A definitive account of the Big Bang that started their country has long escaped Nigerian historians. Although attempts were made in the 1970s, particularly under the direction of Obaro Ikime, the former history professor at Ibadan University, the parameters of such a controversial subject were not sufficiently agreed and the idea was never fully realized.
Now, at last, two accounts of the preparation for – and the accomplishment – of the British subjugation of Nigeria offer a new, often troubling perspective on an epoch of history essentially left to foreign writers, a fact that supports the broader arguments for how and in whose voice the story of the empire is told.
The first, Formation: The Making of Nigeria from Jihad to Amalgamation, examines the century before the official birth of Nigeria in 1914. Its authors – the Nigerian accountant Feyi Fawehinmi and his compatriot banker Fola Fagbule – have studied the archives more carefully than many professional historians. They concluded that the years following Nigeria’s independence from Great Britain in 1960, marked by civil war, military coups, and religious and ethnic struggles, have drawn enough attention from writers lately.
Instead, their focus is on the time before Nigeria got its name. Formation explores the origins of the Sokoto Caliphate in the north in the 19th, a single state. On their way they give shape to a surprisingly diverse cast of characters, from visionary jihadists to Christian converts and early progressives to tyrants, mercenaries and slave traders.
The book by Fawehinmi and Fagbule underscores why it has proven so difficult to hold Africa’s most populous nation together since its inception. Written with a cool head and using a variety of colonial and local sources, including the pioneering work of Nigerian historians like Kenneth Dike in the 1960s, Formation raises many questions about the harsh realities Nigeria continues to face today.
“Books about British colonization of Nigeria are rare,” tweeted Max Siollun, one of the country’s most prolific aspiring non-fiction authors, earlier this year. His own book, What Great Britain has done to Nigeria, appeared after a long wait in tandem – “like buses” – with formation and is on his way with similar ambitions.
After compiling a compelling trilogy of books on post-independence politics under the military, Siollun turned to the colonial era, partly out of frustration at the pink awe of British rule he still experiences among some of his compatriots.
“Nigeria is a classic case of a country suffering from winner syndrome,” he writes. “Much of Nigeria’s colonial history was written by British colonial and military officers. These stories give the reader the impression that they are looking at Nigerians through the telescopic lens of a British rifle. ”
There is no trace of nostalgia in Siollun’s account of how mercantilism, missionary zeal, and outright racism catalyzed Britain’s transformation from trade to colonial power, fueled by the ruthless, monopoly ambitions of the Royal Niger Company – the UK’s leading corporation serving the Niger River and its Tributaries at that time.
But he, or the authors of Formation, does not fall for any prelapsed vision of what Nigeria was before the British devastated the Maxim weapon to crush the resistance. They reveal unvarnished how slave robbery between rival powers resulted in the many indigenous groups living in isolation from one another and exposed to the European adventurers who banded together.
But there is glimmer in the emergence of what could have allowed a more benevolent period of relations between parts of Nigeria and British missionaries – after the abolition of the slave trade and before the struggle of the European powers over Africa in earnest – to flourish.
Local slave traders turned into palm oil and cotton traders. Emancipated Nigerians returned from Freetown, the liberated slave colony in Sierra Leone, to join an educated elite in cities like Lagos and Abeokuta in the southwest.
Perhaps the most striking observation is the British ‘casual disregard for the consequences of enclosing so many different cultures within one state
Ultimately, that promise was brushed aside in the military conquests that Siollun relentlessly records, shredding some of the myths about the British colonial pioneers. George Taubman Goldie, the mysterious head behind the RNC, was a “corporate terrorist” in the form of Cecil Rhodes. Frederick Lugard, who as governor led the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates into Nigeria, was a ruthless narcissist whose dubious reputation was laundered by coining the name of Nigeria by his wife, Flora Shaw, the Times’ first colonial editor to be credited .
Perhaps the most striking observation in both books is the casual disregard for the consequences of the British enclosing so many different cultures within one state.
“In Lagos, a stubbornly independent city-state of Egba, the new rulers faced a very cosmopolitan and long-urbanized elite. . . There was also a newly conquered old Benin kingdom that was still under a restless reign. Then there were the previously highly decentralized Igbo communities, which were barely understood by the first rulers who occupied this country with armed force, ”write Fawehinmi and Fagbule.
All of this was before the Victorian bean counters decided that the vast loss-making protectorate of predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria, which includes the Hausa-Fulani Empire and the surrounding regions, should be thrown into the mix with its more profitable southern neighbor to balance the books.
“Nigeria was only one page in a colonial bookkeeping book,” concludes Siollun. Nigerians will live with the consequences for a long time.
formation: The rise of Nigeria from jihad to amalgamation by Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi Cassava Republic, £ 19.99, 357 pages
What Britain did to Nigeria: A Brief History of Conquest and Domination by Max Siollun Hurst, £ 20, 408 pages
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