October 2, 2022
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– WHY NIGERIA'S RULING CLASS MUST BE REPLACEDTHISDAYLIVE – THISDAY Newspapers

  • November 22, 2021
  • 6 min read
– WHY NIGERIA'S RULING CLASS MUST BE REPLACEDTHISDAYLIVE – THISDAY Newspapers

The ruling class can no longer be trusted to keep the various parts of the country together as one, contends Ike Okonta
Nigeria began life in 1900 as a British commercial enterprise. In other words, the inhabitants of present-day Nigeria did not will the country into existence. The primary impetus came from British merchants who began to operate on the coasts of Lagos and the Niger Delta following the abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade in the middle of the 19th century. These merchants were at first content to use indigenous Nigerians as middlemen, sending them into the interior to purchase such commodities as palm oil and rubber and then shipping them to Great Britain and other European countries.
This arrangement worked well for all the parties at first. Then the European merchants became greedy and began to penetrate into the interior to purchase the commodities from growers at a lower price, thus cutting out the indigenous coastal middlemen like Jaja, King of the powerful Opobo city state. King Jaja, angry at this turn of events, retaliated by shipping palm oil directly to buyers in Great Britain. British merchants, outraged, conspired among themselves and lured King Jaja into a British ship and exiled him. Then they replaced him with local traders willing to do their bidding, paying growers in the interior as little as possible for their commodities and keeping the bulk of the profit for themselves.
The tragic story of King Jaja of Opobo has been documented in Professor Kenneth Dike’s brilliant book, ‘Trade And Politics In The Niger Delta.’ This book is no longer available here in Nigeria. Nigerian intellectuals rarely read it, but it is the principal text in explaining the politics and economics of British colonialism in Nigeria. From 1900 until independence in October 1960 British merchants had a free run of Nigeria. For them, Nigeria was a territory they brought into being to serve Britain’s need for cheap raw materials. As long as Nigeria continued to meet this need, then they were perfectly satisfied. The interests of indigenous Nigerians – the inhabitants of the land – were not factored into the equation. These inhabitants were expendable. They did not matter. Whether they ate or starved; went to school or remained illiterate; became ill or were healed in a hospital – all these were secondary to the primary objective of British colonialism – Nigeria playing her role as a dependent satellite of the Western capitalist system.
When Independence came in October 1960, Nigeria’s new indigenous rulers did not question this arrangement. They did not ask themselves the urgent question: What should we do to redesign Nigeria away from the intents of British colonial rulers to a new country serving the interests of the inhabitants? The fundamental economic order – one in which farmers toiled in the rural areas to produce palm oil and cocoa and groundnuts for European industry – was left as British colonial officials established it. These rural farmers were poor, badly housed, and lacked such amenities as electricity, roads, schools, and hospitals. Yet it was them that powered the post-independence economy. It did not occur to Nigeria’s new rulers that these rural dwellers deserved a new lease of life; that it was only fair that now independence had come, they should enjoy a fair share of the proceeds of their labour.
Even worse, Nigeria’s new rulers did not seek to move the country away from its dependent status in the international capitalist system – from producers of cheap raw materials to producers of capital goods. They could not initiate an industrialization process that would see the establishment of factories using Nigerian raw materials to produce finished goods made in Nigeria. Attempts to establish an iron and steel industry in the early 1960s were stymied by inter-ethnic politics – with the Northern Peoples Congress, National Council of Nigerian Citizens and the Action Group bickering viciously over where the iron and steel mill should be located. As the inter-party bickering intensified, Nigerian middlemen and their British principals continued to import finished goods into the country, locking Nigeria firmly into the orbit of the dependent economic colony which British colonialists had placed her at the turn of the 20th century.
It is now 61 years since Nigeria gained independence from Britain, but the fundamental economic arrangement bequeathed by colonial rule is still firmly in place. The little shift there is that crude oil has taken the place of palm oil and cocoa and groundnuts. Even so, the crude oil is shipped unrefined to Europe and America and Nigeria’s ruling class has been unable to use this oil to power a petro-chemical industry in the country and launch Nigeria into the orbit of industrialised countries. The rural people of the Niger Delta have taken the place of the colonial era rural people. The former regularly protest that their land and rivers are being destroyed by the oil companies. When they organize themselves to do something about this unhealthy state of things, Nigeria’s ruling class dispatch armed soldiers to beat them into submission. Like Lord Lugard’s colonial soldiers, so too the soldiers of Nigeria’s present ruling class.
Sixty-one years of drift and aimlessness should be enough to convince ordinary Nigerians that the time has come for Nigeria’s ruling class to be replaced. They have been tested and found wanting.
There is no area of Nigerian national life that you can point to that is an area of excellence – not socially, economically, or even politically. Indeed, the present question is whether Nigeria will be able to hold together as a united entity in the next 20 years. With the Indigenous People of Biafra baying in the east, Sunday Igboho in the west and Boko Haram and bandits in the north, it is now clear that Nigeria’s ruling class is so preoccupied with looting the national treasury that it can no longer be trusted to keep the various parts of the country together as one.
Nigerian patriots and progressive intellectuals should therefore gird up their loins and begin the arduous but necessary task of designing a new economic and political system which will not only displace the present failed ruling class but place Nigeria firmly in a new orbit in the international system, an orbit in which the needs of ordinary Nigerians will be met.
Dr Okonta was until recently a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Politics, University of Oxford. He lives in Abuja.
Nwabufo is a writer and journalist

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