Nigeria is neither a friend nor a foe of Britain. Both countries regard one another with a high degree of suspicion and mistrust.
The relationship between Nigeria and Britain is highly conflicted. Nigeria was a British colony and a British creation. This would suggest the development of a cordial relationship between the two countries as a result of shared history. However, some Nigerians insist Nigeria should never have existed and blame Britain for conducting a forced marriage of different nationalities in the creation of Nigeria. Others blame Britain for what became of Nigeria, insisting the central problematic of the country is the product of deliberate British design.
To be or not to be
Nigeria did not have to fight for independence from Britain. When Southern Nigeria asked for independence, Northern Nigeria balked. The British themselves readily relinquished their hold on Nigeria in the independence era. The climate and people of Nigeria were not sufficiently attractive to the British. Therefore, a settler British community did not develop in Nigeria as happened in Kenya or Zimbabwe.
But when Britain granted independence to Nigeria, power was delivered to the North, the very region that was reticent about independence, and not to the South, the region that demanded it.
When the new Tafawa Balewa government blundered by agreeing to an Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact soon after independence, which meant the British military could maintain a presence in Kano, Nigerian students protested and the government had to back down. The message was clear: Britain had to be kept at arm’s-length. Nevertheless, Britain remained the preferred choice of the Nigerian elite for shopping, schooling and for going on holidays.
No sooner had Nigeria settled into the status of a former British colony than it felt the enticements of another imperialist: the United States of America. The United States was Anglophone, which meant Nigerians were ready importers of the American dream, culture and values. However, the United States supported apartheid and black oppression in Southern Africa. It was also going through race-riots and demands by African Americans for equality.
Nigeria’s resultant love-hate relationship with super-power United States further complicated its residual post-colonial relationship with Britain. Soon, the inheritance of the British parliamentary system of government was jettisoned for the American presidential model. At the same time, the superstructure remained British, including the judicial system, the civil service structure and the educational system.
Anglo-Nigerian relations centred on Nigeria’s oil and on the activities of Shell and British Petroleum. This was again conflicted, as a result of the pollution and environmental damage created by the oil companies in the oil-producing states. Not surprising, the citizens of Nigeria’s South-South viewed Britain and the oil-companies with animosity and suspicion.
Nevertheless, Nigeria-British relations were cemented at the official level during the civil war, when Britain betted on the federal government winning the war and provided assistance against the secessionist state of Biafra. But the “thank-you” for that support was soon attenuated by lingering differences over the liberation struggles in southern Africa.
Nigeria was granted honorary status as a frontline state in that struggle because of its strident support for the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Britain, on the other hand, backed apartheid South Africa and the UNITA rebels of Angola.
When Murtala Mohammed was assassinated in a failed coup attempt in 1976, Britain was accused of attempting to restore Yakubu Gowon to power from his exile in Britain. The refusal of the British government to extradite Gowon for trial in Nigeria further seemed to validate this allegation.
The animosity between Nigeria and Britain came to a head when Mohammed’s successor, Olusegun Obasanjo, nationalised British Petroleum assets in 1979. This was in retaliation for British supply of oil to apartheid South Africa. It was also designed to put pressure on Britain during the process of negotiating the independence of Zimbabwe at the Lancaster House Conference in London.
In 1984, the Muhammadu Buhari regime was fingered in a failed attempt to kidnap Umaru Dikko, a former Nigerian minister in the Second Republic who was then in exile in London, and to bundle him back to Nigeria in a crate. The two governments engaged in a shouting match that witnessed the recall of their respective High Commissioners.
Much later, when Nigeria’s Sani Abacha ordered the judicial murder of the Ogoni writer and environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa along with eight others in 1995, Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth.
British meddlesomeness in Nigerian affairs reared its head again much later when Prime-Minister David Cameron chided Nigeria for passing a law against homosexuals. He threatened that this would make Nigeria ineligible for future British economic assistance.
Cameron also berated Nigerian leaders for the mismanagement of the country’s resources, insisting that “lack of accountability and transparency is a big problem in Nigerian oil and gas industry.” However, Cameron conveniently turned a blind eye to the fact that money stolen from Nigeria often ends up in Britain.
In a series of articles, the Financial Times of London revealed that much of the money stolen by corrupt soldier-politicians of Nigeria’s past military regimes ended up in British banks. It revealed that: “Banks in London played a key role in enabling former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha to launder more than $4bn (£2.76bn) looted from the country during his four-and-a-half-year rule. The trail has led to accounts at London offices of 15 banks.”
The British have imposed no sanctions on these banks for laundering “lucrative” stolen money. They are not even that enthusiastic about facilitating the return of the monies to Nigeria. Rowan Bosworth-Davies, a former Fraud Squad officer, is quoted as saying that a lot of people in the City of London are convinced that if proper legislation is enforced to facilitate the recovery and return of stolen money: “It will be bad for UK Plc.”
The nerve-centre of Nigerian-British relations has been at the consular level. With millions of Nigerians living in Britain, the British attitude towards them has often been hostile. Britain is now a multiracial society, not by design, but as a side-effect of its colonial heritage. Because of its history as the major colonial power, a number of the citizens of Britain’s former colonies landed on its doorstep.
Among them, Nigerians have been quite prominent. It is now variously estimated that the number of Nigerins living in Britain are in excess of 2 million. The British have not been able to determine how to handle this foreign influx. As a matter of fact, on the far right of the political spectrum, there have been those like Enoch Powell who are inclined to send them packing all the way back home.
The situation gets worse with every downturn in the economic situation in Britain when foreigners (Nigerians included) are made scapegoats. They are accused of taking jobs from Britons, even though they principally do the jobs Britons refuse to do. They are also accused of exploiting Britain’s generous social security system.
Those caught residing in the country illegally are subject to racial abuses and physical assaults as they are forcibly deported. According to the London Guardian, these assaults range from “handcuffs-bruised wrists to swollen faces and fractured wrists and ankles.”
British high-handedness in addressing the nagging issue of immigration came to a head under David Cameron, when it appeared that his Conservative Party was being outflanked on the right at bye-elections by the anti-immigrant United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). With economic stagnation and government austerity measures resulting in widespread public resentment, Prime-Minister David Cameron felt the need to scapegoat illegal aliens.
In order to court UKIP supporters; the same people he had once referred to as closet racists, Cameron floated an outrageous policy which would require “high risk” Nigerian visitors to Britain to deposit a bond of £3,000 before they could be granted a visa. The bond would then be forfeited to the British government if the Nigerian overstayed his/her visit. This discriminatory scheme would not be applicable to Nigerians alone, but also to British visa applicants from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
The devious reach for right-wing populism behind the proposal became evident when trucks were deployed to London’s ethnically diverse areas with the message that illegal immigrants should “go home or face arrest.”
There were reports that the visa bond proposal came from the British Intelligence Service (MI6) and Scotland Yard (the British Police Headquarters), worried that even applications for student visas were likely to be used to import terrorists to Britain. The visa bond was then also intended to flag intending terrorists that they would be targets of intelligence surveillance and scrutiny while registered at British educational institutions.
Nigerians were considered high-risk in this regard given the example of Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, a Nigerian and former student of University College London, who tried to blow up an American plane in December 2009. Another Nigerian-born Briton and student, Michael Adebolajo, recently hacked a British soldier to death on the streets of London. In the racial stereotyping that ensued, Nigeria became blacklisted unofficially as a terrorist nation.
The visa bond proposal opened a can of worms. Nigerians were outraged at being labelled “high-risk” visitors to Britain. The British position was deemed disingenuous. If it were not to be seen as a general slur on Nigerians, why would the British give people considered high-risk visas at all?
The Nigerian legislature already readied retaliatory plans. One member said: “We would even raise the stake beyond the £3,000 they are asking Nigerians to pay as bond. We are looking at £5,000 as visa bond for UK citizens visiting Nigeria.”
In the end, economic commonsense prevailed. Figures from Nigeria’s Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment showed that trade between the two countries increased nearly five-fold from £1.42 billion in 2010 to £7.02 billion in 2012, with the value of Nigerian imports of British goods doubling at the time. Within the context of economic stagnation in Britain, it did not seem wise after all to jeopardise this.
Nigeria’s relationship with Britain is enigmatic. While the affinity for Britain remains, given the lingual connection and the colonial heritage, Nigerians are increasingly less enamoured of the British. The situation has not been helped by the feeling that the British relate to Nigerians on sufferance and would rather fewer Nigerians came to Britain. This feeling cannot but be heightened in the era of Brexit, when the British are developing greater animosity for immigrants and foreigners.
The feeling in Nigeria is that there is deep-seated British disregard for Nigeria and Nigerians. No special relationship has developed between Britain and its former colony of Nigeria. Today, Nigeria is neither a friend nor a foe of Britain. Both countries regard one another with a high degree of suspicion and mistrust.
By Femi Aribisala