The People’s Republic: How they rule


THERE was also an open-door policy towards missionaries of all beliefs – Christians, Moslems, and others. In fact, the first batch of Christian missionaries had started to operate in the South in the 1840s, thereby formally preceding regular British officials to the territory. By 1900, missionaries of various denominations had entrenched themselves in different parts of the South. They had opened schools, hospitals, and dispensaries, and had produced not an inconsiderable crop of educated Nigerians, among whom were devout Moslems.

Most of these educated Nigerian elite co-operated wholeheartedly with the British officials. They believed that the cardinal policy of the British Government in Nigeria was directed towards a number of specific objectives, namely: the suppression of slave-raids and the slave-trade; the termination of inter-tribal and internecine wars; the creation of a peaceful atmosphere for the propagation of the Christian religion, the advancement of education, and the promotion of legitimate commerce and industry; and, finally, the establishment of British rule for these purposes, coupled with the training of Nigerians in the art of civilised government leading to the eventual withdrawal of British control.

Because of the prevalence in the South of the comparatively felicitous factors which we have just mentioned, and which were at that time largely absent in the North, the systems of administration adopted in the two territories were essentially different.

The system in the South did not conform to the principles of ‘indirect rule’. Nor could it be strictly classified as ‘direct rule’. Various strategic towns had been chosen as headquarters. These were adequately garrisoned; and from there, British officials endeavoured to ensure that Pax Brittanica was maintained in all the land, and that the imperial objectives were achieved.

The Paramount Chiefs and their people were left largely alone to fend for themselves, and to manage their civil affairs as of old within the limitations of good conscience, and the principles of justice and equity. Any trespass beyond these confines was swiftly and firmly dealt with. Side by side, the British officials conducted their own civil administration in respect of such members of the community as cared to avail themselves of British justice and fair play at its local fountain. For this purpose, British officials ran their own courts and local constabulary. The garrisons were under their immediate surveillance. In addition, either on their own initiative, or on the invitation of the Natural Rulers, they called on the latter, or summoned them to their offices, to tender advice and guidance to them.

As we have seen, Lugard returned to Nigeria in 1912 as Governor of the Southern and Northern Protectorates of Nigeria, including the Colony of Lagos. He had, no doubt, been appointed to these governorships in order that he might bring about the amalgamation of the two territories We have noted that his experiment with ‘indiirect rule’ in the North had proved eminently successful under his own personal direction. It must be pointed out, however, that the system continued to be equally successful under Sir E. P. C. Girouard and Sir H. H. Bell, who succeeded him in the period between 1906 and 1912. In the circumstances, he would in all probability have introduced the system to the South after its amalgamation with the North in 1914. On the other hand, he might well have chosen to introduce a thorough-going direct rule to the South, instead of the hotch-potch of British-cum-indigenous administration, which was in vogue. At any rate, the First World War of 1914-18 forced his hand, and left him with only one choice for the whole country.

The incidence of the war had seriously depleted the ranks of British officials serving in Nigeria. Some had either been called up or assigned to duties with the Nigerian Regiment. Some of those who had gone home on leave were unable to secure passages back to the country. Several others who were returning to their posts had perished at sea as a result of enemy action. And immediate replacements were impossible.

A problem of entirely new dimensions had arisen. But Lugard’s genius, which unfailingly advanced his fortunes throughout his career, quickly came to the rescue; and he lost no time in seizing the opportunity thus presented.

Ovenramwen, the Oba of Benin, who had been deposed and banished to Calabar in 1897, died in 1914. By popular acclamation, his son was chosen by the Benin people to succeed to the throne. But Government recognition of the people’s choice was necessary. In according this recognition, the Government dictated a number of terms as conditions precedent. One of them was that the new Oba must accept the ‘indirect rule’ system as a principle of administration in his domain. After 17 years of waiting, the new Oba was only too ready to accept all the conditions imposed. In any case, from the Oba’s point of view, there was nothing onerous about the conditions in general, or about ‘indirect rule’ in particular. To be sure, the acceptance of the principle of ‘indirect rule’ did involve the application, in the area of his authority, of the novel and explosive principle of direct taxation. At the same time, it also meant that, for all his lawful actions, he would get the full backing of the Governor-General. The new Oba accepted the conditions. But as it turned out, the Benin people, who it had been feared would react unfavourably to the acceptance of the’ indirect rule’ and the eventual imposition of the poll tax which it involved, gladly welcomed it.


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