A Page in the Colonial Ledger: Nigeria, Britain, and the Ghosts of Colonialism

Photo Credit: Hurst & Company

What Britain did to Nigeria: A Short History of Conquest and Rule
by Max Siollun
Hurst & Company, 390 pp., $29.95

Since the apparent global ascent of the far-right in popular support and electoral success (the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and of course the election of Donald Trump, just to name a few), theories trying to explain its rise have been in hot demand. Of particular interest to intellectuals and researchers in the critical tradition and on the left more generally have been theories concerning the end of empire. First explored by scholars such as Hannah Arendt, Aimé Césaire, Michel Foucault, and collectively characterized as the “boomerang effect,” these theories conceptualize the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy in the 1930s as the violence of colonialism turned inwards, from the periphery to the metropole. Today, those theories are being refreshed and updated by scholars such as Greg Grandin and Stuart Schrader, who understand American conservative extremism and police violence as inextricably linked to the United States’ colonial violence abroad and its subsequent retreat from the world under Trump. Even Adam Curtis, the cult favorite documentarian-cum-“emotional historian” discusses the “boomerang effect” at length in his new film for the BBC, Can’t Get You Out of my Head, in an attempt to explain the Brexit movement as British fear of a world over which they no longer exercise dominion.

In Max Siollun’s new book, What Britain did to Nigeria: A Short History of Conquest and Rule, Siollun, as his title suggests, is less interested in what the colonies did to the colonizer. Instead, What Britain did to Nigeria reads almost as a laundry list of the ways in which Britain’s violent conquest of the West African nation irreparably damaged the state home to Africa’s largest population. While much of the bookcan stand on its own as an intriguing new history of the British presence in Nigeria, it is much more interesting as a historicization of Nigeria’s myriad of contemporary ills. Siollun, over the course of 335 extremely readable pages, convincingly situates post-colonial Nigeria’s domestic fissures, coups, and civil conflicts directly in Britain’s annexation of the country. This includes its careless amalgamation of various pre-colonial kingdoms and decentralized tribes and communities into an arbitrary state. Representative of his straight, to-the-point prose, Siollun declares that “modern Nigeria’s character and problems did not arise in a vacuum. Britain made it what it is.”[i]

Although Siollun does not explicitly argue so, Britain’s history in Nigeria appears to be primarily driven by economics. In this regard, Siollun’s contribution to British colonial history stands alongside William Dalrymple’s wildly popular The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire. Like Dalrymple’s history of the economic exploitation and reign of terror in India under the East Indian Company, Siollun constructs a history of Nigeria that can be read as merely a series of different forms of economic extraction by royally chartered British companies. In 1663, the British government granted the Company of the Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa a charter and a monopoly on the trading of slaves to be imported to British colonies in the West Indies. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Great Britain and its companies became the leading figure in a triangular shipping route in which British slavers would buy slaves from West African chiefs and transport them on ships to work in the Caribbean. From what became known as the Slave Cost, Britain alone was responsible for shipping at least 300,000 African slaves between 1680-1700. In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht between Britain and other major European powers granted the former a 30-year monopoly on the slave trade.

When Great Britain abolished the slave trade in 1808, British pecuniary interest in Nigeria and its surrounding areas did not abate. “It instead,” Siollun writes, “generated incentives for Britain to discover and explore West Africa’s interior. Trade in people was about to be replaced by trade in goods.”[ii] The period of British engagement in Nigeria after the abolition of the slave trade can therefore be understood as a search for the next commodity that Nigeria could offer. While Siollun concedes that the initial incentive of British expeditions into the West African interior, after the abolition of the slave trade, was indeed curiosity and exploration, once fertile land was discovered on the bank of the mythic Niger River, British interest again became economic. “Not only could the river be used as a highway, but it could also serve as a commercial artery and outlet for British commerce.”[iii]

As Siollun points out, Britain’s imperial conquests were unique. Although most countries invaded militarily as a pretext to economic extraction, Britain’s royally chartered companies usually arrived before the military. That is not to say private British enterprises, like the River Niger Company (RNC) were able to engage in trade with the local population without the use of force. Relying heavily on primary sources (a full treaty between the Sultan of Sokoto and the National Niger Company is included as an appendix), Siollun expertly explains that, in seeking to avoid the troublesome and expensive task of direct colonial administration, the British government initially allowed companies like the RNC to negotiate treaties with local rulers that would place them under British protection. It can be thought of as a win-win-lose: a win for the company because it was granted exclusive trading rights in that particular region; a win for the British government because it could delegate the burdens and risk of governing to the company (the British government could also deflect blame for atrocities onto the companies it did not control); and, of course, a loss for the indigenous population. Not only did the British engage in a copious amount of natural resource extraction, but the treaties that local chiefs were pressured into signing were written in a language they did not understand and stipulated farcically one-sided terms. Siollun includes many instances in which troublesome chiefs were kidnapped and exiled—by what were essentially British privateers—when they were found in some type of violation of the treaty they signed under duress.

In What Britain did to Nigeria, the endemicity or endogeneity of seemingly intractable social, economic, and political problems become suspect. In the Brechtian sense, Siollun succeeds in “making the familiar seem strange.” By historicizing Nigeria’s issues, a light is shone on their foreign origins. For instance, Siollun argues that Nigeria’s endemic relationship with corruption can be directly attributed to the British practice of paying “comey” or “dash” to local chiefs for permission to exercise trading rights over their domain. What began as a goodwill gesture on the part of the British to open up resource access soon became a systemized form of exchange and payment that persisted throughout the British presence in Nigeria and independence in 1960. The modern-day political bribery and illicit financing that plagues Nigeria today can, therefore, be understood as a British imperial import.

In an especially fascinating analysis, Siollun convincingly roots another one of Nigeria’s seemingly intractable problems in selective British development and administration of the nascent state: the north-south divide. According to Siollun, the proliferation of British missionary schools in southern Nigeria inverted a geographic discrepancy in education that had previously favored the majority Islamic north for centuries. By importing Western education en masse to the southern part of Nigeria, the British dramatically improved literacy rates and created a previously absent ladder for social mobility for southern Nigerians. This had the effect of widening an already considerable cultural, religious, and educational gulf between the newly educated, Westernized south, and the relatively unchanged north. When it came time for independence, the north had a dearth of Western-educated workers that could inherit the economic and political power left by the departing British. This led to a mass migration of mainly southern Igbos north to perform jobs for which northerners were ill-equipped, creating a northern resentment and distrust of their southern counterparts that contributed to tensions which ultimately resulted in the 1967-1970 civil war.

Fela Kuti, Nigeria’s most celebrated and well-known musician who brought afrobeat to audiences all over the world, once said that, when he was young, “we weren’t even allowed to speak our own languages in school. They called it ‘vernacular’, as if only English was the real tongue.”[iv]  Like so much of the post-colonial world, for decades Nigeria’s history has been understood through the eyes of its colonizer. Casting their dominion over Nigeria as a civilizing mission, Siollun writes that the British succeeded in writing a revisionist history that has been ingrained in successive generations of Nigerian school children. To Siollun, the most virulent lasting impact of British imperialism in Nigeria is the nostalgia most Nigerians today have for British rule. In What Britain did to Nigeria, Max Siollun writes a powerful corrective to the historical record, one that successfully argues that we cannot understand Nigeria today without examining its colonial past.

[i] P. 3.

[ii] P. 13

[iii] P. 24

[iv] Spencer, Neil. “Fela Kuti Remembered: ‘He Was a Tornado of a Man, but He Loved Humanity’.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, October 30, 2010. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/oct/31/fela-kuti-musical-neil-spencer.

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