Squaring the ledger — Britain’s rule in Nigeria by FT

Two books bring much-needed African viewpoints to the country’s colonial history

Colonial administrators in Lagos with messengers from the interior, c1910 © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A definitive account of the big bang that brought their country into being has long eluded Nigerian historians. Although attempts were made in the 1970s, notably led by Obaro Ikime, former history professor at Ibadan university, the parameters of such a vexed subject were not agreed sufficiently and the idea never fully came to fruition.

Now, finally, two accounts of the run-up to — and realisation of — Nigeria’s subjugation by the British give a fresh, often troubling, perspective to a period of history that had been left substantially to foreign writers, a fact that reinforced the wider case for revisiting how, and in whose voice, the story of empire is told.

The first, Formation: The Making of Nigeria from Jihad to Amalgamation, examines the century before Nigeria was officially born in 1914. Its authors — Nigerian accountant Feyi Fawehinmi and his banker compatriot Fola Fagbule — have delved more painstakingly into the archives than many professional historians. They decided that the years after Nigeria won independence from Britain in 1960, which were marked by civil war, military coups and religious and ethnic strife, have absorbed enough recent attention from writers.

Instead, their focus is on the period before Nigeria got its name. Formation explores the 19th-century emergence of the Sokoto Caliphate in the north, and the complex interactions of warring kingdoms, city states and riverine trading communities in the south, all of which were ultimately thrown together, at the behest of Victorian Britain, to create a single state. Along the way, they give flesh to a staggeringly diverse cast of characters from visionary jihadis to Christian converts and early progressives as well as tyrants, mercenaries and slavers.

Fawehinmi and Fagbule’s book underscores why it is that Africa’s most populous nation has proved so difficult to hold together since its inception. Written with cool heads, and drawing on a great range of colonial-era and local sources, including the pioneering work of Nigerian historians such as Kenneth Dike in the 1960s, Formation raises many questions around the hard realities Nigeria continues to face today.

“Books about Britain’s colonisation of Nigeria are rare,” Max Siollun, one of the country’s most prolific, emerging non-fiction authors, tweeted earlier this year. His own book, What Britain did to Nigeria, has arrived after a long wait, in tandem — “like buses” — with Formation, and sets out with similar ambitions. Having racked up a gripping trilogy of books on post-independence politics under the military, Siollun has turned his attention to the colonial era, partly out of frustration with the rose-tinted reverence for British rule he still encounters among some of his compatriots. “Nigeria is a classic case of a country suffering from winner’s syndrome,” he writes. “Much of Nigeria’s colonial history was written by British colonial and military officers. Those narratives give the reader the impression that they are viewing 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 catalysed Britain’s transformation from trading to colonial power, driven by the ruthless, monopolistic ambitions of the Royal Niger Company — the foremost British company navigating the river Niger and its tributaries at the time.

But neither he nor Formation’s authors fall for some prelapsarian vision of what Nigeria was before the British used the Maxim gun with devastating effect to crush resistance. They give unvarnished accounts of how slave raiding among rival powers meant that the many native groups were living in isolation from each other, leaving them exposed to European adventurers joining up the dots. But there are glimmers in Formation of what might have been had a more benevolent period of relations between parts of Nigeria and British missionaries — after the abolition of the slave trade, and before the scramble by European powers for Africa had begun in earnest — been allowed to flourish. Native slave traders were transforming themselves into palm oil and cotton merchants. Emancipated Nigerians were returning from Freetown, the freed slave colony in Sierra Leone, to swell the ranks of an educated elite in cities such as Lagos, and Abeokuta, in the south-west.

Ultimately that promise was swept aside in the military conquests that Siollun chronicles relentlessly, shredding as he goes some of the myths surrounding Britain’s colonial pioneers. George Taubman Goldie, the secretive brains behind the RNC, was a “corporate terrorist”, in the mould of Cecil Rhodes. Frederick Lugard, who, as governor, presided over the amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates that became Nigeria, was a ruthless narcissist, whose dubious reputation was laundered by his wife, Flora Shaw, the first female colonial editor of The Times who was credited with coining Nigeria’s name. Perhaps the most striking observation, in both books, is of the casual disregard the British had for the consequences of enveloping so many disparate cultures within one state. “The new rulers were dealing with a highly cosmopolitan and long-urbanised elite in Lagos, a stubbornly independent Egba city-state . . . There was also a newly conquered ancient Benin kingdom, still under a restless regency. Then there were the hitherto highly decentralised Igbo communities, still barely understood by the first rulers ever to occupy this country using forces of arms,” write Fawehinmi and Fagbule.

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