In the last 12 months, I have heard and read arguments in favour of, and against, the Nigeria Centenary celebrations commemorating 100 years of the amalgamation in January 1914of the Northern and Southern Protectorates. Nigeria’s Presidency, which initiated the project, has offered a multitude of reasons why we should celebrate the milestone. In typical fashion, the main opposition party the All Progressives Congress (APC) has knocked the idea at every opportunity; the most recent being the censure by one of its governors, Lagos State Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola, in a keynote speech at an event in January, in Benin City. APC describes the Nigerian Centenary celebrations as an irrelevant and unnecessary fanfare. Opinions in the traditional and social media have also been divided on the matter.
I took an interest in the centenary project shortly after President Goodluck Jonathan flagged it off at the State House on 4 February 2013. Before then, and shortly after that, Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, and the Minister of Tourism, Culture & National Orientation, High Chief Edem Duke, went on a series of meetings with different interest groups to win hearts for the celebrations.
I am for the celebrations. If nothing, I believe the centenary is a timely occasion, a great opportunity for us to reflect on happenings in our dear country in the last 100 years, and use insights gained to plan—and shape—the next 100 years.
I had my first understanding of the colonial administrative structure in March 2013, while reading John M. Carland’s The Colonial Office and Nigeria (1898-1914), published in 1985 by The Macmillan Press Ltd for Stanford University. To write the book, Carland pored through piles of documents and files generated on both sides of the Atlantic; what the reader gets is a disinterested assessment of how the Queen of England, through the diligence of her subjects, presided over the affairs of Nigeria. The book is online and it is one I recommend for anyone who wishes to catch a glimpse into how every decision about Nigeria, then Crown Colony, was administered.
Commentators have cursed Fredrick Lugard and the British establishment on end for unifying the Northern and Southern Protectorates when they did. They believe it was a mortal sin to ‘wed’ tribes and communities which have nothing in common; it’s also been said that the colonialists drained Nigeria of its wealth of natural resources to develop the United Kingdom. There is no questioning these arguments, but can we blame a man for reaping where he has sown?
That aside: have we stopped to reflect on the limitless advantages of such an expansive Nigerian territory or attempt to put to good use the diverse human resource that has come with it? Today’s realities show that we clearly have not. We continue to bicker with ourselves and threaten fire and brimstone (pun intended) over every little disagreement, when we should in fact forge a tight bond to build a better nation—for ourselves and future generations.
The colonial era stands out in my mind as the golden era of the Nigerian nation and one which deserves its due credit; it was the time when Nigeria was most excellently administered with utmost regard for fiscal discipline and what every business concern nowadays would call the bottom line. Every attempt was made to reduce overheads, streamline day-to-day operations and increase outputs. Savvy explorers and prospectors came to a “heathen country”, did their due diligence and found a land of possibilities; following their findings and recommendations, district officers and their lieutenants were recruited and posted across the land, not based on “Man Know Man” (as our leaders have tended to do) but on a track record of accomplishments and competence.
Going by other archival materials I have consulted—The Annual Report on the Social and Economic Progress of the People of Nigeria, 1933 (No. 1668), being one of such, and which can also be read in its entirety online—every pound requested by any official of Her Majesty’s government was diligently debated, carefully examined and certified necessary before they were approved or refused, and every pound budgeted for projects was always adequately accounted for, to the last shilling.
My abiding thought in the last one year is that the British administered Nigeria wholly as an enterprise, one that was nurtured to succeed and soar; no doubt, it is a far cry from how the leaders we’ve had since independence have managed the Nigerian economy since independence.
Granted that the colonial administrators had their shortcomings, there is also not denying that they invested huge sums in building much needed infrastructure that were guaranteed to benefit the host community and the country at large. A good number of those infrastructure still stand till date — more than a century later, while similar structures we have built ourselves have collapsed within years, and under our watch.
As a travel journalist, I have had the uncommon pleasure of travelling, over the last 14 years, to 30 states in Nigeria. I have seen Nigeria’s bounteous beauties—human and physical—at close quarters, which have delighted me no end. Whenever I am on a journey, I have often been drawn to many of these solid colonial structures, some of them already converted to other imaginative uses (like the Old Residency Museum in Calabar, for example) and others derelict and abandoned (like the Lugard’s Houses in Lokoja and Zungeru, to mention just two).
But nothing pains me more than the state of the railway tracks (2,173 miles in total), which took a greater part of two decades to build, under scorching sun and heavy rainfall. If anyone needed a reason to celebrate some of the accomplishments of the colonials, they should look at the rail networks; and if anyone needed any reason to crucify our own leaders, they only need to also look at the railways. It’s a tale of contrasts.
What’s the use of crying over spilt milk? There isn’t much to be achieved in blaming the British for their role in Nigeria’s nationhood, half a century after they granted us self-rule; if we didn’t like the hand we we’ve been dealt, five decades is more than enough time to jaw-jaw and follow in a direction we feel most satisfied with.
It is anyone’s right to fault the amalgamation of 1914 and continue with the British bashing, but while at it let us also keep in mind that the colonials didn’t just take from us: they gave back too and Christianity is one of their most enduring gifts to our forefathers, a faith which millions of us have embraced. But for this spiritual intervention, we would probably still be killing our twins and/or sacrificing our youths to appease some gods and goddesses. As accomplished civil servant and elder statesman, Dr Shettima Ali Monguno, puts it: “Colonial rule was a blessing in disguise.”
So, as the centenary celebrations peak on March 2, I will sing and dance; and I will look forward with hope to a better future for Nigeria. God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.