Patronage and financial corruption are rife in the contemporary Nigerian state and have gained widespread social acceptance, indicating a belief that it is legitimate to appropriate state resources for personal gain. In this paper I concentrate on the historical antecedents of this state of affairs. Focusing on the Igbo-speaking south-east of the country, I argue that an understanding of contemporary Nigeria must be based on a syncretic analysis: that is, a combination of influences from pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial eras. Despite this, the colonial era should not be downplayed as an influence, as some have sought to argue. In particular, I argue that the imposition of warrant chiefs in previously acephalous communities with participatory governance engendered a belief that government did not belong to local people.