Prior to the discovery of crude oil, Nigeria is the home of black oil, now known as the oil palm.
In the 19th century, shortly after the end of slavery, a part of Nigeria, now known as the Niger Delta was identified as the origin of oil palm and its people were killed in their thousands by the British invaders, just to have access to the black oil.
This is the story of the first oil war, which was fought in the 19th century, in a small part of the area that eventually became Nigeria.
Historically, all through the 19th century, palm oil was highly sought-after by the British, for use as an industrial lubricant for machinery.
During Britain’s industrial revolution, the country needed resources such as palm oil to maintain their industries and from their slave trade experience and dealing with a part of the Niger Delta area of Nigeria, they are aware that palm oil is a native business in the area.
Palm oil, of course, is a tropical plant, which is native to the Niger Delta.
Malaysia’s dominance in the oil palm industry came a century later after the seed was transported to other parts of the world.
Because of increasing global demand, by 1870, palm oil had replaced slaves as the main export of the Niger Delta, the area which was once known as the Slave Coast.
At first, most of the trade in the oil palm was uncoordinated, with natives selling to those who gave them the best deals.
Native chiefs such as the former Jaja of Opobo became immensely wealthy because of oil palm.
However, among the Europeans, there was competition for who would get preferential access to the lucrative oil palm trade.
In 1879, George Goldie formed the United African Company (UAC), which was modelled on the former East India Company. Goldie effectively took control of the Lower Niger River.
By 1884, his company had 30 trading posts along Lower Niger. This monopoly gave the British a strong hand against the French and Germans in the 1884 Berlin Conference.
The British got the area that the UAC operated in, included in their sphere of influence after the Berlin Conference.
When the Brits got the terms they wanted from other Europeans, they began to deal with the African chiefs.
Within two years of 1886, Goldie had signed treaties with tribal chiefs along the Benue and Niger Rivers whilst also penetrating inland. This move inland was against the spirit of verbal agreements that had been made to restrict the organisation’s activities to coastal regions.
By 1886, the company name changed to The National Africa Company and was granted a royal charter (incorporated). The charter authorised the company to administer the Niger Delta and all lands around the banks of the Benue and Niger Rivers.
Soon after, the company was again renamed. The new name was Royal Niger Company, which survives, as Unilever, to this day.
To local chiefs, the Royal Niger Company negotiators had pledged free trade in the region. Behind, they entered private contracts on their terms. Because the (deceitful) private contracts were often written in English and signed by the local chiefs, the British government enforced them.
So for example, Jaja of Opobo, when he tried to export palm oil on his own, was forced into exile for “obstructing commerce”. As an aside, Jaja was “forgiven” in 1891 and allowed to return home, but he died on the way back, poisoned with a cup of tea.
Seeing what happened to Jaja, some other native rulers began to look more closely at the deals they were getting from the Royal Nigeria Company.
One of such kingdoms was Nembe, whose king, Koko Mingi VIII, ascended the throne in 1889 after being a Christian schoolteacher. Koko Mingi VIII, King Koko for short, like most rulers in the yard, was faced with the Royal Nigeria Company encroachment.
He also resented the monopoly enjoyed by the Royal Nigeria Company and tried to seek out favourable trading terms, with particularly the Germans in Kamerun (Cameroon).
By 1894, the Royal Nigeria Company increasingly dictated whom the natives could trade with, and denied them direct access to their former markets.
In late 1894, King Koko renounced Christianity and tried to form an alliance with Bonny and Okpoma against the Royal Nigeria Company to take back the trade.
This is significant because while Okpoma joined up, Bonny refused.
A harbinger of the successful “divide and rule” tactic.
On 29 January 1895, King Koko led an attack on the Royal Niger Company’s headquarters, which was in Akassa in today’s Bayelsa state. The pre-dawn raid had more than a thousand men involved. King Koko’s attack succeeded in capturing the base. Losing 40 of his men, King Koko captured 60 white men as hostages, as well as a lot of goods, ammunition and a Maxim gun.
Koko then attempted to negotiate a release of the hostages in exchange for being allowed to choose his trading partners. The British refused to negotiate with Koko, and he had forty of the hostages killed.
On 20 February 1895, Britain’s Royal Navy, under Admiral Bedford attacked Brass and burned it to the ground. Many Nembe people died and smallpox finished off a lot of others.
By April 1895, the business had returned to “normal”, normal being the conditions that the British wanted, and King Koko was on the run. Brass was fined £500 by the British, £62,494 (NGN29 million) in today’s money, and the looted weapons were returned as well as the surviving prisoners.
After a British Parliamentary Commission sat, King Koko was offered terms of settlement by the British, which he rejected and disappeared. The British promptly declared him an outlaw and offered a reward of £200 (£26,000; NGN12 million today) for him. He committed suicide in exile in 1898.
About that time, another “recalcitrant King”, the Oba of Benin, was run out of town.
The pacification of the Lower Niger was well and truly underway. The immediate effect of the Brass Oil War was that public opinion in Britain turned against the Royal Nigeria Company, so its charter was revoked in 1899.
Following the revoking of its charter, the Royal Niger Company sold its holdings to the British government for £865,000 (£108 million today).
As a result of the instability in the region, Asian countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia where the oil palm fruit had been planted became the new destination for oil palm and soon after, they became the leading producers of the black oil, until the mid-1940s, when Nigeria reclaimed it’s leading status after moving beyond the oil palm grove, to Oil Palm plantation, with improved seeds.
Nigeria Institute for Oil Palm Research (Nifor), established in 1938 was responsible for these improved seeds.
Nigeria maintained its leading status from the 1940s until the outbreak of civil war between 1966-1970 when the oil palm business was disrupted and many plantations destroyed.
Malaysia overtook Nigeria as a leading producer in the 80s until Indonesia took over them in the mid-2000s.
Today, Nigeria is the 5th highest producer of oil palm in the world, after Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Colombia.
Although, Nigeria’s production is less than 20% of its consumption.
This means that Nigeria imports more than 80% of the oil palm it consumes annually.
Abdulrazaq Hamzat can be reached at [email protected]