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[This article is from The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]

It is rare to come across a book so enjoyable, which will almost certainly annoy scholars. Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi have written a history of the large territory that would become Nigeria, from Dan Fodio’s vision in 1794, to unsheathe the sword against the enemies of God, to Lord Lugard’s merger of Northern and Southern Nigeria in a Lagos ceremony in January 1914. Theirs is a racy account, written by two outsiders to academic life. They tell history as a story, bristling with characters, and their chapter headings highlight their approach.

‘Mad Men and Missionaries’, chapter 5, is about Mungo Park and Richard Lander, and Europeans who first explored the Niger watershed, and Henry Venn and Samuel Crowther, and the Church Missionary Society and members of the Clapham Sect who brought Christianity and education to coastal regions. ‘The Glorious Incompetents’, chapter 7, pinpoints James Robert Phillips – ‘this unbelievably bumptious young man … quite simply the biggest European ignoramus ever to set foot in Africa’. Less than a month after his arrival on the continent, he proposed to depose the ruler of the ancient kingdom of Benin. Phillips and his party were massacred in January 1897. British retaliation a month later was overwhelming, killing hundreds, overthrowing the Oba and looting the wonderful Benin ‘bronzes’, subject of the campaign for restitution.

Fawehinmi, a specialist in financial services now resident in the UK, persuaded Fagbule, who works for an African multilateral bank, to join him in trying to explain how a complex mass of kingdoms and tribes turned into Nigeria. Often isolated and warring, heavily dependent on slavery, they reacted differently over time and space to the arrival of the British and other Europeans. The authors’ collaboration is seamless, and their case is that this experience, as much as the rather brief period of direct colonisation, must be better understood if the issues facing today’s Nigerians are to be resolved peacefully, and creatively.

While the authors may be outsiders to academia, their research is impressive, and hopefully their readable account will reach a wide audience both inside and outside Nigeria. It includes some lovely old photographs but would be much easier to follow with the aid of maps. This is one major defect, and it is also hard to keep track of who was ruling or fighting over parts of this territory at the same time. Their history is one of apparently endless wars, not just the Fulani jihad that led Dan Fodio and his successors to dominate the Hausa and most of what is now northern Nigeria, but also the long Yoruba wars of the 19th century in the south.

They also do not avoid the issue of slavery, the commonplace conversion of defeated warriors into slaves, both independent of and running alongside widespread complicity in the transatlantic trade. In some towns, there were slave quarters distinguished from those of the free. As late as around 1850, when the Royal Navy was trying to interdict ships carrying contraband slaves from West Africa to Brazil and the southern US states, Madam Efunroye Tinubu was the largest indigenous slave dealer in the region. The authors’ frank reporting would have been awkward for the late Chief Abiola, the media magnate who was cheated out of the presidency in 1993 by General Babangida. His campaign for slavery reparations to Africans and African-Americans rather overlooked this aspect.

In fact, the authors’ heroes are among the Saros, the Yoruba slaves released by the Royal Navy’s West Africa squadron, who converted to Christianity and then trekked back from what is now Sierra Leone. They found an early base in Abeokuta, an Egba town ruled in the 1840s by the far-sighted Sodeke. The Egba were a Yoruba group. Abeokuta had a population of 100,000 whose capture was tempting for Ghezo, the militarist and slave-hungry ruler of Dahomey nearby. Sodeke and the Abeokuta elite decided to go nap on an alliance with the British, to welcome CMS missionaries and schooling.

When Ghezo’s ruthless female troops, the Minos, persuaded him to launch an all-out attack on Abeokuta in March 1851 with 16,000 warriors – 6,000 of them Minos – they were comprehensively beaten. The British had supplied arms and ammunition. Henry Townsend of the CMS and Samuel Ajayi Crowther, an early convert, were in the besieged town and gave moral and tactical support. A combination of the soft power of the missionaries and the hard power of British troops and navy established a new kind of society in the southwest by the third quarter of the 19th century.

But elsewhere change was much slower. It was only in 1901 that four columns of 4,000 British troops occupied Igboland, overthrowing the powerful but locally disliked Aro. Conquest of the Muslim emirs of the north, by the boastful but politically canny Frederick Lugard, was also a product of the early 20th century. Arguably this history would have read differently if it had been written not by southern Nigerians, with a racy turn of phrase, but by scholars from the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria for example.

Fagbule and Fawehinmi slip in modern parallels to entice their readers, but which may be inexact. They describe continuing conflict between conservative Islamic elites in the North and a succession of fiery radicals who, like Dan Fodio himself, can turn to arms. They have fun pointing out that ‘the first contest between two men named Abubakar Atiku and Muhammadu Buhari for the highest office in Nigeria took place in 1837, following Sultan Bello’s [of Sokoto] death; unlike the eponymous contest nearly two centuries later [Nigeria’s 2019 presidential election] Atiku came out on top’. They also make slips. Birkenhead, across the Mersey from Liverpool, is not in Ireland.

Perhaps the real significance of this history is that it puts the colonial experience in its place. British rule over most of the Nigerian expanse lasted scarcely 60 years, compared with at least 90 in undivided India, and possibly more than a century before the revolting colonies in North America declared independence in 1776. The authors are regaining not only history but agency, and readers will interpret for themselves how far frictions today between ethnicities, between herders and farmers, between different religions, between different attitudes to life and work are of precolonial standing. Sixty years have now passed since independence was declared in Lagos. It is right to consider what people did before the British came and what use they made of this short British intermission. Their prospects now are determined by the last 60 years and the many hundreds of years of human habitation that preceded arrival of the British.

Richard Bourne is a member of the Round Table Editorial Board.

Formation: the making of Nigeria from Jihad to Amalgamation by Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi, Abuja and London, Cassava Republic, 2021.