Three Major Regions Of Nigeria

This extended essay deals with indirect rule in Nigeria, from 1900 to 1960, concerning its application and outcome. It investigates the reasons for which the British implemented the system in the region and the ways in which they went about using the colonial administration. More specifically, this investigation will examine the question: How did traditional beliefs and systems affect the application, success and failure of indirect rule in the three major regions of Nigeria?

The scope of this investigation is restricted to examining the traditional beliefs and systems of Nigeria, more specifically, spanning across the three major regions at the time, which were the North, West and south. However, no other factors that may have attributed to the success or failure of indirect rule will be examined.

Secondary sources, such as “People, politicians” by Bola Ige and “A history of Nigeria” by Toyin Falola and Matthew M. Heaton will be used to examine a Nigerian and neutral perspective of what happened in Nigeria, whereas a primary source, “The Dual Mandate” by Frederick Lugard will be used to examine a British perspective of why they came to Nigeria.

The investigation undertaken will lead to the conclusion that traditional systems and beliefs attributed to the application, success and failure of indirect rule, as a result of the religions and political structures already set in place, which did not meet up with the required standards needed to implement the system. For instance, in regions where leaders were not set in place, the British lacked anyone to rule through. The British misconstrued their ability to rearrange the systems in their favour, which evidently caused greater problems.

Word Count: 272

Table of Contents

1. Introduction 4-5

2. Structure of Investigation 6

3. Analysis of Sources 6-7

4. Analysis 8

4.1 The effect of traditional systems and beliefs on indirect rule in Northern Nigeria 8-10

4.2 The effect of traditional systems and beliefs on indirect rule in Western Nigeria 11-13

4.3 The effect of traditional systems and beliefs on indirect rule in Eastern Nigeria 14-15

5. Conclusion 16

6. Bibliography 17-18

1. Introduction

Before 1807, Britain used her colonies for the movement of her slave trade, When the slave trade was abolished in 1807, Britain, like many other European powers, turned her attention to exploiting only the economic resources of Africa, and so ensued the “Scramble for Africa”. This was the invasion, occupation, colonization, and annexation of African countries by the European imperial powers. [1] The race was but another means for the powers to elevate their power status in Africa.

The British required a colonial administration which would ensure her dominance among her African colonies, whilst also forgoing the problems that came about as a result of her continuous physical presence in the region, such as high costs, long distance journeys and lack of men. [2] Frederick Lugard’s “indirect rule system” was introduced to Nigeria, after his previous success in the Indian sub-continent and the Sudan, and relied philosophically on the concept that British colonial rule should be maximally beneficial to the British and the peoples of Nigeria. [3] A cheap colonial policy which produced peace order and tranquillity was deemed successful whilst one that caused problems and disputes was thought to be a failure. [4] 

In Nigeria, indirect rule made use of Emirs, Obas etc to put forth the policies of the British, thus ruling “indirectly”. Under this policy, British local administrative officers were to only give “advice” to the traditional ruler, and would only object if a course of action was “inhumane” or injurious to the higher interest of the crown. [5] 

The amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914 unified over 250 ethnic groups, construed under the assumption that these groups could get along, however their differences proved to make the tasks of peaceful cooperation very difficult.

In their bid to exert their authority in the region, the British failed to consider the extent to which the ethnic groups differed, and how their differing traditional systems and beliefs would determine the application and outcome of indirect rule.

The relevance of this topic today is that, since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, northerners have dominated the political scene. This can be attributed to the success of indirect rule in the north, which may have encouraged the British to perpetrate power to the north where British policies had successfully been implemented. The dominance of the north in politics has encouraged the formation of the “rotational power sharing formula” by which presidency is shared rotated amongst the regions, to disable the political dominance of any region.

Structure of the investigation

This investigation will first examine the application and outcome of indirect rule in the three major regions of Nigeria. This essay will also look at the traditional systems and beliefs set in place during the colonial period. Following this, this investigation will examine the ways in which the application and outcome of indirect rule can be attributed to the traditional systems and beliefs of the people, and explores the issues that arose to further consolidate evidence of these affects.

Analysis of Sources

Source 1

People, Politics and Politicians of Nigeria (1940-1976) by Bola Ige is a book in which he wrote on political events and developments in Nigeria. It has certain values to a historian studying this topic. Ige experienced some events as a young boy, which indicates that his accounts are his own. Furthermore, he shows great knowledge in regards to northern Nigeria, where he resided in his early years of life. In addition, Ige wrote the book in order to “fill my boring time” whilst he was “in detention in Zaria prison in 1985”. [6] This shows great dedication and validity, as he must have spent a great deal of time on it.

On the other hand, Ige admits that his “judgment of some persons and incidents will be considered harsh or unfair”. [7] His blatant admittance of biasness can be valued as being a limitation. Furthermore, Ige’s study is restricted to the years between 1940 and 1976, whereas indirect rule was implemented in the early 1900’s. This is also a limitation as his book disregards the happenings of the regions in the early years of indirect rule’s implementation.

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Source 2

The Dual Mandate by Sir Frederick Lugard has values in terms of its origins. Lugard was the founder of indirect rule, and it is his concept of colonial administration by which the definition of indirect rule emerged from. The book was written by Lugard and presents his philosophical views on Africa. Furthermore, Lugard oversaw the implementation of the system, which validates his accounts of what actually happened in the regions.

On the other hand, this source also has its limitations. In his book, Lugard cites Africans as “lacking in self control, foresight and self-discipline” [8] , hence, the Africans “needed” [9] Britain to intervene within their social affairs. His views can be interpreted as bias, which would give the impression that his views cannot always be trusted. Furthermore, Lugard majorly oversaw the implementation of the system in the north, not the west or east. Therefore, his book is a weak source to use to conclude what happened in the west or the east.

Source 3

A History of Nigeria by Toyin Falola and Matthew M. Heaton has values to an historian studying this topic. In terms of its origin, the authors are both experienced historians, both having other books under their credentials which have examined Nigeria’s broad history. The purpose of this book is to “provide a general background survey of the broad themes of Nigeria’s history, from the beginnings of human habitation in the region, up to the early twenty first century”. [10] 

Yet the book does have its limitations. For instance, the book covered a broad range of topics, which in turn limited its focus on certain aspects of Nigerian history such as indirect rule itself, which is why I did not depend much on this book in comparison to the rest of my sources.

2. Analysis

2.1. The effect of traditional systems and beliefs on indirect rule in Northern Nigeria

The application of indirect rule in Nigeria originates from Frederick Lugard’s administration in the protectorate of Northern Nigeria, during 1899 to 1906. It is argued that Lugard only introduced indirect rule in the north, whilst his system was rerouted in the rest of the country.

The Hausas were the dominant ethnic group in the protectorate of Northern Nigeria which ran a highly developed and efficient system of administration. [11] The region had been divided into units called emirates, and each unit was governed by an Emir who was responsible to the head of the Caliphate, also known as the Caliph. [12] Emirs were appointed Native authorities in such divisions, which was one of three proclamations made by Lugard to give legal backing to indirect rule in the region. Emirs headed their local governments, collected taxes under the native treasury and had enough power placed upon them to gain respect among their people. However, they were placed subordinate to British district officers, a clear effort to maintain British authority.

Lugard ruled through the existing traditional rulers, and so changes to the north’s political system were not necessary regarding this aspect. The Emirs were highly respected and so were able to successfully govern their respective Emirates. However, the Emirs were not the humane and generous rulers that they were thought to be.

The Emirs were indeed highly respected figures within their units. Their subjects thought them to be instruments of Gods for their earthly survival. [13] The Emirs held circuses and festivals for the hoi-polloi to enjoy feasts and to forget their conditions, and also provided alms to the poor and destitute [14] , keeping up their generous personas.

However, underneath this sham of generosity and humility, the Emirs ran corrupt administrations. They exploited indirect rule in order to further consolidate and extend their power and authority. The Emirs based their personas on false hood. They would often fake battles with their conscience when pondering their actions, convincing even their victims that they were deserving of their punishments. [15] They sat on well-upholstered leather poufs to give the impression that they were humble enough to sit on the floor, amongst their subjects. The Emirs were shrewd, cunning, wily and ruthless. [16] 

The Emirs also involved themselves in corrupt business, but the British never intervened. Intervention was only allowed when actions taken were “inhumane” or injurious to the higher interest of the crown. [17] Corruption and abuse can be classified as inhumane and unjust, and served as the foundation on which the Emirs ruled their governments. Their actions can be assumed to have been inhumane, and a smear on the reputation of the British Empire. However, Lugard and the British failed to intervene, assumingly because his system had been running smoothly, and so he probably would rather have not done anything to back track his success.

In 1903, Lugard launched an 800-mile military campaign in order to establish the emirates under the authority of the British government and Christian movement. [18] However, Islam had been introduced in the north over 500 years before, and so Christianity was not welcome. The northerners had put up a fight, forming a number of Muslim radical movements such as the “Mahdist” [19] to force the British out, but were unsuccessful. Under the northerners’ terms of surrender, the British agreed not to interfere with the Muslim religion which was interpreted by both parties as the discouragement of Christian missionaries in the region. [20] 

Islam alone did not attribute to the success or failure of indirect rule, but instead the power it provided to the Emirs. As I previously mentioned, Emirs were regarded as very important figures in their society, to the extent that they valued themselves as “instruments of God” and adherers “to the injunctions of the Koran. [21] Their personal opinions were shared by their subjects, who looked up to their leaders as instigators of Islam. The glorification of Emirs which bordered on their subjects treating them as Gods enabled the Emirs to quite easily curtail their subjects, whatever their preference. This also contributed to the systems efficiency and adherent success.

The system of indirect rule is highly regarded as being most successful in the north when compared to the application and outcome in the western and eastern regions. Evidently, the power of the traditional rulers and their association with the Islamic religion did much to alter the extent to which the British involved themselves in the affairs of the people, whist also contributing largely to its success.

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2.2. The effect of traditional systems and beliefs on indirect rule in Western Nigeria

Following the success of indirect rule in the northern region of Nigeria, the British thought it possible to expand the system across the country, upon her amalgamation in 1914. They apparently concluded that the system was suitable and applicable to the country as a whole. However, this assumption proved to be a misconception, as the British had clearly overlooked the ways by which the differing beliefs and culture of the westerners to the northerners would affect the outcome of the system in the region.

Yorubas were the dominant ethnic group in the west. Unlike in the north, religion was not an important factor in determining the how and with what outcome indirect rule was applied. It was the traditional royal hierarchy that determined its outcome. The British had no trouble deducing who were the rulers. The major problem came about with the complex leadership system that was in place.

The British believed that the Oba possessed an undeniable power, similar to that of the Emir, and so thought that by controlling the Obas, they could run the whole region. Evidently, some prominent Obas in the west had kingdoms as large as those belonging to the Emirs in the North. Obas were viewed as kings, well respected by their communities. The administration of the town belongs to him, therefore he is called Oba. Hence the saying

“Obato ba lori ohun gbogbo”

King reigns over everything in his domain [22] 

Obas were generally held in high esteem, and were considered to be “priest-kings”. [23] They were also “regarded as divine in consequence of their sceptre which derived from the divinity to whom he is vice-regent”. [24] This implies that the Obas were highly respected rulers and religious figures with immense power at their disposal. The perception of Obas as Godly creatures is similar to that of the situation in the North with the Emirs. However, Obas lacked the power that the Emirs had. They did not rule alone as the political structure prevented the Oba from exercising absolute power. Everyone-young and old, men and women-took part in the affair of the state. [25] Therefore, the extent of their power was misconceived, partly on the basis that the British may have concluded that the link between the Obas and Emirs expanded further than just the respect that they commanded.

The western traditional system of leadership relied only slightly on the Oba, for there were many other crucial members of their traditional system of leadership.

The Oba’s power heavily depended on his “Council of chiefs” [26] , but the name and extent of their power differed across the Kingdoms of the western region.

The Oyo Mesi, that is, the council of state had the power to check Oba’s excesses in Oyo Empire, while the Ogboni were powerful among the Egba, and the Imule and the Osugbo were also powerful among the Ijebus and Ife to checkmate the autocratic power of the Oba. [27] Their deliberations were very secretive. The “Ogboni” was a cabinet of sorts, which carried out the administration of a city or community. [28] The group consisted of important men in society who either held public office or was a son of a chief. The group was led by a chairman, referred to as the “Oluwo” [29] and alongside the Oba, met to discuss important matters. Any action taken by the Oba must have been supported by the Ogboni.

The Oba’s dependency on his council of chiefs was largely due to the fact that said council had the power to choose or depose a king. Although Obas were kings, ascension of the throne was never hereditary, as the king was always chosen from a select group of families. Obas refrained from participating in corrupt activities, as their station and power derived from the support of their chiefs and people. If opposition against their rule arose, the council of chiefs would intervene. If a king was deemed unworthy of his crown, not only would the king be stripped off his kingship, but also forced to “open the calabash” [30] , a situation where the chiefs would give him poison to drink, enforcing him to commit suicide.

The British decided to solve this problem by upsetting the traditional systems of the west. They placed Yoruba individuals in charge of other Yorubas, inconsiderate of the fact that culture also differed within one ethnic group. They also sought to weaken the power of the council of chiefs, in order to ensure straight forward communication with the Oba. The placement of new Yoruba leaders created resistance and violence among the Yoruba people towards their colonial rulers. The resistance encouraged British officers to appoint themselves as acting rulers which completely forfeited the idea of ruling through a traditional ruler. Furthermore, the system instigated violence rather than ensure peace. The reintroduction of British officers in the region would have also brought forth the problems that the system had been implemented to remove, such as the costs of employing British officers and the long distances they had to travel. Therefore, in the west, the traditional systems altered the application and outcome of indirect rule.

However, although the system was not successful in the region, the west had what was necessary to implement the system successfully, which was the existence of traditional rulers. This was very much necessary, as shown of the systems failure in Eastern Nigeria.

2.3. The effect of traditional systems and beliefs on indirect rule in Eastern Nigeria

In Eastern Nigeria, it was again the traditional system that hindered the application of indirect rule in the region, ultimately leading to its penultimate failure. However, unlike in the north and the west, indirect rule was not applicable to the east, because traditional rulers were scarce and lacked power.

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The Eastern region was home to those people belonging to the Igbo, Efik, Ibibo and Ijo tribes. [31] In the east, there were “no homogenous communities” [32] that could be compared to the Emirate or Yoruba kingdoms. This meant that rulers in the region had little authority that never went beyond the territory of a small town or village. In this case, said chiefs had very little power, even less than the Obas of the Yoruba kingdom, considering the expanse of their ruled territories. Another issue that arose was that there were a limited number of rulers which was not enough to govern the whole eastern region. In addition, the British met a similar situation in the east as they had met in the west. The eastern chiefs, like the Obas, lacked sole responsibility in terms of decision making. Unlike the west, there were no strict bodies that ran the region. Instead, decisions concerning a town or village were usually decided by citizens who convened in village meetings.

To solve these issues that had arisen, the British adopted the “Warrant chief system”. [33] This system was the way by which the British created chieftaincy positions and appointed a new set of chiefs. The problem with this was that the villages, unbeknownst of the British’s intentions, failed to bring forth important members of their society when asked to do so by their colonial rulers. They feared death would become of whoever they brought forth, and so usually brought forth slaves or members of the lower class, unaware that these people would be given glory rather than death. These leaders later proved to be corruptive, and just like in the north, the British failed to do anything as long as their presence was not required. However, corruptive activities were inhumane, and so again, the way in which indirect rule was applied had again changed to fit into the system of the region.

One major problem with the change in application was the fact that its founder, Frederick Lugard considered the warrant chief system to be “different and inferior to the system practiced in Nigeria”. [34] 

The Easterners also seemed to dislike both the warrant chief and indirect rule system. The warrant chief system dictated who they were to follow, and in some cases, elected a leader, in which their cultural backgrounds greatly differed, resolving the leader to lack greater knowledge of the people of the town or village that he governed. The original form of indirect rule was not abided to and so the people were cheated of a much greater freedom in terms of little to no intervention by the British. Such feelings, though not certain, could have contributed to the outbreak of protests in the 1920’s, such as the Women’s war which put an end to the warrant chief system. [35] 

In the eastern region, not only was the original concept of indirect rule not adhered to, but it was also a failure, with hardly any room for argument. It was by far the region in which the system was the least successful, and the only region in which the traditional systems served to not benefit the outcome of the system at all.

3. Conclusion

My aim for this essay was to examine the ways by which Nigeria’s traditions and beliefs could affect the ways by which the British applied indirect rule and with what outcome. During my research, I gathered information on how colonial administrations altered the foundations of a country. However, said information was what I expected because I believed that in order for one country to dominate another, changes must be made. This is because, nowadays, ex colonies speak the language of their former colonial master. However, books alone could not provide me with the answer I needed, regarding my research question.

My first inquiry concerned the capacity needed to colonize a nation. Colonial countries had great military strength, but force rarely resolved issues and lacked peaceful cooperation, as seen in the conflict between the Madhists and the British army in the north. I then questioned how complex it would have been to rid a nation of its traditions, such that were embedded into the very foundations on which the nation was built on. Looking at Nigeria as my place of origin, I see a mix of the old and the new, within a “civilized” society, where the old is replaced with the new, and our traditions, such as our language and our native clothes are hard to come by in our youth. But the mere presence of the old signifies a fight for our beliefs, and that was what brought on this topic to mind.

Nigeria is a diverse nation (exemplified in my splitting of this essay into analyzing three of the existing regions during the colonial era) with many traditions and beliefs. For many years, there have been disputes between ethnic groups and religions within the society. Therefore, I had initially thought that British interference in the country would be met with hostility towards another tradition to compete with. The chance of different reactions among ethnic groups is why I split my analysis between the major regions at the time.

My results were not what I expected, as the north, despite initial hostility, successfully adopted the system. However, a recurring factor I have noticed is that the system was inapplicable when the necessary tools were not available (traditional rulers) and failed where traditions were being disregarded by the British. These traditions and beliefs proved to be fathomable and imperative to the systems success, which is why the British were willing to alter the systems concept.


Beinart, Peter, “Indirect rule”

Colonial Expansion, Indirect Rule

Chukwuma, Mike, Uche, Ph.D., “How Indirect Rule Underdeveloped Nigeria- Indirect Rule As The Cradle Of Federal Character”, The Beacon Newspaper

Ihuegbu, Nnamdi, “Colonialism and Independence: Nigeria as a case study”

Nwabughuogu, Anthony I., “The role of propaganda in the development of indirect rule in Nigeria, 1819-1929”

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