutionary influence in Nigeria – Western education, which provided the knowledge and vision necessary to challenge the existing political system. Now Nigerians wanted better schools that would provide an education equal to a white man’s. Higher education appeared slowly. With it, came a new sense of West African nationalism. Two Africans from Liberia were among the early founders of Nigerian nationalism: Edward Wilmot Blyden and John Payne Jackson. Blyden insisted that Africans should not copy other cultures; rather, they should make a unique contribution. The Lagos Weekly Record – a paper owned and edited by Jackson – became a powerful voice for racial consciousness.

Native resentment of foreign firms within Nigeria was boiling over. By the late 1930s, one conglomerate alone controlled more than 40 percent of the import-export trade. The government only strengthened these firms. For example, by law, any agent in charge of a mining lease had to be European. Organized labor joined the growing chorus for independence. Against this backdrop, Nnamdi Azikiwe, an American-educated Nigerian, returned home to establish a chain of newspapers. In denouncing colonial authority, he became a nationalist hero.

In Europe, the tensions that would become World War II were already apparent. In fascist Italy, Benito Mussolini dreamed of reviving the glory of Rome and he looked to Africa for colonies to conquer. In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia, a proud nation that symbolized the best of Africa. For more than 2,000 years, Ethiopia had preserved both its culture and independence, dealing with the West as an equal. Now white imperialism crushed Ethiopia. Shock waves hit West Africa.

In 1939, when World War II was declared, Nigerians were urged to support Britain in the name of a better postwar world, a world that would include democracy and self-determination. Meanwhile Nigeria’s federal government imposed draconian wartime control. Transportation and wages were tightly regulated; a monopoly was imposed on all aspects of West African agriculture; small African exporters shared in less than 1 percent of trade. Two British banks – Barclays and the Bank of British West Africa – virtually monopolized Nigeria. These banks generally avoided lending to Africans, whom they considered risky.

Nevertheless, Nigerian hopes for independence were raised by the publication of the Atlantic Charter – an agreement between President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The third clause affirmed “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.”

But political independence required economic independence. The labor movement blossomed, with unions joining together to form the Nigerian Trades Union Congress. Educated Nigerians, who were excluded from the higher ranks of government, used these unions as a vehicle for political protest.

Nineteen forty-four saw the founding of the NCNC, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, a neighboring African territory. This was the first all-Nigerian political party, championing nationalism and dominated by the spirit of Nnamdi Azikiwe, its general secretary. Nigerians were inspired by the progress toward independence in Asiatic countries such as Ceylon and India. As World War II progressed, they watched Britain lose its Far Eastern colonies to the Japanese. When the prized colony of Malaya fell, white prestige fell with it. After all, one of the justifications for colonialism was that Western powers could protect the so-called backward people of the world. Where was that protection now?

Moreover, both of the new superpowers, the USSR and the United States, were speaking out against colonialism. In Britain, the Labour Party – with its strong anti-imperialist views – was coming to power. One of the party’s leaders, C.R. Attlee, declared in the London Daily Herald,

We in the Labour Party have always been conscious of the wrongs done by the white races to the races with darker skins. We have always demanded that the freedom which we claim for ourselves should be extended to all men. I look for an ever increasing measure of self-government in Africa.

Meanwhile, Nigeria was acquiring a new sympathy for communism, an ideology that appealed to nations with a history of subjection to imperial powers. Sir Arthur Richards, Nigeria’s governor, tried to soothe the situation by drafting a document that became known as the Richards Constitution. The document was not debated in Nigeria; in England, it was passed after being discussed for a mere 29 minutes in an almost empty House of Commons. Nationalists didn’t like its contents: for example, it did not provide for the direct election of officials.

Nationalizing natural resources

In March 1945, the same session of the British Parliament that approved the Richards Constitution also passed four so-called Obnoxious Ordinances. Three of them – the Minerals Ordinance, the Public Lands Acquisition Ordinance, and the Crown Lands Ordinance – were steps toward nationalizing natural resources. The Minerals Ordinance read, in part, “The entire property in and control of all minerals, and mineral oils, in, under or upon any land in Nigeria, is and shall be vested in, the Crown.” Natives cried out that the British were trying to grab Nigeria’s minerals and land.

Two months later, 30,000 union members struck for 37 days in a general strike. Since the participating unions controlled vital services, such as rail services, the strike paralyzed much of the nation. Suddenly, both Europeans and Africans realized that natives could successfully defy the system.

Mbonu Ojike, author of The Road to Freedom, outlined Nigeria’s minimum demands:

The African must be independent of the West in his fundamental economic thought. He must appreciate and preserve his economic heritage, protect it and develop it in the light of contemporary economic trends. We should not be afraid if his economy is likened to any form of – ism. All he needs is growth. Capitalism, socialism, or communism, whichever answers his call most effectively, let him pursue it unafraid of name-calling propaganda.

Unrest and political protest

In 1947, the British granted independence to India and Pakistan and appeared willing to grant independence also to Burma and Ceylon. Nineteen forty-eight became a turning point in Nigeria. The Richards Constitution, approved in 1945, was supposed to be in effect for nine years. But in 1948, the new governor, Sir John Macpherson, announced intentions to revise that controversial document and to recruit Nigerians into the senior ranks of the civil service. In August, the Education Ordinance was passed – the first major educational plan that applied to all of Nigeria.

The concessions came too late. Admirers of Azikiwe had formed a radical group called the Zikists. H.R. Abdallah, president of the movement, declared,

I hate the Union Jack with all my heart because it divides the people wherever it goes. It is a symbol of persecution, of domination, a symbol of exploitation. We have passed the age of petition, the age of resolution, the age of diplomacy. This is the age of action – plain, blunt and positive action.

Ten Zikist leaders were arrested on charges of sedition.

By 1949, six European firms handled about 66 percent of Nigeria’s imports and nearly 70 percent of her exports. In November 1949, a labor disturbance erupted in the Eastern Province and a police detachment opened fire on the striking miners, many of whom were killed or wounded. When protest swept across Nigeria, including a series of Zikist riots, the Zikist movement was declared illegal.

In 1951, another constitution – the Macpherson Constitution – attempted to pacify Nigeria, without success. At this point, three major political parties had sprouted in Nigeria, each with a strong regional base. In the East was the NCNC; in the West, the Action Party, called AG; in the North, the Northern People’s Congress or NPC. No party claimed a nationwide majority. Moreover, each party was dominated by a single ethnic group – a circumstance that did not encourage nationalism. In 1952 – Nigeria’s first general election – each party won a large majority in its own region and nowhere else. Again, the North talked secession.

The British government convened a constitutional conference in London, producing the Lyttleton Constitution of 1954. The three regions were now equally represented in Nigeria’s central legislature, but they no longer needed approval to enact their own bills. A federal election produced a coalition government between the NPC and NCNC – that is, between the North and East.

In 1957, a constitutional review conference was called and a national government formed to prepare Nigeria for independence. The three regional parties – the NPC, NCNC, and the AG – joined together under the leadership of Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.

In August 1957, both the West and East became self-governing, with the North following suit in 1959. Federal elections were held but, again, no one party had enough votes to form a government.

Independence and civil war

During the first minutes of October 1, 1960, the Union Jack was lowered. The green and white flag of the Federation of Nigeria flew in its place over African soil. Nigeria had become a sovereign federation. It covered almost 360,000 square miles and contained more than 55 million people, making it the most populous nation on the African continent. Three years later, Nigeria became a republic.

But could it hold together? For centuries, Nigeria’s political destiny – including its union – had been driven by British interests and British home politics, which had acted to destroy the traditional political and economic structures of Nigeria that had defined a complex network of societies and their interrelationship. Could a Western model of democracy hold the African nation together?

Power grabs, resistance, violence, and corrupt elections defined the politics of independent Nigeria’s first years. In January 1966, the federal prime minister and other key political figures were assassinated in a military coup. A new government was declared, but the head of the army, Major General Aguinyi Ironsi, quickly imprisoned the coup leaders. Within months, there was a coup within the army itself and Ironsi was dead.

On August 1, Colonel Yakubu Gowon, the most senior Northern officer, assumed the leadership of Nigeria. Gowon won over the West but tensions grew with the East. When it was rumored that Israel and the United States planned to back the East in a war against the rest of Nigeria, the North reacted with rage against its Ibo population, which had Eastern roots. Estimates of Ibo dead range from 10,000 to 30,000. Estimates of those who fled to the East range from 600,000 to 2 million.

An undeclared civil war existed between the North and the East, which wanted to secede. Secession was more than an emotional issue; it was also an economic one. Most of Nigeria’s oil industry was located within the East or off its shores. For centuries, the East had been the poorest area of Nigeria but now it could become the wealthiest. On May 30, 1967, the East declared itself to be the Republic of Biafra.

The East hoped that international oil companies would pressure their governments to support Biafra. But the United States was enmeshed in Vietnam; the Soviets were preoccupied with quelling Czechoslovakia; and most European powers were wary of a conflict that other Africans proclaimed to be an African matter. Britain was an exception. It supported Gowon’s government – the “Federals” – against Biafra.

Near the outset of hostilities, the Federals imposed a massive blockade on the East, which kept out food, medicine, and essential goods. Meanwhile, war destroyed the harvest of the East. Each night on world news, audiences around the world saw the results: the unblinking eyes of children waiting to die; the pleas of a mother as she showed her starving newborn to the cameras; the hoards of flies coating the faces of those too weak to wave them away. At its peak, foreign observers estimated Biafra’s death toll to be 30,000 a day.

Humanitarian organizations rushed food and medical supplies to Biafra but they were ineffective because of the corruption within the Biafran army and because of hindrance by the Federals. The Nigerian air force went so far as to shoot down a Red Cross DC7 in broad daylight, claiming it was an accident due to mistaken identity.

Britain continued to back the Federals with Maurice Foley, undersecretary of the Foreign Office, explaining, “We have links extending over 100 years, we have 16,000 people in Nigeria, great investments, and much trade of enormous mutual benefit to Nigerians and ourselves. We have no other honourable option.” When the Soviets also extended aid to the Federals, Britain became even less likely to withdraw.

Ultimately, Biafra surrendered unconditionally. The war lasted longer than two and one-half years. There is no accurate record of how many died.

On Independence Day, October 1, 1970, Gowon outlined a nine-point program for a new Nigeria. In 1975, he was overthrown in a bloodless coup. His successor, a Northern general, ruled for 201 days before being killed and replaced by the army’s chief of staff. Nigeria was staggering under an unstable but nevertheless persistent military rule.

Finally in October 1979, in the wake of a nationwide election, Nigeria returned to civilian rule. But the cycles of history kept turning. On December 31, 1983, the military seized power once again. Instability, elections, assassinations, labor protest, and accusations of corruption have continued.

The ultimate fate of Nigeria is unclear. As in many areas of the world that have been shaped – and brutally so – to serve the interests of foreign powers rather than the indigenous populations, the solution may lie in precisely what has been destroyed: the traditional relationships that were defined by the area’s unique religious and cultural beliefs. One hopes the people of Nigeria will be able to merge the best of the Western civilization with a renaissance of African traditions.

January 11, 2005

This article was originally published in the October 2004 edition of Freedom Daily.

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