Genesis of A Basket Case Nation *by Dino Melaye

Genesis of A Basket Case Nation *by Dino Melaye

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At independence Nigeria had a population of 40 Million, 20% less than the United Kingdom. 90% of the population lived in the rural areas and practised farming, cattle rearing and trading.

In 1898 Nigeria was created by decree after the UK and France finally came to an agreement about which parts of West Africa each would expropriate and exploit.
The British took the part where there were famous warrior kingdoms the Dhomey, the Fulani, the Yoruba and the Hausa, all desiring to keep their freedoms, cultures and institutional forms – they fought the British every inch of the way. Benin Kingdom was first taken till 1897, Kano not till 1903 and parts of Iboland remained recalcitrant. In 1903 the Northern and Southern protectorates were amalgamated to form Nigeria and that was the point at which the struggle for independence began.

The Nigerian state was created largely by colonial conquest and violence; the motives were clear the British sort to acquire territory for the purposes of economic exploitation and political domination. The imperialist motives, by their very nature, created violent encounters. Their method was also clear; small wars were directed at various groups and the British justified this violence in ethical ways as it was the responsibility of the ‘civilised nations’ to uplift Africans. As “barbarians” and “primitives” those who opposed the advance of civilisation deserved to be killed. They had a righteous cause and a mission divinely given to the ‘superior’ West to carry out on “barbarous subjects”.

The colonial political system had a racist background and disempowered the majority of the people, they appointed paramount chiefs and concentrated power in a few hands. The colonial system not only destroyed the established distribution of power but also disturbed that age-old balance of power: where power was diffused amongst elders, priests within Secret societies, women and different ages amongst the Ibo.
In the North and West, the Chiefs and Emirs were recognised by the Colonials and were used as their agents for indirect rule so they collected taxes, administered rules, regulations and laws. In return they got a percentage of the tax revenue to administer at their discretion while their children and wards of court were educated and sent abroad for training and admitted into the Colonial civil service.

Power was firmly entrenched in the British Colonial officers who were often violent and abusive in achieving their aim of making the subjects respect the new colonial institutions. The natives were flogged by the colonial officers and as was pronounced by the Chief Justice of Nigeria in 1908 “that the only way to correct black people was to flog them”. Chiefs and Kings were publicly flogged and humiliated till they obeyed.
To realise their aim of indirect rule, new native officers were appointed to run the institutions in positions such as warrants chiefs, court messengers and court clerks. The natives viewed these officers as collaborators and traitors and in the process of fighting the British or in conflicts over power Nigerians killed other Nigerians and black on black violence became common.

Violence was directed against agents of the state even if they were Nigerian, property associated with the state or its agents constituted another set of targets and the headquarters of The Royal Niger Company and many courthouses were destroyed in the 1920s by the EKUMEKU insurgents.
The judiciary, police, and prisons also suffered many unexpected attacks and became instruments of terror and oppression rather than a source of justice and security. The link between the police and maintaining colonial order was clearly defined from the beginning of colonial rule; the police and their uniforms became a symbol of terror.
Since the police could ‘redefine laws and regulations” to suit their whims the people were generally afraid of them. Having the colonial army behind these officers, these clerks and agents acted in ways that antagonised and alienated the local people.

Throughout the colonial period there were consistent violent confrontations, uprisings and skirmishes with the Nigerians. There was the Bassa Komo revolt of1911, the Bassa Nge riots in 1914, Kwale uprising in 1914, riots consistently broke out between 1914 and 1916 in all Warri districts, the Adubi War of 1916, the Egba rebellion of 1918, Abeokuta in 1918, the Dekina uprising in 1924, Owerri riots 1927-28, the Women’s War in 1929, the Arasamashe rebellion of 1931 amongst many more. Majority of the anger was because of the unfair imposition of taxation, installation of undeserving warrant chiefs, and payment in the newly introduced currency, all the uprisings resulted in the loss of many lives on both sides. After investigations and reforms were implemented by Lord Hugh the new Governor General to the taxation system there was a relative period of calm for about a decade and then in the 1940’s the flames for the quest for independence began. Then came the discontent over working conditions and wages in form of the General labour strike of 1945, Burutu workers’ strike, coal miners’ strike of 1949.

The literature and media of the 1940s fired the imagination of the youth, leaving young men and women to develop the political consciousness that lead to political activism and aggressive nationalism. Young people began to feel as if they could challenge whiteness and the colonial order. They put their western education to good use to articulate nationalism. Some had tasted privilege in the colonial service and enjoyed good income in self-employment. Those who had been educated in Europe and the United States were able to compare Nigeria with other countries and develop an idea of progress premised on the idea that they would use their education, knowledge and skills and move the country forward.

The 1950’s was marked with the decline of Empire after the Second World War and much reform in the Nigerian administration. Growing agitation and political consciousness by Nigerians saw the formation of political parties along regional and tribal lines which defeated the purpose of nation building. To deflect the energies and pent up aggression of the nationalists the colonial authorities encouraged regional entities to form governance structures as this suppressed unity. To combat this, the radical Anticolonial Nationalists sought to unite people of different ethnicities and groups to create a Pan-Nigerian platform, they began preaching the ‘One nation; regional and ethnic corporation and the unification of the educated elite and the masses’.

On the cusp of independence there is a monolith of governmentally controlled corporations and enterprises. The railroads, post and telegraph, ports, education, radio and television systems are all owned by government and all subsidised. The private sector constituted a negligeble percentage of the economy.

There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the major purpose of British rule in West Africa and Nigeria for almost 100 years was NOT to develop the country, or to enlighten or tutor or free the natives. Education was sparse beyond elementary level and illiteracy was 85% as of 1958, the majority of schools were missionary schools and were viewed with suspicion by the North. The Eastern region spent almost 50% of its budget on education, the Western region about 38% while the North only 18%.
There were 958 medical personnel, 40 dentists, 2 opticians and 107 hospitals; again, with the vast majority being missionary hospitals where you had to agree to be ministered to so as to receive treatment.
In the densely populated city of Lagos (population 1.5 million), disease was rampant with the highest incidence being bronchitis & pneumonias (20.6%), malaria (15.3%), dysentery and diarreah (10.3%). It is clear that these major killers would have been averted by prevention, control and treatment by the excellent modern hospitals in Lagos but access to health facilities and services were mainly available to the expatriates and only very few top Nigerian officials.
There were 37 Nigerians of Officer rank in the army with the highest position being a major. There were a handful of trained agronomists, technicians, scientists, engineers, social scientists, social welfare workers and only 3 Nigerians in the statistical services.

The British left behind a parliamentary governmental system and a caste civil service which had built-in corruption features. ‘There were exasperating problems bringing unity and efficiency into a government and civil service which operates at a leisurely pace on a six-hour work day often with two-hour midday lunch period and numerous tea breaks. Complicating the tasks are the tax free relatively higher pay given to all expatriates, the differentials in housing for expatriates and all senior service officials, the free reservations, the alphabetical titles (the DO’s, EO’s, CO’s, SP’s and so on) the enticing additions and the other “amenities”.
The motor allowances and practice of touring, the set of “general orders” which make possible strange and legal ways to secure additional income and which are so complicated and extensive that a few individuals could even try to understand and interpret how they are administered; then the complicated filing red-tape system based on reference numbers and codes which makes it difficult to expediate even the simplest activities’.
The seniority system which ignores competency and imagination and efficiency and which bases promotion on hours, days and months of service, the rather curious compensation scheme for payment of contract officers and expatriates who are career colonial servants.

They had an unswerving graceful social life amidst the beautiful luxurious compounds and gardens, frequent cocktail parties, cheap obsequious servants, all this was inherited by the Nigerians.
The British left behind their passion for lazy work, the filing of forms and writing of the directives, a worship of hierarchical titles, the desire to pass examinations and obtain certificates. Above all striving for the security and status of civil service positions and the incredible differential between the wages of messengers and clerks, the Junior, the senior and super scale officers. They leave behind their many casts and class differentials which are based on tribalism, educational certificates and economic distinctions.

Having said that the British have accomplished much in Nigeria in the hundred years of rule. The infrastructure projects, the agricultural and commodity boards, introduction of paper money and they leave a stable well-balanced sophisticated rulership and theoretical political structure that simultaneously unified and divided along tribal lines.

Unfortunately bubbling under all the positives was a delinquency that has continued to define post-colonial Nigeria. This necessitated for Nigerians to rely heavily on the British and other expatriates to navigate and function around this system. The Japanese came with electronic devices and technologies; British, French, Italian came with construction companies, Americans with ambitious business surveys and Industrial proposals, AID and the educational sponsorship of the new University of Nigeria.
Nigerians were both being courted by the Eastern block and the West so they just sat back and waited for the highest bidders or those with the most lucrative bribes.

For Nigeria independence on October 1, 1960 meant admittance into the duplicitous international world order as a Sovereign State with automatic membership in the Commonwealth and the United Nations. The economic benefits of the Commonwealth membership were emphasised by the British which included preferential treatment on trade and tariff policies as well as advantages of being part of a stable currency and access to facilities for raising loans in the Commonwealth money markets with conditions that Nigeria must to adhere its guiding principles.

Domestically each major political party represented each region; the Nigerian People’s Congress in the North, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons in the East and then the Action Group in the West. Each successfully kept control of its region and all struggled bitterly to control the centre. For majority of the population the march to independence was not only about political Power but also economic empowerment. They hoped with their own people in charge their standard of living would improve: when this didn’t happen, many became disappointed and angry.

Nigeria did not experience violent struggle for liberation instead they had a group of pioneer political elite; unfortunately, all motivated by self-interest and the defence of ethnicity. All the troubles of the 1950s between political parties and ethnicities continued after independence. The colonial government were neither interested nor attempted to resolve the issues of how to reduce tensions in society, how to limit state power, how to placate radicalised civil society, how to deal with a variety of complex social struggles, how to resolve conflicts between rich and poor, between one ethnic group and another and between minorities and majorities.

The British separated both the army and the police from society which was not the traditional African way and they promoted the spirit of loyalty and obedience by using salaries and benefits as coercion. The distance of the police and military barracks so that they would have no sympathy for the people whenever they had to maintain order. Recruitment often exploited ethnic differences and soldiers from different ethnicities were made to work among other ethnic groups on the belief that ethnic animosities would foster disunity and make them ruthless. By the 1950s many senior officers from the south feeling the sentiment of regional competition for power harboured tribal rather than national convictions this became a precipitating factor leading to the coup of 1966 led by Igbo’s, six months later another coup was staged by Hausa officers revealing the ethnic tensions and divisions.

Upon independence Nigeria still had all the complex colonial issues relating to lack of trust, violence and using force for the protection of interests rather than people. Even though Nigeria’s territorial integrity has never been threatened, it is torn by internal conflict hindering the journey towards nationhood. Nigeria became a nation without the fundamental mechanisms to address matters of social cohesion, inclusiveness, patriotism, economic development. The power structure remained that of rulers and subjects and did not in any way change to become one of mutual trust, growth and citizenship.

60 years after Independence, much has changed yet much still remains the same. COVID-19 has given us a historic opportunity turn the destruction of entrenched systems that have caused us so much stagnation into opportunities by seeking home grown solutions. Understanding these legacies 60 years later permits us to now forge a cohesive and coherent direction forward that would allow the earnest task of humanising the population, regaining trust along many entrenched fault lines, sowing the seeds of unity and patriotism and finally; building a nation.

Map of Nigeria

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