BusinessDay

There was a country, created by the British

Niccolo Machiavelli’s assertion that “whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past” finds ample justification in Max Siollun’s latest work What Britain did to Nigeria: A short history of conquest and rule.

Like the Israelites in the desert who longed for the fleshpots in Egypt, Nigerians tend to look back at the colonial era with nostalgia; as an era of peace, stability, unparalleled economic growth and good governance.

But was the colonial period that good as to warrant the call by some people for a return to colonial rule? How come Nigerians arrived at such an impression about the colonial era? According to Winston Churchill, history is written by the victors.

 The sheer brutality of the process of imposing British rule on the different areas of present day Nigeria is thrown into sharp focus and debunks the often held misconception that colonial rule was largely a peaceful engagement

 

It is a tribute to the success of the British Colonial project in Nigeria that up till now, most of the relevant historical scholarship on Nigeria and especially of the colonial period has been the work of foreigners rather than indigenes.

Hence the preponderance of the single story narrative about the colonial period among Nigerians.

In What Britain did to Nigeria, Max Siollun, an indigenous historian who, with his previous works on the Nigerian Military, has earned for himself the title of the Chronicler-in-Chief seeks to set the records straight and overcome the single story narrative about the history of peoples of Nigeria prior to and during the crucial years leading to the formation of Nigeria.

He does this by attempting to answer the following questions: Why did Britain come to Nigeria? What did Britain do to Nigeria? How did the indigenes react to British presence?

With a structure and narrative force reminiscent of Chinua Achebe’s Things fall Apart, Max takes the reader on a fascinating journey of discovery of the unique human actors and characters, the circumstances and truly dramatic events that led up to the formation of Nigeria.

It is an entertaining, insightful, objective and balanced narrative that courageously avoids partisanship while helping the reader appreciate the viewpoints of both the colonialists and their indigenous interlocutors.

The sheer brutality of the process of imposing British rule on the different areas of present day Nigeria is thrown into sharp focus and debunks the often held misconception that colonial rule was largely a peaceful engagement founded on mutually beneficial interests.

From Kano to Maiduguri, Benin to Lagos, Opobo to Arochukwu, Sokoto to Bida, it chronicles how Britain with very few personnel on the ground but equipped with the Maxim gun and shrewdly exploiting the internal divisions and antagonisms between the different ethnic and tribal groups succeeded in subduing and stamping its authority on the disparate nationalities that make up Nigeria.

It is indeed a rich chronicle that throws abundant light on genesis of so many issues that we grapple with in present day Nigeria.

Did you know that the true architect of the Nigeria project was the now largely forgotten entrepreneur and founder of the Royal Niger Company (RNC) George Dashwood Taubman Goldie rather than Lord Lugard?

Did you know that the Sultan of Sokoto once saved the British from being overthrown in a popular rebellion similar to Boko Haram and Maitatsine during the Governorship of Lord Frederick Lugard. This singular act of loyalty was to have far reaching consequences on the political fortunes of the now subdued Sokoto caliphate within Nigeria.

In the book you discover how and why the British managed to rule over such disparate peoples like the Kanem Bornu, the Hausa Fulani, the Yorubas, Ibos, Ijaws, etc.

You learn about the problems they encountered and how their attempt to resolve them influenced the long term evolution of Nigeria? Do you know why from the very beginning Hausa was for a long time the official language of the Nigerian Army?

Did you know how Christian missionary activity and the effort to translate the Bible into the local languages especially in the South of Nigeria led to the gradual formation of a unified Yoruba, Igbo, Efik and other languages and the rise of their ethnic identity?

Read also: Don’t be deceived, nobody understands Nigeria

Discover how in an ironic twist of fate, the different peoples of Southern Nigeria that offered the stiffest resistance to British rule ended up becoming the most westernized and transformed part of Nigeria while the North that was largely shielded from Western influence ended up becoming saddled with an anachronistic governance structure.

Did you know that Fela’s mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti organized a very successful protest in Abeokuta against unfair taxation of women and to ensure that women were granted voting rights? These and many more interesting stories are contained in this important book.

According to the US Poet Laureate Robert Penn Warren, “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity so that we can better face the future.”

Max Siollun’s book achieves this goal in an unpretentious way accessible to the general public. What Britain did to Nigeria is an important milestone in retrieving and publicizing the history of colonial rule in Nigeria

Highly recommended!

Nyambi writes from Lagos

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