The Making of Modern Nigeria British Imperialism and the Political Evolution of Nigeria

The origin of modern Nigeria can be traced to its transformation under British rule. The colonial governance not only altered geographical boundaries but also engineered social and political institutions that have continued to shape Nigeria to this day.

In 1900, British colonialists established the northern and southern Nigeria protectorates, fundamentally altering the region’s history. Prior to colonization, what ultimately became Nigeria was a collection of diverse, mostly centralized states like the Oyo Empire and Hausa city-states. The Igbo communities were generally decentralized. British interest in Nigeria started in the mid-19th century, culminating in the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, which granted Britain control over the lower River Niger area. 

Before colonization, diverse ethnic groups were governed by local leaders, each with its own governance system. The formation of the northern and southern protectorates disrupted these indigenous structures. The Royal Niger Company was key in facilitating British influence. The new protectorates integrated a complex tapestry of local systems. 

The southern protectorate in Nigeria was formed by British colonialists, driven by economic and strategic factors. The northern protectorate was established through negotiations with local leaders. Both protectorates consolidated diverse regions for administrative efficiency. 

The creation of the northern and southern protectorates by the British disrupted local administrative systems in Nigeria, influencing its postcolonial politics. In the southern protectorate, ethnic groups like Yoruba, Igbo and Efik had their own governance through local chiefs and traditional rulers. These leaders relied on customary practices, councils of elders and lineage systems for decision-making. The oldest members or heads of lineages often had significant influence. This transformation created a complex, layered political landscape. Traditional governance systems in the northern protectorate, such as emirs in the Sokoto Caliphate, provided a framework for collective decision-making that reflected local culture. These systems were replaced or altered by British colonial rule. 

By 1900, British authorities centralized governance over the northern and southern protectorates, replacing indigenous systems and shaping colonial Nigeria’s path to independence. The centralization aimed to streamline British control for economic and administrative efficiency. This shift in governance made resource extraction and trade easier for the British, minimized local conflicts and established a clear hierarchy for colonial administration. 

The establishment of direct administration let British officials tightly control local policies, including taxation and aligning governance with imperial goals. This laid the foundation for a unified Nigerian state but also preserved distinct governance models in the two protectorates. The northern protectorate, mainly Muslim, was governed through indirect rule via emirs and chiefs. The southern protectorate, ethnically and religiously diverse, saw a mix of direct and indirect rule involving local councils and traditional leaders. These approaches shaped each protectorate’s colonial experience. British authorities regarded colonial Nigeria as a fragile confederation of two divergent cultural and administrative systems and the establishment of the two protectorates created different political structures between 1900 and 1912 when Frederick Lugard took up the position of the governor-general of Nigeria. The distinct governance systems in the two protectorates were more a result of local elite competition than British design, complicating Lugard’s 1914 decision to unify them into a single British colony. 

In amalgamating Nigeria in 1914, Lugard grappled with merging two distinct governance systems: preserving the Sokoto Caliphate’s autonomy in the North and allowing near-direct indigenous rule in the South. But with the stroke of a pen, Lugard established a centralized authority over a multi-ethnic population, bringing Nigeria’s various ethnic groups in closer geographic proximity to one another and introducing the colonial system of indirect rule across the entirety of Nigeria.  

The merging of Nigeria’s many ethnic and cultural groups within its current territorial boundaries laid the foundation for the creation of the modern-day Nigerian state as it exists today. Since gaining independence in 1960, Nigeria’s politics have been marked by intensifying ethnic and regional strife, issues that have their roots in the period of British colonial rule. The persistent tensions manifested vividly in recent general elections, where voting patterns often aligned more closely with ethnic and regional loyalties rather than policy or ideology. These divisions serve as a living testament to the colonial-era decisions related to territorial integration and political structuring, showcasing the long-lasting impact of that historical period on today’s Nigeria. But what exactly are the historical origins of these enduring issues? How does the colonial era continue to shape Nigeria today? What about Nigeria’s future?


Since 1914, when the two protectorates were merged into one colony, the basic flaws of indirect rule gradually became evident. British colonial authorities tried to mitigate governance issues by establishing missionary schools and relocating pro-British southern Nigerians to the north, aiming to bolster loyalty and prevent rebellion. Colonial figures like Frederick Lugard, the first governor-general of Nigeria and William Temple another influential administrator, held prejudiced views on Africans’ ‘inability’ to adapt to Western modernity. They advocated for a distinct path for African societal advancement, rooted in indigenous cultural and economic values. 

Colonial administrators advocated for indigenous development through local agriculture and crafts, aiming for self-sufficiency and socioeconomic progress aligned with African cultures and values. In addition, British colonial administrators believed that the ethnic groups in northern Nigeria were culturally and politically different from their southern peers and introduced a system of indirect rule in the north during the early 1900s. Moreover, British administrators viewed the distinct governance, religious practices and social structures between the two regions as irreconcilable. 

Northern Nigeria was organized around Islamic emirates with centralized authority under emirs, while southern Nigeria was ethnically and culturally diverse with less centralized governance systems. The North had uniform methods of administration, whereas the South varied across communities and featured diverse religious practices. 

British administrators recognized the diverse cultures and governance systems in Nigeria, leading to indirect rule in the North and a more interventionist approach in the South. While British colonial administrators like Lugard advocated for indirect rule as a general governance model, its implementation varied significantly across Nigeria’s diverse regions. Indirect rule was more faithfully applied in the North, whereas a more direct form of governance was exercised in the South. This regional differentiation in colonial governance styles further contributed to the complexities and divisions that modern Nigeria continues to grapple with today. Indirect rule in northern Nigeria added a layer of British authority to the existing centralized system, enabling more efficient resource extraction and order maintenance. This approach shifted daily governance burdens from British to local rulers, allowing colonial authorities to focus on strategic policies. Britain leveraged traditional structures and local rivalries, like that between the Hausa-Fulani and Kanuri, to secure support and minimize administrative costs. 

In southern Nigeria, the lack of centralized political systems, especially among the Igbo, complicated British attempts at indirect rule. The absence of singular authorities in these societies made it hard for British administrators to find intermediaries. Complex village-level governance and varying local power dynamics further hindered the establishment of a uniform administrative system. The effectiveness of indirect rule thus varied greatly, depending on local contexts and the willingness of traditional rulers to cooperate with British officials. While indirect rule was introduced in southern Nigeria in 1901, for the first four and a half decades after Nigeria’s amalgamation, British authorities governed all of Nigeria via what was known as the dual growth strategy.  

In the eastern region with less established traditional authority, the British employed a dual strategy combining indirect and direct rule. They engaged with some traditional leaders for indirect influence while also exerting more direct control through appointed British officials. In the western region with Yoruba communities, the British combined indirect rule, working with Obas and Chiefs, with direct rule through appointed British administrators for specific governance aspects. 

While the dual growth strategy approach maintained British control, it also perpetuated regional disparities and unequal development in colonial Nigeria. This dichotomy—the perilous, intractable fissure in perspectives, viewpoints and identity between the arranged union of the seemingly incompatible people of the northern and southern regions—was the most significant impact created by British colonial rule. The South viewed the North as enablers of British rule, while the North saw the South as selfish and heathenish. 

In other words, indirect rule—premised on the self-serving belief that Nigeria’s diverse range of colonial subjects had congenital differences—was designed to sow ethnic discord. British authorities downplayed linguistic similarities among Nigeria’s ethnic groups, emphasizing English and ethnic languages to reinforce differences rather than commonalities. 

The British emphasized religious differences and introduced missionary activities, reinforcing ethnic distinctions rather than highlighting shared spiritual practices. This strategy aimed to weaken potential cross-ethnic movements that could challenge colonial rule. Instead, an effort was made to promote and maintain a sense of intractable difference across Nigeria’s regions and ethnic groups. London’s ‘divide and rule’ strategy aimed to facilitate colonial domination of Nigeria for British advantage. By emphasizing ethnic group cohesion and local traditions, indirect rule created many obstacles to the development of pan-Nigerian anti-colonial campaigns. 

British administrators fostered divisions and border disputes among Nigeria’s groups to make the colony easier to manage, doing little to unite ethnic and religious factions after the 1914 amalgamation. In 1922, the Clifford Constitution—named after Hugh Clifford, Lugard’s successor as governor of Nigeria—enabled the election of the first African members of the legislative council in British West African colonies. The Clifford Constitution of 1922 created a legislative council for southern Nigeria, while northern Nigeria was governed by the governor’s decrees. This disparity lasted until 1946 when the Richards Constitution replaced it amid calls for federalism, marking significant shifts in British colonial governance.  

The Clifford Constitution of 1922 allowed limited direct elections in Nigeria but excluded most indigenous peoples and women from voting. While a step toward structured governance, it maintained significant colonial control and fell short of meeting broader Nigerian political aspirations. The exclusion of the North from the council led to consternation there and created a fear of southern domination among northern Nigerian elites.  

The unequal development trajectories produced by the dual-growth strategy were almost inevitable. Due to its greater openness to the influence of foreign cultures, southern Nigeria was a feasible location for the spread of Western culture, Christianity and missionary education. The North, on the other hand, was hostile to the adoption of new value systems and largely resisted Western ideas. Southern Nigeria saw a societal shift due to the adoption of Western education, language and norms. This introduced new ideas about gender roles and promoted nuclear families, contrasting with traditional fluid gender roles and extended family structures. The South’s openness to Western influence led to widespread missionary education and English proficiency, offering a post-independence advantage. In contrast, the North’s resistance to Western ideas preserved Islamic education and traditional social norms. These divergent paths fostered distinct skill sets and worldviews that still contribute to Nigeria’s ethnic and regional divides, evident in phenomena like regional voting patterns in general elections. The changes influenced inheritance, property ownership and intergenerational relationships, widening the systemic gap between the North and South. 

In southern Nigeria, Western-style education created uneven opportunities among ethnic groups. Factors like early exposure to Western education and proximity to colonial centres influenced who benefited most. Groups that quickly embraced the new system gained a competitive edge in administration, professions and commerce. 

Ethnic groups like the Yoruba and Igbo excelled in Western education, propelling them into administration and commerce. Some others faced barriers like limited education access or geographic isolation. Western trade practices, including export-import companies, offered further economic opportunities. Coastal groups like the Efik and Ijaw capitalized on the Atlantic trade route for maritime commerce. Adaptation to Western business norms, such as formal contracts and market-oriented trade, enabled certain groups to seize these economic opportunities more effectively. 

Ethnic groups adapting to Western commercial norms could better engage with European traders and colonial systems, fostering economic growth. The introduction of British legal and governance systems in southern Nigeria opened doors for political participation and social mobility, especially for those who assimilated. Embracing Western education and language further elevated the visibility and influence of these groups, potentially leading to preferential treatment by colonial administrators. 

Adopting Western attire and manners made ethnic groups appear ‘civilized,’ aiding navigation through colonial hierarchies and potentially receiving preferential treatment. British colonial objectives in Nigeria were rooted in economic exploitation to fuel British industrialization. Various methods were employed to channel Nigeria’s resources towards achieving these imperial goals. 

British colonialism in Nigeria focused on extracting raw materials like palm oil and rubber, often neglecting local economies. Cash crops like cocoa created economic dependence and vulnerability to global market fluctuations. Forced labour, especially in railway construction, exploited Nigerian workers for British industrialization. This economic strategy upheld Britain’s economic dominance by steering colonial activity towards cash crops and raw materials for export, undermining local farming and economic diversification. Infrastructure like railways facilitated resource transport to Britain, consolidating control. Labour exploitation, export tariffs and taxes ensured resources flowed to Britain at favourable rates, reinforcing economic subjugation. 

British monopolies like the East India Company dictated trade terms and controlled key industries in colonies, generating revenue for Britain. This exploitation hindered local well-being and sustainable development. The dual-growth strategy also created regional disparities, fuelling resentment and anxiety within Nigeria. 

Isaac Madubuogo Okonjo, a Nigerian historian, summarizes the effect of this strategy on the northern and southern regions by arguing that ‘the indirect rule doctrine offered a compelling justification for strictly separating the advancement of the northern and southern territories, for minimizing interactions between both provinces’ populations and for barring other ethnic groups from the purview of the legislative assembly.’  


Nigeria moved toward three regions and away from the north-south divide with the adoption of the Macpherson Constitution in 1951. The Richards Constitution in 1946 introduced a federal system dividing Nigeria into northern, western and eastern regions to better reflect its diversity and allow for more autonomy. This aimed to address the limitations of the previous Clifford Constitution, which had a narrow scope of political representation and a restricted franchise that excluded many, including indigenous peoples and women. The new constitution sought to improve inclusivity and representation in governance. The Richards Constitution provided the building block for a federal system of government that would ostensibly enable the regions develop at their own pace without interfering in the affairs of the other regions. 

But whatever Sir Arthur Richards’ intention, the constitutional reform process he promulgated inadvertently institutionalized regionalism, despite the efforts of pan-Nigerian nationalist movements to unite the country in pursuit of popular sovereignty. The politics of Nigeria from 1946 to 1960 were dominated by interactions among its three largest ethnic groups: Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo. It was believed that deliberation between the three groups was the optimal means of creating political stability across the entire country and the political developments of this period had major ramifications for federalism in Nigeria. 

Perhaps the most consequential of them was the creation of three radically different political parties with regional and ethnoreligious roots beginning in the late 1940s. The Northern People’s Congress dominated northern Nigeria under Ahmadu Bello, while the Action Group led by Obafemi Awolowo was prevalent in the Yoruba-dominated Western Region. The National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, a big tent party which was led by Nnamdi Azikiwe and made up of a long list of nationalist parties, cultural groups and labour movements, became an outgrowth of Igbo political interests in the Eastern region. Under the umbrella of these parties, the three major ethnic groups vied for control of political power and resources. 

Following the implementation of the Richards Constitution and the increase in ethnic and regional divisions it spurred, Nigerian nationalists began to publicly condemn the balkanization of the Nigerian populace. This new reality placed the three major ethnic groups—whose provincial interests were conflated with national ones—at odds with Nigeria’s minority ethnic groups. 

For instance, political parties like the Northern Elements Progressive Union, the Niger Delta Congress and the Calabar Ogoja Rivers Movement were organized to represent the interests of minority ethnic groups. The increased emphasis on ethnic politics led to increased tensions and competition among Nigeria’s ethnic groups, resulting in a fragmentation of the political landscape that forced colonial authorities to establish the Willink Panel in 1957 to—among other things—alleviate the concerns and fears of Nigeria’s minority groups. However, the panel’s findings did little to resolve the tensions that necessitated its establishment. The historian, Obaro Ikime noted the Willink Panel’s limited impact in Nigeria, citing bias towards major ethnic groups and inadequate minority representation. The panel’s recommendations were seen as symbolic, maintaining the status quo without addressing minority demands for subregions. 

Distrust between Nigeria’s ethnic minorities and the three dominant groups, who regularly used the threat to secede as a bargaining chip in political disputes, became more widespread. This was evident at the 1950 Constitutional Conference in Ibadan, when northern delegates threatened to secede from Nigeria, as well as in 1953 when Awolowo made a similar threat on behalf of the Western Region. During the latter occurrence, Oliver Lyttleton, the British colonial secretary, warned Awolowo that London would take any step necessary including the use of force to keep the federation intact. 

The following year, the Lyttleton Constitution—which succeeded the Richards Constitution and was created to pave the way for Nigeria’s independence from Britain—established a north/south divide when government positions were lopsidedly allocated to the northern region. The northern region’s overrepresentation in central government roles, including ministers and legislative positions, fuelled tensions between Nigeria’s regions. To many Nigerians, the lopsidedness in political appointments demonstrated the intent of British colonial authorities to ensure that the northern region had structural advantages in the political landscape ahead of independence and undermined efforts to achieve national unity and harmony. The unfair distribution of power and resources deepened ethnic and regional divisions, contributing to Nigeria’s political instability. 

Independence intensified inter-ethnic tensions, undermining Nigeria’s national unity and stability. British threats of military action in response to secessionist agitations from different ethnic communities illustrated their failure to encourage the good-faith deliberation needed to achieve political stability and arguably planted the seeds for Nigeria’s bloody civil war that claimed more than a million lives. The Nigerian union was arranged more out of fear of violence than voluntary agreement. 


As of now, Nigeria continues to grapple with many of the issues that stem from its colonial past. Ethnic and regional divisions persist, especially during political events like general elections, where voting often reflects historical loyalties rather than policy preferences. Conflicts over land and resource allocation, particularly in regions like the Niger Delta, underscore the entrenched disparities that have their roots in colonial administrative choices. Furthermore, the Boko Haram insurgency in the north and the agitation for secession in some southern regions illustrate how regional imbalances and grievances have evolved into significant security challenges. 

The historical legacies of British colonialism continue to shape Nigeria’s modern challenges, including issues of identity, resource distribution and governance. Conversations about ‘restructuring’ aim to address these challenges, advocating for a more equitable and regionally-sensitive system. Interpretations of restructuring vary, but all focus on decentralizing power. To build a cohesive state, Nigeria must balance unity and diversity through stronger federalism and regional autonomy. Acknowledging its complex history and confronting embedded grievances can pave the way for a harmonious, prosperous future. The hurdles tied to statehood, while daunting, can be transformed into catalysts for unity amid diversity

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