Colonial Constitution in Nigeria

The Colonial Constitution in Nigeria refers to the set of legal frameworks that governed Nigeria during the period of British colonial rule from 1861 to 1960. The colonial constitution in Nigeria had a profound impact on the political, social, and economic structures of the country, shaping the country’s development even after independence.

During the colonial era, Nigeria was governed through a series of constitutional arrangements that evolved over time. The first formal constitution was the Lagos Colony Constitution of 1862, which established a legislative council in Lagos for the purpose of making laws and regulations for the colony. Subsequent constitutional developments included the 1922 Clifford Constitution, the 1946 Richards Constitution, and the 1954 Macpherson Constitution.

The Clifford Constitution of 1922 established a Legislative Council for Nigeria, which included both elected and appointed members. However, the council was dominated by British officials and members of the colonial administration, limiting the influence of Nigerian political leaders. The Richards Constitution of 1946 expanded the Legislative Council and introduced regional assemblies, but retained significant British control over the political process. The Macpherson Constitution of 1954 further expanded the powers of the regional assemblies and introduced a federal system of government.

Despite these constitutional developments, Nigeria remained under British colonial rule until 1960, when the country gained independence. The colonial constitution played a significant role in shaping Nigeria’s political and legal systems but also contributed to the country’s post-independence challenges, including ethnic and regional tensions, political instability, and economic underdevelopment.

The Clifford’s Constitution of 1922

Colonial Constitution in Nigeria

The Clifford Constitution was passed in 1920, the Richard Constitution was passed in 1946, the Macpherson Constitution was passed in 1951, the Lyttleton Constitution was passed in 1954, and the Independent Constitution was passed in(1960). All of these constitutions were passed during the colonial period 

The Clifford Constitution, established in 1922: When Sir H. Clifford was appointed as Governor-General of Nigeria, he was responsible for writing the country’s constitution. The features of the Clifford Constitution are described below.

Features of Clifford Constitution

  1. Creation of the Legislative Council: The Clifford Constitution created a Legislative Council consisting of the Governor and appointed members. The Council had limited powers and could only make recommendations on certain issues.
  2. Introduction of the elective principle: The Clifford Constitution introduced the principle of election, allowing for a limited number of elected members to sit in the Legislative Council. The right to vote was restricted to educated men and property owners.
  3. Separation of Lagos from the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria: The Clifford Constitution created a separate government for Lagos, which was previously under the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria.
  4. Establishment of Regional Councils: The Clifford Constitution established Regional Councils in each of the three regions in Nigeria (North, West, and East). These councils had limited powers and could only make recommendations.
  5. Introduction of Indirect Rule: The Clifford Constitution introduced the concept of Indirect Rule, which allowed British administrators to govern Nigeria through local rulers and traditional institutions.
  6. Division of Nigeria into Three Regions: The Clifford Constitution divided Nigeria into three regions: the Northern Region, Western Region, and Eastern Region. Each region had its own government and legislative council.
  7. Limitations on the powers of the Legislative Council: The Legislative Council was limited in its powers, as it could only make recommendations on certain issues, such as education, health, and agriculture.
  8. Exclusion of Women from Voting: The Clifford Constitution excluded women from voting and from participating in political activities.

Advantages of Clifford’s Constitution

  1. The introduction of the elective principle: One of the significant advantages of Clifford’s Constitution was the introduction of the elective principle. The constitution allowed for the election of members of the Legislative Council, which was an important step towards representative governance.
  2. Representation of minorities: Clifford’s Constitution recognized the existence of minority groups in Nigeria and provided for their representation in the Legislative Council. This allowed for a fair and more balanced representation of all groups in the country.
  3. The establishment of regional councils: The constitution allowed for the establishment of regional councils, which gave each region more autonomy in managing its affairs. This allowed for the development of each region at its own pace, leading to the growth of the country as a whole.
  4. The recognition of customary law: Clifford’s Constitution recognized the existence and importance of customary law and allowed for its application in certain cases. This recognition helped to preserve the traditional ways of life of different ethnic groups in Nigeria.
  5. The creation of the Nigerian Civil Service: The constitution created the Nigerian Civil Service, which provided employment opportunities for Nigerians and helped to build a more efficient and effective government.
  6. The establishment of the Nigerian judicial system: Clifford’s Constitution established the Nigerian judicial system, which allowed for the resolution of disputes and the dispensation of justice. The establishment of the judicial system helped to build public confidence in the rule of law.
  7. The promotion of education: The constitution recognized the importance of education and provided for its promotion. This led to the establishment of schools and the growth of the education sector in Nigeria.

Disadvantages of Clifford’s Constitution

  1. Limited representation: The constitution created an electoral system that favoured the elites and restricted the representation of ordinary Nigerians, particularly those in rural areas. The system provided for only a limited number of seats for Africans in the legislative councils and effectively excluded most people from participating in the political process.
  2. Unequal treatment: The constitution also institutionalized the divide-and-rule policy of the British colonial government, creating a separate electoral system for northern and southern Nigeria. This unequal treatment and political division along regional lines weakened the unity of Nigeria.
  3. Inadequate protection of rights: The constitution failed to provide adequate protection for the rights of Nigerians, particularly the civil and political rights of minority groups. The British government retained ultimate authority over Nigeria, making it difficult for Nigerians to challenge any infringement on their rights.
  4. Lack of autonomy: The constitution did not grant Nigerians any significant degree of autonomy, as the Governor-General and the British colonial government maintained ultimate control over the country’s affairs. This lack of autonomy contributed to the erosion of Nigerians’ trust in the colonial administration.
  5. Minimal participation of women: The constitution made no provisions for women’s participation in the electoral process, effectively excluding them from the political process. This lack of representation and participation of women in politics further reinforced gender inequality in Nigeria.

Richard’s Constitution of 1946

Colonial Constitution in Nigeria

The need for the Richard Constitution arose when it was found that the previous constitution, the Clifford Constitution, included a number of flaws. These problems were brought to light by Nigerian nationalists who advocated for a regime change. It was considered that Richard’s Constitution was the one that brought about greater and more lasting unity for the nation. However, in contrast to the Clifford Constitution that came before it, this one did not consult the people that it was intended to serve.

Features of Richard’s Constitution

  1. Introduction of Regionalism: Richard’s Constitution introduced regionalism to Nigeria, which was divided into three regions: Northern, Western, and Eastern. Each region had its own regional legislature and executive council and was granted some degree of autonomy in internal affairs.
  2. Creation of a Federal System: Richard’s Constitution established a federal system of government in Nigeria, with a central government and regional governments. The central government had powers over matters of national importance, while the regional governments had powers over matters of regional importance.
  3. Bicameral Legislature: Richard’s Constitution introduced a bicameral legislature consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House of Representatives had 184 members, while the Senate had 44 members. This was designed to provide representation for both the regions and the various ethnic groups in Nigeria.
  4. Limited Franchise: The Constitution introduced a limited franchise, which restricted the right to vote to a small group of educated Nigerians. This was based on the idea that only educated people were capable of making informed decisions.
  5. Creation of the Public Service Commission: The Constitution created the Public Service Commission, which was responsible for the appointment and promotion of civil servants. This was intended to ensure that the civil service was free from political interference.
  6. Establishment of the Supreme Court: Richard’s Constitution established the Supreme Court of Nigeria as the highest court in the land. This was intended to provide a neutral arbiter in disputes between the central government and the regional governments.
  7. Protection of Minority Rights: The Constitution protected the rights of minority groups in Nigeria, including the rights to religious freedom, education, and culture. This was intended to prevent the domination of minority groups by the majority ethnic groups.

Advantages of Richard’s Constitution of 1946

  1. Centralized governance: Richard’s Constitution established a centralized system of governance in Nigeria. This means that the power was concentrated in the hands of the colonial authorities, who controlled the affairs of the country. This centralized governance helped to bring order and stability to Nigeria.
  2. Legislative Council: The constitution established a Legislative Council, which allowed for the participation of Nigerians in the legislative process. Although the Council was limited in its powers, it marked the beginning of a representative form of government in Nigeria.
  3. Separate Executive and Legislative Branches: The Constitution separated the executive and legislative branches of government. This helped to ensure that there were checks and balances in the government and that one branch did not have too much power over the other.
  4. Protection of Property Rights: The Constitution protected property rights in Nigeria. This helped to provide security for the citizens and encouraged investment in the country.
  5. Judicial Independence: The Constitution established an independent judiciary, which helped to ensure that the rule of law was upheld in Nigeria. This helped to ensure that citizens were treated fairly and that justice was served.
  6. Establishment of Native Authorities: The Constitution established Native Authorities, which were responsible for the administration of local government. This helped to ensure that local customs and traditions were respected and that local affairs were handled by people who understood the needs of the community.
  7. Preparation for self-government: Richard’s Constitution laid the foundation for self-government in Nigeria. Although it was designed to serve the interests of the colonial authorities, it also provided a platform for Nigerians to participate in the government and prepare for independence.

Disadvantages of Richard’s Constitution of 1946

  1. Limited Political Participation: Richard’s Constitution created three regional governments and a central government, but only a small number of people were allowed to vote in elections. Only men who owned property had completed a certain level of education, and paid taxes were eligible to vote. This severely limited political participation and representation, as many Nigerians, especially those in rural areas and women, were excluded from the electoral process.
  2. Imbalanced Representation: The Constitution created unequal representation in the regional governments, with some regions having more power than others. This was because the regional governments were based on the size of the revenue they generated, which favoured the more economically developed regions. This imbalanced representation fueled regionalism, and ethnic politics, and created divisions that persist to this day.
  3. Limited Civil Liberties: The Constitution had provisions that allowed the government to restrict civil liberties, including freedom of speech and association. This was done to prevent political agitation, but it had a chilling effect on political dissent and limited the growth of civil society organizations.
  4. Centralization of Power: While the Constitution created regional governments, it also centralized power in the central government, giving it control over critical areas like defence, foreign policy, and the judiciary. This created a system where the central government was able to dominate the regions, leading to a loss of autonomy and a lack of development in the regions.
  5. Lack of Indigenous Participation: The Constitution was created by British officials without the input of Nigerians. This lack of indigenous participation meant that the Constitution did not reflect the aspirations and needs of the Nigerian people, leading to a feeling of alienation and discontent.

Macpherson Constitution of 1951

Colonial Constitution in Nigeria

The Macpherson Constitution was the second formal constitution in Nigeria, named after Sir Arthur Richard’s successor, Sir John Macpherson. It was established in 1951 and implemented in 1954. The Macpherson Constitution was a significant step towards Nigerian self-government and independence. However, it also had its limitations, such as the fact that it did not provide for a truly independent judiciary or a unicameral legislature. Despite its shortcomings, the Constitution helped to pave the way for Nigeria’s eventual independence in 1960.

Features of The Macpherson Constitution of 1951

  1. Federalism: The Macpherson Constitution introduced the concept of federalism to Nigeria. The country was divided into three regions: Northern, Eastern and Western Regions, each with its own government and legislative body.
  2. Ministerial system: The Constitution established a ministerial system of government, in which ministers were appointed to head different departments of the government. This helped to ensure that the government was more efficient and effective in delivering services to the people.
  3. Expanded Legislative Council: The Constitution expanded the Legislative Council and increased the number of Nigerians who could participate in the legislative process. This helped to ensure that the views of Nigerians were represented in the government.
  4. Universal Adult Suffrage: The Constitution introduced the principle of universal adult suffrage, which allowed all adult Nigerians to vote in elections. This helped to promote democracy and equal representation of all Nigerians in the government.
  5. Regional Autonomy: The Constitution granted regional autonomy to the regions, allowing them to have control over their own affairs. This helped to ensure that the regions were able to develop at their own pace and in their own way.
  6. Constitutional Review: The Constitution provided for regular reviews to be conducted to ensure that it remained relevant to the needs of Nigerians.

Advantages of The Macpherson Constitution of 1951

  1. Increased participation: The Macpherson Constitution expanded the electoral base in Nigeria, allowing more people to participate in the political process. This was achieved by creating more electoral districts and by allowing more people to vote, which led to a greater representation of the people in the government.
  2. Regional autonomy: The constitution granted more autonomy to the regions of Nigeria. It allowed the regions to have control over their internal affairs, including local government, education, and health services. This increased regional cooperation and promoted healthy competition among the regions.
  3. Greater representation: The Macpherson Constitution provided for more representation of the people in the government. It created a central legislature, which was composed of representatives from all the regions in Nigeria. This ensured that every region had a voice in the decision-making process.
  4. Minority rights: The constitution recognized the rights of minority groups in Nigeria. It provided for a quota system that ensured that minority groups were represented in the government and had a say in the decision-making process.
  5. Separation of powers: The Macpherson Constitution provided for the separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. This helped to prevent abuses of power and ensured that each branch of government had a specific role to play.
  6. Development of political parties: The Macpherson Constitution helped to develop political parties in Nigeria. It allowed for the creation of political parties and provided for the establishment of a multi-party system. This increased political competition and led to the development of a vibrant political culture in Nigeria.


  1. Limited representation: The Macpherson Constitution created a central legislative council, which gave limited representation to the regions. This led to the domination of the central government over the regions, which created a sense of alienation among the people.
  2. Unequal regional representation: The constitution favoured the Northern Region, which had the largest population, and the Western Region, which had the highest number of educated elites. This led to the marginalization of the Eastern Region, which had fewer educated elites and a smaller population.
  3. Inadequate representation of minorities: The constitution did not adequately represent the interests of minority ethnic groups in Nigeria. This led to the marginalization and discrimination of these groups by the dominant ethnic groups.
  4. Limited power of the regions: The constitution limited the powers of the regions, which led to a centralized government with significant control over the regions. This weakened the autonomy and independence of the regions.
  5. Limited autonomy of the judiciary: The constitution did not provide adequate protection for the judiciary’s independence, which made it vulnerable to the influence of the executive and legislative arms of government.
  6. Inadequate protection of civil liberties: The constitution did not provide adequate protection for civil liberties such as freedom of speech, assembly, and association. This led to the suppression of dissenting views and opposition to the government.
  7. Lack of popular participation: The constitution did not provide for the direct election of representatives, which limited popular participation in the political process. This created a sense of apathy and disillusionment among the people.

Lyttleton Constitution (1954)

Colonial Constitution in Nigeria

The Lyttleton Constitution was a constitution for Nigeria developed by a British-appointed commission headed by Oliver Lyttleton in 1954. The constitution introduced some significant changes to Nigeria’s governance structure at the time. 

Features of the Lyttleton Constitution

  1. Federalism: The Lyttleton Constitution introduced a federal system of government in Nigeria, which allowed for power to be shared between the central government and the regions.
  2. Three regions: The constitution established three regions in Nigeria: Northern, Western, and Eastern regions, each with its own regional government.
  3. Bicameral legislature: The constitution established a bicameral legislature at the federal level, consisting of a Senate and a House of Representatives.
  4. Regional Houses of Assembly: The constitution provided for the establishment of regional Houses of Assembly in each of the three regions, which had powers to make laws for their respective regions.
  5. Judiciary: The constitution provided for the establishment of a federal Supreme Court, as well as regional high courts and customary courts of appeal.
  6. Citizenship: The constitution made provisions for Nigerian citizenship, regardless of ethnicity or region.
  7. Franchise: The constitution introduced universal adult suffrage, meaning that all adult citizens of Nigeria had the right to vote in elections.
  8. Powers of the central government: The constitution granted the central government exclusive powers in certain areas, such as foreign affairs, defence, and currency.
  9. Regional autonomy: The constitution also granted significant autonomy to the regions, allowing them to control areas such as education, health, and agriculture.
  10. Amendment process: The constitution provided for an amendment process, which required the support of a two-thirds majority in the federal legislature and the approval of the regional Houses of Assembly.

Advantages of The Lyttleton Constitution

  1. Decentralization of Power: The Lyttleton Constitution introduced a federal system of government, which allowed for the decentralization of power from the central government to the regions. This helped to give more autonomy to the regions and allowed them to manage their affairs more effectively.
  2. Representation: The Constitution increased the number of elected representatives in both the regional and central legislative bodies. This ensured that the various regions had a voice in the governance of the country.
  3. Minority Representation: The Constitution also provided for the representation of minority groups in the legislative bodies. This allowed minority groups to have a say in the governance of the country and prevented the domination of the majority.
  4. Protection of Civil Liberties: The Lyttleton Constitution provided for the protection of civil liberties such as freedom of speech, association, and religion. This ensured that citizens had the freedom to express themselves and practice their religion without fear of persecution.
  5. Independence: The Lyttleton Constitution paved the way for Nigeria’s independence from British colonial rule. The Constitution allowed for the gradual transfer of power from the British government to the Nigerian people, which led to Nigeria gaining its independence in 1960.
  6. Political Stability: The Constitution provided a stable political environment by establishing a clear framework for the governance of the country. This stability contributed to the economic growth and development of Nigeria.
  7. Judicial Independence: The Constitution provided for the independence of the judiciary, which ensured that the courts were free from political interference. This ensured that justice was served impartially, which contributed to the maintenance of law and order in the country.

The Lyttleton Constitution had several advantages that contributed to the development of Nigeria. It decentralized power, provided for representation of minority groups, protected civil liberties, paved the way for independence, provided political stability, and ensured judicial independence.


  1. Inadequate Representation: The Lyttleton Constitution failed to adequately represent the diverse ethnic groups in Nigeria. It retained the existing regional structure which favored the North and South regions at the expense of the Eastern region. This resulted in a feeling of marginalization and led to political instability in the country.
  2. Weak Central Government: The constitution created a weak central government that lacked the power to make important decisions or enforce its policies. This gave more power to the regional governments and weakened the overall governance of the country.
  3. Unfair Electoral System: The electoral system under the Lyttleton Constitution was designed to favor the ruling party and suppress opposition. It allowed for indirect elections, which gave the ruling party control over the selection of representatives, and created unequal representation in the federal parliament.
  4. Lack of Popular Participation: The constitution did not provide for the participation of ordinary citizens in the political process. It restricted the right to vote to only certain individuals based on education, property ownership, and gender, thus excluding a large portion of the population from participating in the democratic process.
  5. No Constitutional Review: The Lyttleton Constitution did not provide for periodic reviews or amendments, which made it difficult to address emerging issues or changing needs of the country. This resulted in the constitution becoming outdated and unable to respond to the changing needs of the Nigerian people.
  6. Lack of Provision for Regional Autonomy: The constitution did not provide for the autonomy of regions. This led to regional conflicts and created a sense of insecurity among the regions, which contributed to the eventual breakup of the country.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *