Max Siollun’s What Britain Did to Nigeria is a careful history which demonstrates unequivocally that the imperial past should be reviled, finds Dominic Alexander

Max Siollun, What Britain Did to Nigeria (Hurst & Co. 2021), xii, 373pp.

The government’s new rules for teachers on ‘political impartiality’, published on 17 February 2022, insist that ‘topics relating to empire and imperialism’, as their example of contentious historical issues, ‘should be taught in a balanced manner’, while ruling Black Lives Matter as being ‘beyond shared principle’. The polite response, from the NEU for example, was that the very vagueness of the guidance risked frightening teachers away from ‘political’ issues in the classroom, which is probably what the government wants.

The notion of ‘balance’ on questions of the empire seems to echo many establishment commentators who want ‘nuanced’ views of its legacy, including the ‘good bits’ as well as the ‘bad bits’. It is not far from this to attacking the idea of an anti-racist teaching of the issue as being to ‘talk down Britain’, in the kind of creeping McCarthyite phrasing that has become increasingly prevalent in recent years. Regardless, the balance sheet approach is pernicious in itself as it fails to grasp the basic point that colonialism entailed ‘the conquest, subjugation and exploitation of millions of people’, as one historian has put it.

Max Siollun’s book on the Nigerian experience of British colonialism seeks to chart a path between a mere ‘defence of colonialism’ and a ‘purely Nigerian nationalist perspective’ (p.3). Its tone is certainly measured, even sometimes giving more benefit of the doubt to the British than seems strictly necessary. As such, it ought to fit the bill for an even-handed, fact-based assessment of the imperial past. Those who plead they want ‘nuanced’ and ‘balanced’ accounts of British colonialism would not, however, be at all pleased with what they would find in this careful account. That is because their stance is disingenuous; it is not possible to have some kind of non-political assessment of colonial imperialism.

The notion of a balance sheet on colonialism ignores the circumstances in which it began, the violence and destruction with which British rule was imposed, the disregard for the interests of the colonised societies, and the legacy of lasting harms. The litany of extreme violence and pervasive racism spelt out in this book, some of the worst of which has also been covered by Dan Hick’s in The Brutish Museums, should dispel any idea that colonialism had an upside. Even the creation of Nigeria as a single colony in 1914, and thus a unitary nation, was not done for any better reason than imperial convenience. It made sense in terms of the costs of governing the separate territories of Lagos, South Nigeria and North Nigeria to merge them together (p.322), despite their very great differences: ‘In that regard it succeeded from Britain’s perspective. Nigeria was just a page in a colonial accounting ledger’ (p.328).

The ruptures of colonialism

The problems of modern Nigeria, Siollun shows, stem directly from the nature of colonisation, but not always in the simple ways that are sometimes assumed. Ethnic divisions, for example, are not a symptom of ancient enmities, as the phrase goes, but were in fact a problem created through the ways in which the British used different peoples to create centralised, authoritarian rule. There were a number of city-based polities, from Benin and Oyo in the south to Kanem-Borno and the Sokoto Caliphate in the north, each of which contained numerous ethnicities. The least diverse was Sokoto with two major groups, the Hausa and Fulani, but here too there were others, such as the Tuareg. There was a similar picture in the more decentralised societies, like Aro Confederacy of Igboland, which ‘included common commercial and religious links among the Igbo, Annang, Ibibio and Ijaw (p.42).

There was evidently also considerable interchange and movement across the whole region, with extensive trading links between many groups: ‘For example, Igbos, Hausas and Nupes traded in pre-colonial markets at Oniotsha’ (p.42). The ethnic conflicts of the post-independence period were not the result of a return to pre-colonial problems, far from it; they were the creation of British rule. This is almost certainly related to the authoritarian nature of colonialism, which stood in contrast to the general nature of government beforehand:

‘the pre-colonial states had democratic characteristics, albeit ones that did not resemble European multi-party forms … few pre-colonial rulers exercised absolute power. Some of them were subject to the decisions of non-royal councils, while others could be deposed without their consent or even sentenced to death for misrule’ (p.43).

Many of Nigeria’s pre-colonial societies lacked hierarchy of even these kinds, and were run through consensus and village autonomy. Colonialism changed this, creating ‘super-tribal’ identities for the Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo, all of whom ‘did not self-identify as one ethnic group’ before. Alongside this was the forced amalgamation into one political system.

Racist stereotyping of individual groups forced each into particular roles within the colonial hierarchy. Thus the Hausa were considered a ‘martial race’, and initially chosen as the main source of recruits for the Lagos constabulary (p.108). This was the origin of the Nigerian army, which was mainly used by the British against other Nigerians, in campaigns involving ‘mass murder and destruction’, orchestrated as such by the colonial authorities (p.191). This ‘made them feared and unpopular among the civilian population’ and had a lasting impact beyond independence: ‘The soldiers got the blame for the colonial army’s actions, but little of its benefit’ (p.118).

The army itself was divided, however, with the personnel of the support and technical units ‘such as education, ordnance, finance and signals’ drawn from the south, mainly the Igbo, where further stereotyping determined certain groups to be more educatable, but less suitable as fighting troops. The north-south division in the army was directly implicated in the outbreak of civil war in 1966, less than six years after independence. The real reason the Hausa were chosen as ideal soldiers originally was because they had no allegiance to any of the groups with whom the British were then in conflict (p.109). There was no natural, pre-colonial state of antipathy that led to the conflicts between ethnic groups, but the British deliberately set different peoples against each other, as a strategy of ruling. This is a pattern that can be found in many other places under British rule.

Colonial corruption

It was the violent, racist and authoritarian nature of British colonialism that bequeathed to Nigeria many of the problems of its independent history. The process culminated in the creation of a single Nigeria in 1914 out of the three previous administrative units, locking in the divisions that the colonial era had created. Siollun points out that every crisis of modern Nigeria, from ‘the military coups of 1966, the civil war of 1967-70, the annulment of the presidential election of 12 June 1993’ to the ‘crisis over Sharia law in the early 2000s’ can be traced to the polarisation of the country ‘on north-south lines’ (p.326).

Another notorious problem in present day Nigeria is corruption, but this is tied directly to the way in which the British trading concerns of the colonial era ran their system, granting particular leaders or middlemen payments known as ‘comey’ or ‘dash’ for access to trading in their territories:

‘Commissions, tipping and other payments for services rendered became deeply embedded in West Africa’s business and trading systems and were pervasive in the 19th century throughout the territory that eventually became Nigeria’ (p.51).

All of this was in aid of extracting palm oil and rubber, which were in very high demand for industrial processes, and there was intensive competition between different British companies for access. Equally, Britain was concerned to exclude other European powers from the trade, making the region a proxy battleground for imperialism. This explains the decision to take over the northern territories. Either it was a simple ‘land grab’ or, perhaps more likely ‘a pre-emptive British move to block their European rivals from seizing territory to the north of its protectorates’ (p.160).

Securing Nigerian resources for its own industrial needs against outside competitors was only one side of the programme; the other was to ensure the maximum profitability for British trade. Eventually, British companies pressured the government to eliminate the Nigerian middlemen involved in the trading of commodities, arguing that they were ‘monopolistic’. Of course, the system that was introduced thereafter was a British commercial monopoly. This was the Royal Nigeria Company, which, according to its charter, was in fact barred from such practice. Reality, however, tells a different story:

‘It arbitrarily imposed extortionate taxes on natives and other companies for engaging in regular trading activities in which they had participated years before the RNC had arrived. Since it had a virtual monopoly, the RNC could charge whatever price it deemed fit and others had to pay because there was no alternative. Additionally, the company made a handsome profit by buying produce at below-market prices from West African natives and then reselling it in Europe at a marked-up price’ (pp.94-5).

The imperial hypocrisy involved here is really quite stunning, since throughout this period, Britain championed the value of ‘free trade’, and yet in practice this was only to be free trade when it was to the advantage of British companies. The RNC was doubly useful to the British government, because the latter could avoid direct responsibility for its atrocious treatment of the people under its authority, while benefiting from its brutality. That there was a knowingness to this strategy is suggested by various indications, not least that ‘there was a strange determination by the British government to either shield the RNC from censure or deliberately turn a blind eye to its outrages’ (p.93).

Commercial imperialism to colonialism

The activities of the RNC laid down the route to formal colonisation, and while the company had its licence revoked once that stage was reached, the directors were all very well compensated. Moreover the company itself later merged with others, and its descendant is today’s Unilever (p.158). This legacy lies in stark contrast to the company’s deliberate destruction of indigenous African trade, not least the successful campaign to destroy King Jaja of Opobo, whose palm-oil company independently traded to Liverpool. A more perfect illustration of the classic argument, made by Walter Rodney in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), can hardly be imagined. This was that the impact of European imperialism upon Africa actually caused its underdevelopment relative to Western economies, as Europe was enriched while it was impoverishing Africa through plunder and exploitation.

The conquest of Nigeria was a very long drawn out process spanning most of the nineteenth century, and barely completed in the 1920s. Artillery and machine guns certainly gave the British the military advantage by the later nineteenth century, when the campaigns against the African urban polities and tribal confederations accelerated. However, technological advantage was far from being the only factor. Southern Nigeria in particular had been greatly destabilised by centuries of the European slave trade, such that the kingdom of Benin, for example, was long past its peak of power. Slavery in general also gave the British a lever to crack apart indigenous societies. While the institution was not the same as the chattel slavery of the Americas, it was still oppressive and in many circumstances created divisions the British were able to exploit (p.222, for example).


There was considerable resistance to colonisation all over Nigeria, which is reflected in the very long period in which it took for it to be meaningfully completed. It was not, however, the more centralised states like the Sokoto Caliphate, which disastrously chose to fight the British in open pitched battle, which were hardest to subdue (p.170). It is difficult not to wonder if the class nature of this state lay behind its brittleness. In comparison, it was the decentralised societies which were able to mount the most serious and tenacious resistance over long periods of time, and through guerrilla warfare, caused much greater damage to the British. This strategy depended, of course, upon there being sufficient solidarity among indigenous villagers to support the fighters. In many areas this was the case, despite brutal collective punishment being used in response.

Perhaps one of the most original forms of resistance came later in the 1920s, with the women’s civil-disobedience movements, the best known of which was the Igbo Women’s War, although it was notably multi-ethnic in character (p.235). Shamefully, British officials and officers described the women in terms such as being ‘threatening and wild’, a ‘mob,’ and ‘armed with sticks.’ In fact, the women carried palm leaves, used as symbols of solidarity:

‘This was the dynamic in a confrontation between unarmed women who were not afraid of armed police officers and soldiers, and British officers who walked around with revolvers but presented themselves as being in mortal danger from village women carrying leaves’ (p.238).

Not a single British man was killed throughout these protests, which carried on until 1930, but the authorities responded with shocking brutality. In one incident in December 1929, a British officer ordered soldiers to open fire with a machine gun, killing eighteen women, and injuring many more (p.239). In another, in Opobo in the same month, demonstrating women were fired upon at close range, the officer claiming that they were surging threateningly towards the soldiers. Autopsies carried out on 25 of the 32 women killed found that three quarters of them had been shot in the back or sides of their bodies (p.241).

These protests, nevertheless, pointed to a future where it would be impossible for Britain to hold on directly to its imperial possessions, whether in West Africa, or indeed elsewhere, such as India where civil protests were famously at a height in the same period. Siollun’s book provides a very informative case study showing, even through its measured tone, why the British Empire should be reviled without caveat or hesitation.

Siollun’s analysis concerns the colonial period, but it demonstrates clearly how post-independence Nigeria would be plagued by structural problems created by imperial rule. It should nonetheless be remembered that imperialism did not end with the withdrawal of the British in 1960. Nigeria, like most former colonies, remains embedded in a world where Western corporations and imperialist states continue to inflict damage and exploitation that severely limit the capacity of these societies to heal the wounds of the past. Imperialism remains a scourge across the world, that is the only objective and balanced assessment that can honestly be reached.

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Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).