On January 1, 1914, British colonial administrator Lord Frederick Lugard proclaimed the union of the northern and southern protectorates of Nigeria, a single entity known as the colony and protectorate of Nigeria. Until then, both protectorates had separate capitals and budgets. The merger was, in the words of Lord Lugard, for the moral and material advancement of Nigeria as a whole. A century later the Nigerian government is preparing to celebrate the anniversary. On February 4, at the presidential Villa in Abuja, a year of commemorative events was launched. It was a gathering of the powerful men: all but two of Nigeria’s living, former heads of state were there; along with state governors and senior government officials.
An army band played as President Goodluck Jonathan lit the centenary torch. Then a documentary took the audience on a journey through Nigerian history. It told the story of the ancient civilizations that lived in what is today known as Nigeria: the 8,000-year-old Dufuna canoe, which was discovered in Borno State in 1987; the Igbo-Ukwu and Bini civilizations; the heroic exploits of icons like Queen Amina, King Jaja of Opobo, Nana Olomu, Ekumeku, and Oba Ovonramwen of Benin.
The documentary also spoke of key players in the colonial enterprise, the likes of Lord Lugard, businessman Sir George Taubman Goldie—after whom the conquered land was almost named—journalist Flora Shaw, who first suggested the name ‘Nigeria’ and married Lord Lugard. At no point did the documentary shy away from presenting the cruel and sobering reality of colonialism and the slave trade. There were stories of other Nigerian heroes onscreen: Olaudah Equiano, the former Igbo slave, who was captured as a child and transported to the West Indies. He bought his freedom and settled in Britain where he campaigned against the slave trade; Sarah Forbes Bonetta, also a former Yoruba slave who became Queen Victoria’s goddaughter; Nathaniel King, Nigeria’s first medical doctor; Christopher Sapara Williams, the first Nigerian lawyer; Oreoluwa Green, the first female Nigerian pharmacist; Herbert Macaulay, newspaper publisher and nationalist and Candido da Rocha, one of Nigeria’s first home-grown millionaires. Abubakar Abdullahi is the winner of a national contest to design the centenary logo. The theme song, This Land, written by Onyeka Onwenu, one of Nigeria’s best-known and most accomplished female musicians, was performed by her and a line-up of some of Nigeria’s finest, including Omawumi, Tosin Martins, Zaaki Azzay and J’odie. “Here we are, standing tall, through adversity, we are one, 100 years of unity, Nigeria will stand,” declares the chorus. For Nigeria’s citizens there’s much debate over whether the unification is deserving of celebration, or public funds, as many see it as merely an ill-advised experiment of an imperialist administrator.
On the night, the government pointed out that no public funds will be spent. The ceremony was paid for by a number of Nigeria’s biggest companies. The government insists that the anniversary, provides an opportunity for deep reflection on Nigerian unity.
“The question we must devote time and effort to is: How do we build the foundation of the Nigeria we seek in the next 100 years?” says President Jonathan.
There were sprinklings of this unity on the night. First was the presence of Muhammadu Buhari, runner-up to President Jonathan in the 2011 elections. Following the elections, Buhari challenged the results in court, and his party has been one of the leading voices of the opposition to the Jonathan government. On this day it appeared both—one a northerner, the other a southerner—had set aside their differences. It wasn’t only political opponents who buried the hatchet. The Dangote Group and Ibeto Group—who has traded words in the newspapers for months in a tussle over the cement market—sponsored the celebration side-by-side. The government is projecting that the celebrations will create up to 15,000 jobs, as well as lots of investment opportunities at a forum to be held in Abuja. The Centenary Project is an ambitious one. It will include a brand new 100,000-resident “Centenary City”—covering more than 1,000 hectares, which is to be built within Abuja—a new Abuja City Gate and ‘Unity Squares’ in all 36 state capitals. Monuments that will prove a legacy for the next celebration in 100 ye