I often hear people say that Nigeria should be recolonised. I argue here that Nigeria was never colonised. Come with me on a short journey as I explore how use of language affects how we differentiate truth from the fiction of the past, how we perceive present reality and how we trace out a future from our yesterday’s tomorrows.
Nigerians keep on saying Nigeria was colonised. A simple response to that is this: When? When exactly was Nigeria colonised? Give me a date. A date when Nigeria was colonised.
Now during the 19th century various tracts of land in what is now known as Nigeria, through various political manoeuvres (dubious treaties, African greed and outright force) came to be said to be under the control or ‘protection’ of the British Crown. Note that those tracts of land were being protected from other European nations, not lions and tigers of the Savannah. (PS: Tigers are not indigenous to Africa. PPS: It is always, always about the land.) Then in 1884, most of Europe and the USA went to Germany to ‘officially’ explain to each other who owned which part of Africa. Land they ‘owned’ was untraversed by most of these ‘conquerors’, who used the pen to take what could not be taken by the sword. When the powerful say it is so, it is often so. And where were Africans at this table, you ask? They were not at the table. Not one African country/polity/entity was represented at the Berlin Conference 1884-5. And so we can say Africa was split apart and colonised. Because colonies were what was created at that table. A bundle of colonies that were amalgamated in 1914 and called Nigeria was created at that table. Nigeria, the colony, was created in 1914, by forces external to Nigeria. Nigeria, the state, came into existence in 1960. Neither Nigeria (colony or state) was ever colonised. They were either created or birthed into existence.
If you say a thing often enough, people begin to believe it and people begin to act as if it is true. Say that the people have no laws, no government and no structure, and people begin to believe that it is true. Say that the people are inferior, cannot think for themselves, need external guidance… Say it over and over and people begin to believe that it is true. And act as if it were so. Then take the pre-existing structures and rent them asunder, crush them to dust. Tell the people you are doing them a favour. And people begin to think that it is true. Replace their traditions with yours. Replace their structures with yours. Tell them no structures existed before. Nothing to see here. Nothing existed here but dust. These were empires and kingdoms and nations. Consigned into the malodourous armpit of forgetfulness of an unstudied history. The Oyo Empire split between the French and the British. Hausa Kingdoms overrun, a hundred Middle-Belt civilisations and cultures bled into a vague conurbation. Treasures across a thousand museums. All outside Africa. Walls of Benin no more. And when all this has been done, take the haphazardly put together entity, give it a name, say it is better than what had existed. Wait a while. Take as much as you can. Tax them. Make them work for you. Teach them your language. Make them despise theirs. Wait a while… And then say that you are setting them free. Free. Free… but to be free you have to stay in this political entity that we created. And to be free, this political entity has to trade in the way that we say. To be free… all entry to all international relations will be as we say, in this hodge-podge state that we breathed life into. You are free to trade as we say you should, study what we say is important, have laws that we say are right. Do exactly as we say and then you are free. Be exactly what we say.
This is our freedom in chains.
Nigeria was born on the 1st of October 1960, a colony-state, bound in freedom. And with no adjustment to structure or content, the postcolonial state carries on the work of the colony. By retaining the nature and boundaries of colonial entities, what African states got at independence was not freedom, but entrapment into borders that could not of themselves become viable states. All men are born free, but some are more free than others. Some have the freedom to call for other humans to be left to drown in deep waters, while some are set free to live bound to a perilous state in a perilous state. Who controls the land? That is the question. Who controls the land? For the people of Nigeria – for most of the people of Africa – freedom is a mirage, an unfulfilled promise. An autonomy and a sovereignty that says, ‘this far and not any further.’ Ivorian farmers flood the world with chocolate and do not know its taste. The blood of the Congolese are spilt over diamond mines and cobalt troves that run the world, when they cannot even run from the fire and guns of war. The Niger-Delta burns day and night so that cars can drive across a globe that will not once taste a drop the fetid sludge that fills the creeks. For those left behind, freedom is a still-born wish. Freedom that is ‘granted’ is never going to be true freedom. Ever.
So, no, Nigeria was never colonised. The land was. And still is. We were. And we still are. And make no mistake, I blame us. Not them.