Nonso Obikili: Colonial legacies, the federal government, and the moral high ground

by Nonso Obikili

The past is inescapable. We all know the origins of what we today refer to as the federal government. Starting with the annexation of Lagos in 1861, the British, through military and other coercive means, gained almost complete control of the area we call Nigeria today. By 1901, almost all of the entire space we call Nigeria was officially British territory. Originally administered as a sort of trading company by the Royal Niger Company (the old days when companies actually had armies, also don’t be fooled by the name, it was a British company), the British government took over the territories in 1901. In 1914 the territories were unified under a single administration thanks to one Frederick Lugard and voila, the federal government was born.

What was the point? Well the point for the Royal Niger Company, being a company and all, was profit of course. Not profit for the people living in the area called Nigeria, but profit for the shareholders. The Royal Niger Company handed the baton to the British Crown but by all intents and purposes the motives were still the same. Profit, not for the people living in the area called Nigeria, but for the British crown.

It might seem trivial but once you accept the profit motives of the colonial government then a lot of the decisions and policies start to make sense. Recall that the RNC was primarily a trading company whose profits depended on getting stuff for cheap and selling it for more. And like every trading company the smart thing to do is to monopolise trade. From an economist’s perspective, monopolising trade allows you to suck up all the profits from economic activity. And the RNC, and then the crown, went to great lengths to confirm its monopoly on trade. Just ask Jaja of Opobo.

But I digress. The policies… take for instance the incentives for education policy. Does it influence the trading profit bottom line? No, it doesn’t. No need for that then. What about infrastructure? Well, it depends. Infrastructure that gets the stuff in and out cheaper like a rail line from the hinterlands to the ports? Yup, it does. Build it. What about a rail line to facilitate trade with neighbouring Cotonou? No, it doesn’t influence the bottom line. No need for that. If you go line by line through official policies in Nigeria between 1860 and 1960, almost every policy fits into the nice pattern. If it helped the trading profits bottom line it was done, if it didn’t then it wasn’t done.

What about mining? Well, that was the cream of the crop. See if you have cheap labour, minerals were virtually free. And if you can get it out and sell it then that’s a whole lot of profit for the RNC or the crown. As expected, mining was a big part of the profit strategy influencing everything from where to build roads to where to dam rivers. If you are looking for the father of prospecting licensing and “exclusive rights” look no further. Because that’s the easy way of ensuring that the profits flow to the Crown, not the people actually living there.

Independence movements came and control of the federal government and its organs were handed over to Nigerians. Not all Nigerians, just some Nigerians. Of course, the modus operandi of the federal government was still the same. The goal? Profits, now renamed government revenue. The beneficiaries? The people in government, of course. To be fair a few things changed. Some parts of government seemed to actually care about the people, although those were mostly local and regional governments.

Some Nigerians with guns were unhappy that the British, who they loyally served, handed over the money making machinery of government to other Nigerians who didn’t even have guns. So they seized the machinery of government. The cycles of coups until 1999 is pretty much the same story. Handing over the federal government to different sets of hands who continued the profit, oops, government revenue agenda to feed whoever was in power at the time.

And here we are today, with a federal government that, by most definitions still functions like the Royal Niger Company of the colonial days. The goal is still to generate as much profit or government revenue as possible to spend on those in the corridors of power. If you don’t believe me just ask any government official to define a functioning economy. I bet you it will start and end with government revenue.

In many other ways, the federal government still implements policy like the RNC. Take for instance the policy to ban car imports through land borders and force everyone to use the sea ports. On the face of it, it makes no sense. Why force everyone to squeeze through ports that are notorious for inefficiency when we have more land crossing points than we can count on our fingers? Makes no sense, unless you agree that the goal of the policy is revenue generation for federal government. You see, it’s easier to collect customs duties at sea ports where you can actually funnel people in. It’s not so easy to collect via land entry points. So the smart thing to do is to force everyone to the seaport where you can collect. Who cares about ease or efficiency for the people actually buying and selling the cars. The pattern of behaviour with regards to foreign trade by sea vs land is also a hand-me-down from the colonial version of the federal government.

What about our “industrial policy”? The summary of our industrial policy is basically to funnel profits to preferred companies via discriminatory trade policy. Also a hand-me-down from the colonial government. Read this very short summary of British colonial trade policy before 1900. Looks like a summary of every industrial policy we’ve had since independence. Of course, if the goal is to channel profits to preferred parties then it actually works.

What about infrastructure and housing development? Because this article is getting too long I will summarise it like this: it started with a fancy well-built building for the colonial administrators and the rest of you “locals” can keep doing what you’ve always done. Then it graduated to a well planned GRA and civil servant staff quarters for them while the rest of us locals can keep doing what we’ve always done. Then it graduated to a well planned Ikoyi for them while us locals can stay across the lagoon in the not so well planned other Lagos. Then it graduated to a well planned Abuja for them while us “locals” can keep doing what we’ve always done. Keep your local behaviour in Nyanya and Kubwa, please.

I could go on and on.

But this is the conundrum. If we accept that the federal government is, in essence, a colonial regime with a different skin colour whose goal is to extract resources for the benefit of those in power, then does that make the people fighting or disobeying the federal government the equivalent of freedom fighters? If the goal of trade policy is to enrich preferred government-backed companies, then do they smugglers have the moral high ground? Jaja of Opobo is a national hero and he was essentially a smuggler trying to usurp British unfair trade policies. If the goal of tax policy is to enrich a federal government who distributes the taxes to political stooges via government agencies then do the tax evaders have the moral high ground? We typically think of the participants in the Aba women’s riots as national heroes but they were essentially tax evaders according to the colonial government. If we agree that the mineral resources extracted during the colonial era to Europe were equivalent to theft, then does that make the militants in the Niger Delta the equivalent of freedom fighters? A bit of a stretch I know.

Some will argue that we have self-determination and that we have a democracy and pick our leaders. To them, I ask: are you less of a slave if you get to pick the person that holds the whip?

Random musings on a Monday afternoon.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

Nonso Obikili is an economist whose research focuses on Africa’s economic history. He blogs at and tweets at @nonso2

This article was first written here

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