Of British colonialism and failed states

SOVEREIGN nations today would do well to reflect for a moment or so whether pre-nationhood contact with more influential foreign powers or “guests” was beneficial or damaging in the long run. If such contact was beneficial, then it would do not to say the word “colonial” with bitterness. This is so because time and expenses are gained by not having to re-invent the wheel.

The time and expenses thus gained could translate to exponential growth and development of the “host” nations. The Japanese encounter with Admiral Perry did not turn out that bad in the end. Surely, too, the Chinese did no wrong by signing a pact with Her Majesty’s Empire to develop the Hong Kong province or protectorate.

Post World War II West Germany did not rail against “occupation” by the Americans for good reasons. Ditto the South Koreans after the 1953 armistice.

It would seem like a natural progression for nations and cultures to interact for the common good of the human species; this is most apt because human communities have not necessarily developed at the same pace. Basically, technology savvy and educationally advanced “empires” ought to help those communities that are less well-endowed “move along” without loss of dignity and national identities. The erstwhile British Empire was well-suited for this task, believe it or not.

The following countries were, five years ago,  amongst those identified as having failed or are failing: Bangladesh, Burma, Congo, D.R., Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe. Failed states are essentially those countries where the instruments of government are non-functional and weak, where personal freedom is heavily curtailed, where economic indicators are very weak, and so on. Nigeria and Pakistan have always fascinated me.

My obsession with both of these countries is based on my personal conviction that the over 300 million people who call these countries home would have been relatively well-off today were some key decisions not taken about the fate of these countries by the British colonial government.

The decision to amalgamate the then Northern and Southern Protectorates to create the present-day Nigeria was in gross error. Ditto the decision to partition the Indian Subcontinent prior to independence in 1947 to create Pakistan.

Today, Nigeria and Pakistan are tethering on the brink, with attendant deepening concerns about their abilities to reasonably chart their own future courses. Both countries are overwhelmingly religious, have very healthy (“stratospheric”) birth rates, and are constantly whacked by civil unrests. It is reasonable to posit that the Pakistanis, as we know them today, would be better off being part of the modern-day wonderful Indian economic revolution than being citizens of a nuclear-armed state constantly on the brink of implosion. The reasons the British proffered for the partitioning of the Indian Subcontinent to create the state of Pakistan were purely sensational and were not based on any reasonable and objective projection for the future of the citizens of this newly-minted nation.

Despite differences in religious beliefs, the peoples of India pre-partition were culturally and anthropogenically connected; ultimately their similarities would outweigh their differences. I believe that, deep down in the minds of the Pakistanis, underneath the veneer of agitations and nationalism is a deep frustration at being “left behind”, trailing their more illustrious neighbour. Modern-day Pakistan is in a state of flux; it is a hotbed of religious fanaticism, unveiled hate, and is continually being put under pressures from factional terrorist groups. Pakistan has the fifth highest birth rate in the world, after the Palestinian Territories, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan. (Suffice to mention in passing here that these five “baby boomers” are not quite self-sufficient in food production and they depend heavily on food importation from such “western” countries as the U.S., Ukraine, and Australia to feed their teeming population.

I have always argued that if the U.S. is involved in the internal affairs of any of these countries, this is not because the U.S. is flexing its military muscle but because the U.S. is a strategic producer of cheap grains and sundry foodstuff.) The next nuclear bomb to go off for destructive purpose on the face of the earth may well have a Pakistani connection; directly by threatening India or indirectly as a result of the nuclear black market knowledge disseminated by the rogue scientist Khan, or still by the explosions of nukes obtained through the back door when the mullahs finally seize control.

The British must be feeling ill at ease about their “deft” creation, no doubt, especially after the 7\7 episode and several other near-misses. A politically contiguous Indian Subcontinent plus present-day Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka would have been a kind of stable entity to which countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, the Central Asian republics, would look up to for direction. Methinks the world would have been breathing a little easier today if that were the case. We are not necessarily looking to the American-Russian face-off to set the doomsday clock anymore, but to other increasingly unstable regions of the world.

The year 1914 was a watershed in the history of Nigeria because the dual Protectorate regions became one contiguous entity. In retrospect, the Northern Protectorate should have been nurtured into full maturity as a separate republic (Arewa Republic, say) whilst the Southern Protectorate should have evolved into a western republic (Oduduwa Republic, say) and an eastern republic (Biafra Republic, say). The peoples of both regions were not exactly cut out for co-habitation. I wonder why Lord Lugard got it wrong. Nigeria is a country of some three nations, and it is inherently tribal.

Tribal sentiments are deep-seated and they are not easily brushed off. Tribal sentiments are a native thing that bar openness to one’s nearest neighbours. Any such system comprising of several native parts simply would not work. That was the point the Brits missed. Fifty-five years after independence Nigeria is, from most indicators, hanging on the edge of a cliff.

The fragile tribal cohesion at independence was soon shattered by adventurous young men fired up in no small measure by ethnic fuels.

Today, Nigeria is deservedly wretched. Truth, like the saying goes, is bitter indeed. Healthcare, education, public works, law enforcement, and more, are in shambles. Average life expectancy is about half of that in the developed world. Those who hold public offices suffer from identity crisis: “Nigerianness” is one big ambiguity to them, and hence the commitment to make any laudable policy turn out right is lacking. Really, our togetherness is an inverse gravity analogue: “pull” becomes “push”. Nigeria and Pakistan plod along amidst other progressive nations in a stately-dance-of-the-dinosaur fashion, their very existence a harsh reminder of failed British colonial policies.


  • Jonah is of the Federal University of Technology, Minna.