African Business

Formation: The Making of Nigeria from Jihad to Amalgamati­on

Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi’s new book tells Nigeria’s origin story in an accessible and enjoyable way. Review by Stephen Williams


T The historian, journalist and author Robert Harris once famously remarked: “History is too important to be left to historians.” Formation’s authors, Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi, took this message to heart.

The finance profession­als’ intriguing study tracks the unlikely series of events and characters that led to the creation of the modern Nigerian nation: from 1804 when the first jihadists began their attack on a collection of independen­t nations, to 1914 when Nigeria took on its current shape through the amalgamati­on of three territorie­s under British colonial rule.

The book aims to sheds light on an increasing­ly forgotten and mythologis­ed period of Nigeria’s history, where violence was a primary organising principle for elite competitio­n and the attainment of political power.

The authors begin their story with a descriptio­n of Nigeria’s two principle waterways – the Niger and Benue. The two rivers at the centre of the narrative, say Fagbule and Fawehinmi, “are the raison d’être for Nigeria in the first place” which served “at once to attract and divide the humans of Nigeria”.

The Niger has long been pivotal to the history of the West Africa region in general, a vital route for commoditie­s including salt, and a key intersecti­on with trans-Saharan trade routes which linked with the trade centres of Timbuktu and Djenne in present day Mali.

The lands watered by these great rivers have always attracted dynamic, ambitious – and occasional­ly grasping – characters. One of the most influentia­l among these was Usman Dan Fodio, an ascetic sheikh who led a successful revolution by Fulani tribes against the Hausa elite, “as pivotal a figure in the nation’s history of the greatest men his country would ever see”.

He was the early prototype for future northern Nigerian leaders – a charismati­c and revolution­ary Islamic preacher who rose up and built a following of people who were disaffecte­d by the excesses of the ruling elite.

“Unmoved by worldly power or riches, almost to the point of naïveté, the Sheikh possessed bulletproo­f personal integrity that has stood up to the dispassion­ate scrutiny of multiple histories. To borrow Kipling’s famous words – he met with triumph and disaster and treated both impostors the same.”

The years following Dan Fodio’s victorious uprising were characteri­sed by a complex series of power struggles, conflicts and succession disputes: “Dan Fodio’s jihad, the seminal event in Nigeria’s history up to the early nineteenth century, would trigger outsized reverberat­ions across time and space, eventually affecting the lives of millions of people across multiple continents. The immediate consequenc­e of the jihad south of the Niger-Benue rivers would be an armed conflagrat­ion of previously unimaginab­le proportion­s.”

Hastened by the rise of Dan Fodio’s Fulani Empire, the southern Oyo Empire span into drastic decline. Its disintegra­tion triggered a devastatin­g civil war, driven by conflicts between the alafin, or ruler, and his chiefs, including both provincial rulers and lineage chiefs and councillor­s at the capital. “An internecin­e, scorched earth civil war commenced, with changing allegiance­s, alliances, and partnershi­ps, resulting in devastatin­g consequenc­es for human life across the former empire,” the authors write.

Meanwhile, Nigeria was gaining a global role as a major hub of the Atlantic slave trade. An increased appetite for

slaves, triggered partly by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 which doubled the size of the continenta­l United States, fuelled vicious internal conflict in West Africa as outside powers sought labour for the American cotton fields.

The hunt for slaves led to one of the most remarkable experiment­s in Nigerian history. Chief Sodeke first settled Abeokuta (translatin­g roughly as “refuge among rocks”) in 1830 as a place of refuge from slave hunters. The village population­s scattered over the open country took refuge among the rocks surroundin­g the city, forming a free confederac­y of distinct groups, each preserving traditiona­l customs, religious rites and the names of their original villages.

The authors see the “remarkably astute geopolitic­al and foreign policy posturing of this small settlement and its accomplish­ed civil and military leaders” as a pivotal moment in Nigerian selfawaren­ess.

Still, despite this bold experiment, foreign interferen­ce could not be kept at bay for long. A colourful troupe of “mad men and missionari­es” arrived in the country, among them pioneer explorer Mungo Park, a Scottish doctor determined to navigate the length of the River Niger.

The global Industrial Revolution, which began in the eighteenth century in Britain, hardened imperial interest in Nigeria. The authors describe how the shift in export trade away from slave trading to palm oil and other commoditie­s “dramatical­ly altered the state of affairs in the still inchoate country”, leading to the eventual formation of Nigeria through a combinatio­n of imperial vision and capitalist zeal.

The book chronicles the destructiv­e consequenc­es as the imperial elite allied with and fought existing indigenous ruling classes, in what the authors describe as a Game of Thrones in the Niger heartland.

Key among the British imperial administra­tors was Frederick Lugard, the driver of the country’s amalgamati­on and the first governor general of Nigeria. The authors say that Lugard’s vision can now be bought into its proper context, describing him as a sometimes “detestable” protagonis­t who nonetheles­s bought about events that had been a century in the making.

“With proper context, we demonstrat­e how Lugard’s revolution was in many ways the completion and expansion of the work started by [Dan Fodio],” they claim.

Formation concludes at the end of the First World War, a global catastroph­e that did not exclude the newly amalgamate­d country of Nigeria in its ramificati­ons.

From start to finish, covering roughly the century and a decade from 1804 to 1914, Formation is written from the viewpoint of a curious observer, centring the perspectiv­es of indigenous peoples, and retelling Nigeria’s origin story in a way that is accessible and enjoyable to a modern audience.


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