The favoured approach to understanding colonial rule, particularly in Africa, is through the prism of political governance – how the colonial authority was imposed through local or native authorities.
In our paper on Nigeria’s colonial history, we apply a different lens. We focus rather on British colonial rule through imperial companies. We argue that the British colonist did not conceive of or organise “Nigeria” as a “nation”. Rather it was administered as a business enterprise in which the Crown depended on companies to “govern” its Nigerian colonies.
The most prominent of these companies was the Royal Niger Company which succeeded the United Africa Company in 1886. It was based mainly in southern Nigeria, but expanded to the northern territories. The company traded in tropical foods and industrial goods. And it established both commercial and governing rights over the territories of the Niger area. It also built a military force to ensure its survival and control of the area.
This business approach of the colonialists existed elsewhere too. For example, the historian William Dalrymple has looked at Britain’s colonisation of Asia through the lens of the East India company. Another historian, Philip J Stern, examined how the East India Company acted like a state and controlled the political, economic and social life of the people of India.
Understanding the use of companies to secure and govern the captured colonies is a departure from the argument that indirect rule in Nigeria started with a pronouncement by Governor Frederick Lugard in the early twentieth century. As the Governor of the Northern and Southern protectorates, Lord Frederick Lugard consolidated the two colonies and created Nigeria in 1914. The colonies were administered indirectly through local chiefs.
We argue that the process of indirect rule actually began with the granting of charter rights to companies like the Royal Niger Company.
The fact that the colonial system in what was to become Nigeria, as elsewhere, was essentially a commercial expedition meant that the outcome was the creation of corporate entities rather than nation states. Consequently, the Nigeria of today is more or less an industrial project rather than a community of people with legitimate rights to determine their own local affairs.
In essence, the Nigerian people and their land were imagined not as people with rights to exist and function as a community or even nations. They were imagined as corporate money making entities whose bodies were enslaved and lands plundered. This system created a problem of unification in the “post-British” era.
The fact that companies drove the colonial process had a number of other consequences. Among them was that it made organised violence and the commodification of people and their socio-political systems possible.
In our view, this history lies at the roots of most conflicts in the post-independence era. And redressing the wrongs of the past hinges on understanding present day Nigeria, not as a nation, but as a corporate entity. Arguably, this knowledge can be useful in creating a new workable reality in Nigeria. This could be based either on the idea of nationhood, or at least, on some form of inclusive governance at the local level. This, in turn, could lay the ground for a system of peacebuilding and societal restructuring based on the legitimate goals and agency of all the groups involved.
The post independence nationalists’ leaders mainly supervised the transition of a corporate machine set up by Britain. Successive leaders continued to treat Nigerians as the workforce of the industrial project. They failed to realise and respect the Nigerian people as legitimate entities with fundamental rights to live and thrive with the resources available to them in their communities.
A company state produced by violence can only further yield violent returns. The military coups that followed after independence were clearly attempts at capturing or seizing the industrial state. The Nigeria-Biafra war and the ongoing terrorism of Boko Haram and the Niger Delta militancy are further pointers to the consequences of the colonial enterprise. The Niger Delta people have been emasculated by successive Nigerian leaders and multinational corporations and left to their own devices. This despite living in one of the most resource-rich places in the world. Their militancy or insurgency is merely a symptom of corporate environmental irresponsibility and degradation.
Other similar groups in the country, left with few livelihood options, are egged on by the idea of Nigeria as a “corporate cake” in which they ought to also seize their share. These include gun-wielding kidnappers and marauders.
Then there are corrupt and lawless politicians. They spearhead a structure of police and military brutality, poor healthcare, abuse of power, poverty and unemployment. They also pursue extractive oil deals with their foreign benefactors, and a systemic discrimination of “outsiders” – those for whom the “corporate cake” was not baked.
Within such a dishevelled system, it is not surprising that elections turn violent or brutal as opposing groups jostle for the capture of the company-state.
We propose a system of peace building and societal restructuring based on the legitimate goals and agency of all parties involved. The Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung described this kind of peace building as one that legitimises the affected parties as agents in their own right. They are therefore able to identify their needs and goals and work through their contradictions and differences without calling in outside experts. This mode of peace building – or conflict transformation – places enormous power and responsibility on the people affected by social injustices and violence.
The #EndSARS protests gaining momentum in Nigeria may be a step in the direction of social change led by young people concerned about the structural and direct violence of the corporate state in Nigeria.
Critical and emancipatory peace building holds enormous potential for rethinking the terms of violent relations in Nigeria. This rethinking would entail a serious mental effort of self criticism and appraisal. In this process the notions and practice of citizenship, leadership, and nationhood would assume their real meaning and importance.