Nigeria: How many formations can one land endure?


Book Review


Nigeria: How many more formations can one land endure?


Title: Formation: The Making of Nigeria from Jihad to Amalgamation

Authors: Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi

Year of Publication: 2020

Publisher: Cassava Republic

No of Pages: 357

Reviewer: Richard Mammah


When this reviewer first chanced upon a preview announcing the then forthcoming publication of Formation: The Making of Nigeria from Jihad to Amalgamation, his antenna went up. This could be some good read.


Reading now done, Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi have not disappointed. This has been a most worthwhile experience, an interesting read, a mind-expanding journey.


Broken into an introduction and ten sections, the omniscient authorial presence and lyrical narrative flow that come out most significantly in the adopted style of presentation employed by the writers also contributes quite strongly to its success.


And the reader would glean this right from the titles of the sections: A river runs through it. Son of the Jurist. The Caliphate in Session.

Sunrise within the Tropics. Mad men and Missionaries. Exit the Bible, enter the Gun. The Glorious Incompetents. Game of Thrones in the Niger Heartland. Frederick Lugard, the King in the North. Conquest and Discontent. The writers do not leave you in any doubt. They are confident, almost sweeping in their tone.


Even beyond the allure of confident word play, style and lyricism, it is also quite evident that the authors have not been glib and casual in this endeavour. They put feet on ground. They worked the libraries. They embraced the fine art of rigour. And if you think that this is just telling, maybe you can start by flipping through the Bibliography. And yes, bibliographies can be manufactured; but in that case, disproving that should then be another reason for engaging the text proper.


Earlier readers and reviewers have made allusion to the fact that the authors are not traditional historians but financial workers. That is very correct. And they indeed lay this critical card on the table themselves right from the beginning: ‘How we got into formation.’ But this may have even placed a tougher burden on them to ensure that they deliver a text that would pass the basic test of historical documentation. Well, the jury remains out there on how much they have scored on that score. And for corresponding disclosure, this reviewer is also not a traditional historian. From a point of primary, deep training.


But there is still a basic sense in which all of us can and should at a point simply respond to historical texts from the common frame notion that just as there is history potential almost everywhere, there is also then a sense in which history is everyone’s business. Everyone needs and lives with the burden and responsibility of history. In fact, this as alluded to also by Fagbule and Fawehinmi is the domain and provenance of popular history. And so we would not detain ourselves with the fine details of that other matter. The authors have told the story of the origins of Nigeria as they see it, and it is that rendering that we now interrogate.


Beginning from the geographic reality of the place of the River Niger (and the Benue) in the Nigerian story, Fagbule and Fawehinmi explore the story of the formation of the country as we know it today as one that involves the occupation of, and movements into, around and related to the rivers under reference – as well as their adjoining tributaries that course further down to the Niger Delta – by many of the different people groups and migratory clusters that can yet be recognised in part or whole within what is today the Nigerian state.


But this is not all. As the authors document, their task goes beyond tracking the counters of this first layer to engaging a second and more definitive point of concern for them: when did the multiple clusters begin to very seriously get into the coordinate Nigerian form and shape that they are today known by? When was their formation done and codified if we will say so? What were the propelling factors? Who were the major historical actors that drove the processes? What and what happened along the way?


As we proceed with the authors first line of emphasis in locating the historical processes within a primal geographic frame of the emergent formation being heavily impacted by the realities deriving from its flowing, stunted and interspersing rivers, it is also to be established that as has come to be noted of many social patterns the world over, nearness to significant water bodies has overall been a continuing factor in the founding and emergence of settlements, while also spurring battles and disputations over the habitation, conquest and domination of the same. This has similarly also been the case with the Nile and its Delta in East and North Africa.


But back to the Niger and its adjoining water body, the Benue, Fagbule and Fewehinmi locate the fact even from Antiquity, there had indeed been quite some curiosity about the rivers and of course the peoples that lived within and along its courses and precincts. But as it has to do with the core thrust of the present book, while it is common knowledge that many empires, kingdoms and dominions were established and did thrive within the area under reference at different times and epochs, the challenge being addressed here is in tracing an outline for when and how the current superstructure frame – from Borno to Cross River, Lagos to Katsina  and Sokoto to Delta, to name a few of its units – began to be melded into one coordinate country union.


It is to this that the son of the jurist, Othman Dan Fodio was to come into the picture and in the tracking of the authors, to make a pitch to establish the Sokoto caliphate, which the authors identify from its scale, scope and ambition, as being the first ‘formation’ in which the modern Nigeria cast began to be framed in. In this wise for them then, attempting to put origin dates for the making of Nigeria should go further down to 1804 and not 1900 and 1914.


Continuing with the text, it is important to underscore the circumstances that foregrounded what had been cast as Dan Fodio’s Islamic reform but which later turned into a definitive power grab and conquest agenda. While his jihad was hinged on the imperatives of ensuring greater justice and religious cleansing within the autochtonous Hausa states, the sub-text was that the convergence of the religious and the ethnic ensured that the jihad was to be prosecuted by a largely Fulani cast of characters in an area that boasted hundreds of ethnic communities. This definitely was to have very significant implications for both the character and form of the latter-day leadership and power systems that were subsequently to emerge.


Part of why this is important is that as the book so copiously illustrates, once in power, many a supposed reformer soon became an opportunistic user of power. Again the research outlay as presented by the authors instructively reveals that even Dan Fodio, and several of his immediate front-line associates and even one or more of his early successors did indeed notice this penchant for reverse despotism even within the revolution they were prosecuting but it had seemingly come to be too intricately inter-woven into the body construct of many of the new leadership teams. They wrote about it, expressed their personal displeasure but the genie had already left the bottle.


Away from developments in the Hausa states area and the Sokoto Caliphate, the authors go on to document that on the alternate sides of the rivers there were also other empire, kingdom and political stirrings, some of which were to also attract the interest and involvement of the new lords of the Caliphate as they continued with a seemingly determined mission to keep probing to the limits of ‘the great rivers.’ This was notably to be seen in their interventions in the unfolding power processes in Nupeland as well as Ilorin, on the fringe of the Oyo Empire.


Talking of the Oyo empire and the fratricidal battles that broke out following the entrance of the years of decline, the authors do not only connect the dots that led to the diffusion into such emergent autonomous Egba, Ijebu, Ekiti, Ibadan, Ijesa enclaves, they also paint quite researched portraits of some of the nation-builders that rose up to the occasion at this time, including the wily Sodeke, the boisterious Ogedegbe and even the intrepid Kurumi.


‘It is the economy, stupid!’

But before going any further, it is important to locate a central point that tends to underlie a lot of the exploration in Formation. It is the effort of the authors to cut to the bone and stridently locate the deep factors that drove a lot of the motion related to the activities that were being undertaken at this time by the respective actors.


As comes out very clearly, again and again, economic factors were at the base of many of the manouvres.


This comes out quite starkly when we look at the different vintages of the practice of slavery. Whether in the Hausa states or the economy of the Caliphate or the Aro Organisation or even  the entire economic systems of pre-Colony Lagos and the latter Oil Rivers Area, slavery was both a commonplace mode of economic activity as it was a virtual way of life. In one reference for example, Fagbule and Fawehimi talk about leaders going on expeditions and taking along stacks of slaves, some of which were simply used to pay bills on the way in the almost casual manner of which modern economic transactions are carried on with the swiping of ATM cards or pushing a few knobs on a mobile device.


It was in this way then that hordes of adventurers from Europe were not left out of the scramble for a piece of the trade, goods and lands of the area, with of course the British eventually emerging as the suzerain over the emergent formation.


At this point we could detain ourselves briefly to interrogate the chicken and egg question of whether it was trans-Sahara and later trans-Atlantic demand for human cargo that dictated this series of activities or that it was the internal activities of local chiefs and slavers that was the core driving prop. Heads, tails, the Formation authors do not place a great store on resolving this and we would also not attempt to do so here.


However, when it comes to the issue of what Chinweizu would describe as ‘the West and the rest of us,’ we are left to ponder from the anecdotal evidence provided in this book under reference as to whether the fate and fortunes of the peoples of Nigeria may have been any different had the relatively softer diplomatic approach to Empire preferred by the proponents of the ‘Clapham Sect’ that included the likes of Henry Venn and Samuel Ajayi Crowther had prevailed over the stridently more aggressive bully pulpit methods deployed by the likes of Chamberlain, Taubman Goldie and Frederick Lugard. This is because even today, in the survival of Clapham Sect inspired businesses as UAC and CSS Bookshops Limited, we see that there remains a sustaining case to be made for that model.  But impatience or the logic of history ensured that things went some other way, right?


Interestingly however, rather than leaving us to continue to see some of the associated developments that followed the latter-day more formal occupation of the entire Nigeria area by the British – as in for example, Indirect Rule – as being arbitrarily imposed constructs that a band of very determined occupiers were insistent on shoving down the throats of the peoples of the country area, the authors adduce evidence to explain that these were more of logistically-mandated manouvres that the agents of the conquerors on ground had to devise to make ends meet and deliver results somewhat, given  the resource inadequacy confronting them in the area of cash and personnel. It is in this sense also that they situate one of the backstage driving factors for the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates: balancing the books of the colonial economy.


An unfinished story?

Now to the unstated matters. Despite it’s breadth and diligent handling, there is a sense in which this most ambitious ‘origin story’ may not have begun at the beginning. This is more so when the authors do point out quite evidently that Dan Fodio did not chance on empty land and river areas. Almost in the same way that no ‘Mungo Park discovered the Niger.’  Indeed, one commentator says that to complete the tale, a prequel may be needed. But a likely line of defence on this point for the Formation authors also bears considering: their story is not exactly one to outline all of the primal and primeval origins of the peoples of the area. That may require a Chancellor Williams-style exposition to pen. Theirs was to trace when the formation began to be set in its current frame and shape. When the hard crusts of the current shape began to solidify. And to that extent, we would say, fair is fair.


Again, helpful as this tome has indeed been, the fact of its ending where the debate for what the colonial era shape of the yet forming entity would be, leaves this and maybe a few other similarly curious readers waiting for an encore, a sequel. Lugard, warts and all, was on his way home but his successors who would go on to attempt to blend the fine outlines of the polity still had their battles to fight, more so when the evidently ill-described ‘trousered natives’ were now coming into their own. This was also playing out in the midst of an underlying but continuing resistance of the scions of the Caliphate over their incursive activities across all of the country area being cut back. What were the inside gists involved in the different constitutional adjustments that took place that and which included the work of men like Clifford, Bourdillion, Macpherson and Lyttleton. What exactly was the foreground to the 1950 Conference in Ibadan? And then there is Lancaster House. And Sir Willinks. These issues, events and personalities that continue to punctuate discussions over the shape and form of Nigeria now and again and which as at the time of this review being penned, have since risen to what many regard as a make or mar scenario, still require probing. But then where would we then draw the lines between historical exploration and political engineering? Someone out there may attempt to provide an answer after reading this very highly recommended book.


In his blurb note, Dele Olojede situates Nigeria as a country ‘still in the process of becoming.’ Though anecdotal evidence, even at this time tends to confirm this, an ensuing poser then would be: how many formations can this single land area endure? After the Dan Fodio and British formations. Maybe it’s time to hold that conference of conferences. Just maybe.


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