It was to a man, who was a smart but wayward youth that Europe ceded the rights to establish Nigeria as a commercial empire and to determine it’s borders.
Sir George Dashwood Taubman Goldie flunked out of school as a child, spent time adventuring with the British Army in Egypt and Sudan and ran off with the family governess in his early twenties. Yet, in his early 40s, the famous Berlin Conference of 1885 ceded to his Company, National Africa Company, the rights to oversee trade in the territory soon to become Nigeria and to set its borders.
And so it was that the territory Nigeria, and its borders, were defined to serve the specific interests of the Goldie family and the larger interests of the British crown.
For the next 15 years, Sir George Goldie, proceeded to brutally exploit this hard won territory to his maximum advantage. He would employ the use of force, negotiation and deception to secure hundreds of treaties with local tribesmen and chieftains guaranteeing his company access to the many resources the territory had to offer. Being that the commodity his company traded in was mostly palm oil, he had focused most of his efforts in the south, leaving most of northern Nigeria untouched.
In 1900, however, the British Crown moved to take direct control of the twin regions of north and south Nigeria. The British Government rescinded Goldie’s charter to do business in the region and paid him and his company 450,000 pounds in compensation.
So for just a little over 200 million pounds in today’s money, the British Empire purchased the rights to Nigeria – north and south.
At this time, the south was mostly under British control and in fact, there were some parts that had been under British control for over 40 years. The north, however, was a different proposition. When the British government took over in 1900 only three northern districts – Ilorin, Borgu and Kabba – were under effective British control. But that was not the only problem. Trade, the lifeblood of the British Empire was negligible in the north.
In order to foster this trade, the north had to be conquered. The British decided that Sir Frederick Lugard, born in 1858 in Madras, India was the man for the job.
So it was that a man, who had suffered a near career-ending heartbreak at the age of 29 after discovering the love of his life in bed with another man, became the conqueror of Northern Nigeria.
And he didn’t face much of a resistance. The people of the northern states were neither determined nor united to repulse the British. Years of despotic rule, slave raiding and punitive taxes had left local leaders with little support. For most, the coming of the British was a welcome relief.
There was nothing to fight for. No values to defend. No dignity left to shed precious blood for.
And the tribal disunity that facilitated the rapid conquest of Nigeria will not escape the British. In fact, they would continue to play it up and exploit it to sustain their control. But none of these divisions will be as important as the one that had been inherited from the Sir Goldie era – the north/south divide.
The conquest of the north did not yield the long term results that the British had hoped for. Britain was not earning enough in taxes and trade from the region to pay for its administration. In fact, in 1910, exports from the south amounted to 4.3m pounds (about 2bn pounds in today’s money) while those from the north did not exceed 200,000 pounds. The north was relying on southern subsidies and sizable grants from London to pay its bills. This was not acceptable to the British Government. By policy, each protectorate was to be self-funding. Therefore, there was only one simple solution. The two protectorates were to be united into one self-funding unit – under one administration and one budget.
Once again, the betrayed lovebird, Sir Frederick Lugard was the man Britain entrusted with the job to make that happen. He would go about the assignment in a way that only a man smarting from betrayal and suffering from distrust would. He would unite the administration but discourage any sense of unity and national purpose. It would serve his – and Britain’s – interests to keep the country ideologically, religiously and politically divided. A united Nigeria would have been difficult and terribly expensive for Lugard to control. However, if north and south were conveniently pitched against each other, a problem halved would be a problem solved.
So the north retained Islamic law traditions and feudal rule while the south adopted English law and welcomed Christian missionaries and education. So Nigeria was one accounting unit, one budget and one colony. But it would not be one nation. Lugard had fulfilled the letter of his assignment but he had killed the spirit of it.
Nigeria was shaped by Britain’s financial expediency and Lugard’s nervous conservatism – an entirely British creation:
Since existing as two separate territories, a series of British businessmen, adventurers and politicians had determined existence, border and political structure – sometimes to amuse or please themselves. Sir Goldie George had drawn the famous jagged lines on the map that determined which parts of what lands would comprise the country. He had done so in his own privacy, driven by his own business interests, ignorant of the histories and traditions of those involved. Lugard’s wife, Flora Shaw, also a Briton, had given Nigeria it’s name. She had proposed the name in the column she wrote for The Times of London as a play on the name of the River Niger. The British had even determined the common language Nigerians will speak: English
And in all of this, Nigerians were barely consulted, if at all.