Tim Butcher

The greatest surprise about Nigeria on its centenary is that it exists at all

According to Richard Bourne, Africa’s vast, fractured nation is lucky to have survived colonialism and the rampant corruption that followed independence

The greatest surprise about Nigeria on its centenary is that it exists at all
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A giant was born in 1914, an African giant. The same year European powers set about each other in the trenches a framework was laid out for a nation that over the next century would grow into Africa’s mightiest economy, one with a population so prodigious it will soon overtake every other barring China and India.

The founding on 1 January that year of the colony of Nigeria was an act of extreme imperial chutzpah. Desert emirates in the north and coastal kingdoms in the south had for years been under nominal control as British protectorates, but for London to unite such diversity was to believe a mosaic has no cracks. The story of Nigeria, first under Britain, later as an African nation independent since 1960, has largely been the story of those cracks.

Any attempt at a history risks being grimly repetitive. The Nigerian cycle of political crisis, economic mismanagement and civil strife might appear relentless. To the outsider, Biafra and Boko Haram, Abacha and Abiola, coup and corruption can merge into one. So Richard Bourne is to be congratulated for avoiding such sameness in his ‘new history’. By focusing on the streams that have shaped the nation, he captures one that is multi-dimensional in its fault lines, tantalising in its possibilities yet exasperating in its performance.

He lays out how traders drove Britain’s interest in Nigeria, one begun by the Scottish explorer Mungo Park’s 18th-century charting of the Niger river. It did not end well for Park, who would drown in the river — an omen perhaps for Britain’s relationship with the delta and its vast hinterland.

Just as in India, Bourne shows how in West Africa it was commerce that came first, with colonialism only being retro-fitted. Instead of Robert Clive’s profiteering East India Company, we have palm-oil monopolists fixing prices, the Royal Niger Company and colonial officers gerry-mandering elections. So diverse were local chieftaincies, fiefdoms and monarchies that it took the wife of a British governor-general to name the ensemble. In an 1897 letter Flora Shaw suggested one drawn from the mighty river — Nigeria.

The colonial period 1914–1960 is not given soft treatment. While Nigerian businessmen prospered more than Africans in most racially charged parts of the continent, Bourne argues that a significant failure of British administration created in part the conditions for Nigeria’s modern malaise.

Having set up such a massive country the colonialists were at fault for not dealing with the north-south divide, one separating a relatively wealthy, nominally Christian south, from a poorer, more conservative, Muslim north. Bourne describes colonialism’s expedient acceptance of the north’s less attractive features — de facto slavery — in exchange for local emirs willing to bend to British control. All over Africa the same mistake would be made by outsiders: instability bad, stability good, even if takes a ghastly local dictator to provide it. So when independence came there were no meaningful national political parties and, tragically, no national leaders, no Gandhi nor Mandela.

It is a trope among critics of modern Africa that colonialism left no graduates, no ‘educated’ locals capable of taking over at independence. Nigeria undoes this solecism. Bourne cites tens of thousands of pre-1960 Nigerians with tertiary education, a sizeable cadre that would yet prove incapable of developing their country.

Those talented local leaders dwelt on their own fiefdoms. Civilian rule was tried in the 1960s only for the army to step in brutally when regional horse-trading led to gridlock. Bourne tells how the school-age son of a murdered Nigerian prime minister was given sanctuary by a kindly prep-school headmaster in England.

If chutzpah was shown by colonialists, the failing Nigerian leadership would show it in spades when it came to corruption. Not for them the occasional porn video or moat-cleaning claimed on expenses. Bourne takes us through the monumental skulduggery that filched much of the trillion US dollars the country has received in oil income since 1960. He writes of ‘Mr Ten Per Cent’, a politician who decimated tenders; the widow of a dictator caught fleeing with 38 suitcases stuffed mostly with cash; and a recent report that in a country with 36 states, 23 governors face accusations of graft. Yet with an MP earning a million pounds a year, the venality of local politicking is hardly surprising.

If anything Bourne is guilty of understatement when he calls Nigeria’s first hundred years ‘turbulent’. But to focus on the corruption and political crises is perhaps to miss the point. For a country so vast and diverse, Nigeria’s greatest achievement is its continued existence as a single nation. If that diversity can be harnessed, then the next hundred years promise a spectacular new history for Africa’s giant.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £12.99 Tel: 08430 600033. Tim Butcher’s books include Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart and Chasing the Devil: The Search for Africa’s Fighting Spirit.