Category Archives: Nigeria

Negative Human Development in Resource States

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 211-212:

In 1970, the year the Olympic movement expelled South Africa, the government passed legislation formally stripping blacks of their citizenship and restricting them to destitute “homelands,” and the authorities appointed a barbaric new commanding officer at Robben Island prison to watch over Mandela and his fellow inmates, South Africa produced some 62 percent of the gold mined worldwide. From the early 1970s to 1993 gold, diamonds, and other minerals accounted for between half and two-thirds of South Africa’s exports annually.

South Africa’s gold and diamonds provided the financial means for apartheid to exist. In that sense white rule was an extreme manifestation of the resource state: the harnessing of a national endowment of mineral wealth to ensure the power and prosperity of the few while the rest are cast into penury and impotence. None of Africa’s resource states today come close to the level of orchestrated subjugation of the majority that the apartheid regime achieved. Neither do they employ apartheid’s racial creed, even if ethnicity has combined poisonously with the struggle to capture resource rent in Nigeria, Angola, Guinea, and elsewhere. But as their rulers, in concert with the multinational corporations of the resource industry, horde the fruits of their nations’ oil and minerals, Africa’s resource states have come to bear a troubling resemblance to the divisions of apartheid.

While the children of eastern Congo, northern Nigeria, Guinea, and Niger waste away, the beneficiaries of the looting machine grow fat. Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize–winning Indian economist who has examined with great insight why mass starvation occurs, writes, “The sense of distance between the ruler and the ruled—between ‘us’ and ‘them’—is a crucial feature of famines.” That same reasoning could be applied to the provision of other basic needs, including clean water and schooling. And rarely is the distance Sen describes as wide as in Africa’s resource states.

Many of Africa’s resource states experienced very high rates of economic growth during the commodity boom of the past decade. The usual measure of average incomes—GDP per head—has risen. But on closer examination such is the concentration of wealth in the hands of the ruling class that that growth has predominantly benefited those who were already rich and powerful, rendering the increase in GDP per head misleading. A more revealing picture comes from a different calculation. Each year the United Nations ranks all the countries for which it can gather sufficient data (186 in 2012) by their level of human development, things like rates of infant mortality and years of schooling. It also ranks them by GDP per head. If you subtract a country’s rank on the human development index from its rank on the GDP per head index, you get an indication of the extent to which economic growth is actually bettering the lot of the average person in that country. In countries that score zero—as Congo, Rwanda, Russia, and Portugal did in 2012—living standards are roughly where you might expect them to be, given that country’s GDP per head. People in countries with positive scores enjoy disproportionately pleasant living conditions relative to income—Cuba, Georgia, and Samoa top the table with scores of 44, 37, and 28, respectively. A negative score indicates a failure to turn national income into longer lives, better health, and more years of education for the population at large. Of the ten countries that come out worst, five are African resource states: Angola (–35), Gabon (–40), South Africa (–42), Botswana (–55), and Equatorial Guinea.

Equatorial Guinea’s score (–97), comfortably the worst in the world, is all the more remarkable because its GDP per head is close to $30,000 a year, not far below the level of Spain or New Zealand and seventy times that of Congo.

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“Survival of the Fattest” in Rentier States

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 188-190:

A governor of one of Nigeria’s thirty-six states is effectively president of his own fiefdom. He has immunity from prosecution and controls the state security budget. The chairman of each of the 774 local governments is answerable to the state governor. To win a presidential primary a candidate needs two-thirds of the states to back him. That backing is in the gift of the governors. The Governors’ Forum is perhaps the most potent gathering in the land. Only about half of Nigeria’s oil revenues are allocated to the federal government. A fifth goes to the local governments. The governors control the quarter of oil revenues that goes to the states.

Oil-producing states receive an additional 13 percent share of Nigeria’s oil income before it is divided between the tiers of government. The state houses of the Niger Delta are powerful pistons of the looting machine. When he agreed to meet me in late 2010, Timipre Sylva had succeeded Goodluck Jonathan as governor of Bayelsa, one of the Delta’s three main states. I had hoped to interview him at Gloryland, the gubernatorial palace set well apart from the shacks that house his constituents. Instead, I was summoned to the penthouse suite of a five-star hotel in Lagos, where Sylva was staying with his entourage during a visit to the commercial capital.

A tall and intelligent man, Sylva was under pressure. Politics in the Niger Delta is unremittingly volatile. Gunmen drift between the militias of MEND, crime gangs, and squads of political thugs that freelance for competing aspirants to power. As Sylva’s rivals sought to force him from office, loyalists were exchanging tit-for-tat attacks with his enemies. Relations with Jonathan, recently elevated to the presidential palace by Yar’Adua’s death, had soured. Little wonder, I suggested, that others coveted his job: his immediate predecessor had found himself president and the one before had siphoned off so much cash that he, like Joshua Dariye and James Ibori, the former governors of Plateau and Delta States, had snapped up enough assets abroad to earn the attention of the British police.

Sylva accepted that there had been widespread corruption among the governors. But he was, he pleaded, just a cog in a patronage system not of his making. “If a chief walks into my office, he expects me to take care of his problems because that is what the military used to do,” Sylva said. “That’s what he’s used to. If I don’t, I’ve got a very big political enemy.”

So you have to “settle” them, I suggested, using the Nigerian term for the dispensing of cash.

“Yes. And you will read that as corruption. But me, I probably will read that as political survival, because I have to survive before I become incorruptible.”

“And you use public funds to do that?” I asked.

“What does he expect me to do? I don’t have that kind of money; the kind of money he’s expecting. Even if I have it privately, I won’t do that with it. And he’s coming to me because I’m governor. If, for example, the big chief comes, and he has to go for a medical check, it shouldn’t be my problem. But it is. If a very big traditional ruler dies somewhere, and they want to do an elaborate burial ceremony, they come to me. I have to do it.”

Me, I probably will read that as political survival. To justify corruption, Sylva reached for the same word—“survival”—that Mahmoud Thiam had chosen when he explained why pariah states are willing to deal with the likes of Sam Pa and the Queensway Group. Said Djinnit, the UN’s man in west Africa, called the competition to control political power in the resource states “a struggle for survival at the highest level.” Paul Collier talks about the law of “the survival of the fattest” in rentier states.

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Nigeria’s Smuggled Economy

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 61-62, 65:

Weapons and unwilling human traffic cross Nigeria’s northern border covertly. But the flow of counterfeit Chinese-made textiles has grown so voluminous that it would be impossible to keep it secret even if secrecy were required to ensure its safe passage. All the same, most of the shipments go through under cover of darkness. Those who control the trade engage in highly organized “settling,” or bribing, of the border officials, smoothing the textiles’ transit.

The Nigerian stretch is just the final leg of a 6,200-mile journey. It begins in Chinese factories, churning out imitations of the textiles that Nigerians previously produced for themselves, with their signature prime colors and waxiness to the touch. By the boatload they arrive in west Africa’s ports, chiefly Cotonou, Benin’s biggest city, a tiny country beside Nigeria that has, like Montenegro in Europe or Paraguay in South America, become a state whose major economic activity is the trans-shipment of contraband. At the ports the counterfeit consignments are loaded onto trucks and either driven straight over the land border between Benin and western Nigeria or up through Niger and round to the border post with its taciturn chief. The trade is estimated to be worth about $2 billion a year, equivalent to about a fifth of all annual recorded imports of textiles, clothing, fabric, and yarn into the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.

Smuggling is a long-established profession here. Before colonial cartographers imposed the frontier, today’s smuggling routes were the byways of legitimate commerce. The border marks a delineation of what used to be British and French territory in west Africa, but no natural division of language or ethnicity exists. People on both sides speak Hausa, a tongue in which the word for smuggling, sumoga, strikes a less pejorative note than its English equivalent. The textile smuggling bosses are the oligarchs of the northern borderlands. For those in their pay, they can be generous benefactors.

The cheaper price of smuggled garments relative to locally produced ones was good news, superficially at least, for the traders’ hard-pressed customers but less so for the employees of Nigeria’s textile industry. “It is a pitiable situation,” said Hillary, apparently oblivious to his and his colleagues’ role in their compatriots’ downfall. “All the [textile factories] we have here have shut down. The workers are now on the streets.”

In the mid-1980s Nigeria had 175 textile mills. Over the quarter-century that followed, all but 25 shut down. Many of those that have struggled on do so only at a fraction of their capacity. Of the 350,000 people the industry employed in its heyday, making it comfortably Nigeria’s most important manufacturing sector, all but 25,000 have lost their jobs. Imports comprise 85 percent of the market, despite the fact that importing textiles is illegal. The World Bank has estimated that textiles smuggled into Nigeria through Benin are worth $2.2 billion a year, compared with local Nigerian production that has shriveled to $40 million annually. A team of experts working for the United Nations concluded in 2009, “The Nigerian textile industry is on the verge of a total collapse.” Given the power crisis, the near-impassable state of Nigeria’s roads, and the deluge of counterfeit clothes, it is a wonder that the industry kept going as long as it did.

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Path to War in Biafra, 1966-67

From The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue, by Frederick Forsyth (Penguin, 2015), Kindle pp. 163-165:

After August 1966, relations between the pretty traumatized Ibos of the east and the federal government in Lagos deteriorated. In London the mandarins of the Commonwealth Office and later the Foreign Office quickly showed a passionate favoritism toward the federal regime, stoked by the resident high commissioner. British governments do not habitually show such adoration of military dictatorships, but this was an exception that stunned even Jim Parker.

Sir David Hunt quite liked Africans, so long as they showed him respectful deference. Colonel Gowon apparently did. When the high commissioner entered his office at Dodan Barracks, he would leap to his feet, slap on his cap, and throw up a quivering salute. Just once, as the crisis became deeper and deeper, David Hunt came east to visit Ojukwu in Enugu, and quickly developed a passionate loathing for the Ibo leader.

Emeka Ojukwu did indeed rise as his visitor entered the room, but in the manner of one welcoming a guest to his country home. He did not throw up a salute. It quickly became plain he was the sort of African, meaning black man, that the former Greek don Hunt could not stand. Emeka was a British public schoolboy, an MA of Oxford, once a first-class wing three-quarter for the college rugby team, and almost a Blue, an award earned for competition at the highest level. His voice was a relaxed drawl. He showed no deference. Jim Parker, who told me this, was standing a few feet away. Hunt and Ojukwu detested each other on sight, something that was made clear in my London briefing.

Early in his time as governor of the Eastern Region, Ojukwu tried, against all the prevailing wisdom elsewhere, to reinstitute a form of democracy. He formed three bodies to advise him; one was the Constituent Assembly, mainly the professional class, doctors, lawyers, graduates. Second was the Council of Chiefs and Elders, vital in an African society, where age and experience at clan level are revered. Third, surprising to Western eyes, was the Market Mammies Association.

Jim Parker explained to me that Ibo society is almost a matriarchy. In contrast to women in the north, Ibo women are hugely important and influential. The market was the core of every village and city zone. The mammies ran them and knew everything there was to know about the mood on the streets. These were the forces urging Ojukwu to pull eastern Nigeria out of the federal republic.

The public mood was not aggression but fear. Radio broadcasts out of the north threatened that the Hausa were preparing to come south and “finish the job.” Most Ibos believed these threats, the more so as neither federal nor northern government would close them down.

But the real secession point was eventually compensation. Ojukwu had about 1.8 million refugees, all penniless. They had fled, leaving everything behind. At the one single meeting that might have saved the day, at Aburi, in Ghana, Gowon had conceded a withholding of federal oil taxes as an income stream to cope with the crisis. After Aburi, Gowon returned to Lagos and, under pressure, reneged on the lot.

British official sources in Lagos and London briefed the British media that Ojukwu had been grossly unfair to Gowon. He had turned up fully briefed and was simply smarter. That sort of behavior, journalists were told, was obviously unacceptable. After that, the path slid downhill to May 30 and formal secession, and on July 6 to war.

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Other Names of the Spanish Flu

From Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney (PublicAffairs, 2017), Kindle pp. 63-65:

When the flu arrived in Spain in May, most Spanish people, like most people in general, assumed that it had come from beyond their own borders. In their case, they were right. It had been in America for two months already, and France for a matter of weeks at least. Spaniards didn’t know that, however, because news of the flu was censored in the warring nations, to avoid damaging morale (French military doctors referred to it cryptically as maladie onze, ‘disease eleven’). As late as 29 June, the Spanish inspector general of health, Martín Salazar, was able to announce to the Royal Academy of Medicine in Madrid that he had received no reports of a similar disease elsewhere in Europe. So who were Spaniards to blame? A popular song provided the answer. The hit show in Madrid at the time the flu arrived was The Song of Forgetting, an operetta based on the legend of Don Juan. It contained a catchy tune called ‘The Soldier of Naples’, so when a catchy disease appeared in their midst, Madrileños quickly dubbed it the ‘Naples Soldier’.

Spain was neutral in the war, and its press was not censored. Local papers duly reported the havoc that the Naples Soldier left in its wake, and news of the disruption travelled abroad. In early June, Parisians who were ignorant of the ravages the flu had caused in the trenches of Flanders and Champagne learned that two-thirds of Madrileños had fallen ill in the space of three days. Not realising that it had been theirs longer than it had been Spain’s, and with a little nudging from their governments, the French, British and Americans started calling it the ‘Spanish flu’. Not surprisingly, this label almost never appears in contemporary Spanish sources. Practically the only exception is when Spanish authors write to complain about it. ‘Let it be stated that, as a good Spaniard, I protest this notion of the “Spanish fever”,’ railed a doctor named García Triviño in a Hispanic medical journal. Many in Spain saw the name as just the latest manifestation of the ‘Black Legend’, anti-Spanish propaganda that grew out of rivalry between the European empires in the sixteenth century, and that depicted the conquistadors as even more brutal than they were (they did bind and chain the Indians they subjugated, but they probably did not–as the legend claimed–feed Indian children to their dogs).

Further from the theatre of war, people followed the time-honoured rules of epidemic nomenclature and blamed the obvious other. In Senegal it was the Brazilian flu and in Brazil the German flu, while the Danes thought it ‘came from the south’. The Poles called it the Bolshevik disease, the Persians blamed the British, and the Japanese blamed their wrestlers: after it first broke out at a sumo tournament, they dubbed it ‘sumo flu’.

Some names reflected a people’s historic relationship with flu. In the minds of the British settlers of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), for example, flu was a relatively trivial disease, so officials labelled the new affliction ‘influenza (vera)’, adding the Latin word vera, meaning ‘true’, in an attempt to banish any doubts that this was the same disease. Following the same logic, but opting for a different solution, German doctors realised that people would need persuading that this new horror was the ‘fashionable’ disease of flu–darling of the worried well–so they called it ‘pseudo-influenza’. In parts of the world that had witnessed the destructive potential of ‘white man’s diseases’, however, the names often conveyed nothing at all about the identity of the disease. ‘Man big daddy’, ‘big deadly era’, myriad words meaning ‘disaster’–they were expressions that had been applied before, to previous epidemics. They did not distinguish between smallpox, measles or influenza–or sometimes even famines or wars.

Some people reserved judgement. In Freetown, a newspaper suggested that the disease be called manhu until more was known about it. Manhu, a Hebrew word meaning ‘what is it?’, was what the Israelites asked each other when they saw a strange substance falling out of the sky as they passed through the Red Sea (from manhu comes manna–bread from heaven). Others named it commemoratively. The residents of Cape Coast, Ghana called it Mowure Kodwo after a Mr Kodwo from the village of Mouri who was the first person to die of it in that area. Across Africa, the disease was fixed for perpetuity in the names of age cohorts born around that time. Among the Igbo of Nigeria, for example, those born between 1919 and 1921 were known as ogbo ifelunza, the influenza age group. ‘Ifelunza’, an obvious corruption of ‘influenza’, became incorporated into the Igbo lexicon for the first time that autumn. Before that, they had had no word for the disease.

As time went on, and it transpired that there were not many local epidemics, but one global pandemic–it became necessary to agree on a single name. The one that was adopted was the one that was already being used by the most powerful nations on earth–the victors in the Great War. The pandemic became known as the Spanish flu–ispanka, espanhola, la grippe espagnole, die Spanische Grippe–and a historical wrong became set in stone.

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Quinine’s Role in Exploring Africa

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 310-311:

On October 29 [Heinrich Barth] heard that a British expedition had steamed up the Benue River. He had urged this mission on the government two years earlier but hadn’t heard a word about it since. He traced the rumor to a man in Kano who had seen the steamer on the Benue. Barth questioned him closely and was convinced that the rumor was true.

Barth wouldn’t know the details for many months. The mission had left Britain in early June 1854. When its commander died soon after the boat reached the island of Fernando Po in the Gulf of Guinea, Dr. William Balfour Baikie assumed command. Baikie, who later became Barth’s friend and supporter, took the 100-foot steamer Pleiad up the Niger for 700 miles. In early August the Pleiad entered the Benue and ascended it for 250 miles. At the end of September Baikie turned around, reaching the Niger on October 20, while Barth was in Kano. By February 1855 the Pleiad was home.

Every previous excursion on the Niger had proven deadly to Europeans, mostly because of fever. But the Pleiad’s entire crew—twelve Europeans and fifty-four Africans—survived because of an experimental therapy—prophylactic doses of quinine. This success altered the course of African exploration. The voyage also proved Barth’s conviction that the heart of Africa could be opened to commerce through navigation of the Niger’s watershed.

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Vigilante Justice in Nigeria

From A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa, by Alexis Okeowo (Hachette Books, 2017), Kindle pp. 84-85:

So it surprised everyone when, in June 2013, a mild-mannered taxi driver named Lawan Jafar apprehended a Boko Haram member in an area of Maiduguri called Hausari. With a few other men in tow, Jafar went to the home of a man he believed was involved with the terrorists. They found him in possession of a gun, and turned him over to the security forces. News spread of the citizen’s arrest. People talked about how Jafar was a hero, a simple man who had done something even the military couldn’t do. It was inspiring. Men, and some women, in other quarters then banded together.

Elder considered Jafar a would-be martyr who had truly sacrificed himself, and enviably become a leader in the process. He set out to emulate him. His neighborhood was the fourth to join. “We knew the Boko Haram members who were living in the neighborhood with us. We just started getting them in the night. We would catch them and then bring them to the authorities,” he said. He was the oldest of the group he joined up with back then, a loose association of men who lived near each other. They used sticks and cutlasses to defend themselves.

The very first day, they went after three young men, named Shehu, Usman, and Bukar, who they suspected of being militants. The suspects all lived with their parents in the neighborhood. Elder and the thirty other men were organized. They headed on foot to the suspects’ houses. At the first house, they didn’t find anyone. At the house of the next one, they found all three of them together. The relatives of the second man were also there. They watched, stunned, as Elder and the group crashed into the main room and tied the hands of each man behind his back, and then led them outside. “They didn’t say a word,” Elder recalled. “Because they know the habits of their boys.” He told the young men that he knew who they were and what they did with Boko Haram. The suspects were laughing. They had tried to run when Elder and the rest came in, but had nowhere to go. They had known the vigilantes would be coming after them, but seemed to be in a state of disbelief. The men said they weren’t the only Boko Haram members in the area. They started calling out names, people Elder and his group would pursue in the following days.

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Achebe on the Nigerian Pogroms of 1966

From: There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, by Chinua Achebe (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1307-1326:

Looking back, the naively idealistic coup of January 15, 1966, proved a terrible disaster. It was interpreted with plausibility as a plot by the ambitious Igbo of the East to take control of Nigeria from the Hausa/Fulani North. Six months later, I watched horrified as Northern officers carried out a revenge coup in which they killed Igbo officers and men in large numbers. If it had ended there, the matter might have been seen as a very tragic interlude in nation building, a horrendous tit for tat. But the Northerners turned on Igbo civilians living in the North and unleashed waves of brutal massacres that Colin Legum of The Observer (UK) was the first to describe as a pogrom. Thirty thousand civilian men, women, and children were slaughtered, hundreds of thousands were wounded, maimed, and violated, their homes and property looted and burned—and no one asked any questions. A Sierra Leonean living in Northern Nigeria at the time wrote home in horror: “The killing of the Igbos has become a state industry in Nigeria.”

What terrified me about the massacres in Nigeria was this: If it was only a question of rioting in the streets and so on, that would be bad enough, but it could be explained. It happens everywhere in the world. But in this particular case a detailed plan for mass killing was implemented by the government—the army, the police—the very people who were there to protect life and property. Not a single person has been punished for these crimes. It was not just human nature, a case of somebody hating his neighbor and chopping off his head. It was something far more devastating, because it was a premeditated plan that involved careful coordination, awaiting only the right spark.

Throughout the country at this time, but particularly in Igbo intellectual circles, there was much discussion of the difficulties of coexisting in a nation with such disparate peoples and religious and cultural backgrounds. As early as October 1966, some were calling for outright war. Most of us, however, were still hoping for a peaceful solution. Many talked of a confederation, though few knew how it would look.

In the meantime, the Eastern Region was tackling the herculean task of resettling the refugees who were pouring into the East in the hundreds of thousands. It was said at the time that the number of displaced Nigerian citizens fleeing from other parts of the nation back to Eastern Nigeria was close to a million.

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Achebe on The Cradle of Nigerian Nationalism

From: There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, by Chinua Achebe (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 727-64:

Here is a piece of heresy: The British governed their colony of Nigeria with considerable care. There was a very highly competent cadre of government officials imbued with a high level of knowledge of how to run a country. This was not something that the British achieved only in Nigeria; they were able to manage this on a bigger scale in India and Australia. The British had the experience of governing and doing it competently. I am not justifying colonialism. But it is important to face the fact that British colonies, more or less, were expertly run.

There was a distinct order during this time. I recall the day I traveled from Lagos to Ibadan and stayed with Christopher Okigbo that evening. I took off again the next morning, driving alone, going all the way from Lagos to Asaba, crossing the River Niger, to visit my relatives in the east. That was how it was done in those days. One was not consumed by fear of abduction or armed robbery. There was a certain preparation that the British had undertaken in her colonies. So as the handover time came, it was done with great precision.

As we praise the British, let us also remember the Nigerian nationalists—those who had a burning desire for independence and fought for it. There was a body of young and old people that my parents’ generation admired greatly, and that we later learned about and deeply appreciated. Herbert Macauley, for instance, often referred to as “the father of Nigerian nationalism,” was a very distinguished Nigerian born during the nineteenth century and the first president of the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), which was founded in 1922.

The dawn of World War II caused a bit of a lull in the organized independence struggles that had been centered mainly in the Western Region of the country up to that time. Across the River Niger, in Eastern Nigeria, I was entering my teenage years, bright-eyed and beginning to grapple with my colonial environment. At this time most of the world’s attention, including Nigeria’s, was turned to the war. Schools and other institutions were converted into makeshift camps for soldiers from the empire, and there was a great deal of local military recruitment. A number of my relatives quickly volunteered their services to His Majesty’s regiments. The colonies became increasingly important to Great Britain’s war effort by providing a steady stream of revenue from the export of agricultural products—palm oil, groundnuts, cocoa, rubber, etc. I remember hearing stories of valiant fighting by a number of African soldiers in faraway places, such as Abyssinia (today’s Ethiopia), North Africa, and Burma (today’s Myanmar).

The postwar era saw an explosion of political organization. Newspapers, newsreels, and radio programs were full of the exploits of Nnamdi Azikiwe and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC, which later became the National Council of Nigerian Citizens) that was founded in 1944. Azikiwe built upon lessons he had learned from earlier forays in political activism and successfully persuaded several active members of the Nigerian Youth Movement to form an umbrella group of all the major Nigerian organizations.

By the time I became a young adult, Obafemi Awolowo had emerged as one of Nigeria’s dominant political figures. He was an erudite and accomplished lawyer who had been educated at the University of London. When he returned to the Nigerian political scene from England in 1947, Awolowo found the once powerful political establishment of western Nigeria in disarray—sidetracked by partisan and intra-ethnic squabbles. Chief Awolowo and close associates reunited his ancient Yoruba people with powerful glue—resuscitated ethnic pride—and created a political party, the Action Group, in 1951, from an amalgamation of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, the Nigerian Produce Traders’ Association, and a few other factions.

Over the years Awolowo had become increasingly concerned about what he saw as the domination of the NCNC by the Igbo elite, led by Azikiwe. Some cynics believe the formation of the Action Group was not influenced by tribal loyalities but a purely tactical political move to regain regional and southern political power and influence from the dominant NCNC.

Initially Chief Obafemi Awolowo struggled to woo support from the Ibadan-based (and other non-Ijebu) Yoruba leaders who considered him a radical and a bit of an upstart. However, despite some initial difficulty, Awolowo transformed the Action Group into a formidable, highly disciplined political machine that often outperformed the NCNC in regional elections. It did so by meticulously galvanizing political support in Yoruba land and among the riverine and minority groups in the Niger Delta who shared a similar dread of the prospects of Igbo political domination.

When Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, decided to create the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) in the late 1940s, he knew that the educationally disadvantaged North did not have as rich a source of Western-educated politicians to choose from as the South did. He overcame this “shortcoming” by pulling together an assortment of leaders from the Islamic territories under his influence and a few Western-educated intellectuals—the most prominent in my opinion being Aminu Kano and Alhaji Tafewa Balewa, Nigeria’s first prime minister. Frustrated by what he saw as “Ahmadu Bello’s limited political vision,” the incomparable Aminu Kano, under whom I would serve as the deputy national president of the Peoples Redemption Party decades later, would leave the NPC in 1950 to form the left-of-center political party, the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU).

Sir Ahmadu Bello was a schoolteacher by training. He was a contentious and ardently ambitious figure who claimed direct lineage from one of the founders of the Islamic Sokoto Caliphate—Shehu Usman dan Fodio. It was also widely known that he had “aspired to the throne of the Sultan of Sokoto.” By midcentury, through brilliant political maneuvering among the northern ruling classes, Sir Ahmadu Bello emerged as the most powerful politician in the Northern Region, indeed in all of Nigeria.

Sir Ahmadu Bello was able to control northern Nigeria politically by feeding on the fears of the ruling emirs and a small elite group of Western-educated northerners. His ever-effective mantra was that in order to protect the mainly feudal North’s hegemonic interests it was critical to form a political party capable of resisting the growing power of Southern politicians. Ahmadu Bello and his henchmen shared little in terms of ideological or political aspirations with their southern counterparts. With the South split between Azikiwe’s National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) and Awolowo’s Action Group, his ability to hold the North together meant that the NPC in essence became Nigeria’s ruling party. A testament to its success is the fact that the NPC later would not only hold the majority of seats in the post-independence parliament, but as a consequence would be called upon to name the first prime minister of Nigeria.

The minorities of the Niger Delta, Mid-West, and the Middle Belt regions of Nigeria were always uncomfortable with the notion that they had to fit into the tripod of the largest ethnic groups that was Nigeria—Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo. Many of them—Ijaw, Kanuri, Ibibio, Tiv, Itsekiri, Isang, Urhobo, Anang, and Efik—were from ancient nation-states in their own right. Their leaders, however, often had to subsume their own ethnic ambitions within alliances with one of the big three groups in order to attain greater political results.

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Naipaul on Religious Conversion in Nigeria

From The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief, by V. S. Naipaul (Knopf, 2010), p. 79:

Adesina’s father was born in 1904. To understand a little of his history was to understand the important history of conversion (to Islam or Christianity) in Nigeria. He did not go to school. He converted first to Catholicism, but he was unhappy with it. He didn’t understand the church service, which was in Latin. Later he met Arabs who had come to northern Nigeria with the trans-Sahara trade. These Arabs were teachers and missionaries. They translated the Koran into Yoruba, and they also preached in Yoruba. This was much easier for Adesina’s father and he converted to Islam. He always wished after that to be a good Muslim; he didn’t think Adesina was a good Muslim, and so he didn’t eat in Adesina’s house. But he was open-minded. He let people in the family read the Bible and he liked to debate with friends who were Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It seems from this that religion had become a kind of intellectual activity, perhaps the only one, in the newly educated house. Adesina’s father’s younger brother stayed a Christian, while the third brother remained firm in the traditional African religion. Adesina, growing up, had the full range of available Nigerian belief to choose from. He was technically a Muslim, following his father, but he liked the uncle who practised the traditional religion because this uncle was a great one for sacrifices and in that house Adesina was always given meat from the sacrifices to eat. His parents disapproved and beat him, but still he went to the unconverted uncle’s house. He would go and watch the sacrifices, eat his meat, and come home to a beating.

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