Lessons for Contemporary Nigeria from the Anglo-Benin Treaty

Although Nigeria won its sovereignty and political freedom from the British colonialists nearly 50 years ago, it is a matter of regret that the British left only in order to stay behind. The ‘middle class’ solution to Nigeria’s decolonization, to borrow Chinweizu’s characterization,49 ensured that, at independence, power passed to the more reactionary or conservative faction of the ruling class.50 The implication of this, among others, was that our political leaders, like the Bourbons of old, simply put, learnt and forgotten nothing. The neo-colonial structure put in place in the
country has meant a continuation of the modalities of engaging the rest of the world bequeathed to the country at independence by its erstwhile colonial exploiter. The events which ultimately led to the imposition of British hegemony in Benin over a hundred years ago have continued to be replicated in different ways in Nigeria till this very day.

It should be recalled that soon after independence, Nigeria nearly signed the Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact, under which Nigeria and Britain would have enjoyed the right of overflight over each other’s airspace by military aircraft at a time when Nigeria did not even have an air force! In 1965, Nigeria became one of the first countries to ratify the World Bank Investment Disputes Settlement Convention, under which Nigeria was obliged to submit all disputes involving it and foreign investors to a forum in Washington, thereby accepting parity in status between it and foreign companies. Finally, Nigeria briskly embraced the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, thereby effectively tying its hands behind its back and robbing itself of the possibility of acquiring nuclear weapons in a world where the weak is often ignored and shorn of all respect by the powerful.

These are just some examples of Nigeria’s naivety and inability to apprehend international realpolitik and order its foreign policy and especially, treaty-making accordingly. If there is truly any lesson to be learnt from the Euro-African encounter in the 19th century, it is that political and military impotence carries a stiff price tag. In a world where only bones are left for late-comers, we just cannot afford to be taken for granted. Nigeria must do all it can to ensure that it plays in the Big League. A situation where the most urgent issues confronting the world are discussed behind our back should no longer be tolerated.

Admittedly, the international nuisance value of states depends on a number of variables, including population, GDP, Human capital development, size of armed forces, etc. Yet, Nigeria would need to put on its thinking cap if it does not wish to lapse into re-colonization. With the forcible incorporation of its economy into the global capitalist economy, Nigeria has little choice than to speedily resolve the disarticulate nature of its economy. Continued dependence on the export of mainly one product-petroleum-for the bulk of its foreign earnings makes the country very vulnerable to the vagaries of the world market and a so-called global economy which has lately been tottering dangerously


As far as treaty-making and treaty implementation go, there is a great need to overhaul the bureaucracy servicing the activity. Situations that led to the conclusion of the recent Green Tree Agreement, for instance, must be avoided. The procedures for treaty-making and treaty implementation should be well understood by all those involved in the exercise while input from the people by way of public hearings concerning the most important engagements should be actively encouraged.

It is self-evident that Nigeria is a most important actor on the African continent if not, in fact, the world. I am on record as having stated that a Nigeria goes, so does the rest of Africa.51 Indeed, Nigeria possesses tremendous hope and promise which must not continue to be betrayed but must be fulfilled in the interest of the Black race. What Azikiwe had called our manifest destiny must be realized soonest in order to ensure that we remain a beacon to the African and Black worlds. Since foreign policy is, to a large extent, a continuation of domestic policies, Nigeria must endeavour to put its house in order and get its act together if it whishes to be taken seriously by the rest of the world.

Treaties are mere instruments for realizing foreign policy objectives. Accordingly, the real task confronting Nigeria lies in the domestic plane which, as stated earlier, determines a country’s posture abroad. If Nigeria is able to get it right domestically, that would surly impact positively on our image and standing in the world.

Perhaps the most significant lesson from the British-Benin debacle is that weakness severely incapacitates an actor in international relations. The fact that the British, within five years of entering into an engagement with the Oba decided to overrun his domain, seize him and banish him far from his domain, loot the priceless treasures of the palace, humiliate and oppress the population should be a lesson for us all today not to take anything for granted. In the dangerous and difficult world that we inhabit, it is a wise precept to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.

Today, greedy eye of numerous foreign exploiters are riveted on our raw material. We are all living witnesses to the invasion of countries by powers that are primarily interested in the resources of their victims. We have heard of neutron bombs that would kill people but leave farmsteads, factories and other structures standing for the appropriation and enjoyment of the victors the morning after. In order not to suffer the fate of our forefathers, we must apprehend the validity of the admonition of Vegetius: Qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum (Whoever desires peace must prepare for war). Granted that Nigeria should not engage in wars of aggression but we need to strengthen our defence capabilities for, it is commonly said that attack is the best form of defense.

The 19th century was the period when we were colonized. The 20th century was the time when we managed to recover our sovereignty from forces that did not have any qualms in slicing out an entire continent like an apple-pie to be shared among themselves. The 21st century should be the era when we are able to consolidate on our nation-building efforts in order to ensure that, never again, would we be subjected to the stranglehold of foreign powers that are out to exploit and humiliate us.

The signs all point to an imminent resurgence and transformation of the African condition. In spite of the high incidence of Afro-pessimism in many quarters, I make bold to say that the only way for Africa today is up. The imperceptible changes occurring in Nigeria, Africa and the African Diaspora are enough and sufficiently encouraging to justify the feelings of Afro-optimism that have animated this presentation. However, keeping hope alive does not imply that we should lay back and put everything on auto-pilot. It requires the combined effort of all the progressive forces in the society to create and empower the Nigeria and Africa of our dream. The journey has already started and, all things being equal, we would get there.

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