Evolution of the Nigerian State, Part 1
While many are aware that no official Nigeria existed before the amalgamation of its northern and southern territories in 1914, only a few know that in spite of the enormous differences then existent between the regional protectorates the plan for a unified territory of Nigeria was in the works as early as 1898. This followed naturally from a series of developments towards the latter years of the 19th century which beginning is easily traced to the initial annexation of Lagos by Britain after the preceding exploratory and trading years. Long before then, even the British couldn’t have mustered a plan for a country around the Niger. But after settling Lagos, the dynamics engendered by the power play and native revolts that followed ultimately gave birth to the country we know today as Nigeria.
It started in 1861 with the cession of Lagos. In the previous years, Britain had intervened intensively in the dealings of the small city in a bid to thwart the increasing trade in slaves on its Atlantic waters. In 1851 the unyielding Lagos Oba, Kosoko, was ousted in the aptly described Reduction of Lagos. Akintoye, a more malleable alternative, was installed in his place after signing the treaty to render Lagos a consulate of Britain. Prior to this, Britain had all but cornered the territories around the Niger to itself, partly in words and mostly in action. In 1849, the imperial country had appointed John Beecroft Consul of the Bights of Benin and instructed that he oversaw British desires around that area, not minding if the locals cared to submit their territories for governing. However, after 1861, Lagos effectively became a British colony, coming under the direct political control of Britain. The then Lagos king, Dosunmu, was summarily put on a pension. (Learn more about this here)
Lagos became a colonial settlement several years after Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast (Ghana). Why Lagos never featured as part of early colonial acquisition is not entirely surprising. Unlike the Gold Coast which had generated trade interests as early as the fifteenth century and had its first European settlement at about the same time, Lagos did not see increased influx of white traders until the flourishing of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Additionally, the bar off the coast of the city was a chief worry for trading ships and might as well have distracted from efforts at settlements. However, it was the slave trade that was to entice the British to this city, first during the early years when they participated in it and sought willing dealers on the coast and then during the latter years when they fought intensely to curtail its spread in the region.
In annexing Lagos, there is good reason to suppose the British desired no more in these areas than the “port and island and territories of Lagos” as it sought, on the one hand, to suppress the slave wars waged by Dahomey to the west, and on the other, the in-fighting among the Yorubas to the north which often extended to Lagos. Though some scholars have suggested this was no more than the first intentional step towards colonization of the larger Nigerian mass, the evidence for this claim is thin for obvious reasons: Britain was unready to make consequential financial commitments, and substantially little was known of the interior regions at that time. In fact, in 1868, in a bid to cut down on West African investments, administration of the struggling Lagos colony was put under that of Gold Coast with Lagos intended to be managed from there, while the Lagos Governor’s forward policy of extending intervention and annexation to the areas up north did not receive approving enthusiasm from his bosses in London. The former move did not yield positive results and was overturned shortly after. Glover, on the other hand, ended his Lagos governorship in 1872. Of course, there is no reason to rule out British desires to exploit the region for its abundant resources or to impose its religion on the “barbarous” natives; nonetheless the subject of eventual colonization of the whole region was hardly on the table. If anything, some modicum of control of the coast was probably desired after the pattern successfully demonstrated in the Gold Coast and in Sierra Leone. But since Lagos remained dependent on trade with the interior lands and the colonial government’s revenue derived mostly from this trade suffered injurious consequences as a result of the in-fighting that proceeded in the hinterland, there was little indication colonization would never make its way beyond the coastal city.
By the mid 1880’s, as activity intensified in Lagos and the city became more prosperous following the influx of people and trade, it regained its footing. Some parts of the Yoruba hinterland were soon brought under it to form the Protectorate of Lagos. On the other side of the Gulf in the rivers, British influence continued to extend after several visits from curious explorers braving the unknown and enterprising merchants seeking to trade. This influence was internationally recognized by the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 and in June 1885 Britain declared a Protectorate of the Niger districts which was to comprise territories in the line of coast between the Protectorate of Lagos and the Rio del Rey to the right, and as far the confluence of the two major rivers in the heart of Nigeria. This protectorate, the Oil Rivers, derived its name from its major trading item of palm oil which served in Europe several uses among which was as an ingredient for soap and also as a lubricant. Even though administrative laws were declared for this region, there was obviously little product resulting from these laws; neither was any expected. In contrast to Lagos which had steady administration, this was chiefly uncharted territories known not beyond the areas bordering the Niger. It became the job of the Consul-General to exact signed treaties of surrender from tribal kings in this domain and communicate the demands of the crown as expressed in the laws to govern the region. By 1893, this had gone far enough to warrant among other thing a change of name for the fledging protectorate: it became the Niger Coast Protectorate.