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Nigeria’s Current Troubles and Its British Colonial Roots

How was the state of Nigeria created — and what chance does it have of staying together?

March 9, 2012

How was the state of Nigeria created — and what chance does it have of staying together?

The name Nigeria first appeared in print in an editorial written for The Times newspaper in London in 1897. The author was — surprisingly for Victorian England — a female journalist named Flora Shaw who, in her own way, epitomized the drive and individualism of the high Victorian Era.

Shaw, at the time she wrote the article, was a 45-year old journalist who had traveled extensively and had pursued a career in journalism contrary to the social conventions of the day. She was an unmarried woman with a mind of her own.

Early in 1892, Miss Shaw had gone to South Africa, where she explored the diamond and gold mines. She had inexhaustible energy, writing hundreds of letters about labor conditions, agriculture, and other aspects of colonial development. Her letters so impressed the management of The Times that they hired her to be the newspaper’s colonial editor. She coined the name “Nigeria” to refer to the British protectorate along the Niger River that, until then, was referred to as the Royal Niger Company Territories.

Like the name she invented, Nigeria itself was an entirely artificial construct. It was just five years earlier, in 1892, that Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister, observed that “we have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s foot has ever trod. We have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were.”

The almost random method by which Nigeria’s borders were fixed underlay many of its subsequent problems. As far as the British were concerned, Nigeria was, like Julius Caesar’s Gaul, divisible into three parts. There was a northern region that was predominantly Muslim, a western region that was dominated by the Yoruba tribe, and an eastern region where the Igbo were the predominant ethnic group. This was an oversimplified view, but it reflected British attitudes about Nigeria. It was not until 1914 that Fredrick (later Lord) Lugard combined the northern and southern parts into the unified Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria.

Lugard was an individualistic military man and possessed a driving sense of purpose. In 1902, Lugard and Flora Shaw married. They were a classic power couple of the British Empire. Since they married rather late in life (he was in his mid-40s and she was 50), their marriage was childless, and the couple devoted themselves wholeheartedly to the Imperial cause. According to his biographer, Lord Lugard was a small man, and his physique “allowed him to do two men’s work in a climate and in conditions which halved the capacities of most men.”

Nigeria’s colonial legacy

The north was an Islamic feudal society dominated by dignitaries such as the Emir of Kano. In the south, Christianity spread among the Igbo and Yoruba peoples. There was a suspicion that the British were more instinctively inclined towards the north. (Lord Lugard was felt to harbor contempt for the educated and Europeanized Africans of the south, and had once recommended moving the capital from Lagos to the northern city of Kaduna.)

Even if this bias was not based in fact, it was widely believed to be true by the Africans. As one civil servant in the Foreign Office observed in 1970, “It was an article of faith in Eastern Nigeria, and had been for decades, that the British were hopelessly biased in favor of the feudal Emirs of the North; there was some basis for this, since the North retained the highest proportion of British officials, many of them coming from the Sudan with a romantic passion for Islam and for polo-playing aristocrats.”

The Nigerian Civil War (also called the Biafra War), which began in 1967, was a direct result of these tensions. As early as 1912, the British socialist E.D. Morel had observed that the “Southern Nigerian system is turning out every year hundreds of Europeanized Africans,” but the “Northern Nigerian system aims at the establishment of an educational system based upon a totally different ideal.” Nigeria has remained a seething pool of diverse — and often conflicting — peoples. Not everything can be blamed on colonialism, but it is undoubtedly the case that the nature of Nigeria’s problems have some connection with its colonial experience.

Ethnic and religious conflict has been a consistent feature of modern Nigerian politics. Another is the extent of corruption that has pervaded the country. Nigeria’s corruption has obviously stemmed from the very weak sense of national identity of the country’s official and political class. In countries with a strong sense of nationhood, officials are powerfully motivated to act in the best interests of the state. Their self-esteem and self-worth are bound up in it.

While a cadre of utterly selfless public officials has probably never existed anywhere, those of 18th-century Prussia and Imperial Britain — some might even point to those of modern-day Britain and the United States — have come pretty close. But modern Nigeria lacks that strong sense of nationhood, and thus lacks any semblance of a selfless bureaucracy. That is not entirely the fault of its colonial past, but the haphazard and arbitrary manner in which the country was created is surely a contributory cause.


The manner in which Nigeria's borders were fixed underlay many of its subsequent problems. To the British, Nigeria was, like Julius Caesar's Gaul, divisible into three parts.

Ethnic and religious conflict has been a consistent feature of modern Nigerian politics. Another is the extent of corruption that has pervaded the country.