“When people say that Nigeria is a “mad” country what they really mean is that it is so full of explosive, tumultuous contrast between old and new.”
- John Gunther
- INSIDE AFRICA published, 1955 by Harper
Every summer I usually have a contest with my 2 kids on who will be the first to finish reading 12 books and write commentaries on them. I have a 9 year old and 7 year old “smart cookies” and they almost always beat me to the prize since we started 2 years ago. My excuse every year is that my choices of books are too difficult to read and summarize in hurry. You can imagine their retort to my “mea culpa” every year: “haahaaa not again, Daddy!” So this year, I was ready for them. Well I thought I was.
Imagine my chagrin when I walked into our local “2nd Look” bookshop in my neck of the wood, looking for anything on Africa and I found this fat book (923 pages long!) by John Gunther titled "INSIDE AFRICA" published in 1955 by Harper. My first instinct is to walk away, as I can’t face another summer losing to these kids. But then something caught my attention. The nondescript cover had the author’s name, the title of the book and a lengthy byline that read thus: “IN THIS NEWEST, MOST EXCITING OF THE “INSIDE” BOOKS JOHN GUNTHER REVEALS THE WHOLE OF AFRICA-IN ALL ITS MYSTERY, MAJESTY, WONDER, AND ITS POLITICAL CHALLENGE FOR THE FUTURE.” All in caps, which probably drew my attention?
At first I tried to do a “double take”, I thought to myself it can’t be good. What will a Chicago native knows about the mystery, wonder and majesty of Africa and its political challenge in the 1950s? You can then imagine my bated breath when I read the inside cover and the following “leapt” at me from the sleeve cover: “Four times the size of the United States, Africa is the most varied, mysterious, and exciting region on earth and also the least known.”
I said to myself that is as true in 1955 as it is today. I picked up the book and matched in small steps to the cashier to pay for it. I gave up any hope of winning the book contest this year, again I thought to myself, maybe next year!
Let me haste to state here that reading the introduction so far I have found some of the commentaries in the book out rightly racist, ill informed even by 1950s standards. But at the same time there are parts of the book filled with hope, unbridled optimism, high expectations and justifiable fears about our continent future. Here are samplers:
“I like Africans but they are not always easy to know or get along with. The friendlier a European (or American) is, the more suspicious the African may be. It is often a risk for an African to be friendly. Some have a strong note of childishness. They are sometimes truculent, schizophrenic, and full of inferiority and insecurity which they may express by exaggerated superiority. An African Negro, to be able to enter the western world at all, has had to bridge an inordinately wide, difficult, and painful gap in his own community; moreover he will have had to face, like as not, intense bigotry and intolerance from colonial Europeans. Schizophrenia?”
And to imagine that the above quote is coming from someone who, several pages before, had enthused as follows: “During the course of our trip I worked hard with my ears and took notes on conversations with 1, 503 people. I was not looking for adventure. I was looking for facts.”
I bet it was those “amorphous prejudicial facts” that made him jump to the following conclusions about colonialism in Africa: “About colonialism in Africa two main things should be said, without reference to various immoralities and injustices in the system. (1) It did a great deal of good. (2) It is dying.” What? Colonialism and “good” in the same sentence! I am sure many Africans will agree with me that if at all there were any good deeds done by the colonialist, it is only known to them for they reaped the profits while the poor colonies endured the hardship. The only thing true about Gunther’s conclusion is that colonialism did die.
Having said that, I found a big swath of the book quiet revealing and a good prolegomena to the current situations in our continent. Take for instance the last quote. He correctly predicted that Colonialism is dying in 1955, and 10 years later 75 % of Africa is free from its colonial appendage. I also know that many Africans with the benefit of hindsight (usually 20/20) now look back to the colonial times with nostalgia. Some even wish we could be decolonized thus confirming Gunther assertion in his preface that “Many Europeans think that Africans, if they become free, will make a botch of freedom. But this remains to be seen. They also say that African exploitation of Africans could be worse than European, and that the “new” Africa will not be “democratic.” One reason behind this latter hypothesis, which the experience of the Gold Coast incidentally disproves so far, is the supposition that Africans, who have lived mostly in tribal societies, do not have much tradition of the freedom of the individual.”
It is instructive to point out that at the time Gunther wrote this book only Liberia, Libya, Ethiopia and Egypt, were run by Africans. The fifth, the Union of South Africa, is also independent but a member of British Commonwealth together with Gold Coast (now known as Ghana) with Kwame Nkrumah at the helm of government. Since that time all of West Africa has since achieved independence in the 1960s with democratically elected government at the helm. Those elected government including Nkrumah were subsequently overthrown by military regimes. It was not until the 1990s that a measure of stability was achieved with the international community stand against military and undemocratic regimes.
Another side note which we need to point out is that Gunther never took into considerations the impact of the meddlesome activities of former colonial government like Britain and France in the affairs of the newly independent nations. I bet Gunther did not imagine that France long after it has granted independence to its more than 10 colonies in Africa still treat them as mere vassals state through its notorious “Cellule Africaine”-African Cell- A secretive and powerful 3 person office nestled behind the Elysee, France presidential palace; which holds sway over a wide swath of former French Colonies in Africa.
Infact, the rest of the world might not have known about this anti-democratic paramilitary organization if Nicolas Sarkozy had not made it an issue during the last French election. There are accusations as widely reported by The Wall Street Journal in its May 16, 2007 edition under the title “CONTINENTAL SHIFT: COLONIAL ERA TIES TO AFRICA FACE A RECKONING IN FRANCE” that the French military bears some responsibility for the genocide of 80, 000 Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, charges the government strenuously denies.” The Cell’s close ties to oil giant Elf Aquintaine, whose top executives were jailed on corruption charges were a source of embarrassment to the French government and the African puppet regime it installed all over Africa.
Here is another racist prejudice dripping in the introduction titled Color bar:
“Color bar means what Americans call segregation, or Jim Crow-it is a blanket term for all the discriminations and injustices practiced against blacks and semi-blacks by their white rulers or by the white community. One must not think of an African in the Congo bush as being on the same level as a Negro in Harlem. He is nowhere nearly as advanced as that. But he can resent wanton maltreatment just as keenly and want to improve his status. Moreover he belongs not to a minority, as in the United States, but to an overwhelmingly preponderant majority” [italics mine]
The above quote is downright racist. It is cheap and insulting. I have heard it many times in my travels in the United States. Sadly, I don’t think the author and others who peddled this disinformation actually understand the logic in their argument, which is this: the fact that Africans Americans brought to the Americas as slaves are more advanced than continental Africans just by the sheer fact of their slavery. The inherent “divide and rule” tactic in this argument is to set Africans in Diasporas against their kindred in the continent. I have heard a variant of this argument in another non-racial tone by a co-worker from New York who in one moment of unguarded comment informed me that he thinks White Americans from the states in the south are on the same intellectual level as African Americans. Of course when he knew he drew the required umbrage from me he instantly withdrew his comment.
In concluding its introduction, Gunther wrote in the section titled “Is the White man finished in Africa”: “Of course not. He will probably not be finished for a long time,-if he behaves himself. It would be a grave pity if he were finished, because he still has tremendous contributions to make. Africa needs development, it needs tutelage. Who does not? But development and tutelage cannot take place in an atmosphere poisoned by political repression and racial tension.”
We need to remember that Gunther was writing exclusively to Western/colonialist and imperialist audience. So one can excuse his apologia for racism and colonialism.
NIGERIA: COMPLEXITIES AND ACHIEVEMENTS?
So much for the introduction, let us explore now, country by country starting with my own motherland: Nigeria. For that we flip to chapter 37 titled “Complexities and Achievements in Nigeria.”
The author starts off with the problem of tribe and tongue in the very first page with the following foreboding words:
“…the lack of homogeneity of Nigeria is by all odds its overriding political and national problem. The curse of this great country is, in fact, sectionalism.”
Any one could have write that about Nigeria in the 70s, 80s 90s and indeed today! This is a problem that remains with us. It looms as large today as it was when Gunther visited Nigeria after the Second World War. Forty seven years after independence we are still struggling with the geographical monstrosity called Nigeria. The difference been we could always blame the colonialist for using divide and rule to keep us apart, but who do we blame now. Our leader looks and sounds as if nothing in history is worth learning from.
NIGERIA NATIONALIST AND ETHNIC CHAUVINISM
Here is a direct quote from one of the interview Gunther had with Chief Obafemi Awolowo:
“West and East Nigeria are as different as Ireland from Germany. The North is as different from either as China.”
Thanks to the likes of Awolowo, Nigeria remain divided in 2007 as it was in the 1950s even though Germany and Ireland are now part of a united European Union with a commonwealth economic and political behemoth that has brought Ireland out of economic doldrums to one of the most industrialized nation on earth. The allusion to China is in itself laughable. The geographical nexus of the three regions at that time render Awolowo’s metaphor incongruent. This is atypical of Nigeria’s ethnically jaundiced politician from all the regions. They sowed the seeds of discord that has held Nigeria in bondage to date.
Having said that, we need to acknowledge and perhaps exults the contributions of many Nigerian nationalist politicians to the struggle for independence in Nigeria despite their effete ethnic chauvinism. John Gunther wrote the followings about Awolowo and his party member reaction to his attendance at a dinner party hosted by the Governor General:
“..at this particular time, a severe constitutional crisis was at its peak. The African ministers representing one important political party, the Action Group, had adopted a non-fraternization policy, and would not accept hospitality from the Governor, although their Northern colleagues did. They were perfectly willing to talk business with Sir John McPherson in Government House, but they would not accept “hospitality” from him, not even a glass of water. There was nothing particularly personal in this. Macpherson was widely liked as an individual. But Government House symbolizes the Crown, and both West and East were at that time boycotting the Crown as a matter of principle.” (Page 750).
NIGERIA JOURNALISM AND THE STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENCE
If you think the Action Group are the only ones at the forefront of the struggles for independence wait until you read the following acerbic attack on Gunther by Nigerian Nationalist journalists:
“Anyway, a day or two after we arrived in Lagos, the following editorial appeared in the West African Pilot , the organ of the nationalist leader Dr. Azikiwe, known everywhere as “Zik”:
“Mr. John Gunther, an American with a country as young as our great great great grandparents, is in Africa whose written and unwritten histories date back much further than the first Caucasian ape men.”
Caucasian ape men? I began to read with more interest:
And what does this American want in this ancient land, shrouded in mystery, enveloped in enigma, and replete with as yet insoluble conundrums? He wants to write a book not on America, but on Africa. Has Mr. Gunther ever visited this part of Africa before? No. Has he ever lived in Africa? NO. Are his ancestors African? No. Yet…Mr. Gunther of America is here… to tell us all about the inside of Africa” ‘
Next day the Pilot returned to the attack:
“A man came to Nigeria a few days ago to collect material for a book … But he does not stay inside the homes of Africans in order that he may better appreciate their public and private activities. Instead, he lives with a British-born and bred Governor. How can the people of Africa be sure that Mr. Gunther will not come under the influence of Sir John McPherson? It would have been most fitting if this American author were compiling a book on “Inside Britain” or “Inside Government House.” However we cannot stop Mr. Gunther from writing his book… But we definitely wish to remind him that authorship is a sacred responsibility. American taste for books is wedded to a nauseatingly refractory sensationalism. … Out of our own kindness, we wish to inform Mr. Gunther that Africa is aflame and blazingly indignant against alien rule. For Nigeria freedom comes in 1956 with or without outside consent or assent. Let Mr. Gunther mark that down.”
Wao! What a prose! This brings back to memories my late Dad’s assertion that Nigeria independence would have remained a mirage without the corps of highly educated southern nationalist and of course his newspaper of choice: West African Pilot!
You can imagine the rude awakening this brought on our dear writer but Mr. Gunther and he proceeded to defend himself as follows:
“(a) a writer is not necessarily prejudiced by the roof under which he sleeps and that (b) I wrote some chapters of Inside U.S.A that were certainly not anti-Negro while staying in some of the most glaringly white hotels in the American South.”
This defense is in itself ludicrous as it sought to skirt around the valid points made by the journalist which is simple: will you talk and live the African experience before you write about it? This is a classic defense common in U.S whenever a celebrity faced opprobrium for using the N word, their instant retort is usually that they have a black friend and so could not be racist!
Incase you think the nationalist paean is restricted to the Pilot, Gunther quoted again copiously from The Daily Service, another nationalist organ. They warned the celebrated author not to portray Africans as “a race of savages living in the forest with animals and beasts.” And this was followed up by the Daily Success, which carries under its masthead the slogan “TRUTH HAS COME, FALSEHOOD VANISHES” where they used Gunther as a pretext to exult in the following brilliant prose:
“They [the Africans] know that they are Hannibal crossing the Alps when snows were young. They remember that they are the little black Bambino, the pet of the Italian church. They are Chrisna, the Black Christ of India. They observe portraits of Black Virgins strewn all over Europe. They reminisce over paintings in the caves of Austria, of Germany, of Spain, of Portugal, of France.
They know their warm Negro blood flowed in the veins of Cleopatra and that Caesar fell in love with her just the same…
They know that these and more are no dreams … they know that if they once built pyramids on the Nile, fought with Caesar’s battalions, ruled over Spain and dominated the Pyreness, they the same very black people can be great again and be slaves no more.”
The question to ask is what happened to this irrepressible journalism. Take note that all this write up were printed during the repressive colonial era when journalist are easily lock up and jailed for writing about the Governor’s wife lunch. Where is the indomitable spirit of Nigeria journalism. Save for the courageous stand of Thompson and Nduka Irabor of Guardian newspaper’s fame, Nigeria journalism has sunk to the nadir of irrelevancy. It is as if the mass exile of Nigeria journalist following the repressive rule of Abacha killed that spirit without any hope of resurrection. Today, Nigeria journalists are ready for hire. Hardly will you find anything critical of government in Nigerian newspapers and yet corruptions lurked around our government houses. Journalism is on sale in Nigeria to the highest bidder and politicians are ripping the profits in no small measure. An indicted Nigerian politician could always hire a hungry journalist to burnish his image whilst he stashed away his millions in Gambia and South Africa companies. We are indeed in big, big trouble.
Of all the argument that I have seen advanced for slavery, the most benign and perfunctory is the one laid out by Mr. John Gunther at page 753, it be essentially summed as “the end justifies the means.” Well I am way ahead of myself here, read him:
“A case can be made for slavery and even for the slave trade. It is that tribal wars took place in the African interior without cessation, and that it was better for a man to be taken prisoner and made a domestic slave, or even sold into slavery, than to be killed and perhaps eaten. On a slave raid the object was to get the prisoner alive, and with luck, he might survive the trip to America or Arabia. On balance, the slave trade (despite its inferno-like horrors) may have saved more lives than it cost. In any case it is the origin of a great many healthy, useful and progressive Negro communities in the United States and elsewhere in the western world.” [italics mine).
This is perhaps the most insulting of all the arguments I have heard folks make for slavery. I cannot just fathom how anyone could have concluded that slave trade saved more lives that it cost. I mean the same author a few paragraphs before then had posited that for every 3 slaves that got to America alive-so frightful were conditions in the boats or on shore before departure-seven died! So what ludicrous statistics supports his assertions that slave trade saved lives in Africa? I concede that in the 1950s we were starting to have the seeds of a progressive African American community in the United States but the same community did not get the voting rights Acts passed until 2 decades later and at a great high prize. It cost the live of the iconic leader-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The institutional racism that African American faced even after the abolition of slavery cannot be justified by any stretch of logic. Many will even argue that the systemic racism is still very much latent in the American society of today.
LAGOS THEN AND NOW
Let us move on, Mr. Gunther description of Lagos is apposite today as it was over 50 years ago. Here is Lagos in 1950s:
“..the worst slum we ran into in all Africa, except in Johannesburg. In the very middle of the town, 28, 000 people live on 60 acres. Here land is worth 1 pound per yard, and a room costs 25 shillings a month. A room? Perhaps it could be called such. But the houses are so ramshackle that a visitor can walk through them from street to street; each, open at the ends, is so grotesquely dilapidated that it can serve as a passageway. The entrances to collapsed buildings are hung with dirty matting, and sewage flows in open drains under the actual floorboards. One small thing surprised me; in these festering catacombs of filth there was one miserable factor lacking-I saw no flies. I mentioned this to our guide, and he replied, perhaps not seriously, “Flies? They do not live her. They could not stand it.”
It is as if things have not changed except the flies. They are there now, and appear to have taken over, as water and air borne diseases, including the dreaded Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) decimated the population. No thanks to the inability of the various local governments to perform the basic function of waste/refuse disposal. Of course when you asked them they will tell you they are waiting for the state allocation from federal government. When they eventually get the allocation, they will tell you that they owed backlog of salaries to primary school teachers and nothing is left to use to repair the battered broken refuse/garbage pick up vans.
Let’s continue the juxtaposition of Gunther’s 1950 Lagos with present day Lagos and in doing that we need to insert the latest census result which shows the explosive population climbing well over 9 million (9,013, 534 to be exact!) from the 28, 000 in the 1950s. Note that the land mass remains the same. With regards to the cost of land, I bought the plot of land I built my house in the inland northwest of the United States at the total cost of $20, 000 and I am at this time waiting to buy a plot of land at Lekki for $35, 000. My land in America comes with ready access to central drainage, waste disposal, electricity, water, telephone and access road. The land offered me in Lekki is a “virgin” land. I have to pay for several kilometers of electric cables and poles to get connected to the national electricity grid and I have to create every convenience folks in America take for granted by myself. So much for land in Lagos
I found something else Gunther wrote about Lagos circa 1954 interesting: “..a substantial American influence has begun; in a meadow in the center of town I saw boys playing softball, not cricket.” The question is whatever happened to softball in Lagos. How did it get overt thrown by soccer. Growing up in Lagos I do not for once played anything remotely resembling softball. All I have known in my life in Lagos is soccer and occasional cricket at Tafawa Balewa Square and Basketball at the National Stadium in Surulere. My conclusion here is that someone, most likely the Governor General might have staged this softball game for Gunther to give him an impression that Lagos is more American than British. But of what use is that to him I cannot fathom.
SEEDS OF CORRUPION
Let us next examine Gunther’s view on Nigerian corruption with what is going on today. He has this to say in 1955:
“It was in Lagos that we first began to hear about the worst thing in Nigeria, corruption. A tip or a gift is known as “dash”, and “dashing” exists almost everywhere. This phenomenon is probably unavoidable in any community like Nigeria, convulsed as it is by the most violent fermentations, and where people thrown up from the bottom suddenly find themselves able to exert power through money. Nevertheless it is regrettable. Multitudes of people-in the Gold coast too-have become, let us say, physicians or lawyers or civil servants almost overnight, without having had the opportunity to absorb the ethical equipment that should accompany these professions. We of the West should not, however, be too much horrified by corruption and bribery in Nigeria. Think of the Kefauver investigation in the United States. Probably nothing in Africa has ever been as corrupt as Kansas City under Boss Pendergast.
Most Nigerian corruption-to date anyway-is minor…..recently, however, the Lagos Town Council had to be dissolved, following a report that exposed fantastically ornate-if petty-corruption in municipal affairs. The Nigerian government is doing what it can to cope with this general problem, and I carried out of the country one remarkable souvenir-an enrollment blank for joining an organization called the Nigeria league of Bribe Scorners…and wear proud badges, “Fight Bribery and Corruption.”
In the general sphere of shady practice, Nigeria can produce some choice items. Some boys were active recently in a novel industry. They picked up gobs of chewing gum from the streets, straightened them out and then sold them as new in counterfeit wrapping.”
Here is the first indication of advanced fee fraud (aka 419) as we know it today. How I wish Mr. Gunther is still alive (He died in 1970 of complication from cancer) today to see the pervasive corruption that has eaten deep into the fabric of our nation. He would have been undoubtedly shocked to learn that General Abacha stole more $2 billion and stacked it away in a Swiss bank. What he thought was a relatively minor corruption problem grew into a gargantuan monster that in the 80s whilst many Nigerian were picking food from garbage cans of the wealthy, one Nigeria political party chief celebrated reaching $1 billion in his account with a lavish party with specially made wines from France.
There is a frightening tale at the end of page 759 of Gunther’s book that speaks volume about the present political state of Nigeria. I will quote it verbatim literati:
“..consider a story like the following. Nigeria had the first general election in its history in 1951. In some hinterland constituencies, voters who could not read or write expressed their choice by advancing to the polling officer, and whispering to him the name of their candidate; the polling officers, who were African, not British, then recorded the vote. And there was no cheating of any kind in most constituencies, though it did occur in some.”
This is democracy made in Africa. An outsider like Gunther had no way of knowing the veracity of this story and for him to conclude that there was no cheating of any kind is by far preposterous. If he had took time to ask the opposition candidates they might of course give him another tale. Nigeria election has been an albatross. Till date the fairest and freest election in Nigeria remained the 1992 federal election and that election was annulled by the military regime of President Badamasi Babangida.
NIGERIA GEOGRAPHICAL SUBDIVISIONS IN THE 1950S
Now, let’s get down to Gunther’s description of the geographical subdivisions of Nigeria, and on page 760 he wrote this:
“East and West are bitterly jealous of each other, but often combine politically against feudal North. They are much more Europeanized than the North. Their watchwords are emancipation and advance. The West is far richer than the East, and more developed politically. Of children of school age in the West, no fewer than one third go to school, an extremely high ratio for Africa. I heard people say, The West could be like the Gold Coast if it were on its own.” That is, it could almost at once become a functioning national state.”
Writing this commentary in 2007, one cannot but applaud the giant strides made by the East in catching up with the west on education. It is a living testament to the tremendous achievement of the entire East that the region now has as many educated citizens (if not more) than the West, despite going through an atrocious and debilitating civil war where many of his adult population got decimated in a widely reported pogrom!
But there is something else that caught my attention in page 761 of Gunther’s book:
“Most Ibos do not kiss when making love (unless they have become westernized by seeing movies). The word for “make love” in one Ibo tongue is, literally translated, “to look into the eyes.” It is an abomination to make love by daylight, or on land newly ploughed.”
Even though he wrote the above words in the 1950s I still can’t fathom any reference to this particular custom in my many sojourn in Igbo land. I think this is from the figment of some fertile imagination of colonial masters Gunther interviewed.
However his apt description of Igbo’s individualism is as real in 1955 as it is today. He wrote and I quote:
‘This is one of the most distinctive and important of all African tribes. Ibos live in multitudinous villages, fragmented into small family groups; they do not (unlike tribes in the West and North) have chiefs. Every Ibo is more or less, his own master. They are a mobile, vividly industrious people-sometimes they are called “the Jews of Africa”-and they have spread all over Nigeria as traders and small merchants. …. The population of Lagos, far to the west is 35 percent Ibo. Most Ibos have a lively sense of humor; they are clannish despite their individualism and hold together closely in non-Ibo communities; they are often unpopular because they push hard to make money; they can do anything on this good earth, I heard it said, except govern themselves. But in fact the Ibos today are so effervescent politically that the British sometimes differentiate between the ‘good East” and the “disruptive East,” meaning by the latter the radical Ibo strongholds.”
Trust the cunning British to label any agitators for independence from Britain as disruptive whilst they cuddle apologist as good. The more substantive point on the above quote is that as mobile and industrious as Igbo’s were in the 1950s it looks like nothing has slowed them down at all. A friend of mine once quibbled about the likelihood of finding any Nigerian engineer at NASA to our utter surprise we found one in the Arizona desert heat working on jet propulsion, I will leave you to guess the part of the country he came from.
So much for the East, now let’s see what he has to say about the West:
“People often think of Africa as a continent without towns, and indeed this is true in a manner of speaking, but it is not true of West Nigeria. Urbanization is proceeding at a phenomenal pace. Near Ibadan are no fewer than four cities, not merely towns, with populations of 100, 000 or more-Iwo (100, 006), Ife (110, 690), Oshogbo (122, 746), and Ogbomosho (139, 247). Ife and Iwo have important and excessively romantic histories. …
All of this Yoruba country. The Yoruba are one of the master tribes of the continent-a proud folk, claiming Nilotic descent, and with an active culture. They are sophisticated people, and look down on Ibos as barbarians. There are about three million Yorubas. Many are intellectuals and dreamers, “but strenuous beyond any comparison with the Bantu.” Some of their customs are unique…”
I really do not know who Gunther spoke with before making this unwarranted wide conclusion but if the Yorubas really look down on Igbos as barbarians I don’t think they would have elected Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe into government knowing his Igbo descent. You can bet that the embers of ethnic prejudice are already inherent with Nigeria politicians back then.
“We passed through a fascinating town, Abeokuta (population 54, 000). This community had a newspaper in English in 1862-more than ninety years ago-and is full of rude bookshops; some of these are no more than stalls or shelves in front of mud shacks, and contain mostly textbooks and self-help manuals. New arrivals among books are advertised by chalk signs on blackboards. Nigeria likes to read anything. The avidity for education is obsessive. The Alake-ruler- of Abeokuta is an eminent noble, one of the four principal chiefs of the whole West, who is known as “First of the Equals.” He is reputed to be the richest man in Nigeria with the exception of some Northern emirs. Modern times struck him recently. He was accused of some dereliction in connection with water rates, and his subjects thought that his taxes were too high. The indignant citizenry deposed him. The movement to do so was led by a resolute little woman, Mrs. F. Ransome Kuti, a well-known feminist and head of the local Union against Unjust Taxation. The British had nothing to do with this. They tried to save the Alake, but even so he was forced into exile by this fellow Africans. Later, on promise of good behavior, he was reinstated and forgiven. Even in feudal domains these days, the people count.”
Reading the above account of Mrs. Ransome Kuti’s (Fela Anikulapo Kuti;s mother for those who don’t know) led people’s power brings back the memory of the uncompleted putsch to end Babangida’s regime after his unjust annulment of the June 12 election. The question I asked myself is where are the next Mrs. Kuti’s coming from. Instead of an avidity for education what we have now is pervasive influence of corruption, advance fee fraud, 3rd rate poorly produced Nollywood movies dripping of ignorance and avarice. The book culture is long gone! Our educational system now produced graduates who could barely read or write, with no hope of getting job after completion of their studies many dropped out to pursue crime in cyber café. We are indeed in deep trouble!
How did we get here? How and when did Ibadan lost its luster? How did an illustrious city in the 1950s turned to the ghost town of the 21st century. These are questions for Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu and his bandits of marauders in Agodi to answer. You could hardly recognize the Ibadan described below in Gunther’s words with the Ibadan of today:
“It is by far the largest city in Nigeria with something like 500, 000 people and is not only the biggest black city in the world (there are only a handful of whites but the fourth or fifth biggest city of any kind in all of Africa. … It is astonishing to look at, because the whole vast city seems to have a metal top; the tin roofs of thousands of houses packed closely together in an endless sloping expanse, are like an iron lid…It also has University College, which looks almost like the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This college, a handsome glassy structure opened in 1952, is affiliated with the University of London, and gives degrees of wide variety. It offers to Nigerian youth substantial new vistas of education, and many Nigerians are prouder of it than of anything in the country. It resembles Gordon College in Khartoum and Makarere in Uganda to an extent, but is much more modern in equipment; presumably it will do for Nigeria what these institutions have done in their respective countries, namely produce an intellectual elite that in time will dominate the new society. Some critics, however think that its plant is too elaborate-it has a library with 100, 000 books –and too expensive. Visiting it I might have forgotten that we were in tropical Africa had not our guide told us that within a square mile of the site, an entomologist had collected two hundred different varieties of butterfly.”
Whatever happened to that University of Ibadan, which holds so much promise. Yes, it did produce the cadre of Nigerian educated elites. Today’s University of Ibadan is an eyesore, most of the fantastic buildings had fallen into unimaginable neglect and disrepair. No thanks to the abysmal maintenance culture engendered by the military misrule.
NIGERIAN CHIEFS: DEATH OR SURVIVAL?
How influential are the traditional rulers before independence, let’s read Gunther:
“The most important Yoruba chief is probably Sir Adesoji Aderemi, KBE, CMG, MHR, the Oni of Ife, who until recently was a minister in the central government.
… Other great Yoruba chiefs, who however, do not play much of a political role, are the Alafin of Oyo (a Moslem) and the Awujale of Ijebu Ode. Chiefs like these do not resemble even remotely the kind we have met in Central or Southern Africa; they are not peasant leaders growing crops on sparse hillsides, or civil servants paid to collect taxes dutifully. They are elevated and ornate. They resemble to a degree maharajas in India in prewar days. And probably they will disappear from public life much as the maharajas did, when the Nigerian revolution progresses, and becomes as it is inevitably bound to become, more and more a people’s affair. The day of flamboyant chiefs is over. ..Then there is the Oba of Benin.
Gunther will be shocked to realize that unlike the maharajas, Obas, and traditional chiefs have not disappear from public life largely because the much vaunted Nigerian revolution never really took off. Today’s traditional chiefs are retired politicians, merchants and educated elites who paid millions to kingmakers to ascend the throne of their “neighbor’s fathers” so they can anoint would be “militricians” and corrupt government officials with awards and honors after getting settlement from them. Nigerian traditional rulers have even contributed a lot to scuttling the Nigerian revolution. A prime example is the famous statement by the current Oni of Ife after the military annulled the “freest and fairest election in Nigeria” when he urged Nigerian people to go out and participate in another election charade organized by the pernicious and evil regime of Abacha.
After describing the atrocities of human sacrifice by the Oba of Benin, with exaggerated hearsay/fables he probably picked up from his colonialist governor general/host, with words such as
“Benin ran with blood; courtyards were paved with human skulls and a favorite article of food on really big ceremonial occasions was the human heart.”
These and many other “tattle tales” were made by Gunther even though he self admitted that he never stepped foot on Benin soil. I noticed he conveniently side stepped the history of how British vandalized the Benin palace killing more people than the number of people that died during the Franco-Prussian wars. At the end of their war against Benin, history recorded that the Benin river turned red with the blood of its inhabitants. The whole city was sacked. But his account of Benin get better, I mean really better:
“It is an extraordinary fact that, in addition to atrocities more horrible than anything known in modern Africa, Benin should also have produced bronzes which almost beyond dispute, are among the most magnificent works of art in the world. …There are still folks who deny that any true African civilization has ever existed. Perhaps they measure civilization purely in terms of written records. But if civilization includes art, then the Africans who made the Benin bronzes and Ife terra cottas were certainly civilized, at least in so far as they were capable of producing works of art. Most of the bronzes were carried off as loot after the British expedition in 1897, and have been scattered all over the world. Now the Nigerian government, which is setting up a national museum in Lagos, is doing what it can to get them back. Two bronze leopards were located in New York recently but at a fancy price-$25, 000. Nevertheless, the Lagos museum bought them.”
Notice how Mr. Gunther has nothing to say on whether it is conscionable for the seller in New York to sell back a stolen ancestral/historical art carted away by brigandage of the British. Who indeed is more civilized here?
In summing the chapter, Gunther wrote as follows:
“Nigeria may seem overwhelming and exasperatingly complex, but the main channels of development are clear. There are three sharp, overriding phenomena or issues. First the precipitous climb of the people from tribalism to modern times overnight. Second, sectionalism versus unity-that is, the fierce struggle to establish and maintain cohesion between North, East, and West. Third, nationalism versus the British. Let us go on.”
Before we moved on to the next chapter as urged by Gunther, let me hasten to note that Gunther hit the nail right on the head, sectionalism and “tribalism” remains today the singular albatross on modern Nigeria. It is the chief ingredients Nigerian politicians used to pull the country apart each time they can’t get their way. We are where we are today chiefly because of this problem. The problem in 1950s was restricted to 3 sections per Gunther, but if he were to look at Nigeria of today he will see atrocious sectional leaders from the South East, South West, South South, North East, North central, Middle belt and NorthWest. The emergent leaders who led the nation after the British left did nothing to pulled the country together, rather they foment so much hatred that we have to fought a fratricidal civil war to keep the nation one and they are right now fanning the embers of another one! Well that is an issue for the next chapter titled: “Nigeria: Its inflammatory politics.” We shall proceed to blog that after I have answered some of the questions you might have for me on this chapter.