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Treaties and the Colonial Enterprise in Nigeria9

The usual means of establishing colonial hegemony was by conquest. However, in the case of Nigeria, it was a mixed bag of persuasion by way of treaties and ‘pacification’ which, in actuality, signified resort to the Maxim gun, a weapon which was no match for the bows and arrows of the natives. Accordingly, the British, by brute force, extended their power and authority to far-flung parts of the world, thereby creating the much celebrated empire over which the sun never set.


The controversy still rages among scholars as to why the British in Nigeria made use so much of treaties as an instrument of colonization. For example, Omoniyi Adewoye, Nigeria’s leading legal historian contends that it could be explained by their love and predilection for form and tradition.10 According to him, “A potent factor in consolidating and stabilizing colonial rule was the imported European legal process. In the hands of British colonial administrators, as was a veritable tool, stronger in many ways than the Maxim gun…”11

His opinion would seem to have been corroborated by that of a British writer who observed that “Trade may have followed the flag or vice-versa, but almost before either of them arrived in the Englishmen’s knapsacks the law of England had taken root.”12

Others have laid the resort by the British to treaties with the local chiefs to necessity arising from their inability to effect conquest in one fell swoop and immediate establishment of full-fledged colonial rule thereafter.13 The sheer convenience of treaty-making as against military

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action, in the view of Obaro Ikime, for example, explains the predilection of the British for treaties in many parts of Nigeria.14

However, it is submitted that no single explanation can be considered adequate or valid to unravel the motivation of the British for treaty-making. Although the British generally held the local potentates with whom they were negotiating in great contempt, their frenetic effort to secure the agreement of the local potentates was largely borne of expediency. They did not for a minute consider the African parties as equal partners but sought their “X” marks on the documents in a bid to secure their hold on the territories in question against any claims over the said territories by other prospective European colonial Power(s). As Elias had observed, “[The] local rulers were styled ‘kings’ before the execution of the treaties, but more often regarded or treated for all practical purposes thereafter as ‘chiefs’ only, implying that they had full sovereign powers to sign the treaties which ipso facto turned them into subordinates of the new sovereigns”.15

It is worthy of note that British penetration of the domains of the local potentates was effected through anti-slave trade treaties, commercial treaties and so-called treaties of protection, depending on the circumstance at hand. Accordingly, the anti-slave trade treaties provided the perfect framework for interference by the British in the internal affairs of the African party. It should be recalled that it was not unknown for the British Consul to meddle in local chieftaincy disputes right up to destooling unfriendly chiefs or influencing the appointment of preferred candidates!16 Under the guise of stamping out the unholy trade “at source”, the British were able to waive aside any claim to sovereignty and non-interference in their internal affairs by the local chiefs. Since the international community had acquiesced in any step taken to put an end to slave traffic, it became quite easy for the British to invoke international anti-slavery instruments in riding roughshod on the independence of the African sovereigns.

On the other hand, the commercial treaties sought to extract monopoly rights from the hapless African chiefs and deprive them of jurisdiction in commercial disputes involving British supercargoes and African traders which they had been exercising hitherto.17 Not only did the treaties envisage the establishment of consular and equity courts whose buildings enjoyed extra-territorial status, their administration was put squarely under the superintendence of British Consuls without exequaturs, much to the chagrin of the local chiefs and traders. In effect, the Palmerstonian policy of ensuring that the long arm of English law protected the Englishman wherever he went became the precursor to full-blown colonization. Treaties that were modeled along the lines of capitulation treaties of the Ottoman Empire with the West paid mere lip service to mutuality, with little chance of the African party enjoying similar protection for its own traders or missionaries in the domain of the British monarch.18

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With regard to the treaties of ‘protection’ forced down the throats of the local chiefs, it needs be stated, without any fear of contradiction, that they were a mere prelude to de facto imposition of British rule over inhabitants of what later became known as Nigeria. It is worthy of not that in 1888, the Alafin of Oyo had consigned the entire Yorubaland to the “protection” of the British in exchange for an annual ‘dash’ of 20,000 bags of cowries!19  Some other rulers settled for much less, items such as handkerchiefs, padlocks as well as sergeant-major uniforms featuring frequently as consideration for subjecting themselves to British rule and dictation.20  As Umozurike had observed, it is quite intriguing that the treaties should be termed treaties of protection when the party against which protection was, in fact, needed was the colonial power seeking to imposes it in the first place!21

It would be recalled that when King Jaja of Opobo had sought clarification on the word, “protection” contained in a treaty presented for his signature, the reply of the British Consul was instructive:

“I write as you request with reference to the word ‘protection’ as used in the proposed Treaty that the Queen (of England) does not want to take your country or your markets, but at the same time is anxious that no other nation should take them; she undertakes to extend her gracious power and protection which will leave your country still under your Government; she has no wish to disturb your rule…”22

However, as Ikime has asked,

“…[H]ow could Jaja continue to rule his people as of old if, as laid down in Article V of the treaty, he was bound to act on the advice of British Consular officials in matters relating to the administration of justice, the government of the resources of the country, or in any other matter in relation to peace, order and good government and the general progress of civilization?”23

As Jaja was later to discover, much to his chagrin, the colonial protectorate was no more than an artifice for the total take-over of the protected state by its protector with the connivance of the international community as prescribed under the Act of Berlin of 1885. Indeed, the colonial protectorates envisaged under the so-called protection treaties have been rightly described as “the outcome of a para-legal metamorphosis…[with] no place in international law as a juridically justifiable institution.”24 they were actually a subterfuge for the incorporation of the respective territories into the British Empire and the British made no pretences in swallowing up territory after territory that they had claimed fell under their protection.

In view of the foregoing, it is clear that the situation existing both before and after the Berlin Congress in 1884–5 facilitated the perpetration of perhaps the greatest havoc in history by one group of people against another. After over three centuries of enslavement of the African people, the world was to witness another unprecedented travesty when an entire continent was raped and pilloried by the same set of countries that had felt no compunction in visiting misery and exploitation on our people. The odious atrocity has left an indelible imprint on the consciousness and reality of the African people so much so that hardly can any apologies or restitution suffice or atone.

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