The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

Nigeria: Modern Economic Imperialism (c. 1980 to Present)

  • Ayokunle Olumuyiwa OmobowaleEmail author
Living reference work entry


The roots of the modern system of economic imperialism in Nigeria can be traced back to the advent of European merchants along the coastal areas of West Africa as from the seventeenth century (Stone 1988). This early-stage mercantilism signalled the consequent proclamation of the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria by the end of the nineteenth century and subsequent integration of the new colonial territory into the world capitalist system (Smith 1979). Colonialism ensured the total peripheral subjugation of geographical territory of Nigeria along with its markets and products (largely raw materials) to the dictates and vagaries of the markets in the metropolis (Lange et al. 2006). In particular, trade and profit making were the ultimate attention of metropolitan markets and local lumpenbourgeoisie at the expense of the pauperized producers in the colony. Forming the early set of the indigenous elite class, the local merchants and middlemen (lumpenbourgeoisie) merged with the educated elite to form the new ruling class at independence in 1960.

The economic policy in the immediate postcolonial period, from 1960 to 1966, was largely modelled after the economic foundation bequeathed by the former colonial masters. Primary emphasis was on the export of agricultural products and other raw materials to international markets, while multinational corporations dominated the nation’s economy (Udofia 1984; Turner 1976). The consequent civil war of 1967 to 1970 ensured a war economy, which, of course, favored multinational arm suppliers along with middlemen in the military, political, and economic circles, while the country groaned at the massive loss of human lives and material capital (Nafziger 1972). The postwar attempt of General Gowon’s government at participation of Nigerians in the mainstream of economic management through the promulgation of the indigenization decree in 1971 achieved little result (Ogbuagu 1983). The indigenization process was riddled with mistrust. While the Igbo ethnic group which had suffered great loss and economic deprivation due to the Civil War accused the Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba dominated Federal Government of deliberate economic annihilation and sideling, many of the indigenized companies were bought over by ill-experienced government contractors and retired powerful and high-ranking public officers (Iwuagwu 2009; Akinsanya 1994; Nwoke 1986). Many of the companies, of course, subsequently collapsed. The failure of the indigenized companies coupled with oil glut and economic depression of the late 1970s made the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) proposal for economic liberalism a rational option with dire economic and political consequences for the nation. The next section discusses austerity measures and structural adjustment, the third section presents post-1996 new economic order, the fourth section examines economic deprivation and militancy, and the last section concludes the chapter.

Austerity Measures and Structural Adjustment, 1980–1996

After a gruesome civil war and 13 long years under military rule, Nigeria was democratized again in October 1979. The civilian regime of Alhaji Shehu Shagari had a depressed economy and a huge debt burden. International financial experts, creditors, and Bretton Woods organizations attributed Nigeria’s deplorable economic state to institutional corruption and waste, which could only be addressed through austerity measures (Bienen and Gersovitz 1985). At this stage, austerity measures largely entailed the removal of subsidies. Shehu Shagari could achieve but a little with his reforms until he was toppled in a military coup in 31 December 1983. The new military regime headed by General Buhari was skeptical about the economic impact of the reforms on Nigeria. It rather sought to reform through a program it termed “War Against Indiscipline” (Stock 1988). For the Buhari regime, indiscipline was the problem with Nigeria. If tackled, Nigeria could improve its socioeconomic indices. Buhari remained in power only until August 1985 when he was toppled in a military coup led by his army chief, General Badamasi Babangida.

An intelligent military officer, Machiavellian, and very deceptive with his transition to civil rule program, euphemistically called the “Maradonna” and “evil genius” because of his dexterity at deft, and yet manipulative political maneuvers, Babangida, who ruled Nigeria for 8 years, introduced an encompassing Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) in 1986, which has somewhat defined Nigeria’s economic policy till date. The SAP entailed the withdrawal of government from the provision of social support, especially in education and health; downsizing of the civil service; devaluation of the nation’s currency, the naira; commercialization and privatization of government enterprises; embargo on employment and salary increases; the adoption of liberal trade policies; and prioritization of debt servicing (Geo-JaJa and Magnum 2001; Roy 1993). The SAP resulted in massive inflation (which increased from 5.4% in 1986 to 40% by 1989) and mass pauperization with about 70% of Nigerians living below the poverty line by the year 2000, up from the pre-SAP figure of about 27% in 1980 (Ogwumike 2002; Anyanwu 1992). Student enrolment and hospital attendance drastically declined with some communities recording up to 50% increase in maternal mortality (Lingam 2006) and national child mortality of 191 per 100,000 live births (National Bureau of Statistics 2005). Likewise, there was massive retrenchment of workers in both the public and private sectors even as many industries also collapsed (Okafor 2007; Gbosi 1993).

Notwithstanding the socioeconomic woes of the mass, SAP through the embedded policies of privatization and trade liberalization benefited a class of lumpenbourgeoisie and international capitalists who took advantage of the new fiscal environment. Here, a clear imperialistic manifestation of international capital alongside its local counterparts could be seen. General Babangida’s government promulgated the Privatization and Commercialization Decree of 1988 and instituted the Technical Committee on Privatization and Commercialization (TCPC), which was saddled with the responsibility of privatizing 111 public enterprises. By the time the TCPC rounded up its activities in 1993, it had privatized up to 88 public companies (Igbuzor 2003). Whereas, while the Nigerian Telecommunications PLC (NITEL) and National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) were commercialized and retained under government control, the more profiting public enterprises in the banking, insurance, and oil sectors (including oil blocs) were sold and/or leased to government cronies among the economic elites (Olutayo and Omobowale 2011; Ugorji 1995; Lewis 1994). Thus, there emerged new super-rich capitalists, many of whom hitherto had no capitalist and productive pedigree in the Nigerian productive and business sectors. Buyers of the profitable public enterprises are often accused of being agents of the top military officers who may be the “real” owners of the companies.

The SAP’s trade liberalization policy emphasizes international trade and open borders as against local production and protection of the local producers. Hence, while numerous local companies collapsed, the service and exploration industries in the financial and petroleum sectors, whose transactions are somewhat connected with multinational corporations abroad, thrived. Nigeria became a dumping ground for goods which had productive expertise in Nigeria. Facing difficulties to survive in the new “competitive” environment that favored foreign companies, local companies collapsed (Iwuagwu 2009; Noorbakhsh and Paloni 1999; Rogers and Til 1997).

It is also important to note that the economic de-empowerment of Nigerians also provided a thriving market for the importation of substandard goods from Asia (popularly called Chinco) and secondhand goods from the developed world (Pang 2008; Omobowale 2012, 2013a). This was (and still is) a sort of “primitive” economic imperialism of Nigeria by Asian countries (particularly China) as well as developed countries who extract surplus capital flight from Nigeria by dumping poor quality goods and used goods, of course, with the connivance of Nigerian officials and businessmen (Omobowale 2013b).

Capital flight is a major consequence of economic imperialism. Jimoh (1991) estimates that aside from money lost to under-invoicing and “fake trading,” capital flight from Nigeria between 1960 and 1988 is US$53.8 billion representing an average of US$1.9 billion yearly. Likewise Lawanson (2007) reports that annual average capital flight from Nigeria was US$4.3 billion in the 1980s, reaching a peak of US$10.1 billion in the 1990s, after which it declined US$ 1.4 billion in 1995 (see also Olugbenga and Alamu 2013; Akinlo 2011; Ngwainmbi 2005). The SAP was officially discontinued in 1996. It has been largely described as a monumental failure with most of the blame attributed to corruption and half-hearted implementation (Iwuagwu 2009; Rogers and Til 1997). It should be noted that the huge amount that Nigeria lost to capital flight during this period due to trade liberalization could have been used for local development. While the majority of Nigerians were pauperized, the country statistically experienced some economic growth that largely benefited the local capitalists and multinational corporations.

Post-1996 New Economic Order in Nigeria

The immediate post-1996 period marked some major milestones in Nigeria. General Abacha who had seized power in a military coup in 1993 was preparing to transform into a civilian president through a fraudulent transition program (Ehwarieme 2011). Abacha, was a military ruler that was very critical of the Western world and he, fraternized with China and North Korea. He was very much unloved both at home and abroad and often described as a pariah. He had constituted a team of political and military cohorts to advance his plan for civilian presidency (Omobowale and Olutayo 2007). Abacha’s sudden death in June 1998 somewhat changed the political and economic landscape of Nigeria, with the new regime of General Abubakar opting for a speedy transition to civil rule program. Thus Nigeria adopted liberal democracy with the assumption of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as civilian president on 29 May 1999.

The new liberal democratic dispensation of President Obasanjo favored liberal policies that had supposedly been dispensed with the discontinuation of SAP earlier in 1996. Olusegun Obasanjo’s economic policy did not really differ from what obtained during the SAP years. There was strong emphasis on privatization and liberalism. Obasanjo’s government keyed into the Washington Consensus by designing the National Economic Empowerment Development Strategy (NEEDS) policy for Nigeria and influencing the African Union to adopt the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) initiative as African homegrown initiative for economic development (National Planning Commission 2004; Chabal 2002). A close scrutiny of both NEEDS and NEPAD shows they are very connected with neoliberal recommendations of the Breton Woods organizations, which had earlier been implemental through SAP (Olutayo and Omobowale 2005). Simply put, NEEDS and NEPAD were new nomenclature for SAP in the era of liberal democracy. Hence, NEEDS and NEPAD were domestic policies for the continuation of economic imperialism through liberalization and privatization in the post-military era. Nigeria no longer lays emphasis on NEEDS and NEPAD nomenclature following the end of Obasanjo’s regime in 2007; nonetheless, government economic policy remains market oriented.

The first major wave of liberalization and privatization under the Obasanjo regime was in the telecommunications sector. The government of Olusegun Obasanjo licensed two multinational GSM companies, MTN and ECONET (an indigenous company, GLOBACOM, was licensed much later), to invest in Nigeria’s moribund telecommunications sector. For many Nigerians, this was a welcome development because the Nigerian Telecommunications PLC (NITEL) had failed to provide nationwide quality service. Even though NITEL had advanced telecommunications equipment, some of which MTN and ECONET had to rely on in the first few years of their operations; NITEL could not compete with these new GSM companies. Subsequent attempts at privatizing NITEL have failed. NITEL’s multimillion dollar investments remain abandoned; its staff has been disengaged, while the company remains comatose (Olutayo and Omobowale 2011). A report credited to the Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ATCON) states that the telecommunications sector is the largest-growing sector in Nigeria, but Nigeria lost 80% of the US$18 billion profit generated between 2001 and 2010 to capital flight (Okonji 2012). The steel and power sectors that are very critical to industrial development have also remained moribund. Attempts at revitalizing the steel sector by selling majority stakes to international companies have failed. In fact the Nigerian government accused a major investor in Nigeria’s steel company at Ajaokuta of pilfering critical machinery and equipment while it invested nothing at reviving the company (Jumbo 2011). Also the power sector has virtually failed. Sarcastically described as Never Expect Power Always (Olukoju 2004), the power sector has remained inefficient in spite of privatization and huge bills that are charged by the new multinational owners of power transmission companies in Nigeria.

Finally, Nigeria’s oil sector remains the most subject to international economic imperialism. The oil sector is the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy. It is dominated by multinational oil companies that control exploration and pays royalty to the Federal Government. About 90% of the crude oil produced is exported. Unfortunately, Nigeria’s refineries are largely nonfunctional. And so, Nigeria imports about 80% of its local consumption of oil products. Between March 2010 and January 2011, Nigeria spent over $7.6 billion to import about 8.1 million metric tons of petroleum products (Nwachukwu 2011). Still, Nigeria’s local content policy is grossly disregarded in the petroleum industry. The industry relies principally on international technical and professional manpower while the technology is largely imported. This, of course, translates to huge capital loss for Nigeria.

Again, Nigeria is experiencing a new wave of economic imperialism in the tertiary education sector. Nigeria’s universities (which counted as some of the best around the world in the 1960s and up to when SAP was implemented in the early 1980s) are at present lowly ranked globally. According to the Times Higher Education (2019), only the University of Ibadan (public) and Covenant University (private) ranked among the best 601–800 universities globally (out of the over 160 universities in Nigeria, aside from polytechnics, monotechnics, and colleges of education – all considered as tertiary institutions in Nigeria). Faced with continual brain drain, poor infrastructures and equipment, limited student slots, unmotivated faculty, and incessant strike actions, due to SAP-induced strains, Nigerian universities are unable to compete with universities in the Global North. Hence, foreign universities (both in the Global North and Global South) attract candidates from Nigeria in groves. A report credited to Committee of Vice Chancellors (CVC) of Nigeria’s Universities claims that Nigerians commit about US$500 million to tertiary education in universities in Europe and North America (The Sun 2012).

Only a few examples from critical sectors of the Nigerian economy have been discussed above. It is important to note that the imperialistic tentacle of the industrialized nations, international financial organizations, and multinational corporations cover every sector of Nigeria’s economy. Nigeria’s economy remains subservient to the dictates of the imperialist powers that are able to guide the direction of the nation’s economic policy and system through the agency of neoliberalism at the pain of international sanctions.

Economic Deprivation and Militancy: Self-Determination Groups, the Niger Delta, and Boko Haram

Since the mid and late 1990s, vicious economic deprivation has contributed to the emergence and expansion of self-determination, militancy, and insurgency in Nigeria. Notable separationist, militancy, and insurgency activities in Nigeria, especially since the current democratization process commenced in 1999, include those of self-determination groups, particularly Oodua People’s Congress (OPC), the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) (and other Niger Delta splinter groups such as the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) and the Niger Delta Vigilante Force (NDVF)), the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) among others, while Boko Haram insurgents have repeatedly orchestrated devastating attacks in Nigeria’s northeastern geopolitical zone since 2010.

The OPC emerged in the mid-1990s following General Babangida’s cancellation of the 1993 presidential election which a Yoruba multimillionaire and politician Bashorun Moshood Kashimawo Abiola was posed to win. The Yoruba largely sentimentally described the cancellation of the election as a deliberate attempt by the Hausa-Fulani-dominated military and political leadership to deny the Yoruba the possibility of ascending the nation’s presidency. The OPC was one of the numerous pro-democracy groups that emerged following the cancellation of the presidential election; however, the OPC pronounced a particular agenda to protect the Yoruba from marginalization with an ultimate objective for self-determination by cessation. At its peak, the OPC had 2786 branches and about 3 million members in Southwestern Nigeria (Akinyele 2001). Despite the initial popularized secessionist outlook, the OPC functioned more like a militancy-oriented vigilante group, with its membership drawn more from the proletarian class, largely illegally armed and operating as neighborhood security lords. In fact, the OPC vigilante operatives were readily hired by neighborhoods that view the OPC as more effective than the police in neighborhood security. Unfortunately, the OPC readily transformed into a pro-Yoruba ethnic militia whenever conflicts took on the inter-ethnic dimension (see Nolte 2004, 2008; Ikelegbe 2001, 2005).

Also, in the Niger Delta, the MEND, NDPVF, and NDVF emerged as the dominant Niger Delta militancy groups with an agenda to sabotage oil investments and other government infrastructures in the Niger Delta, to draw attention to the economic deprivation of the Niger Delta and violently harness funds through bunkering and kidnapping for ransom (Omobowale et al. 2012; Ibaba 2011). The Niger Delta is the main producer of Nigeria’s post-independence oil wealth. Nigeria is largely a mono-economy, mainly dependent on oil with 90% of foreign earnings coming from crude oil sales (Occhiali and Falchetta 2018; Elum et al. 2016). In contrast, the Niger Delta, which accommodates the oil and produces the national wealth, is one of the most economically deprived in Nigeria and environmentally polluted by oil spills and gas flaring. Farming and fishing, the main productive lines of the indigenous population, are affected by environmental pollution with more than 70% of the population living below the poverty line (Elum et al. 2016; Gonzalez 2016). Consequently, the militancy spearheaded by the MEND, NDPVF, and NDVF provided ready platforms for restive youths to vent their anger against the Nigerian state. The initial police and military action deployed by the Nigerian state had little or no achievement at redressing insecurity in the Niger Delta due to the difficult terrains of the creeks and the sophisticated weapons the militants possessed. Nigeria, subsequently in 2007, opted for an amnesty program, which entailed a voluntary surrender of arms in exchange for regular cash transfers and skill acquisition and training of militants by the Federal Government of Nigeria (Ogbogu 2016; Udoh 2013). The amnesty program seemed to have reduced militancy in the Niger Delta, but the region is still weaponized and restive, and attacks on security personnel, oil bunkering, illegal oil refining, and kidnapping of oil workers for ransom frequently occur in the region.

The MASSOB and IPOB are focused on achieving the state of Biafra. The first attempt at having the state of Biafra was in 1967, following a declaration by the then Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, Colonel Ojukwu. Ojukwu’s declaration resulted in the Nigeria Civil War, which lasted from 1967 to 1970. An estimated 2 million lives and multimillion dollar worth of investments were lost (Atata and Omobowale 2018; Omobowale 2009). Whereas the government declared a post-war 3R policy of Reconciliation, Reconstruction, and Rehabilitation, the pro-Biafra groups claim that the Igbo ethnic group has been economically and politically deprived in Nigeria (Onuoha 2014, 2016). Hence, the MASSOB emerged about the year 2000 to advance Igbo interests in the Nigerian state, with an ultimate aim to achieve a sovereign state of Biafra, while the IPOB subsequently evolved when the MASSOB seemed to have retracted from the objective of a sovereign state. The MASSOB and IPOB have propagated the Biafra objective through violent street protests, sit-at-home protests, and numerous violent exchanges with the police and the military (Atata and Omobowale 2018; Onwuegbuchulam and Mtshali 2017). The activities of the MASSOB and the IPOB and the violent exchanges with the coercive forces of the state are associated with perceived and actual economic deprivation of the Igbo working class from among whom the MASSOB and the IPOB have most of their “foot soldiers.”

The most dreaded insurgency group in West Africa as from 2010 is Boko Haram. Boko Haram started as a radical Salafist movement in the year 2002 in Maiduguri, under the leadership of a young Islamic cleric, Mohammed Yusuf (Falode 2016). The group’s Arabic name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad), but it is popularly known by its Hausa cum Arabic name, Boko Haram. Boko in Hausa means Western education/civilization and the Arabic word Haram means forbidden. Hence, Boko Haram means Western education/civilization is forbidden (Agbiboa 2013). Yusuf drew membership especially from among the working class bonded by the Kanuri language from Northwest and Northeast Nigeria as well as the neighboring countries of Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. As Yusuf’s followership significantly grew, his anti-establishment and anti-dominant Sunni Muslim leadership in Northern Nigeria preaching drew the attention of security forces. Following a sectarian crisis supposedly spearheaded by the group in July 2009, the group was violently contained by the military, leading to the death of about 1000 members. Yusuf was arrested by the military and handed over to the police, and Yusuf thereafter died in police custody within 24 h.

The leadership of Boko Haram was passed to Abubakar Shekau, who retreated to the background. Empirical reports indicate that during the period of the retreat, surviving Boko Haram leadership and members moved to the Sahel and received training and funding from al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, particularly the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Shabab (Zenn 2017). In July 2010 Shekau declared a Jihad against Nigeria, and in September 2010, Boko Haram launched its first major attack on Bauchi prison where it freed about 250 Boko Haram detainees undergoing prosecution and trial (Zenn 2017; Falode 2016). Between 2010 and 2015, Boko Haram grew to become a monstrous guerrilla group, attacking state apparatuses; seizing territories; kidnapping school girls, women, and children; deploying kidnapped girls as suicide bombers; and imposing a most draconian form of the Sharia law in the territories where it predominates (Weeraratne 2017; Bloom and Matfess 2016). Boko Haram is a major cause of internal displacement in Northeastern Nigeria. At the peak of Boko Haram’s onslaught against Nigeria, Falode (2016, p. 44) submitted that: “Boko Haram’s arsenal...includes AK-47 rifles, grenades, rocket propelled grenades, automatic rifles, surface-to air- missiles, vehicle mounted machine guns with anti-aircraft visors, T-55 tanks, Panhard ERC-90 ‘Sagaie’ and explosives such as Semtex.” The sagacity of the Boko Haram insurgents at gaining territory in Northeastern Nigeria as well as incessant terrorist attacks even in the nation’s capital city wrongly marked the military as incapable of containing the insurgency without external support. Hence, former President Jonathan secured the services of mercenaries in the war against Boko Haram (Varin 2018). Boko Haram attacks, underfunding and poor equipment of the military, and the engagement of mercenaries were some of the major highlights of the opposition during the campaigns for the 2015 general elections. Jonathan lost the elections to a former military general and head of state, Muhammadu Buhari. Buhari started with a strategy to militarily vanquish the Boko Haram. The new government ordered the head of the army to move his headquarters to the epicenter of the insurgency in Maiduguri, and the contract of the mercenaries was terminated. Whereas Boko Haram insurgency has been limited to a few locations in Northeastern Nigeria and the government has declared a technical victory, Boko Haram continues to carry out guerrilla attacks, suicide bombing, and kidnappings. In short, though contained, Boko Haram remains a formidable adversary of the Nigerian state.


The integration of Nigeria into the world capitalist system within the last 200 years has subjected the nation to sustained economic imperialism. Nigeria’s post-independence economic policy advances the course of economic imperialism such that Nigeria only seems to have political independence; it is very much dependent on the international economic powers and institutions in economic policy formulation and implementation. The limited attempt at economic self-determination in the early 1970s produced no positive result with Nigeria emerging into the 1980s in massive economic depression and policy disorientation. Hence, once again, the liberal policy that the Nigerian government despised in the 1970s was presented as the panacea, in form of austerity measures. Full implementation of the reform program started under General Babangida’s government in 1986 with the introduction of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). The SAP advanced liberalism in full course, favoring the withdrawal of government from the provision of social services, currency devaluation and free trade, frugal expenditure, and lean bureaucracy in order to save funds to invest in critical areas of the economy and debt servicing. The social and economic implications of SAP were overwhelmingly devastating for the populace. Many industries collapsed, while many Nigerians fell below the poverty line. Notwithstanding this, SAP ensured a class of economic elite profited through trade. While local industries collapsed, international trade boomed. The result of this, of course, was classic capital flight through debt servicing, massive imports, contracts to foreign contractors, and illicit siphoning of corrupt funds through international financial corporations. Thus the money saved through SAP ultimately benefited the developed countries in the metropolis who received legally repatriated profit from Nigeria and/or whose banks also received illicit funds stashed in secret bank accounts. In spite of SAP’s discontinuation in 1996, it is pertinent to note that the economic policies of Nigeria’s post 1996 democratic regimes have followed the liberal lines. Nigerians remain poor and impoverished, but huge capital is expropriated from the economy through unbalanced trade annually. Unfortunately, the pro-liberal and exploitative economic policy frame continues to produce a restive proletarian class, readily available as foot soldiers for militancy and insurgent groups that have worsened the insecurity in Nigeria. As long as Nigeria emphasizes pro-trade liberalism as against local production, processing, and marketing, it would remain a peripheral nation under perpetual yoke of economic imperialism to the overall benefit of the world capitalist system. Nigeria will thus produce wealth that would be appropriated by the capitalist powers under the guise of liberalism and “freedom.”



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of IbadanIbadanNigeria