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Writing Nigeria: The sources of formation (2)

Writing Nigeria: The sources of formation (2)

Nigeria’s “Middle Belt” is an incredibly diverse stretch of land that has confounded Nigerians and Europeans alike for centuries. Simply figuring out who is who in this wonderful ethnic tapestry would be an achievement. Yet, this entry level task proved beyond the range of even the most gifted explorers. Dr. Siegfried Frederick Nadel is one person who gave it a good go.

He went to live in the Nupe Kingdom for two years between 1934 and 1936 and somehow managed to start speaking the Nupe language within six months, which was no mean feat, given the tonality of the language.

The result of that immersion was his book A Black Byzantium: The Kingdom of Nupe in Nigeria. The book is not perfect. Written in 1942, Dr. Nadel’s book contains what might seem like obvious mistakes today, but this is not down to the all-too-common laziness seen in the work of many Europeans writing about Nigeria.

The task was simply too great and perhaps required a lifetime’s commitment. It would not have been possible to write The Game of Thrones in the Niger Heartland, without the understanding of the Nupe Kingdom that was provided by Dr. Nadel’s work.

How to write about an important and complex story such as that of the Sokoto Caliphate? The easy part is that there is no shortage of books and articles on an empire that was at one point, the largest bureaucracy in sub-Saharan Africa.

The slightly difficult part is that, as with all complex stories, different accounts often took very different views on what the Caliphate was like. To strike a balance, we relied heavily on Murray Last’s The Sokoto Caliphate and H.A.S. Johnston’s The Fulani Empire of Sokoto.

Professor Last is luckily still alive, and his indispensable work takes a more academic approach that is critical to understanding how the Caliphate worked, down to the minutiae of offices – grand and petty – and policymaking. H.A.S. Johnston, who was one of several colonial officials that became historians after Nigeria gained independence, wrote a book which is closer to what we might call popular history.

An immensely enjoyable and easy read, he included a lot of insights and local knowledge gained from talking to several people on the ground and travelling the country. What both authors had in common was having access to the outstanding historian of the Sokoto Caliphate – Waziri Muhammadu Junaidu. The Waziri painstakingly built up the largest archive of materials on the Caliphate ranging from books to letters.

In gaining access to him, Professor Last and Mr. Johnston were able to fill in several of their knowledge gaps as outsiders and produce works which we found crucial in writing Formation. Perhaps more than any other, The Caliphate in Session chapter is indebted to these two books. Mervyn Hiskett’s The Sword of Truth: The Life and Times of the Shehu Usuman Dan Fodio was a source of some frustration for us.

How is it that there is pretty much only one English biography, and even this shorter than 200 pages, on the life of one of the most consequential people in Nigerian history? While that question remains unanswered, as limited as it is, the late Dr. Hiskett’s work proved essential to us in writing about the life of the Shehu in our Son of the Jurist chapter.

In writing about the Yoruba country during the mid-19th century, very few eye-witness accounts in the English Language are as lucid, graphic, authentic and incontrovertible as that of a young American Baptist Minister named Richard Henry Stone, who lived in the country from 1858 and authored a book called In Africa’s Forest and Jungle or Six Years Among the Yorubans.

R.H. Stone’s amazing first-hand account is another one of those perspective-shifting narratives we love, because he observed important historical events from the unique perspective of a large and important settlement called Ijaiye, which was destroyed as an outcome of regional geopolitics among the Oyo, Egba, Ijebu, Ibadan, Dahomey and Ilorin.

Read also: Writing Nigeria: The sources of Formation (1)

Our understanding of the intimate details of the so-called Yoruba Wars, including the names, addresses and physical descriptions of key actors in the affairs of the Yoruba country after the collapse of Oyo are greatly enriched by the very personal even if self-indulgent account of R.H. Stone.

Personal accounts like Stone’s memoirs and the haunting first-hand portrait of King Ghezo’s Dahomey titled Dahomey and the Dahomans by Frederick E. Forbes combine with more academic resources like Saburi Biobaku’s seminal The Egba and Their Neighbors, and Harry A. Gailey’s Lugard and the Abeokuta Uprising, The Demise of Egba Independence to paint the colorful picture of affairs in this part of Nigeria that we put forward in the chapter of Formation that we called Sunrise Within The Tropics.

Writing about the pre-colonial Igbo Country in the hinterland of the Niger Delta was one of the more difficult aspects of the Formation story, because there are so few eye-witness accounts written in any language at all, never mind in English.

But we were lucky that so many excellent Nigerian and foreign historians had done the important work of using oral history sources and dating techniques to bridge this knowledge gap, long before we were born. Nonetheless, we did make a valiant effort to unearth new and perhaps overlooked first-hand historical sources, and we managed to find some.

Not least of these is the invaluable personal history authored by George Thomas Basden (later, Archdeacon of the Niger from 1926), who arrived at Onitsha in September 1900 and was probably the first European to live among the Igbo people from that time until he died in 1936.

Among the Ibos of Nigeria is that rare document, an English language eye-witness account of pre-colonial life in the Igbo country. It is from his account that we can recount a riveting first-hand report of a consultation with the famous Arochukwu Oracle, reflecting the immense power of that longstanding pre-colonial judicial and religious institution on the lives of the ordinary people in the Igbo country.