I was going to entitle this blog post “The Trouble With Nigeria”, but that would require a book not a blog. Probably several volumes.
I spent four years of my life in Nigeria, and one reason I seldom blog about it is that I do not wish to upset my many Nigerian friends, who tend to find my views unpalatable (and it is their country, not mine).
It is only in recent years that I have come to the view that so many of the problems of the world come from colonial boundaries. If the 20th century was The Age of the Nation State – and I think that characterisation has merit – then so many of those nation states, arguably the majority, are defined by frontiers imposed by colonial outsiders. Often the ethnic and social ties of the inhabitants were among the least important factors in the minds of the colonialists carving up maps.
But the extraordinary thing is the way that entirely artificial national boudaries work, in the sense of creating national loyalties. Ethnic Ewes view themselves as first or foremost Ghanaian or Togolese, and indeed speak different official languages from their cousins in the next village. The creation of independent nations in Central Asia from deliberately unworkable borders (a power ploy by Stalin) is sufficiently recent for the genuine taking hold of strong national loyalties, cutting across ethnicity and geography, to be able to have been closely studied – the work of Olivier Roy is fascinating.
The title of The Catholic Orangemen of Togo takes an amusing example of the distortion on peoples of colonial legacy in Africa, but the book considers much more serious ones.
Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, and the hostage killings today result directly from tensions arising from Nigeria’s entirely artificial colonial borders. This is going to upset my Nigerian friends, but unfortunately the forcing together by the British of the Sultanate of Sokoto, Emirate of Kano, half of the territories of the Lamido of Adamawa etc with the Kingdom of Benin, and the Yoruba confederation, with the Ibo and other chieftaincies and at least sixty other ethnicities, was always an extraordinary and perilous construct.
I described the government of Nigeria in The Catholic Orangemen as a simple pump, by which military controlled governments dominated by Northern generals moved cash relentlessly and only northwards, from the populous and productive South to the comparatively empty and barren North. The demands of “Democracy” required a whole history of ludicrously false censuses and electoral registers to negate the obvious truth, that the South is vastly, vastly more populous than the North.
Two southern Presidents in a row – Obasanjo and Jonathan – have reduced the permanent flow of money northwards. Not stopped, but reduced. Most of that wealth anyway ended up in London or Geneva, but it did have some social spread in the Northern populations. That has also reduced, and that is why the violence by Northern based terrorist groups has increased. It has nothing to do with Al Qaida, despite the nonsense on our television screens.
I have not here discussed the terrible effect of oil in promoting the World’s worst corruption, or the currency overvaluation that destroyed a once great agricultural economy. I have not discussed the resulting urban flight, despair and poverty, or the corrosive effect of a totally corrupt elite in encouraging a whole urban society to view fraud as the normal means of transaction. I have not covered the dignity of the remaining rural population, the despoilation of the oil areas, or the greater social cohesion of Northern society. You can learn a little on each in The Catholic Orangemen (the purchase button on the right is working again). Chinua Achebe remains indispensable to understanding.
I am dreadfully sorry for the dead construction workers, British and Italian. But the heart of the matter is a false colonial national construct.
My Nigerian friends are proud of their country, but I am afraid to say Nigeria’s existence a a single entity is a great British error.