The Trouble with Nigeria: The 10 Original Sins

Recently I was asked to explain the dysfunction in Nigeria, my answer referenced Chinua Achebe’s 1983 book, ‘The Trouble with Nigeria’ in which he stated that ‘The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership’.

This analysis is as accurate today as it was in 1983 but still begs the question, at what point did Nigeria deviate from its trajectory as a potential African superpower?

I will attempt to identify what I consider to be 10 points in Nigerian history at which things went wrong. Chronologically I believe these to be;

  1. Royal Niger Company
  2. Direct/ Indirect Rule
  3. Amalgamation
  4. Independence
  5. 1966 Coups
  6. Aburi Conference
  7. Murtala and the patronage coup
  8. Abacha
  9. 1999 Constitution and election
  10. 3rdTerm Agenda

Royal Niger Company: Nigeria as we know it today exists solely due to the incursion of European traders onto the coast of Nigeria and the formation of several trading companies which became the Royal Niger Company. It is an unknown unknown as to what nation states would have emerged from what became Nigeria but the primary driver for unifying the disparate tribes was to get exclusive trading rights and then protect that exclusivity. Nigeria was not formed due to local political activity, ethnic or linguistic homogeneity, or the development or expansion of an indigenous geo political or economic interests but to serve the predatory economic needs of a foreign power.

Direct/ Indirect Rule: in 1900, the British Government ‘bought’ Southern Nigeria from the Royal Niger Company designating it, the Southern Nigeria Protectorate and Lagos Colony. The northern Hausa/ Fulani and Kanuri Kingdoms and Middle Belt states were attacked and rapidly defeated, with organised resistance ending by 1905. This became the Northern Nigeria Protectorate.

The Northern Emirates were allowed to retain their administrative structures, enforce local and colonial law and collect taxes, with limited concessions such as accepting indirect British rule and ending slave raiding and trading, a state of affairs agreeable to the northern elite as it maintained their privilege and positions. In many ways, British rule aided the Northern elite as it removed the constant internecine warfare, relieved them of the cost of governance and brought added firepower to defend their interests.

The South and Middle Belt were under direct rule of Colonial administrators, with a Native Authority and Chiefs created where there were none previously.

This difference in methods of colonial rule was the beginning of the dichotomy of Nigerian politics. The destruction of the Southern nations states where they existed such as the Yoruba and Bini Kingdoms and the defeat of the autonomous Eastern and Middle Belt societies actually allowed these cultures to better assimilate and absorb innovations such as western Education and administration and thus enter lower positions within the colonial administrations and trading companies and gradually work their way up the ranks.

Amalgamation: the amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914 was undertaken to make running the colony easier and make the more profitable elements subsidise the less profitable.

The Southern Protectorates with agricultural and mineral produce and access to the coast not only defrayed the cost of colonial administration but produced a profit to the Treasury from tax revenue. The Northern Protectorate on the other hand produced less revenue and subsisted on grants from Britain.

However whilst the amalgamation unified administration overall it did not harmonise the local systems of government.

The Norths preservation of their existing aristocratic structures and administration were advantageous to the ruling class but disadvantageous to the Region in comparison to the south, as the unified administration allowed the better educated Southerners take up positions in the Northern Native Authority, railways and British trading companies. These immediate benefits of education spurred Southerners to gain higher education and thus form the basis of the Nigerian professional class as well as the majority of the officer corps of the post war military.

The North was unable to reap these benefits at the same rate due to the continued resistance of the Northern elite to western influences meaning that the pool of educated Northerners was infinitely smaller and mostly from minority Christian/ pagan tribes from the Middle Belt.

Amalgamation thus not only allowed the British to use the South to subsidise the North but gave Southerners an opportunity to fill vacancies in the North, further disadvantaging the Northern peoples but keeping the Northern elite to keep control.

Independence: it is the opinion of the author that the Nigerian independence movement suffered from several fundamental problems. The first being that independence was driven purely by the elite in general and a few well educated southerners in particular. Activists such as Herbert Macauley, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and co argued eloquently for Nigerian independence, with little or no mass mobilisation.

At the risk of revisionism, it can be argued that the British could have comfortably ruled Nigeria well beyond 1960 without a massive breakdown in public order. Whilst Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa can recall numerous independence related massacres, Nigeria’s major uprising was the 1945 General Strike.

To compound my heresy, I would argue this was because the colonial administration (despite its inherent injustices) was actually an efficient system of government and provided people with their basic needs, security and a form of law and order.

Thus, the drive for independence wasn’t motivated by a desire to right an insidious wrong (such as apartheid) but by the (no less legitimate) desire for self rule, self determination and self respect.

Whilst these are laudable ideals, they generally were elite preoccupations, that little affected the local farmer, trader or hunter.

Nigeria at this time consisted of a tiny sliver of well educated professionals, a small middle class of administrators, technicians, teachers and nurses and a huge mass of uneducated peasants whose realities did not necessarily extend beyond their villages.

The crux of this was that independence for the masses was articulated in the most basic and parochial terms with little understanding or sensitisation as to the roles and responsibilities of citizens in a democracy much less the roles of leaders who in the south merely became a new version of warrant chiefs whilst in the North the politicians were in many cases literally the old Emirs, Princes and Sultans or their surrogates.

The lack of popular understanding or impetus for independence notwithstanding there was also a significant lack of unity amongst the elite as to the timing and nature of independence. Whilst the Southern politicians were aggressively fighting for self rule and independence, the Northern elite were extremely antagonistic to the idea. Under British indirect rule the structures of the old Northern Emirates remained intact under the protection of British guns.

Introducing a democratic political system thus risked creating a competing ruling class, which might not have the religious and historical legitimacy but would have control of finances and security.

Another consideration was that as part of the Northern elites’ conservatism there had been a strong resistance to Western education making the Northern Region in general (and the core Islamic north in particular) singularly unprepared for administering or functioning in a modern state requiring clerks, teachers, doctors, nurses and engineers.

These factors led the Northern elite to resist self rule and independence as vehemently as they could, acquiescing only with great reluctance and having extracted significant concessions from the other regions.

The other Regions also had difficulties with self rule that should have been warning signs as to what was to come. The corruption of the Warrant Chiefs in Igboland was the cause of the Aba Women’s riots in 1929, the most serious post amalgamation insurrection in the colony The high handedness of the Eastern Region government led the Southern Cameroons (an Anglophone enclave) to seek self rule from the Eastern Region and eventually opt to join the Francophone Republic of Cameroun.

Rivalry between the Western and Eastern Region political parties (Action Group and NCNC respectively) led each party to compete with and undermine each other, rather than presenting a united front to the British or even the Northern Region. 

Western Region crisis: at Independence, there were 3 major parties, which were nominally national parties but in fact represented each Region; NPC (North), NCNC (East) and Action Group (West). Each ruled their respective Regions but nationally the NPC was in coalition with the NCNC, leaving the Action Group (AG) as the opposition in the national parliament.

The Action Group (AG) split into factions in 1962 with the Regional Premier Chief Akintola (supported by NPC) against the Party Leader Chief Awolowo. A fight in Parliament, allowed Awolowo to convince the Prime Minister Tafewa Balewa to impose a State of Emergency on the Western Region and thus depose Akintola and replace him with a Federal Administrator. Akintola was restored at the end of the year and in 1963 Awolowo imprisoned on treason charges.

In 1965 elections in the West were blatantly rigged by Akintola’s new party; NNDP, whom the NPC promptly allied with, leaving NCNC to form a coalition with the remnants of the AG, the blatant rigging and imprisonment of Awolowo led to a complete breakdown in law and order in the Western Region with daily political violence.

This crisis was purely driven by the personal ambition of the elite rather than ideology or policy.

The willingness to abuse the legal process to achieve political aims such as removing rivals from position as Awolowo did with the State of Emergency to remove Akintola or electoral malpractices to win the subsequent election made the crisis violent and protracted.

The other Regional parties added fuel to the fire with the Eastern Region supporting the creation of the Mid Western Region out of the Western Region in order to weaken the AG and the north supporting the Akintola faction to undermine Awolowo and then promptly leaving their alliance with the NCNC once Akintola had rigged his way to power.

The political violence abruptly ended on January 15th, 1966.

1966 Coups: the Western Region crisis led to the 15th January 1966 coup which led to the 29th July 1966 coup which led to the Civil War. The leaders of the first coup exasperated by the political malaise, corruption and stagnation decided to remove the political class. Allegedly one of their objectives was to release Awolowo from prison to assume leadership of the country but they were generally unclear about their post coup plan. 22 people were killed in the coup mainly from the Northern political elite before the coup was defeated by the Army GOC Gen Aguiyi-Ironsi, who then cheerfully took advantage of the political vacuum to further the removal of the despised civilian politicians and become Head of State.

Whilst Aguiyi-Ironsi appears to have not been personally ambitious but motivated by the same disdain for politicians as the coupists, his ham fisted administration and Igbo ethnicity (like many of the January coup leaders), allowed the remaining Northern political elite to create a narrative of the January coup as an attempt by the Igbos to take over the country allowing them to dominate not just business and government but politics as well.

This narrative was aided by British expatriate workers in the North who had filled the positions that Nigerians occupied in the South who feared that they would lose their lucrative posts to qualified southerners.

Whilst the January coup had a naïve if idealistic objective to replace the existing corrupt political class, with a narrow target group of politicians and a few military officers, the July coup was purely about revenge on the alleged perpetrators, which for the July coupists was not just the actual coupists but the entire Igbo tribe, thus the coup devolved into the murder of Igbo military men and then escalated to Igbo civilians. This utterly senseless pogrom shattered the unity of Nigeria irreversibly, visiting the sins of the elite upon the innocent masses.

The pogroms continued until there was no one left to kill as Igbos fled back to the East, whilst the coup leaders angled to secede the North from the rest of Nigeria until they were dissuaded by the British and American diplomats, Northern Judges and civil servants.

Aburi Conference: subsequent to the coups and pogroms, the displacement of surviving Easterners led to a stand off between the new Federal Military Government and the Military Governor of the Eastern Region, Lt Col Ojukwu. To resolve their issues, they met on neutral ground in Aburi, Ghana to find a resolution in January 1967.

The Governors of the 4 other Regions, the head Of State Lt Col Gowon, Commander of the Navy and Inspector General of the Police represented the Federal Military Government whilst Ojukwu represented the Eastern Region on another.

Unfortunately, only the Eastern Region appeared to understand the import of the conference coming well prepared with a clear plan unlike the Federal Military Government for whom the priority was simply ending the stand off with no vision beyond that.

In addition, Ojukwu, was an ambitious, well educated, sophisticated and politically savvy individual who due to his father (Nigeria’s first self made millionaire), had grown up around the British and Nigerian elite, been to British public school and Oxford. Gowon by contrast was a shy fellow, son of teachers/ missionaries, a Christian Angas (a minority tribe in the then Northern Region in present day Plateau State), leading a country in which Muslim Northern soldiers had just murdered thousands of their fellow citizens.

After an initially frosty start the environment was warm, friendly and collegial with the former friends and colleagues dispensing with formality to discuss and interact in a manner reminiscent of an Army mess, in this environment, Ojukwu’s preparation and skills paid off allowing him to achieve almost all his goals (which in hindsight were not actually unreasonable).

He got a guarantee renouncing the use of force in resolving the crisis (a key objective for the militarily weak East), an agreement to devolve Nigeria into a loose Confederation with more or less autonomous Regions (except for defence and foreign policy) and the country as a whole ruled by a Supreme Military Council made up of the Regional Governors, chaired by a titular Head of State.

Unfortunately, the Eastern success allowed hostile parties such as the Northern elites to portray the Accords as another Eastern plot leading the Federal Military Government to renege on them a few weeks later.

This unfortunate act of bad faith broke down the last hope for an end to the bloodshed and a negotiated end to the crisis and began a chain of events that led directly to the civil war. 

Murtala and the patronage coups: Lt Col Murtala Mohammed had been one of the key leaders of the July 1966 coup and a candidate for post coup Head of State. He was vociferously anti Igbo and pro Northern secession, however the coup plotters settled on Gowon, as a less polarising figure. Murtala took this with exceedingly bad grace seeking to undermine Gowon at every turn. The coup plotters caution was justified when during the war when Murtala distinguished himself by murdering the male inhabitants of the Mid Western town of Asaba and then decimating his Division in repeated frontal assaults over the River Niger to capture the city of Onitsha. When he finally realised this course of action might be inadvisable he embarked on a slow and costly but successful land advance to the city. At the moment of victory, he then lost his entire logistics element in a fairly lucky ambush to Biafran rear guard forces, ending his short career as a Division Commander to become Inspector of Signals.

Whilst it is easy to sneer at Murtala’s poor combat record it must also be noted that he was only 29 years old and a Signals Captain by trade who only commissioned in 1961, who had been force promoted to Lt Col in 1966 by Gen Aguiyi-Ironsi (whose murder he subsequently planned), however many of his contemporaries on both sides were similarly young and inexperienced.

After the war Murtala rose to Brigadier and added Federal Commissioner of Communications to his portfolio.

Senior officers who had been part of the July 1966 coup and were civil war veterans became deeply dissatisfied with Gowons regime, feeling excluded from powerful political positions and the patronage they attracted and began plotting to overthrow him. Although Murtala was allegedly not one of the conspirators (as he himself already held a powerful position attracting patronage) he did not dissuade them when approached, effectively hedging his bets.

This paid off when the plotters overthrew Gowon whilst he was at an OAU conference in Uganda in 1975, they selected Murtala as their Head of State with Brigadiers Obasanjo and Danjuma as his deputies. Murtala adopted a radical style of leadership, eschewing security and purging the civil service. He was assassinated in February 1976 in an attempted coup by another set of the same group of officers who had been part of the same inner circle of July 1966 coup plotters/ Civil War veterans who had overthrown Gowon, who were dissatisfied with their share.

The two importants factor about the Murtala coup and the one that killed him were the motivations of the perpetrators. The January 1966 coup was based on an idealistic desire to eradicate corrupt politicians. The July 1966 coup was based on a desire to avenge the deaths of the Northern elite, however the 1975 and 1976 coups took place explicitly to gain access to positions of power in order to gain wealth and patronage.

The second significant factor is that this was in essence a palace coup by the same fellows who overthrew Ironsi in 1966. In 1983, elements of the same group overthrew the civilian government of Shehu Shagari, with Gen Buhari chosen as the figure head until he was overthrown in 1985 by a clique headed by Gen Babangida, who handed over to an interim Head of State in 1993 who was promptly overthrown by Gen Abacha.

Thus far since July 1966, the alumni of that coup have produced 5 Heads of State out of 13 since July 1966 (Gowon, Buhari (twice), Murtala, Babangida and Abacha), 2 Governors and 2 Ministers of the Federal Capital Territory, Ministers of Defence as well as other portfolios. Obasanjo, a Yoruba Civil War veteran has been Head of State twice. They have all also become stupendously wealthy.

Abacha: Sani Abacha was a Kanuri from present day Borno State was born in 1943, commissioned in 1963 and participated in virtually every coup in Nigeria, remaining in the background until 1993 when he eventually stopped being coup plotter and took power himself.

Whilst the July 1966 alumni had successfully cornered the levers of power for themselves thus far Abacha’s rule was different in that the resources of the state were almost uniquely dedicated to corrupt practices beyond precedent and with little shame. The total amount stolen by Abacha in his 5 years in power is conservatively estimated at $5bn.

Abacha’s criminality and his efforts to eradicate dissent saw the final collapse of Nigeria’s few remaining institutions, those that could not be co-opted like universities were shut down, Nigerian refineries were permanently shut for ‘maintenance’ necessitating the import of ‘subsidised’ petroleum products, the Ajaokuta Steel Mill was refinanced in a curious deal through shell companies linked to Abacha and so on.

His regime was marked by standard repression such as suppression of the media, detention of opponents (real and imagined), fake coup plots and a fairly transparent self succession plan as part of his transition to civilian rule, the economy collapsed and professionals fled abroad.

Abacha died in office in 1998, his regime marked the high water mark of the July 1966 groups overt grip on power, his avarice and wholesale predation of the country enriched his family beyond human logic but completely destroyed the remnants of the state and created a predatory ‘business plan’ of the destruction of state assets and institutions for profit via asset stripping and refinancing deals that pertains to date.

1999 Constitution and election: Upon the death of Abacha in June 1998, his deputy Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar took over and as part of his transition to civilian rule promulgated a new constitution, roughly based on the 1979 constitution (the same one used the last time the military handed over power to civilians). The constitution was drafted in 2 months by the Justice Niki Tobi Constitution Debate Coordinating Committee without public consultation. The constitution fails to address many of the issues that have caused crisis in Nigeria such as state of origin, state rights, law and order, the place of religion in government, concentrates more power to the centre and reduced the independence of the police, judiciary, electoral commission and other parastatals.

The 1999 constitution presented a missed opportunity for the political elite to take advantage of the transition programme to address many of the clearly highlighted issues that had bedevilled Nigeria in its then 39 years of independence.

The subsequent election saw civil war veteran Olusegun Obasanjo elected, with the blessing of the now subdued (but still influential) July 1966 coupists.

3rd Term Agenda: Obasanjo was elected with the legitimacy of having previously handed over to a civilian government in 1979 (after he succeeded Murtala) and having been a political prisoner under Abacha. He brought in several well respected figures such as former World Bank Vice President Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, neutered the military, brought about a human rights panel and began pursuing debt relief. Despite these and other positive steps his administration also saw an outpouring of religious and ethnic violence, in which the state either stood on the side lines (such as in the Sharia riots in the north), or acted with disproportionate force (as in Odi or Zaki Biam in 1999).

However despite all of these Obasanjo was re-elected in 2003, at which point a campaign (never officially championed or endorsed by himself) to amend the constitution to allow him to run for a third term began.

The campaign was ultimately unsuccessful but consumed Obasanjos time and political capital as well as patronage (allegedly to the tune of N10bn), leaving his second term with no headline achievements unlike his first.

More importantly Obasanjo squandered the opportunity to entrench in Nigeria’s polity the peaceful and willing transfer of power and entrench democratic norms.

It was not until 2015 that Nigeria got its first peaceful transfer of power from one party to the next after Goodluck Jonathan had again followed the elite tradition of squandering public good will and public funds. His victorious opponent was Gen Buhari (retired) a July 1966 coupist and veteran of the Civil War.


Nigeria is an artificial country with huge landmass and widely different people in temperament, history and culture.

A country created and united solely to make it an easier economic proposition for foreign traders and administrators has fundamentally flawed foundations.

With 2 systems of government one which reflected modern civil administration and the other which reflected regressive feudalism, it is clear in hindsight that it might have been prudent to stagger independence and ensure it had popular universal support and understanding within each Region. Referenda would have allowed pro independence Regions to go it alone, whilst unwilling Regions could remain under Colonial rule, until they were ready to join the others or go it alone themselves.

But even post independence there were opportunities to arrest the rot, the Western Region crisis could have been resolved by each camp developing sound and innovative policies and putting them to the electorate and competing legitimately, instead one faction used state power to remove another whilst the other simply rigged its way to victory.

The first coup could have been executed without bloodshed, the second coup in particular could have simply captured the Head of State and forced him to try the coup plotters without the mass murders.

The Aburi Accords remains one of the few instances in which Nigerians genuinely discussed the best way forward to function as a country and could have averted the war.

The European traders and colonial government had unashamedly predatory and exploitative motivations for their actions. Yet at the same time they were clear headed enough to understand that their control of resources depended not just on military force (which whilst heavily armed, well trained and well disciplined was always vastly outnumbered) but by a tacit contract with the masses of public works, a reasonably fair and understandable justice system and opportunities for advancement.

Nigeria’s political class at independence were corrupt and rapacious and used tribal, religious and Regional biases to gain power and then abused state power and rigged elections to maintain it.

It could be argued that due to their privileged positions (educated southerners and aristocratic northerners) and lack of dramatic grievance (ala apartheid) this group did not fundamentally see themselves as liberating their people but simply supplanting the exploitative position of the dominant class.

However they themselves were rapidly supplanted by the military, with the July 1966 group of coup plotters essentially becoming the new ruling class except for a few brief interludes but without the education and erudition of the independence politicians, the skill, altruism and competence of the British or even the business acumen of the European traders.

This group can be said to bear a large share of the responsibility for Nigeria’s seemingly intractable dysfunction from the senseless murders of 1966, to the civil war and the system of corruption that decimated Nigeria’s economy and institutions, as well as the next generation of politicians they birthed for whom patronage, corruption and greed are their only discernible characteristic. Even the few who have been hailed as reformers or ‘doers’ are tainted by multiple allegations of corruption.

As Chinua Achebe wrote in 1983; ‘The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership’.


About peccavi

A Nigerian with interests in defence, security, geopolitics, the military particularly small unit tactics, COIN, stabilisation and asymmetric warfare
This entry was posted in Defence, Geopolitics, Nigeria Strategy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Trouble with Nigeria: The 10 Original Sins

  1. Pingback: VoPe | The Trouble with Nigeria: The 10 Original Sins | Brittius

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