#BookClub: What Britain Did to Nigeria

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Four months ago, Nigeria celebrated the 60th anniversary of independence from colonial rule. At that moment Nigeria reached “half-time” and has now spent as much time as an independent nation as it did as a British colony. This temporal halfway point partly explains the timing of my latest book “What Britain Did to Nigeria: a Short History of Conquest and Rule”.

The book has three overriding themes. The first is Nigeria’s “British Empire Stockholm Syndrome”. Nigeria is rare in being a formerly colonised nation in which many people view colonialism as a golden age where things were better than the post-colonial era. Second is that contrary to accounts of a friendly relationship between the British colonisers and their Nigerian subjects, the two spent several decades at each other’s throats. Third is the remarkable colonial and post-colonial symmetry of Nigeria’s contemporary conflicts.

Most modern controversies in Nigeria have their umbilical cords attached to the colonial era.

Nostalgia for colonial rule

The cause of Nigeria’s nostalgia for colonial rule is obvious. Most accounts of Nigeria’s colonial era were written by British military and political officials. These British accounts depicted Britain’s conquest and rule of Nigeria as a noble mission to civilise the natives by eliminating their barbaric superstitions and corrupt leadership. A typical British view of colonisation was that “the whole object of the British occupation has been the protection of the people from themselves”.[1] Many Nigerians accepted the coloniser’s account and allowed it to become the official standard version of their history.

As a result, contemporary Nigerian memories of colonialism bear little resemblance to what actually happened. Even Nigeria’s first President Nnamdi Azikiwe erroneously claimed that Nigeria gained its independence “on a platter of gold” without sacrifice. This is because both Britons and Nigerians alike tended to erroneously portray the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised as benevolent. There is remarkable under-estimation of how violent colonial conquest was, and the fierceness of Nigerian resistance to it. Contrary to accounts of a genial British colonial government, some colonial administrators deployed extraordinary scorched earth violence. When I asked an indigene of Sokoto State in north-west Nigeria whether she had heard of a nearby village called Satiru, she replied “no”. The reason is simple: Satiru no longer exists. The village was burned to the ground, erased from history, and 2000 of its residents were killed in one day of devastating British violence in 1906. British officials admitted that after their assault “No wall or tree [was] left standing” and that “they killed every living thing before them”.[2]

South-east Nigeria was also subjected to decades of constant military assaults. Mistreatment of the indigenous population became so severe that a concerned British clergyman wrote a letter of protest to a district officer to bluntly tell him that:

your system of administration appears to be well-nigh unbearable. The people complained bitterly of your harsh treatment of them, while those who accompanied me do not cease to speak in the strongest terms of your unbearable manner towards them.[3]

The bishop appealed to the colonial officer to “adopt a kindlier and more generous attitude towards a subject people”[4] (an appeal which he ignored).

The blinkers of the colonial record

Since British accounts either omit or de-emphasise such mistreatment, there is little awareness of the ferocity of anti-colonial resistance. Many Nigerians spent the first 50-60 years of colonisation trying to expel the British colonisers. Anti-British insurgencies were common. An anti-British guerrilla army operated in the Niger Delta for several years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An overlooked element of anti-colonial resistance was that the most effective resistance was not the violent guerrilla wars waged by men, but the unarmed anti-colonial protests led by women such as those in south-east Nigeria in 1929 and south-west Nigeria in 1946-1947. These women’s protests used civil disobedience rather than violence, yet extracted concessions from the colonial authorities; whereas the armed insurrections by men tended to attract a British military sledgehammer.

Colonialism also created the character of Nigeria’s modern security agencies and the conflicts regarding and within them. The recent #ENDSARS protests in Nigeria targeted three of the most disliked elements of Nigeria’s security forces: the federal government’s centralised command of the army and police, excessive force by security officers, and lopsided ethno-regional representation in security agencies. To some extent, the security forces are doing exactly what they were designed to do by the colonial authorities that created them.

The ancestor to Nigeria’s army and police was a British created paramilitary force. The British recruiters adopted a deliberate policy of systemically recruiting ethnic groups from northern Nigeria they regarded as “warrior tribes” and deploying them to fight on Britain’s behalf against ethnic groups other than their own. This paramilitary force acquired a reputation for its ruthless use of force. Nigerians also regarded it as an alien force that acted as the coloniser’s army of invasion and occupation. Similar perceptions still exist in the 21st century and are among the most contentious issues in contemporary Nigeria.

The ethno-regional composition of Nigeria’s military and police is among the most emotionally divisive issues in national discourse. This issue contributed to the tensions that caused the civil war of 1967-1970; in which over a million people died. It is so controversial and potentially explosive to national stability that Nigeria’s constitution has a section codifying a mandatory ethnic quota for the army and police. Since becoming independent, Nigeria has been performing great feats of ethnic juggling; trying to rebalance the geographically lopsided armed security forces it inherited from Britain.

Agency and responsibility

The book does not blame Britain for all of Nigeria’s problems and absolve Nigerians of all responsibility. Rather, it demonstrates that while Britain succeeded in creating a copy and paste version of itself in Nigeria; by transplanting its culture, language, and religion, it came at a violent price. It will also disabuse both Britons and Nigerians of the fallacy that the colonial relationship between them was cordial. The two spent a great deal of time fighting against each other.

In many formerly colonised countries, the leaders of anti-colonial struggles are heroes and national monuments are named after them. In contrast, many of Nigeria’s streets and national monuments are named after colonial oppressors. Contrary to what many of its people think, Nigeria is not a country without heroes. It has many unheralded anti-colonial heroes who made great sacrifices in order to resist Britain; King Koko of Nembe, the “Oloko Trio” of women protesters from Aba, the mysterious “Ekumeku” insurgents from the Niger Delta, and the Tiv and cave-dwelling Chibok archers who menaced British officers with deadly poisoned arrows.

It is said that history is written by the winners. Every now and again, the defeated get their chance to set the record straight.

Max Siollun is a Nigerian historian and the author of the books Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture 1966-197; Soldiers of Fortune: A History of Nigeria (1983-1993); and, Soldiers of Fortune: the Abacha and Obasanjo Years.

What Britain Did to Nigeria: a Short History of Conquest and Rule” can be purchased from the links below:


Nigeria: From Roving Heights bookshop here


  • Oxford University Press here
  • From Amazon here
  • From Barnes & Noble here

[1] Falconer, On Horseback through Nigeria, or, Life and Travel in the Central Sudan (T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1911), p.299.

[2] Hogendorn and Lovejoy, Revolutionary Mahdism and Resistance to Early Colonial Rule in Northern Nigeria and Niger. University of the Witwatersrand, African Studies Seminar Paper, no. 80, 1979, p. 31.

[3] Ekechi, Portrait of a Colonizer: H.M. Douglas in Colonial Nigeria, 1897–1920. African Studies Review, vol. 26, no. 1, 1987, p.34.

[4] Ekechi, 1987, p.34.

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