The History of Nigeria from about 1849 until it attained independence in 1960 is largely the story of the transformational impact of the British on the people and cultures of the Niger-Benue area. The colonial authorities who came to these parts of West Africa in the years between 1862 and 1960, sought to define, protect, and realize their imperial interests. The British were in the Niger- Benue area pursuing their interests which were largely economic and strategic. Steps taken in these pursuits resulted in many unplanned for and by-products, one of which was the socio-political aggregation that is known today in international law as the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
The first critical step in this uncertain path was taken in 1849 when, as part of an effort to ‘sanitize’ the Bights of Benin and Biafra, which were notorious for the slave trade, the British created a consulate for the two Bights. One thing led to another for the British, especially from deepening their involvement in the political and economic life of the cities and states of the Bights to rivalry with the French who also began showing imperial ambitions in the area. This resulted in the British converting the coastal consulate and its immediate hinterland into the Oil Rivers Protectorate in 1885, which, in 1893, transformed into the Niger Coast Protectorate. The apparently irreversible logic of this development led to a deeper and closer involvement in the administration of the people and societies of this segment of Nigeria which, in the middle of the twentieth century, came to be known as Eastern Nigeria.
The second step, along the same path, was taken about 1862 when the British annexed the Lagos Lagoon area and its immediate environs and converted them into a crown colony. The British claim that this was done to enable the abolishment of the slave trade which used that area as an export point. However, Nigerian historians argue the contrary. They claim that the British, with this, aimed to protect their interest in the vital trade route that ran from Lagos through Ikorodu, Ibadan, and similar communities, to the Niger waterway in the north and beyond into Hausaland. By 1897, British influence and power had overflowed the frontiers of Lagos and affected all of Yorubaland which was subsequently attached to Lagos as a Protectorate. The political and administrative unit which came to be known as Western Nigeria in the 1950s came at the end of this second step.
The third and final step in this uncharted path came in 1888. The British administered political ‘baptism’ on Greyne Goldie’s National African Company which had successfully squeezed out rivals, British and non-British, from the trade in the lower Niger, following a trade war of almost unprecedented ferocity. As a result of the ‘baptism’, Goldie’s company became the Royal Niger Company, chartered and limited. It also acquired political and administrative powers over a narrow belt of territory on both sides of the river from the sea to Lokoja, as well as over the vast area which, in the 20th century, came to be known as Northern Nigeria.
Thus, by about 1897, the three blocks of territory had emerged, as British colonial possessions, from moves made during the period of the scramble for Nigeria, best characterized as having been marked by fits and starts. The emergence of Nigeria is simply the story of how these three neighboring and interlocked possessions were brought together by the British, first administratively, and then politically.
The move towards administrative union or amalgamation (a term that was later to occupy a place of disproportionate importance in Nigerian history) began in 1898 with the appointment, by the British Government, of the so-called Niger Committee chairman by Lord Selborne. Its main term of reference was to look into and advise on the future management of the affairs of the three territories, i.e. on the form of administration that would best promote efficiency and economy in the pursuit of British interests in the region. The committee recommended that the administrative goal to be aimed at for the three territories was amalgamation, but that for the time being, such a course of action was premature and inadvisable because the experienced colonial administration to preside over the affairs of the large territory that would arise from the union did not then exist. It also felt that the infrastructure for communication, which alone would conduce to efficient administration, did not also exist.
In the event, 1900 saw only very minor changes in the ways and means the British administered these three blocks of territories. One change, perhaps the major one, was that the charter of the Royal Niger Company was withdrawn and the territory under its shadowy control was declared the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria and brought under the Colonial Secretary. In addition, the narrow “strip of Royal Niger Company from Lokoja to the sea”, which had divided the Niger Coast Protectorate into two, was united with it, thus bringing the western and eastern halves of that administration together territorially.
The amalgamation of 1914 offered an opportunity for making changes in the unsatisfactory arrangement, but not much was achieved in this area. All that was created was a body known as the Nigerian Council which met once a year to listen to what may be called the Governor’s address on the state of the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. The body had no legislative powers whatsoever. The same ambivalence based on imperial self-interest that characterized the Lugardian approach to seeing and treating Nigeria as one political entity and Nigerians as members of one political family was also evidenced in the constitutional development efforts of his successors. For example, while the Sir Hugh Clifford Constitution of 1922 introduced the elective principle for legislative houses for the first time, the Legislative Council which replaced Lugard’s Nigerian Council legislated only for the Colony and Southern Provinces while the Governor continued to legislate for the Northern Provinces through proclamations. The forty-six-member Council presided over by the Governor, was dominated by ex-official and nominated members.
The Legislative Council system thus implied a division of responsibility to govern Nigeria between the United Kingdom-based British Government and the government established in the Colony. Besides, Nigerians were excluded from membership of the Executive Council.
The Richards Constitution of 1946, though it had among its objectives the promotion of the unity of Nigeria and securing greater participation by Nigerians in discussing their affairs, deliberately set out to cater for the diverse elements within The country, Significant provisions of this new constitution included the establishment of a re-constituted Legislative Council whose competence covered the whole country; the abolition of the official majority in the Council; the creation of Regional Councils consisting of a House of Assembly in each of the Northern, Eastern and Western Provinces, and creation of House of Chiefs in the North, whose roles were purely advisory rather than legislative. Significantly, however, the Richards Constitution was designed without full consultation with Nigerians which explains the hostility with which it was greeted, especially in the South.
Although the Richards Constitution was expected to last for nine years, opposition to it, especially from the political leaders, was so strong that a new constitution, the Macpherson Constitution, was promulgated in 1951. Unlike its predecessors, there was significant participation of Nigerians in its making from the village level up to the Ibadan General Conference of 195, The major provisions of the Constitution were as follows: the establishment of a 145-member House of Representatives, 136 of them elected, to replace the Legislative Council; a bicameral legislature for both the North and West, one being the House of Chiefs while the East retained the unicameral House of Assembly; the establishment of a Public Service Commission to advise the Governor on the appointment and control of public officers; the competence of the Regional Legislatures to legislate on a range of prescribed subjects while the central legislature was empowered to legislate on all matters including those on the Regional Legislative lists. Substantially, therefore, the 1951 Constitution was more or less a half-way house between regionalization and federation. Between 1951 and 1954, two important constitutional conferences were held in London and Lagos between Nigerian political leaders and the British government. These resulted in a new 1954 Federal Constitution whose main features were: the separation of Lagos, the nation’s capital, from the Western Region; the establishment of a Federal Government for Nigeria comprising three regions, namely, North, West, and East with a Governor-General at the center and three Regional Governors; the introduction of an exclusive Federal Legislative List as well as a Concurrent List of responsibilities for both the Federal and Regional Governments, thus resulting in a strong central government and weak regions; regionalization of the Judiciary and of the public service through the establishment of Regional Public Service Commissions, in addition to the Federal one.
From the point of view of the evolution of the Nigerian state, the most significant thing about the 1954 Constitution, which remained in force until Independence in 1960, was that the Lugardian principle of centralization was replaced by the formula of decentralization as a matter of policy in the administration of the Nigerian state.