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 January 1, 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
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
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
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.
•The book A New History of a Turbulent Century, was written by
Richard Bourne. This review by Tim Butcher was published in The