Nigeria kicked off celebrations for its centenary anniversary as a unified country on 27 February 2014 with an international conference that brought together more than 20 heads of state and government, most of them from Africa. The theme of the one-day conference – Human Security, Peace and Development: Agenda for 21st Century Africa – was also focused on Africa. This is significant not only because it highlights the exemplary leadership role that once defined Nigeria's image on the continent, but more importantly because in most respects the history of Nigeria embodies the rise and fall of the African dream. A century after the creation of Nigeria, first as a British colony and later as an independent entity, do Nigerians have reason to celebrate?
My answer to this question is a guarded 'yes'. Nigerians indeed have a cause to look back over the past century and be celebratory. Like many of its African counterparts, Nigeria is a country with immense potential. Since independence from Britain in 1960, it has demonstrated this in its many gifts to the world, most notably in the form of award-winning intellectuals and literary icons such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. Nigeria's political leadership in Africa also calls for celebration, even though, for the most part, that seems to be a thing of the past now. The story of Nigeria cannot be fully recounted without reference to its contributions to Africa's development, be it in the form of investing in the stabilisation of its West African neighbourhood or in championing the African campaign against apartheid in South Africa. Moreover, Nigerian businessman, Aliko Dangote, is touted as the richest man in Africa, and by some accounts, Nigeria is set to displace South Africa as Africa's largest economy. But in all honesty, what is being celebrated today is nothing compared to what could have been celebrated, had Nigeria not been taken hostage by its colonial heritage and men whose lack of vision and integrity could only be rivalled by their obsession with power, wealth and self-aggrandisement.
Like the arbitrary partitioning of the continent among European powers, Frederick Lugard's colonial project, which ended up in the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern British Protectorates in 1914 into what is today known as Nigeria was hardly in the interest of the development of the indigenous populations. It was essentially a project designed to ease the administration of the colonies and secure the interests of the British, but which also ended up laying the foundations of a highly divided, underdeveloped and volatile society. With its immense human and material resources, Nigeria, like many other African territories, was a lucrative colony for the British Empire, providing raw materials for its factories and serving as a vast market for finished industrial products. To make the most of this dominion, the British found it convenient to adopt a system of indirect rule, which enabled them to administer the colony through local rulers. Unlike in the south where artificial chiefs instituted by the colonizers failed to win the loyalty and support of local populations, indirect rule worked very well in the north, thanks to the centralized social and political structures that had emerged during the Sokoto Caliphate.
The system of indirect rule engendered a political alliance between the British and the Emirs of northern Nigeria, who were considered to be 'born rulers' and would become the trusted favourite to whom the colonial administration handed power on the eve of Nigeria's independence. Ironically, it is southern Nigeria, with its huge oil reserves, flourishing commercial centres and well-educated and entrepreneurial workforce that would emerge as the economic heartland of the country. Compared to the south, northern Nigeria has some of the worst socio-economic indicators in the world, attributed to high levels of illiteracy, de-industrialisation and inadequate investment in infrastructure and agriculture, which is the mainstay of the northern economy. Together with cultural and religious differences, the economic and social disparity between the north and the south has in the post-independence period generated a sense of marginalisation and distrust of southerners in the north. The response of the northern elite has been a dogged determination to control, for as long as possible, the levers of federal power, which guarantees access to the country's wealth. The struggle for political power pitting the northern elite and their southern counterparts was a major driver behind the many years of military coups and counter-coups that Nigeria was subjected to between 1966 and 1998, and which robbed the country of much of its progress. Thus, while the government of President Goodluck Jonathan deemed it befitting to confer centenary awards on Lugard and the colonial empire he represented, looking back, it is evident that the Nigerian state inherited a legacy of distrust and discord from the British colonial project, which in no small measure has held it captive for the past half-century. The insecurity in northern Nigeria associated with the Islamic insurgency of Boko Haram is but the most recent manifestation of the colonial burden that has undermined Nigeria's immense potential and dampened its prospects to be a force to be reckoned with in Africa.
But to explain Nigeria's untapped potential solely on the basis of its colonial heritage is to negate that very potential and condemn the country and its people to a hopeless future. As the history of post-independence Africa reveals, the failure to manage Nigeria's diversity and overcome the divisive legacy of the British is in itself a reflection of the narrow-minded and self-serving leadership that has steered Nigeria for the better part of its life as a sovereign state. On the contrary, ethnic, religious and regional diversity have been manipulated at different stages in the country's history to further the political and economic agendas of the Nigerian elite. The outcome of this has been a political and social culture animated by greed, corruption, violence and fraud, as powerful individuals and their followers struggle to outwit one another to gain preferential access to the country's oil wealth, to the detriment of broader socio-economic development. In this context, the global image of Nigeria as the African giant that would lead the way for economic and political emancipation on the continent has in contemporary times been displaced by that which identifies the country and its citizens with corruption, fraud, violence and criminality. Therefore, more than anything else, Nigeria's centenary should be a moment of sombre reflection, with a view for the country to reinvent itself on the basis of its immense capabilities, recognizing that whatever is worthy of celebration in its hundred years of existence is little more than a faint shadow of the full potential of Nigeria and Nigerians.
This article first appeared in the Indian magazine, Diplomatist, in April 2014.