Northern Nigeria Colonial Economy and the Niger Delta Oil
by Farooq A. Kperogi, PhD
In my May 6, 2017 column titled “Top 8 Popular National Lies that Won’t Die in Nigeria”, I called attention to out-and-out historical lies that vast swathes of Nigerians treasure and reproduce intergenerationally, and that are, I said, almost “impossible to uproot.”
One of such lies, I pointed out, is the idea, popular among Northern Nigerians, that the Northern Region’s resources financed oil exploration in the Niger Delta. I wrote: “Professor Ango Abdullahi actually repeated this lie recently. He said this, ironically, while exhorting Emir Sanusi II to ‘go and read history.’ The truth is that not a dime of Northern Nigeria’s money contributed to oil exploration in the Niger Delta.
“When oil was discovered in commercial quantities in Oloibiri in 1956, Shell bore the financial burden for the exploration. Other Euro-American oil companies later joined in oil exploration. It wasn’t until 1973 that the Nigerian federal government acquired 30 percent shares in oil companies. By 1973, Northern Nigeria had ceased to exist….
“In any case, colonial records show that the biggest motivation for amalgamating Northern and Southern Nigeria was because Northern Nigeria wasn’t financially self-sustaining and the British Imperial Government said it would never subsidize colonial administration anywhere in Africa. So, Lord Lugard amalgamated the two regions and used the surplus from the south to sustain the North. It’s illogical to say that a region that wasn’t financially self-sustaining financed oil exploration in the Niger Delta.”
Of the eight historical lies I pointed out, this was the stickiest among historically challenged Northerners. I use the term “historically challenged” advisedly because several Northern Nigerian professional historians called or emailed me to confirm that what I wrote was a basic fact that every beginning undergraduate in Nigerian economic history knows. They wondered why someone of the stature of Professor Ango Abdullahi would ridicule himself by repeating discredited and falsifiable lies. I told one of them to write a guest column to educate our people on the economic history of the region. “I am not as brave as you are,” he said. But when did educating people with the facts become bravery?
I am a Northerner with as much stake in the region as anybody else, but I am also a truth-seeking academic who isn’t held back from telling the truth by maudlin sentimentality or fear of emotive pushback from the vulgar herd. I go where the truth leads me, even if it is to facts that cause me personal discomfort. That’s how my dad raised me, and no amount of emotional blackmail will stop that.
Several of the readers who continue to angrily react to my column say I didn’t provide any proof for my assertions. So, here we go. In an 89-page report for the British Parliament titled, “Amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria and Administration, 1912-1919,” Frederick D. Lugard clearly said two reasons informed his proposal to amalgamate the North and the South: finance and railways. On finance, he wrote:
“In 1906 a further step in amalgamation was effected in the South. Southern Nigeria and Lagos became one Administration under the title of the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria. From this date, the material prosperity of the South increases with astonishing rapidity. The liquor duties increased from 3s. in 1901 to 3s. 6d. in 1905—stood at 5s. 6d. a gallon in 1912, and afforded an ever-increasing revenue, without any diminution in quantity imported. They yielded a sum of £1,138,000 in 1913.
“The North, largely dependent on the annual grant from the Imperial Government, was barely able to balance its budget with the most parsimonious economy, and was starved of the necessary staff, and unable to find funds to house its officers properly. Its energies were concentrated upon the development of the Native Administration and the revenue resulting from direct taxation. Its distance from the coast (250 miles) rendered the expansion of trade difficult. Thus, the anomaly was presented of a country with an aggregate revenue practically equal to its needs but divided into two by an arbitrary line of latitude. One portion was dependent on a grant paid by the British taxpayer, which in the year before Amalgamation stood at £136,000, and had averaged £314,500 for the 11 years ending March 1912”
Again, a 1935 report by colonial government statistician S.M. Jacob, titled The Taxation and Economics of Nigeria, gives a vivid account of the immense disparities in the revenues between the North and the South. It shows, for instance, that one of the reasons the North was financially disadvantaged was that agricultural produce from the region had less economic value in the international market than agricultural produce from the South.
There is also a 202-page record of the correspondence between colonial administrators in Nigeria and their home government in Britain on the necessity of amalgamating the North and the South. Copious references were made to the North’s economic disadvantage and to the economic lifeline the region needed from the South to survive. The record of the correspondence, which took place between May 15, 1913 and January 27, 1914, is held in the British National Archives, and can be accessed with the following reference number: CO 879/113/3.
But two things need to be made clear. First, the North’s economic disadvantage relative to the South wasn’t a consequence of the South’s superior work ethic—or the North’s laziness. It was because, being close to the coast, the South had (still has) ports, which brought foreign goods that attracted hefty tax revenue. It was, in fact, Lagos that almost singlehandedly gave the South its economic advantage. Lagos still accounts for more than half of Nigeria’s IGR.
Second, it also so happened that the cash crops that the colonialists introduced to the South—cocoa, palm oil, kernels, rubber—had more economic value in the international market than Northern Nigeria’s cash crops such as groundnuts and cotton. In terms of quantity, the North produced substantially more agricultural produce than the South, but, by a twist of circumstances, the North’s crops didn’t have as much economic value as the South’s.
This isn’t something to be proud of or ashamed of. We are talking here of naked colonial exploitation of our people for the benefit of Britain. It means, in effect, that the colonial conquerors exploited the South more thoroughly than they did the North. That’s neither a cause for pride nor a reason to be ashamed. In my undergraduate days, I recall getting a kick out of Lord Salisbury’s angry description of my part of Northern Nigeria, that is, Borgu, as “a malarious African desert…not worth a war.” As a starry-eyed Marxist then, I took delight in the knowledge that imperialists didn’t find my place worthy of economic exploitation.
Anyway, if the North weren’t economically self-sustaining, how could it possibly finance oil exploration in the Niger Delta? That’s a wild leap of logic. Plus, it’s a well-known fact that it was Shell, not the Nigerian government, that bore full financial responsibility for oil exploration in the Niger Delta.
As George G. Frynas points out in his “Oil in Nigeria: Conflict and Litigation between Oil Companies and Village Communities”, Shell spent more than 6 million pounds of its own money between 1937 and 1953 before striking oil in Akata, near Eket, in non-commercial quantities. After spending some more millions, it found oil in commercial quantities in Oloibiri in 1956. Neither the Nigerian government nor the Northern Nigerian government made any financial contribution to Shell’s exploration activities.