Early one Saturday morning, an Instagram post by a former colleague in Calabar prompted me to check Google for a little-known fact about the city’s history – that it was once the capital of the Southern Protectorate, a British colony that was eventually joined to the Nothern Protectorate and became Nigeria just over 100 years ago.
Although I had the information I needed, I found myself reading on and delving into the origins of how the country was formed. All the decisions were made in London and carried out by British authorities to benefit British companies and, ultimately, the British economy. So far, so good – that is the very basis of colonialism as we know it. However, I was so struck by one paragraph that I had to read it three times. It was classic colonial-era logic but closely resembled views I have heard expressed by modern-day Nigerians, out of concern for their country.
“The British economic policy for Africa at the time was founded on the belief that if African peoples were brought to embrace European civilisation , with its emphasis on law and order, their economic resources would be more effectively and thoroughly exploited to the benefit of all. It was optimistically and simplistically believed that the problem of African economic development was largely the problem of law and order; that once the slave trade was suppressed the chaos and anarchy believed to be the bane of life in Africa would disappear and African endeavour would be channeled to the collection of the national produce of the tropical forest for the satisfaction of European needs. The view came to be held that Africans, by themselves , were incapable of maintaining law and order to the level needed to bring about the much-desired economic revolution, and that only European rule could do it.”
Better to be British
Less than two hours later, chef Godwin and I were en route from the local market. As he surveyed the chaos of the traffic on the Lekki Expressway caused by poor planning, driver indiscipline and the absence of trained traffic police, he made a comment that “if our colonial masters knew it would be like this, maybe they wouldn’t have left and things would be better” or something similar. I was so shocked that I said nothing. Godwin was born in 1981 and I doubt that he knows very much about Nigeria’s colonial history. However, he inspired me to write this post, so I interrupted his kitchen prep and asked him to explain his earlier remark.
He cited examples of how his father was able to stay in his village and make humble but steady progress under the British. Then, he compared it with the experience of his own generation and how the greed, selfishness and cronyism of Nigeria’s political class have made it almost impossible for all but a few to succeed. I have a different view of how continued colonial rule may have played out but it’s hard to argue with someone’s personal experience. And, having said that, I’ve heard similar views expressed back home in Jamaica, where some older folks yearn for the discipline and order that was prevalent in the society pre-independence.
US foreign policy has created havoc
As British influence waned in the latter half of the 20th century, the United States of America began to impose its ‘values’ on the developing world, all in the name of freedom and democracy (and the control of scarce resources). During the Cold War of the 1970s, they caused untold chaos in Jamaica in a bid to halt Cuban and, by extension, Soviet influence. In subsequent decades, with crude oil at stake, they have engaged in ‘regime change’ whenever they have disagreed with leadership in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, amongst others.
I’ve been wondering what would happen if Americans defied current election forecasts and foisted a President Trump upon the rest of the world. Could other nations join together and implore the UN to impose sanctions on the US while we cobble together a coalition force that re-installs Obama or selects Hilary Clinton as the preferred choice of developing countries? It may sound ridiculous but that’s only because most of us have accepted this notion that the West has all the answers to questions of governance, even when we have so many recent examples of previously prosperous countries that are now close to collapse due to US and/or British intervention.
Have we squandered the benefits of independence?
Many Nigerians are now wondering about the state of law and order here, after an extraordinary week in which several senior judges were arrested with huge sums of cash in local and foreign currency in their residences. And yet, even in a situation that would constitute a crisis in other nations, the loudest and most influential voices are questioning whether the judges were arrested by the right agency and if it was correct to disturb such eminent citizens so early in the morning. Apparently, the correct agency (I’m not sure which) should have sent the justices invitations, with sufficient notice, to have a chat about allegations of bribery and money laundering. No doubt, they would have complied and all would be well.
South Africa, for so many years a beacon of good governance due to the influence of Nelson Mandela, is slowly descending into the mire of corruption that has plagued much of the continent. They were already battling to correct the injustices of apartheid but had the resources to do so over time. Now, as law and order falters, there are real fears for their long-term future under the ANC, a party that barely resembles itself.
In the last few years, the Jamaican economy has been heading in the right direction after many false starts. The current successful IMF programme has been adopted by the newly-elected government and they have been keen to spread the benefits of the potential prosperity to all levels of society. However, a serious upsurge in crime is threatening to derail the progress being made and it poses a real threat to tourism, the main earner of foreign exchange. So, once again, the issue of law and order is a major factor.
How did Asia succeed with less resources?
Conversely, the ‘Asian tiger’ economies of the East have thrived as relatively orderly societies, despite having almost none of the mineral riches to be found in Africa. Singapore is the model for many developing countries, having created an amazing economy on a diet of discipline, training & education, investor incentives and a low incidence of corruption. In fact, 50 years ago, Jamaica and Nigeria were miles ahead of Singapore economically and much more likely to succeed.
No amount of wishing or praying will bring back some benign colonial reality to developing countries in Africa or the Caribbean. No one is coming to save us. So, what to do?
Could it really be true that “Africans, by themselves , are incapable of maintaining law and order to the level needed to bring about the much-desired economic revolution”? I would like to think otherwise but we will have to answer for ourselves.
Quotes on colonialism:
“I would say colonialism is a wonderful thing. It spread civilization to Africa. Before it they had no written language, no wheel as we know it, no schools, no hospitals, not even normal clothing.” Ian Smith, Prime Minister of Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) 1964-79
“Debt is such a powerful tool, it is such a useful tool, it’s much better than colonialism ever was because you can keep control without having an army, without having a whole administration.” Susan George, political and social activist
This article is deliberately provocative, to prompt discussion and feedback. I would love to hear your view in Comments below.