Nigeria: The Empire That Never Was… Will It Ever Be?

Sir John Glubb’s enduring claim to fame, perhaps among other things, is an essay he titled “The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival“. Having been an adept historian as well as military commander for the British empire in its twilight days he understood something worthy about the rise and fall of empires. His career started at a time it was believed the sun would never set on the British empire and he witnessed to the rise American and Soviet empires while the British dominion faded. Are there any lessons for Nigeria and other African nations in Glubb’s observations?
Empire typically moves from one dominant power to another over time and so on. Glubb explained in his essay to be the result of unmistakable cycles of stages an empire goes through from its inception to its collapse. These stages or ages are [1];

The Age of Pioneers: this is the age when an oppressed or rebellious people organises themselves to overthrow an existing empire because they have the will, courage, unity, experience and envy to do so. The people of the new power often with nothing to lose, make great personal and collective sacrifices to overthrow an observably effete empire. The pioneers are mainly soldiers and military statesmen with overwhelming popularity and support among their people.
The Age of Conquest: in this age, the new empire embarks expansionist goals to increase the number of territories under its control and its access to resources. To be a military power, it is necessary also to be an economic power. Lands, slaves, natural resources, skills have to be acquired from outside the empire’s home country. Superlative institutions of administration necessary established and fortified, at home and abroad.
The Age of Commerce: an expanded empire with monopolies over many resources of development gives rise to an engine of a vast production of goods and services. Trade and commerce by which the economic power of the empire is increased and secured are undertaken with great energy and efficiency. Institutions of trade, commerce, manufacturing, acquisitions etc. are firmly established. Enriching the empire becomes a high act of patriotism, tycoons and captains of industry have their day.
The Age of Affluence: trade and commerce have brought the home country and its citizen’s significant sustainable affluence. Better incomes, social amenities, good living, luxury and acquired tastes all increase in the land. National pride becomes a function of economic success. Everyone feels wealthy, and the wealthy are free from envy.
The Age of Intellect: with affluence secured and the necessity of war diminished because of prodigious military might, the emphasis of empire shifts to intellectual pursuits. Universities, schools and research centres are rapidly built and legitimised. Intellectuals become vital members of society. As institutions of learning proliferate, so do schisms and divisions. Society becomes gradually divided and fragmented in their thinking. A nation once united in a singular consciousness loses its sense of unity and doubts itself [2].
The Age of Decadence: moral and spiritual decadence captures the consciousness of the people. The collection of virtues that created the necessity and the flourishing of the empire become forgotten entirely. The worship of money and the rich, be them entrepreneurs or everyday celebrities replaces religion. People live strictly to enjoy themselves in any way conceivable, and luxury for luxury sake becomes a chief good. Corruption becomes the main political objectives of the empire’s politicians and bureaucrats. Empire, once the dominant engine of the world’s production becomes an entity of mere consumption. The once-great military might that conquered is turned inwards [3], and economic output declines to levels too low to fund wars.
The Age of Decline and Collapse: now, society has lost its capacity to defend itself, and its interests. The empire can no longer afford the affluence it promised its people, tacitly or openly. The empire can no longer cope with the consequences of the decadence of its leaders and people. Corruption eats away at all fabrics of society. The leaders and people hope for a return to the glory days without rational responses or effort. A new power is waiting to take over.
The reason why Glubb’s thesis should give Nigerians serious concern is that the only “ages” that apparently that are relevant or witnessed by Nigeria from her Independence to present day are the Age of Decadence and the Age of Decline and Collapse. How has Nigeria been able to mimic the characteristics of a dying empire without ever having been one? It is quite an anomaly.
Maybe, Glubb overlooked the fact that his cycles of empire concept also applied significantly to the fate of non-empire nations in a different way. More precisely, the model may be modified sufficiently to apply it too weak developing nations/colonies in that there are only four distinct ages that form their segues of existence. (1) Weak pioneers, e.g. corrupt, venal independent nationalists bent on looting their treasury when they get into power. (2) Weak affluence, e.g. national wealth predicated on natural resources and determined purely by the markets of dominant empires, and adopting medium or strong consumption. (3) Strong decadence, e.g. the absence of constructive or sustainable nation-building goals, the embrace of philistinism and the neglect of the embodiment of collective positive and universal moral virtues. And (4) Substantial decline/collapse, e.g. a total loss of the vision and reins of self-determination making it easy for predatory external domination: internal disorder/conflict and the virulence of underdevelopment traps.
The concept of cycles of empires can also be extrapolated to the fate of colonies, independent or otherwise. Nigeria started as a palm oil colony to Britain and later a petro-state colony loyal to the highest bidder, more recently. Nigeria has been in the decadence and decline ages since the beginning of the second decade after Independence. The oil boom in the 1970s Nigeria brought about an age of affluence but not because of production or commerce. The age of affluence in Nigeria as short and unforgettable as it resembled the age of decadence (unpatriotic business practices, luxury for luxury sake, money spraying, conspicuous consumption).
Amazingly, Nigeria has local and foreign Panglossian “high priests” of neoliberalism who tell its citizens about a better, more productive, more prosperous Nigeria that is devoid of ages of pioneers, conquests, commerce, affluence and independent intellectual determination. These Panglossian “experts” even tell Nigerians daily that they are on course to achieve the status a dominant economic power by blindly and uncritically accepting and adopting the dictates of existing empires. Is this Nigeria’s Age of Intellect too?
The nation’s leaders appear never to have had the will, ambition or courage to make Nigeria into an empire even the military ones; they appear helplessly focused on promoting the characteristics of the ages of decadence and decline handed to them by greater global powers.
Grimot Nane


[1] Glubb, J B (1978), The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival, Blackwood (Edinburgh)

[2] Curtis, A (2015), Bitter Lake: Documentary, British Broadcasting Corporation, United Kingdom

[3] Hedges, C (2002), War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, Public Affairs (New York)

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