1914 amalgamation

By Eric Teniola

The first part of this piece focused on the major differences between Northern and Southern  parts of Nigeria that were brought together by the colonialists

BEFORE southern Nigerians pounce with glee (as they often this evidence of northern economic dependency on the South, one must pause and reflect that amalgamation was a British decision, not a northern one. Northern Nigeria had no more say in amalgamation than Southern Nigeria did (and probably, if given a choice, would have objected to it). One of the North’s leaders did, after all, later refer to amalgamation as ‘the mistake of 1914’.

Effect an alliance with a Southern lady of means: The economic disparity between the two Nigerias made their amalgamation inevitable. In a light-hearted after-dinner speech to the Colonial Service Club in 1913, the secretary of state for the colonies, Lord Lewis Harcourt, used a metaphor to the impending amalgamation: “We have released Northern Nigeria from the leading strings (British) Treasury. The promising and well-conducted youth allowance ‘on his own’ and is about to effect an alliance Southern lady of means. I have issued the special licence and Sir Frederick will perform the ceremony… May the union be and the couple constant!

‘An enthusiastic practicing paedophile.’ In 1913, Lugard named the south-eastern Nigeria city of Port-Harcourt after Lord Harcourt. Details of a man’s personal life should not ordinarily occupy much space in a history book about two nations. However, the continued prominence of Harcourt’s name in contemporary Nigeria justifies an exception. Harcourt ostensibly led an ordinary family life.

His wife was the wealthy American heiress Mary Burns, who was a member of the Morgan banking family dynasty and the niece of the banker John Pierpont Morgan (founder of JP Morgan Bank). However, Harcourt (or ‘Loulou’, as he was known) ‘was an enthusiastic practising paedophile’, who abused both young boys and girls.  

Owing to his status, Harcourt’s paedophilia was largely unknown to the public, and knowledge of it was restricted to the elite circles in which he moved. Harcourt abused the son and daughter of his friend Viscount Esher (Reginald Brett). Esher’s teenage daughter Dorothy was so traumatised after Harcourt tried to sexually assault her that she avoided romantic relationships with men for most of her adult life. Harcourt’s predilection for preying on children was so well known that boys at Eton School (where he was a fellow) were warned not to be alone with him.  

Harcourt also tried to sexually assault a young boy named Edward James during a party at Harcourt’s country estate. The boy reported the assault to his mother, who mentioned it to others. Harcourt was found dead early the next year after taking an overdose of sedatives.

The most extraordinary aspect of Nigeria’s amalgamation was how little thought the British colonial administrators gave to its long-term consequences. The architects of both the 1914 amalgamation and the Niger Committee’s report of 1898 had no guiding vision or objective. Not only did the colonial government fail to contemplate the north-south differences, but they paid little attention to how much British rule had amplified the pre-existing differences between the two regions.

The introduction of Christian missionaries in the South had caused a revolutionary change to the region’s religious life and created a Western-educated cadre that was anxious for independence while the North had little interest in rushing into a union with a southern region that was so radically different in religious and social ethos. 

British rule had also changed the north by introducing a Christian convert population into the region on the outskirts of the Muslim emirates. The British did not consider stabilising the country by dividing it into territorial units consistent with ethno-linguistic zones. In 1898 the Niger Committee had recommended dividing Southern Nigeria into eastern and western regions.

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Yet, for unspecified reasons, it did recommend a similar subdivision of Northern Nigeria. The colonial government belatedly carried out the Niger Committee’s recommendation when it split Southern Nigeria into the Western and Eastern Regions in 1939, yet it left Northern Nigeria intact and undivided.

As a result, Northern Nigeria ended up than twice as large as the two southern regions combined. Creating a country where one region was geographically larger, and had more people, than all the other region became a constant point of contention.  

The 1914 amalgamation and the fault lines between the north and south remain among the most contentious issues in modern Nigeria. More than 106 years after amalgamation, the wisdom of this step is still being debated in Nigeria, and the country continues to grapple with how to deal with the divisions between north and south and the mutual paranoia they often have about each other.

The most spectacular eruptions of instability in Nigeria have emerged on a north-south basis: the military coups of 1966, the civil war of 1967-70, the annulment of the presidential election of 12 June 1993 and the ensuing political crisis it generated, and the crisis over Sharia law in the early 2000s.

Each of these controversies has polarised the country on north-south lines. The civil war, which commenced after the south-east seceded, represented one of many attempts to repeal the 1914 amalgamation (the north also threatened secession in 1953 and  1966). It is perhaps unsurprising that conflict would arise in this manner. It was difficult to build patriotism and emotional loyalty to a country created by a foreign invader and inhabited by people whose prior loyalties had never extended beyond their family, village or kingdom.

The lack of British foresight regarding the enormous upheaval that amalgamation would cause is astonishing. For over twenty- five years prior to the merger, British administrators had year after year mentioned the massive cultural, political and religious differences between the north and  south.

Yet they insisted on amalgamation simply to fix an accounting problem. Even if amalgamation was a necessity for colonial administrative convenience, one wonders why it was not reversed or reconfigured when it became apparent that the unified Nigeria would one day become an independent self-governing country.

With no overriding ideological principle behind Nigeria’s creation, it has been left to Nigeria’s post-colonial governments to find ways to rationalise the 1914 amalgamation. Nigeria’s territorial evolution has followed two opposing trends during its colonial and post-colonial eras.

The colonial era was characterised by territorial amalgamation, and followed by the country’s fragmentation into smaller and smaller territorial units during the post-colonial era. Starting from 1967, post-independence Nigerian governments started unravelling Britain’s territorial consolidation by fracturing both the north and south into smaller states, which currently number 36.

It is to Nigeria’s credit that it has developed its own home-grown innovations to reduce tension between the north and south, such as an affirmative action quota system and the alternation of the presidency between northern and southern holders. Perhaps it is pious to expect a colonial government to have contemplated the long-term consequences of its decisions on the people of the colony.

As demonstrated again and again in prior chapters, the colonial government’s priority was not to create a new nation with a common ethos. The priority of Colonial Office officials was to minimize the financial burden to the British taxpayer, reduce bureaucratic duplication and maximize revenue. In that regard it succeeded from British perspective.   In that regard it succeeded from Britain’s perspective. Nigeria was just a page in a colonial accounting ledger.

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