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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Nigeria: A New History of a Turbulent Century by Richard Bourne

Book Review
Nigeria: A New History of a Turbulent Century
by Richard Bourne
p. 2015 Zed Books (UK)

  An eye popping fact about the history of Nigeria is that Nigeria has never had a census.  Ever.   Maybe that fact doesn't tell you everything you need to know about Nigeria, but it does give you an idea of how hard the basic facts about Nigerian history can be to pin down.  Nigeria: A New History of a Turbulent Century is a valiant attempt to provide a general reader level introduction to 20th century Nigerian history, but Richard Bourne faces a struggle on many different levels.  The best he can hope to do is identify issues in Nigerian history, he doesn't even presume to provide answers.

  As is the case for many areas of the global south, Nigeria traces its very existence to a decision made by English colonialists.  Present day Nigeria includes three very different regions.  First there is the Muslim north.  Historically, the Muslim north was the heartland of the Sokoto Caliphate, a Muslim empire that united various Emirates of the Hausa people.   The Hausa speak an Afro-Asiatic language, part of the same language family that includes Arabic and Hebrew.  The Hausa/Sokoto had a horse riding, war making aristocracy.  The English colonialists were enamored of this leadership, and colonialism was a very quiet presence in this part of Africa, to the point where Christian missionaries were kept out of the area in the early and middle parts of the 20th century.

    The second major group in Nigeria are the Yoruba, who live in the south and the west of the present day country.  The Yoruba never had a centralized government, but they were a sophisticated people and early converts to Christianity.  White settlers simply couldn't survive for very long in this part of the world, and thus Southern Nigeria was spared the indignities faced by native peoples in Southern Africa.

   The final major ethnicity/people of Nigeria are the Igbo, who occupied eastern Nigeria. Like the Yoruba, the Igbo were quick converts to Christianity.  They were also the great losers of the post-Indpendence power struggle.  The so-called Biafrian civil way (that's why he's called "Jello Biafra" resulted in the death of millions of ethnic Igbo and resulted in their exclusion from power for decades after.

  And then there are multiple smaller ethnicities.  Oh, and the Yoruba speak a Bantu language, and the Igbo speak a language from the Niger-Congo family.   All three major native languages are from different language families, so Nigeria is something like having equal portions of English speakers, Chinese speakers and Native Americans.  The independence movement in Nigeria was muted, perhaps because the British presence was so muted.  Only Yoruba elites in the South had a genuine desire for independence in the way that you typically think about those ideas in the 20th century.  The North, fearing the potential for domination by the Christian south, actively resisted independence and only became independent at the very moment before Nigeria was formed as an independent state.

  The complex ethnic make up led to an even more complicated electoral system, with multiple checks and balances to ensure that no one group could control the other. This complicated electoral system was perhaps not the best idea for a society experiencing democracy for the first time, and several military coups became the defining feature of post-indpendence life.   The coups were enabled by the discovery of enormous oil wealth, which quickly became the major source of income for the Federal state, and a major source of contention for those negatively impacted by the development of said resources.

 The frequent oscillation between military and civilian rule wasn't great for the Nigerian people, but nor was it a worst case scenario.  It is very, very, very fair to say that any statistics that come out of Nigeria are dubious, so while figures purport to show a decline in income in post-independence Nigeria, it's possible that either the initial numbers were wrong, or the newer figures were wrong, or both.  Additionally, the Nigerian state essentially sits on top of these very distinct regions/ethnic groups, and it is debatable how much of an impact the coups and elections had on the great mass of the Nigerian population, who were still living in traditional village settings.

  A theme which emerges from Nigeria: A New History of a Turbulent Century, is that Nigeria is better compared to India in terms of it's historical experience with Colonialism than it is to other African nations.  The Nigerian independence movement was most inspired by the Indian example, and Nigeria maintains an uneasy relationship with other West African states, with Ghana appearing to be almost a "rival."

  Another theme of 20th century Nigerian history is a high level of buy-in from the people and elites of the various composite ethnic groups, major civil war aside.  It's not hard to look at Nigeria and see the Sunni's and Shias of Iraq, eternally at cross purposes, but that hasn't been in the case here.  Even the recent eruption of the Boko Haram seems to have been taken in stride, and dealt with in a way that respects the difference of the Muslim north and the Christian south.

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