How to “not understand” Nigeria

In A New History of a Turbulent Century, Richard Bourne says anyone who claims to understand Nigeria is either deluded or a liar.

Getting around in Makoko, Lagos. Credit: Rainer Wozny.

Getting around in Makoko, Lagos. Credit: Rainer Wozny.

It’s hard to miss the fact that in the title of Richard Bourne’s new book on Nigeria, you can easily substitute the word “century” for “country” and keep the meaning intact, although it is somewhat less diplomatic. The claim to a “new history”, however, is more noteworthy for, as Bourne also remarks, “Anyone who claims to understand Nigeria is either deluded, or a liar”.

That assertion is shaped, in part, by what the author regards as an unwillingness by Nigerians to confront and make use of their past. I know this attitude well. Both my parents were schoolteachers and our shelves reflected their academic specialties: English grammar and literature books for my father; History and Yoruba language books for my mother. The history books covered African civilisations or Yoruba culture and societies, and there was even a tome on the history of my hometown Abeokuta. But what we lacked was a history book on modern Nigeria.

Not surprisingly, my factual knowledge of Nigerian political history was therefore picked from passing mentions in Social Studies and Government classes or dubious “quick facts” tabled in pamphlets. Otherwise, a lot of Nigerian history was – and still seems to be – a matter of opinion. It is only in recent times that more attempts have been made to present objective records of Nigeria’s political history. A New History is one of such effort.

The narrative of the book is straightforward. It kicks off from January 1, 1914 – the “real” birthdate of the country – and ends with an assessment of the current administration of President Muhammadu Buhari.

At the start, the writer pays a lot of attention to the motives and personality of Lord Lugard, the country’s architect. Lugard as presented here is a far cry from the father figure traditionally taught to schoolchildren (and recently reinforced by the misguided centenary award posthumously bestowed by former president Goodluck Jonathan’s administration). Later on, Tafawa Balewa, the prime minister of Nigeria’s “first republic”, is also depicted, this time with a kinder perspective than one usually hears. But otherwise, the book gives more attention to events rather than personalities, and the author flattens many other – ordinarily colourful – participants in the country’s history.

Although it is near impossible for a book with a modest number of pages to tackle every major event in the past hundred years, there is still a noticeable absence of detail in some of the chronicle. From the late 1960s onwards, the hitherto leisurely pace becomes noticeably rushed, like a film that is yet to get to the main plot, and whole episodes – such as the political crisis of the Western Region, the Igbo massacres, and the phenomenon of “419” fraud syndrome (curiously represented in the cover photo of the book) – are reduced to a few fleeting sentences.

However, what the book occasionally loses in detail is regained in the often neutral but mostly didactic narrative style of the author. The paragraphs are refreshingly easy to follow, and the events are queued up in almost cinematic alignment. Without losing pace, the book gives the reader insights into the social psychology that led to the emergence of the nationalist movements, the escalation of the North-South dichotomy, the near-inevitability of military intervention, Biafra’s secessionist movement and civil war, military despotism and, finally, a return to civil rule.

In Bourne’s account, juicy titbits are revealed like unexpected gifts: an argument between ministers on who got to dance with Princess Alexandra at the Independence Ball, or Ironsi’s letter of complaint marked “for Nigerian Eyes Only”. However some details are missed or ignored: for example, Wole Soyinka, who allegedly hijacked a radio station to destabilise the Premier of the Western Region and later attempted to broker a civil war peace, is referenced more as a commentator than as an active participant in Nigerian history.

Also notable in the book is the conscious effort to maintain an international angle to what is otherwise a domestic story. A New History situates Nigeria within the context of world history by merging a number of local issues within the causes and effects of international events. This is demonstrated from the detailed record of the participation of the “early” Nigerians in the war machinery of the two world wars, to the influence of the international economy on Nigeria’s crude oil trade and domestic politics.

Ultimately, and despite its title, Bourne’s work is not quite “a history book” in an academic sense. It is not just a compendium of facts and figures. In some places, the documented evidence tapers and interpretation relies more on anecdotal reports. A lot of controversial historical elements are glided past, their presence acknowledged rather than validated or negated. And some of the narrative feels like a collation of views; the book at times creates the impression of a chapter-by-chapter summary of other more detailed history books.

But this impression is not necessarily a bad thing. Few people – and fewer Nigerians – are going to pore over long-winded accounts of Nigerian history. Bourne offers, instead, some insight and judgement on Nigeria through a concise tale of hope, conflict and resignation. He paints a picture that is – to a large extent – a courteous compilation of Nigeria’s series of unfortunate events. He then invites us, the reader, to decide the overall effect.

Indeed, the book ends on an enquiring note, leaving the question of Nigeria’s enduring unity and claim to nationhood unanswered. Is Nigeria likely to survive as a country or does the history reveal fatal structural flaws? What is the right advice to give to the directors of the country’s fortunes today?

But maybe there are no right answers, and Bourne doesn’t claim to “understand” Nigeria of course. And if anything, this is just another indication of how the continuing history of this turbulent country is uncertain.

What is certain, however, is that A New History will provoke its Nigerian readers to “confront and make use of the past” as the cyclical patterns of misgovernment become evident, and that it will persuade its non-Nigerian readers to develop greater empathy for the affairs of a nation at conflict with its own identity.

Richard Bourne may claim not to “understand” Nigeria, but in this methodical book, he comes as close as any other writer who has tried to sum up the turbulent history of this turbulent country.

Ayo Sogunro is the author of, among others, The Wonderful Life of Senator Boniface and other Sorry Tales. He indulges in Nigerian socio-legal thoughts on his blog,

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2 thoughts on “How to “not understand” Nigeria

  1. Chinua Achebe on African Leadership inclusive in that of Nigeria.

    Why this great Nigerian Writer, Chinua Achebe needs to be both read and discussed in Nigeria today by all the Leadership Cadre exercising power and responsibility.

    Chinua Achebe, the late most great Nigerian man of letters and author of the West African Novel “Things Fall Apart” which is recognized by most academic intellectuals and public policy experts on Africa throughout the world as being ‘the book’ best reflecting the interior African mind writes in 1983; “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership”.
    This leadership exegetic phrase by Achebe remains the unsurpassed diagnosis of the leadership deficit malady currently existing in Sub-saharan Africa notwithstanding the recent transformative civic civil electoral process in Nigeria; as for me, ‘the jury is still out’ waiting to witness as to how President Muhammadu Buhari will mange and project his presidential executive mandate in the active promotion of prescriptive governance in strengthening all the good citizens of Nigeria. However, there is, an element political public ethos external that Achebe wrote which captures the strange ineluctable dissonance entailed so manifest in present day sub-saharan Africa leadership deeds, utterances and commentary.
    DRC President Joseph Kabila whose shadow state has contributed in a fundamental process the violence still prevalent in his nation DRC, once said; “The worst thing I have ever seen is the sight of a village after a massacre; you can never erase that from your memory”. This DRC President and many many less prominent do have an element of empathy to feel the suffering caused by the political public system they perpetuate and extend in methods corrupt, violent and venal. For me, the ordinal social civic issue for rigorous comment and discussion is that somehow these men are somehow able and capable in being able to subordinate and compartmentalize this normative universal empathy to the exigent crass power corrupt need requirement to keep the ‘looting machine’ operational and to ensure that they along with their oligarchical cadre remain at the control helm rather than joining the countless luckless other social political ‘publics’ men and women who are and have been crushed destroyed beneath this corruption mange-eating looting machine’.
    Achebe’s poem “Vultures” could well have been written of those who created the horrors in the African civil wars inclusive of the violence against the women and children as all War Lords and Despots have mothers and brothers and wives just as their victims enjoyed love and civic social companionship. Achebe describes the vulture removing the eyes off of a bloated corpse in a trench before nuzzling gently the neck of its vulture companion. Achebe further imagines the commandant at Belsen who on his way home after a long blistering day at the crematorium pauses to——

    “pick up a chocolate
    for his tender offspring
    waiting at home for Daddy’s

    Achebe recognized intuitively the larger element roiling within the human spirit, African and non African as this spirit shares no colour or creed or even theology. Achebe within his personal West African zeitgeist articulated in prose and in verse grounded fully within the African civic social public matrix that the human ethos spirit is both capable of extending profound gentle generous love, and concomitant, this same singular human spirit is fully capable in the pernicious malfeasance in the full cognizant active participation of ‘the horror’ together in the same day!
    All future African Leaders in academe, the law, health and medicine and pubic service in government ought to and be compelled to read, reflect and discuss the ideas and values ballasted within the writings and reflections of this great literary man who just so happens to be an African.

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