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Fowler: Politics, Nigeria and the West’s dark face

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I AM deeply concerned and flummoxed, as are most decent Nigerians, about the present political quagmire we find ourselves in, against a backdrop of the collapse or near collapse of governmental structures and services, widespread poverty, insecurity and economic and social regression. Without trying to sound too dramatic or overstate the problem, we are approaching a very critical juncture in the life of this nation and all well meaning Nigerians are calling on divine intervention to avert the unthinkable. The atmosphere is one dominated by unmitigated chaos, tangible fear and angst.  This is what the average Nigerian feels on a daily basis and our confidence is completely eroded.  To understand how we arrived at this worrying situation, we must exhume and face some inconvenient truths, lest they be consigned to the rubbish heap of history permanently. 

     Imperialism in Africa and the dastardly business of “empire building” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Britain and European states such as France, Belgium, Italy, Germany and Portugal, was driven by a lust to conquer and rule far flung territories, usurping natural and mineral resources, gaining access to an endless pool of very, very cheap labour and exploiting their markets. Thus the cycle of mischief and mendacity was complete. This was what it was about. Not the civilisation of “lesser races.” Had altruism been the true motive, then the spread of Western education and the concomitant nation building blocks and structures could have been achieved as a by-product of trade, commerce, diplomacy and friendship ties.  As it happened, education was solely in the purview of Western missionaries, with little involvement of their governments.  

   The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 initiated the process of carving up Africa, with no regard to local culture, ethnic groups and historical boundaries.  This resulted in leaving people from the same tribe on separate sides of national borders, drawn up on a conference table in Germany. This was always bound to lead to devastating results as it exacerbated existing tensions and forced groups to work with those they were not traditionally aligned with. Imperial rivalry ratcheted up the ante, causing the principal players to grab as much territory as possible. This was obviously achieved by sheer force as any opposition was quickly quelled due to the superior weaponry of the interlopers. Thereafter, wholesale devastation and decimation of people in the affected territories ensued. Historians have termed these events, “The scramble for Africa.” This tyranny of imperialism haunts us to this day.

   For obvious reasons, I would like to dwell on the experience of Nigeria.   Nigeria was carved out as a nation with as much thought, skill, precision and goodwill as one would expect from a deranged man wielding a butcher knife on an unwilling and unsuspecting living creature, whilst in the throes of a manic episode.  The area now known as Nigeria had seen the rise of kingdoms and empires, some of which existed as early as the 12th century.  Historians claim that the oldest signs of human settlement at Ife’s current site date back to the 9th century whilst the Nri Kingdom of the Igbo people dates back to 900AD and the Nok civilisation, which existed in present day Jos, dates back to 500BC.

   In the mid 19th century, the British had gained a foothold in the coastal regions, ostensibly to prevent the slave trade, in the process of which Lagos was attacked and annexed in 1861 as a British colony.  These gains were consolidated with the British sphere of influence gained through the activities of the Royal Niger Company, which had emerged victorious in trade wars against rivals such as France and Germany and had acquired political and administrative powers from the Niger Delta basin to present northern Nigeria. These inroads had been made possible by the development of quinine as an effective treatment for malaria and commercial enterprises were backed by formidable British naval gunboats.  On January 1, 1901, Nigeria became a British protectorate and part of the British Empire.  Thus propelled by imperial fiat, sanctioned by the state and blessed by the religious hierarchy of the day, Britain added Nigeria as another jewel in her crown, thereby lending further credence to the by-word, that it was indeed the “Empire on which the sun never set!”  So it was “business as usual” as Nigerian resources were diverted to rebuild the British economy, which had been bankrupted after the Second World War.

    British colonial rule between1900-1961 was fraught with the all pervasive problem of uniting the country in a single state. Meanwhile, the preferred style of indirect rule manipulated ethnic groups, setting them up against each other and increasing existing tensions. It was “divide and rule” executed adroitly with cunning and trickery. Nigeria was never viewed as an ideal settler colony due to the excessive heat and the malaria menace. Furthermore, it was overly challenging to subdue ethnic groups who were either hostile, volatile or harboured a voracious appetite for education and betterment. The order of the day was “strictly business”; and not much effort was put into the planning and building of infrastructure, which was haphazard at best and limited to serve colonial economic interests. In effect, post Independence Nigeria could not boast of having inherited an impressive infrastructural framework on which to build.  In contrast, Kenya was deemed suitable and desirable for long-term annexation due to its favourable climatic conditions, beautiful topography and seemingly compliant populace. This meant that much effort was expended by the colonial administration in making it as close a paradise as possible. 

   Nigeria gained Independence during the era of National liberation movements sweeping the continent. In hindsight, it is now clear that Independence served up a plate of indigestible scrambled eggs. The repast of scrambled eggs, which can never be unscrambled this side of eternity, consisted of a country made up of over 250 ethnic groups,  250 plus languages,  major religious divides and seeds of distrust and discord between ethnicities, sown by over accomplished puppet masters. In addition and to further complicate matters, our land mass is four times the size of the United Kingdom, three times the size of Germany and two times the size of France. Add to the smorgasbord, a growing population of 178 million. The sad truth is that Nigeria is a “house of cards” and Imperialist Britain was the principal architect. We were presented with a “fait accompli,” which at first blush seemed to radiate with euphoria, promise, optimism and a sense that everything was possible.  Sadly, there appears to be no pot of gold at the end of the Independence rainbow.  Instead, all our hopes and dreams seem to have been dashed against the rocks, as the country is currently enveloped by a tidal wave of desperation and uncertainty. Let us conjecture how the West, in particular Britain with a population of only 63.5 million, may have fared, facing similar odds. We do not have to go too far back in history for inkling. A recent referendum was held on September 18, 2014, in pursuance of autonomy and Scottish Independence from the United Kingdom. Almost half of the Scottish population voted in favour of Independence, despite their homogenous ethnicity, uniform religion and shared language and culture with the British, dating back 307 years. Enough said.

    I do not in any way, shape or form, condone or excuse the shortcomings, gross failings and mindboggling excesses of our post Independence leadership to date.  I cannot defend the indefensible. However, that is just a part of the narrative leading up to the present.  I believe that history should be examined in its entirety in order to put circumstances in their proper perspective.  For several decades there has been a total wipe-out by Western governments and media about the past role of imperialists. This is what I am against. I am against their universal feigned and selective amnesia. Terrible mistakes were made which should be acknowledged.  An apology would also be in order.  I am also miffed for the reason that when dissecting the problems of Nigeria, as is their wont, Western governments and media do so from a vantage point of moral high ground.   This amounts to hypocrisy given the fact that the well-oiled machinery of Imperialism was driven by naked aggression, insatiable lust and greed and in very many instances, dishonesty. 

   We have reached a tipping point in the life of this nation and our destiny could go either way in a nano second; such are the margins we face.  In the words of William Shakespeare, a favourite son of Britain, “No legacy is as rich as honesty.”  Therefore, there is a need to unmask the truth, which is what I have attempted to do. Britain et al, must own up to the nefarious deeds of their forebears. Make no mistake, any “glory” associated with colonization was strictly one sided. The vanquished, on the other hand, faced an onslaught of exploitation and manipulation, underscored by a “devil may care attitude.” This is the legacy of Imperialism and it is an inconvenient truth.  As Nigerians are generally given to hospitality, I would like to invite the “West” to a meal. I ought to mention that scrambled eggs will be on offer.  Would anyone care for some?

• Ms Irene Fowler, LL.B B.L LL.M (Harvard) wrote from Lagos.



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