As someone who loves history (I sometimes wish I had studied it at Uni), I try and see how the past has knitted the fabric of our present and possibly our future to.
Take Brexit. If you’ve been following it (how could you not, it’s bloody everywhere), there has been much discussion around the Irish backstop. I am not going to go into detail (you can learn about it here) but the significance of the Irish backstop is rooted in the British colonisation of Ireland.
When you look at the history of the world, particularly that of British colonialism, you notice a familiar narrative. I've been looking into Nigerian's modern history (for a book I plan on writing one day), and it's striking how the colonisation of Nigeria (or more accurately, the British lumping together of various ethnic tribes in the Niger River) and Britain's settlement in Ireland bare three striking similarities.
1. Both countries divided into two opposing regions because of British colonisation
During the Berlin Conference in 1884, the prominent European nations, overexcited by imperialism like it was a new hobby, carved up the continent of Africa like they were sharing a pie, albeit one filled with resources like oil. In this ‘Scramble for Africa,' Britain effectively took control of the Niger River region, ruled it indirectly and split the various indigenous groups into two – the Southern Nigeria Protectorate and the Northern Nigeria Protectorate.
By dividing Nigeria like this, Britain unwittingly created an unbalanced country. The South became richer, boasting a mostly Christian populace consisting of the Yoruba and Igbo ethnic group (although they are various other ethnic groups.) By contrast, the North, which is dominated mainly by Islam, is poorer, consisting of the Fulani and Kanuri ethnic group who speak Hausa. The Muslim-dominated North, some critics argue, was much more resistant to European influence because of their firm adherence to Islam.
Since becoming independent in 1960, there has been much civil unrest and conflicts between Nigeria’s Northern and Southern tribes, stopping Nigeria from fulfilling its potential. Because the British haphazardly created the country with little regard to the very different ethnical groups, a united Nigeria was always going to be difficult to achieve.
Centuries before Nigeria’s creation, Ireland was Britain’s first colony. Before British colonisation, Ireland was staunchly Roman Catholic. To increase its control over Northern Ireland (known as Ulster), Britain sent Protestant English and Scottish men to settle in the area and eventually they outnumbered the Catholic Irish.
But Britain’s colonisation of Northern Ireland created a region divided between the Protestants (loyal to Britain) and the Catholics (who wanted an independent Irish state). Similar to Nigeria, where the Christian-dominated Igbo and Yoruba Southern tribes had a better quality of life than Islam-dominated Northern tribes, in Northern Ireland, the Protestants had better jobs and better opportunities than Catholics.
In 1921, 39 years before Nigeria gained its independence from Britain, and after many battles and bloodshed over hundreds of years, Ireland gained its independence from Britain by effectively splitting into two countries – Republic of Ireland (an independent nation) and Northern Ireland (part of the UK). But while 78% of the Republic of Ireland is mainly catholic, Northern Ireland is almost evenly split between Catholics and Protestants, creating hostility and resentment, similar to the Christian and Islam divide in Nigeria.
2. A major civil war has taken place in both countries which can be linked back to British Colonisation
The bloodiest and fiercest civil war in recent Nigerian history was the Biafran War that lasted between 1967-1970. When Nigeria gained its independence in 1960, it was a country loosely glued together by Britain and fraught with rivalries between its various tribes. There was a period of tribal tensions followed by a military coup in 1966 by the Igbo, leading to another counter-coup from a northern-led rebellion and then subsequent massacres of the Igbo people. Against this blood-stained backdrop, an Igbo-majority declared its independence from Nigeria, claiming Biafra as their new home. The prospect of Nigeria splitting into two, in a fashion similar to Ireland, resulted in a civil war between the Nigerian army (later supported by the British Army who supplied weapons) and the Biafran army. Although Nigeria was victorious and the country remained unified, there were over 100,000 military casualties, and between 500,000 and 2 million Biafran civilians died of starvation.
When it shaped Nigeria, Britain had ignored the ethnic composition of the various tribes within the Niger River region, inadvertently planting the seeds that would become of the roots of Nigeria's most tragic civil war to date.
Although Northern Ireland’s civil war, ‘The Troubles’, was not as cataclysmic as the Biafran War, it is no less tragic. Lasting between the late 1960s and coming to a fragile truce in 1998 with the Good Friday agreement, The Troubles, like the Biafran war, was territorial rather than religious. It was a battle between the unionists, who were mostly Protestant and wanted to Northern Ireland to remain as part of the UK, and nationalists, a Catholic minority who wished for Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland thus uniting Ireland. Causalities from the war, mostly concentrated in Belfast although it did spill into England, exceeded 3,600 with as many as 50,000 suffering serious injuries.
"Similar to Nigeria, where the Christian-dominated Igbo and Yoruba Southern tribes had a better quality of life than Islam-dominated Northern tribes, in Northern Ireland, the Protestants had better jobs and better opportunities than Catholics. "
Unlike Nigeria, Ireland was ruled directly by the British through the insemination of Protestant Brits and Scots. But this divided the region, causing conflict over centuries as the Irish Catholics effectively became marginalised in their own land while the Protestants prospered. It is not surprising that the Irish Catholics could not cooperate with Protestant unionists as they fundamentally wanted different outcomes for the future of Northern Ireland, with the former wanting a complete separation from Britain. Nigeria had a similar scenario with the Southern Igbo tribe fighting for a united Biafran republic that was separate from Nigeria - a country manufactured by the British.
3. There are still ongoing divisions in both countries because of British colonisation
During my recent trip to Belfast for a Christmas party (side note: I don't think you'll ever taste a pint of Guinness as smooth and pure as they come in Belfast), I took part in a tour showing the locations that played a significant role during The Troubles. I was startled that the division between Protestant and Catholics, while no longer inciting outright violence against each other, was still present in the hearts and minds of the populace. There remains a physical manifestation of the divide with the "peace walls." These are 25-feet steel walls that stretch across the neighbourhoods in Belfast, separating the Nationalist Catholics and the Loyalist Protestants living in the area, mitigating any hostilities.
In Nigeria, the ethnic, cultural and religious divisions between the North and the South, Christians, and Muslims, is still evident, leading to current conflicts. The rise of the violent terrorist group, Boko Haram, in Northern Nigeria, is seen as retaliation and intolerance to Britain bringing its Western sensibilities and Christianity to Nigeria.
"It is not surprising that the Irish Catholics could not cooperate with Protestant unionists as they fundamentally wanted different outcomes for the future of Northern Ireland, with the former wanting a complete separation from Britain. Nigeria had a similar scenario with the Southern Igbo tribe fighting for a united Biafran republic that was separate from Nigeria - a country manufactured by the British. "
I am by no means suggesting that if Britain had never colonised Nigeria or Northern Ireland, then both countries would never have experienced any kind of deep-rooted divisions and violence that have blighted them over the past 100 years. That wouldn’t be true. Tribes within the Niger River region were fighting each other and selling each other into slavery long before the British came with their Bibles and rifles. However, Ireland has been stubbornly resisting English colonisation as far back as the 16th century.
If you take anything away from this article, I hope it’s an understanding that the past will always provide a canvas in which the present and future will be painted on. As Northern Ireland faces the prospect of Brexit and Nigeria readies itself for its 2019 General Election, it is essential to look at how these two countries were moulded by British rule in the past, to help us determine how they might shape themselves in the future.
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