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Sunday, 12 December 2010

Wikileaks, Shell and Neo-colonialism in Nigeria

Wikileak US embassy secret cables continue to educate, performing a significant public service and, hence, drawing fire from all ‘responsible’ quarters beholden to American hegemonic power. This week saw significant revelations about the role of Royal Dutch Shell in Nigeria where over two-thirds of the population live in poverty in an oil-rich economy.

However, it is not just the Nigerian state that is infiltrated by Western multinational corporations: the university system was created by and operated largely for western interests in the run up to and after independence in 1960. Such penetration was organised by the British Colonial Office, funded by the Carnegie Corporation and other American ‘philanthropic’ foundations, and facilitated by a western-educated Nigerian elite whose mentality was entirely self- and Western-oriented.

In effect, ‘independent’ Nigeria was handed over to social, economic and political forces that were economically, militarily and intellectually dependent on the West, particularly Britain and the United States. Nigerian elites effectively adapted the role they had long played since the days of the slave trade: middlemen between the resources of Nigeria and traders and others from the West who wanted slaves and minerals. With every transaction, Nigeria’s unpatriotic middlemen collected a fee for services rendered, enriching themselves and their Western overlords at the expense of the peoples of that artificially constructed country.

The Wikileak cables that reveal the degree of penetration – colonialisation – of the Nigerian state by just one, admittedly massive, multinational corporation is not especially surprising but remains shocking nonetheless. It shows that the end of colonial rule did not presage genuine independence for Nigerians but the transfer of political power to nominally Nigerian elites that continued to see the country as a set of resources for sale, at a price. They took advantage of their situation for their own benefit, using the context of Cold War competition between the West and the Soviet Union to wrest as high a price as possible for their services. They ran an anticommunist regime, based on Western precepts of modernisation and development, promising political stability and economic, commercial and raw material flows from Nigeria to the industrial West. While they got richer and richer, the mass of ordinary Nigerians got poorer and poorer.

It was hardly surprising that Nigeria erupted in bloody civil war in the late 1960s: the Western economic development experts sent over by American philanthropic foundations and the American state, such as Wolfgang Stolper of Michigan State University, saw Africa as the “dark continent”, and Africans as backward, lazy, corrupt and inferior. The likes of Stolper, and Arnold Rivkin of MIT (and later adviser to the US Agency for International Development, and the World Bank’s Africa division) also prided themselves on their objectivity, wearing their ignorance of matters African as a badge of distinction. They proceeded to meddle at the very heart of economic policy and development, establishing fiercely market-based economies in the context of an ethnically-charged, class-based political order that they knew nothing about, let alone understood.

They openly spoke and wrote about Nigeria, and Africa in general, as a laboratory for experimentation, especially for their economic theories and for theories of public administration. It is not surprising then that Pfizer sent over, during an epidemic a team of scientists to test out on human beings new drugs that were not permitted in the United States. The “dark continent” remains in the Western elite mind a place for “discovery”, a laboratory with human guinea pigs whose own leaders might have “forgotten”, according to a Shell Oil representative, how deeply penetrated are their own organs of state power.

In a typically provocative essay in the Daily Mail about 5 years ago, the pro-imperial Anglo-Saxonist historian Andrew Roberts who, I suspect, will be among the gaggle of pro-imperial historians to advise Tory Education Secretary Michael Gove on how to teach history in Britain’s schools, demanded the west “Colonialise Africa” again. He claimed that all the evidence of post-colonial Africa’s corruption, poverty, and lack of economic development, demanded a return to Western colonial rule.

Roberts, at least, was writing almost 50 years after independence. The telling fact is that amnesia about the creation of such endemic problems in Africa had begun even before the end of British colonial rule. By the time the likes of Stolper and Rivkin turned up in Africa to ‘develop’ and ‘modernise’ it, with the help of colonially-educated and oriented Nigerian elites, the colonial past and its massive negative consequences, were already being denied and forgotten.

In truth, colonial rule in Nigeria transformed into neo-colonialism: the granting of political sovereignty through a negotiated settlement that would retain, maintain and extend economic, commercial, intellectual and military ties. The colonial mind-set lives on. It merely changed its outer appearance, its garb. That superficial change is now so deeply accepted and taken for granted a part of the African story that it is promoted as actual history.

What the Wikileaks US embassy cables have done is to cast especially brilliant light on one stark example of neo-colonial rule in Africa, striking at the heart of dark deeds perpetrated by Western power and, very significantly, its forgetful but affluent Nigerian allies.


  1. Hi
    Thanks for this, I found this post really informative. I just wondered where you got your sources from in terms of the neocolonialism of the Nigerian elites and how western interests dictated Nigerian universities pre and post independence.

    I am postgraduate student writing an essay about how formal education can perpetuate social inequalities and thought Nigeria would be an interesting (albeit complicated!) topic to choose.

    Just seems to be some really interesting points in this post that I'd like to look into further



  2. Hi,
    Thanks for your comment and question: I researched the material for this blog post - the neo-colonial aspects - in the archives of the Ford Foundation in New York City. I have just published a book entitled Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power (Columbia Univ Press, 2012). There is a chapter on Nigeria therein which is much more detailed about the character of the Nigerian state and how it developed under British colonial rule.
    Thanks again for your comment.

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