After 52 years of independence, the Nigerian military's special forces cannot independently undertake a mission to extricate trapped kidnap victims. Can you imagine the Israeli military behaving like this? The Israeli state is only 12 years older than the Nigerian state, and yet in that time it has developed formidable capabilities with an array of sophisticated weaponry, including nuclear weapons.
These questions particularly come to the fore after reading New African's recent focus on the International Criminal Court (ICC) and former President Thabo Mbeki's article, Is Africa There for the Taking? (NA, March). It also triggered memories of the story of Oba Ovonramwen, the last independent Emperor of the Benin Empire in Nigeria.
Ovonramwen's empire was sacked in 1897 by a punitive British expeditionary force in reprisal for the killing of 8 British officials intent on enforcing the terms of an earlier 1892 treaty. The Benin capital was torched and the bronze treasures looted. Emperor Ovonramwen himself fled into the bush before he was eventually captured and sent into exile. Ovonramwen's troubles had begun many years before. Although his empire had been trading as equals with European powers since the 16th century, in the last 40 years the relationship had changed into one of control and subjugation. Like many of the kingdoms in this part of West Africa, Ovonramwen had watched this change with alarm.
By 1892, the British foisted a controversial "protection" treaty on him - Article 2 of which stated: "The King of Benin agrees and promises to refrain from entering into any correspondence, Agreement or Treaty with any foreign nation or power except with the knowledge of her Britannic Majesty's Government".
It is still disputed today whether Ovonramwen really signed such a treaty, effectively handing over his empire. Some historians maintain that he didn't believe the British were serious, thinking they would simply go away, because he did not really understand the remorseless need for markets and resources that was driving this imperialistic phase. Other historians believe that he understood perfectly, having watched them overrun the coastal kingdoms that had traditionally paid tribute to Benin, and he was simply buying time,...