A question that has dogged Nigeria’s history ever since its creation in 1914 runs through Max Siollun’s What Britain Did to Nigeria: does Nigeria make sense as a single country?
Beginning in the pre-colonial era, before the idea of a nation called Nigeria even existed, Siollun paints a picture of the multi-ethnic, multi-faith societies that inhabited this region of West Africa. On the southern coast, contact with Europeans began during the 15th century, when Portuguese explorers began to trade with the Benin kingdom. Over time, this relationship deteriorated into one of domination and exploitation as the trans-Atlantic slave trade took hold. This early contact also paved the way for Christian missionaries and colonial agents to shape the cultures, laws and systems of southern Nigeria. In the north, an Islamic revolution that began during the early 19th century transformed the religious landscape of the region, dominated by the Sokoto Caliphate, which governed as a theocracy. Siollun roots much of his narrative in the key cultural differences between the north and the south, which the British reinforced as they plotted to conquer both regions. He deftly manages a complex history, highlighting the fact that Britain’s conquest of Nigeria wasn’t immediate, but required nearly 70 years of military conflict to complete.
More than 60 years post-British rule, Nigeria’s Independence Day celebrations this year were tainted by the memory of protesters murdered in Lagos in October 2020 during a demonstration against police brutality and corruption. While it doesn’t attribute all of Nigeria’s woes to the experience of colonialism, What Britain Did to Nigeria provides a valuable insight into the causes of the fault lines that continue to destabilise the country today.