Waterstones Bookshop in Trafalgar Square London was the venue for the book launch for Nigeria: A New History of a Turbulent Century by Richard Bourne on 11 November.
The author is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London University and Secretary to the Ramphal Institute, London. He is also a former journalist for the UK’s Guardian and London Evening Standard. His other works include ‘Catastrophe: What Went Wrong in Zimbabwe?’ and ‘Lula of Brazil’.
Emeka Anyaoku, a former foreign minister of Nigeria and former Commonwealth Secretary-General, was also at the event and said: “Writing about the diversity and complexity of governance in Nigeria poses a challenge even to established historians. Richard Bourne has in this book tackled the challenge with detailed research and admirable perspicacity. Recommended reading for all those interested in Nigerian history.”
Joining the author in discussing the book were author Chibundu Onuzo (The Spider King’s Daughter), Minna Salami, a Finnish-Nigerian writer who blogs as Ms Afropolitan, and Stephanie Busari, a journalist at CNNI digital.
Introducing his book, Bourne said he had a personal interest in the survival of Nigeria because he had made friends with several Nigerians including the late activist Beko Ransome-Kuti. He was very interested in how “a manufactured state” such as Nigeria had come through in spite of so many difficulties.
Bourne said that the book’s main interest was in the history of Nigeria, particularly around the four occasions when the country nearly came apart.
• Prior to independence when northern leaders were worried that independence would leave them at a disadvantage in relation to the south.
• The Nigerian civil war.
• June 1993 when the military annulled the election that Moshood Abiola won.
• 2009-10 – the illness and subsequent death of President Umaru Yar’Adua created a vacuum, with uncertainty, intrigue and subterfuge, with jockeying for positions and power by both those on the ailing president’s side and those that wanted the vice president Goodluck Jonathan to take over. There were rumours that the military were plotting to take advantage of the crisis and seize power.
Bourne informed the audience that the majority of the witnesses he interviewed for the book were from the south because he didn’t have that many contacts from the north. But he got some useful information from Sadique Balewa, the son of Nigeria’s first Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa.
Continuing, he reflected on the fact that Nigeria didn’t fight a protracted anti-colonial war, unlike in Kenya, Zimbabwe or South Africa. He claimed that this was “partly because of ethnic divisions”. His argument here is a bit shaky. The countries in Africa that witnessed a liberation struggle, such as the ones he mentioned, were usually “settler” colonies. A significant number of British settlers made their homes in those countries, practising different levels of racial discrimination and dispossessing many Africans of fertile land. Independence for those African countries meant the settlers had to give up many privileges. There were no settlers in Nigeria – just a handful of colonial officials, so the struggle for independence was a bit more cordial.
Bourne also said that the Zikist Movement, who were followers of the nationalist leader Nnamdi Azikiwe, were the closest Nigeria had to the sort of militancy that led to a liberation struggle. But Nigeria did not have a “single nationalist movement like the ANC” (African National Congress) in South Africa. The author claimed that Azikiwe tried with his party, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) to be a nationalist movement, but didn’t succeed because northern leaders prevented this.
While highlighting how ethnic divisions prevented Nigerians coming together under a nationalist movement, the author was silent on the British role in stoking those divisions.
He noted that it was interesting that “principal officers” during the civil war were still playing a role in 21st century Nigeria, with former president Olusegun Obasanjo and current president Muhammadu Buhari as two prime examples. The author also reflected on the notion that “politics is seen as business”. This is “a particular feature of the Nigerian scene and goes back a long way”.
He concluded by claiming that on the “One Nigeria issue”, the country will stay as one, but the “problems will not go away”. He was “optimistic with a certain critical awareness” about the future of the country.
Minna Salami said the book was “well researched and contained a lot of information”. It was a must read for anyone that wanted to “understand Nigeria”. However, she felt it was “not a book of solutions”, and “poverty was under-discussed”. Poverty was in Salami’s view at “high levels” and a significant factor in Nigeria’s problems. The book also didn’t say much about gender and issues around the widespread discrimination against women. Salami also thought that it neglected agriculture and civil society – two major factors in Nigeria.
She said that while “it takes a critical look at colonialism”, there was little in the book on “neo-colonialism and how it affects the Nigerian situation”. The book also failed to address globalisation, unfair trade, etc.
Chibundu Onuzo joked that she was invited to the panel as representing Nigerian “youth”, although “youth” in Nigeria means up to 65. She grew up in 1990s Nigeria and felt the book “made my past clear”. She thought the book was “very kind to our heroes”, when “we need a bit of demystification of our heroes”.
Onuzo argued that young Nigerians needed to read the book to be aware of their history, so that those “calling for a second Biafra need to know what the first one meant” to the people that lived through the horrors of the civil war.
Stephanie Busari called it a “book of discovery” for her. It “put context” for her to what happened around the period under dictator Sani Abacha when she left Nigeria, like many others. She would have liked to “hear more Nigerian voices” in the form of anecdotes. Those “voices didn’t come through” in the book, even though it was well researched and very detailed.
Bourne responded to the panel agreeing that it was necessary for young Nigerians to know about their past to avoid repeating it. This was critical in the current climate with the clamour for Biafra. He said that despite the challenges, Nigeria had successes like the “heroic work in dealing with ebola, even with crumbling healthcare services”.
He said the book was written for “a general audience and was reasonably objective”.