The evolution of Nigeria from about 1849 until it attained independence in 1960 is largely the story of the transformational impact of the British on the peoples and cultures of the Niger-Benue area.
The colonial authorities sought to define, protect and realize their imperial interest in this portion of West Africa in the hundred or so years between 1862 and 1960, The British were in the Niger- Benue area to pursue their interests, which were largely economic and strategic. In the process of seeking to realize those interests, there were many unplanned-for by-products.
The first critical step in this uncertain path was taken in 1849 when, as part of an effort to ‘sanitize’ the Bights of Benin and Biafra, which were notorious for the slave trade, the British created a consulate for the two Bights. From here, one thing led to another for the British, especially to deepen involvement in the political and economic life of the city states of the Bights and to rivalry with the French who also began showing imperial ambitions in the area. The result, in time, was that the British converted the coastal consulate and its immediate hinterland into the Oil Rivers Protectorate in 1885, which, in 1893, transformed into the Niger Coast Protectorate.
The apparently irreversible logic of this Development led to deeper and closer involvement in the administration of the peoples and societies of this segment of Nigeria which, by the middle of the twentieth century, came to be known as Eastern Nigeria.
The second step, along the same path, was taken about 1862 when the British annexed the Lagos Lagoon area and its immediate environs and converted same into a crown colony. According to the British, they did this in order to be better able to abolish the slave trade which used that area as export point. According to Nigerian historians, on the other hand, they did so to be better able to protect their interest in the vital trade route that ran from Lagos, through Ikorodu, Ibadan and similar communities, to the Niger waterway in the north and beyond into Hausaland. Be that as it may, by 1897, British influence and power had overflowed the frontiers of Lagos and affected all of Yorubaland which was subsequently attached to Lagos as a Protectorate. The political and administrative unit which came to be known as Western Nigeria in the 1950s came as the end of this second step.
The third and final step in this uncharted path came in 1888. The British administered political ‘baptism’ on Greyne Goldie’s National African Company which had successfully squeezed out rivals, British and non-British, from the trade in the lower Niger, following a trade war of almost unprecedented ferocity. As a result of the ‘baptism’, Goldie’s company became the Royal Niger Company, chartered and limited. It also acquired political and administrative powers over a narrow belt of territory on both sides of the river from the sea to Lokoja, as well as over the vast area which, in the 20th century, came to be known as Northern Nigeria.
Thus, by about 1897, the three blocks of territory had emerged, as British colonial possessions, from moves made during the period of the These three blocks of territories One change, perhaps the major one, was that the charter of the Royal Niger Company was withdrawn and the territory under its shadowy control was declared the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria and brought under the Colonial Secretary. Similarly, the Niger Coast Protectorate, which had been under the Foreign Secretary, was renamed the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria and brought under the Colonial Secretary. In addition, the narrow “strip of Royal Niger Company from Lokoja to the sea”, which had divided the Niger Coast Protectorate into two, was united with it, thus bringing the western and eastern halves of that administration together territorially. The Lagos Colony and Protectorate underwent no change while continuing under the controlling authority of the Colonial Office. With these three units then brought under the Colonial Office, the situation was created in which the management of their affairs came to be informed by the same theory and practice of administration.
The amalgamation of 1914 offered an opportunity for making changes in the unsatisfactory arrangement, but not much was achieved this area. All that was created was a body known as the Nigerian Council which met once a year to listen to what may be called the Governor’s address on the state of the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. The body had no legislative powers whatsoever. The same ambivalence based on imperial self-interest that characterized the Lugardian approach to seeing and treating Nigeria as one political entity and Nigerians as members of one political family was also evidenced in the constitutional development efforts of his successors. For example, while the Sir Hugh Clifford Constitution of 1922 introduced the elective principle for legislative houses for the first time, the Legislative Council which replaced Lugard’s Nigerian Council legislated only for the Colony and Southern Provinces while the Governor continued to legislate for the Northern Provinces through proclamations. The forty-six-member Council, presided over by the Governor, was dominated by ex-official and nominated members.
The Legislative Council system thus implied a division of responsibility to govern Nigeria between the United Kingdom-based British Government and the government established in the Colony. Besides, Nigerians were excluded from membership of the Executive Council.
The Richards Constitution of 1946, though it had among its objectives the promotion of the unity of Nigeria and securing greater participation by Nigerians in discussing their affairs, deliberately set out to cater for the diverse elements within The country, Significant provisions of this new constitution included the establishment of a re-constituted Legislative Council whose competence covered the whole country; the abolition of the official majority in the Council; the creation of Regional Councils consisting of a House of Assembly in each of the Northern, Eastern and Western Provinces, and creation of House of Chiefs in the North, whose roles were purely advisory rather than legislative. Significantly, however, the Richards Constitution was designed without full consultation with Nigerians which explains the hostility with which it was greeted, especially in the South.
Although the Richards Constitution was expected to last for nine years, opposition to it, especially from the political leaders, was so strong that a new constitution, the Macpherson Constitution, was promulgated in 1951. Unlike its predecessors, there was significant participation of Nigerians in its making from the village level up to the Ibadan General Conference of 195, The major provisions of the Constitution were as follows: the establishment of a 145-member House of Representatives, 136 of them elected, to replace the Legislative Council; a bicameral legislature for both the North and West, one being the House of Chiefs while the East retained the unicameral House of Assembly; the establishment of a Public Service Commission to advise the Governor on the appointment and control of public officers; the competence of the Regional Legislatures to legislate on a range of prescribed subjects while the central legislature was empowered to legislate on all matters including those on the Regional Legislative lists. Substantially, therefore, the 1951 Constitution was more or less a half-way house between regionalization and federation. Between 1951 and 1954, two important constitutional conferences were held in London and Lagos between Nigerian political leaders and the British government. These resulted in a new 1954 Federal Constitution whose main features were: the separation of Lagos, the nation’s capital, from the Western Region; the establishment of a Federal Government for Nigeria comprising three regions, namely, North, West and East with a Governor-General at the centre and three Regional Governors; the introduction of an exclusive Federal Legislative List as well as a Concurrent List of responsibilities for both the Federal and Regional Governments, thus resulting in a strong central government and weak regions; regionalization of the Judiciary and of the public service through the establishment of Regional Public Service Commissions, in addition to the Federal one.
From the point of view of the evolution of the Nigerian state, the most significant thing about the 1954 Constitution, which remained in force until Independence in 1960, was that the Lugardian principle of entralization was replaced by the formula of decentralization as a matter of policy in the administration of the Nigerian state.