Time, Innovation and Reading Geography: The Case of Nigeria
This paper examines geographical influences, particularly colonialism’s impact, in the history and literature of Nigeria. The state of Nigeria is a European geographical concept imposed on African reality. This dissonance is revealed in both the country’s colonial past and its present dysfunction. It also echoes throughout the diverse literature produced in the area for a century.
The study is both fruitful and interesting because it amounts to a denial of the state of ‘Nigeria’ or, alternately, the assertion that ‘Nigeria’ does not exist. ‘Nigeria’ is simply the label of a block of land determined by European concerns with European perceptions: Historically, it is a European geographical concept. It has no African reality. Politically it was a no go from the get go. This painful reality is plainly evident in its horrific post-colonial history. The concept of Nigeria is an external imposition on African reality and this is reflected in the dysfunction of the state and the fact that the literature of the region is not the national literature of ‘Nigeria’ but rather a heterogeneous body of work united only in its universal resistance to the very concept of ‘Nigeria’
Literature of Nigeria?
The non-existence of ‘Nigeria’ is also evident in the absence of a literature of ‘Nigeria’. While it is true that the area or region known as ‘Nigeria’ has produced an astonishingly fecund literary constellation there is no literature of ‘Nigeria’. There is Ken Saro Wiwa’s literature of the Ogoni people. (There is also the cruel connection of art and politics in his execution for alleged involvement in an Ogoni political crime.) As long as seventy years ago the first Hausa novels were novels of resistance to British intrusions. The literature of the region is a chronicle of resistance to outside forces and aliens epitomized by the concept of ‘Nigeria’.
In the same way that there is neither logic nor coherence to the political and geographic concept of ‘Nigeria’ there is no ‘Nigerian’ literature. Indeed the non-existence of a national literature is the logical outcome of the conception of a state that is the product of an illogical, incoherent and alien geographical and political perception. The existence of ‘Nigeria’ is a necessary precondition for a literature of ‘Nigeria’.
Three decades ago Chinua Achebe argued that the state of Nigeria had both a national literature and ethnic literatures: “If you take Nigeria as an example, the national literature, as I see it, is the literature written in English; and the ethnic literatures are in Hausa, Ibo, Yoruba, Efik, Edo, Ijaw, etc., etc.,” This statement presumes the existence of the nation of ‘Nigeria’ and is therefore contradicted by Achebe’s second admission that ‘Nigeria’ is merely an agglomeration of ‘Hausa, Ibo, Yoruba, Efik, Edo, Ijaw, etc., etc.,’ peoples. While his use of the expression ‘etc., etc.,’ may be only a turn of phrase it also seems racist and dismissive of these very peoples. Regardless, only the second half of Achebe’s assertion is correct.
Consider, further the internal contradiction in the first half of Achebe’s claims. ‘Nigeria’ is an African state. Therefore, how can its ‘national’ language be English unless it is not an ‘African’ nation but a European nation and, more specifically and conceptually accurately, a European state. An African state/nation cannot have English as the language of its national literature: That is inherently contradictory. Therefore, there is no nation of ‘Nigeria’ and no national literature of ‘Nigeria’ however there is, and in abundance, the national literatures of the diverse peoples in the region labeled Nigeria.
Three crosses currently converge to demonstrate this thesis. First, the state of ‘Nigeria’ is a creature of British imperial policy and European colonial geography. Consequently, this external imposition, contradicting the African reality, has been massively dysfunctional. Finally, the nonexistence of ‘Nigeria’ has been evident in the area’s literature since the early years of the last century (soon after the dysfunctional concept of ‘Nigeria’ was created) and long before the post-colonial era.
British imperial policy and European colonial geography
Reorganization of state boundaries has been a constant theme in Nigerian history. The creation of Nigeria at the beginning of the century from the two separate northern and southern regions seems to have been motivated primarily by the Colonial Office’s chagrin at a colony (the north) that drained the treasury and one that was wealthy and profitable (the south): The result was ‘Nigeria’, fiscally balanced from a Colonial Office perspective, but ethnically, religiously and politically an anomaly. At the time the Colonial office expected colonies to be self-supporting and the federation of these two previously independent and entirely different regions reflected accounting convenience in London. The mental universe that created Nigeria was worlds away from Africa.
During the 1940s the underlying ethnic and regional cleavages within Nigeria came to dominate and define the various independence groups. The cleavages inherent in the geographical construct of ‘Nigeria’ emerged as colonialism devolved. Ethnic and geographic realities within Nigeria, coupled with the fragmentation that this generated in the political realm created considerable emphasis on federalism—the union of semiautonomous regions—within the context of calls for independence.
This policy came to fruition in 1957 with the establishment of Eastern and Western regions, augmented by the Northern region in 1959. Fiscally, the regional governments were predominant under the Lyttleton Constitution and the federal or national government was only responsible for currency, external affairs and other national issues. The state governments, in turn, became regional power-bases for the local elites ethnically and economically. Thus, while the federal government tried to act in the national interest and foster Nigerian nationalism it constantly faced pressure from state governments with decidedly different interests.
For this very reason manipulation of state boundaries has become a key element of Nigerian politics. For instance in 1976 the number of states was increased from twelve to nineteen in an attempt to moderate their individual influence. The western state (Yoruba dominated) was divided into three smaller states while Igbo dominated East Central State was split. In the north six Hausa-Fulani dominated states were split into nine new states, only three of which were Hausa-Fulani dominated. Despite this reorganization the civilian government of President Shehu Shagari confronted twelve opposed state governments when it assumed office in October 1979.
Simply put there is not much to the state of ‘Nigeria’. It arose out of fiscal expediency in the British colonial office. The national or federal government has had to struggle to assert itself against ethnic and regionally independent states and reorganization of state boundaries has been a constant theme in Nigerian history. The political entity known as ‘Nigeria’ has no basis in reality and no roots. It is an imposition that is ungrounded. Consequently, it is manipulated and moulded to suit political and economic demands. This is clear evidence of its hollowness and its disassociation from reality. If it were a concept firmly rooted in African reality it could not be changed and manipulated so freely.
In the forty years since independence Nigeria has been ruled by the military for more than three decades. Even the current democratically elected President is a retired general and former military ruler of the country. Throughout those forty years Nigeria has also earned the sobriquet of the most corrupt nation in the world. In 1999 the World Bank reported that the vast majority of Nigeria’s oil revenue “Was either siphoned abroad or used for prestige projects.” The state is nondemocratic, dominated by the military, inequitable and fiscally irresponsible. Unfortunately, it can justifiably be described as a model of post-colonial dysfunction. It is resource rich and economically impaired.
As a result of a military dominated bureaucratic/authoritarian state, poverty, and corruption the standard of living has been steadily declining. The current desperate situation is captured in the titles of two recent books about Nigeria. Nobel Prize winning poet Sole Soyinka published The Open Sore of a Continent and Karl Maier entitled his, Midnight in Nigeria. If ‘Nigeria’ is a valid concept it is one of the most dysfunctional states in the world. Arguably, this is clear evidence that it is not a state or at least that the ‘state’ has no bearing to reality and is little more than a European and colonial ‘state of mind’.
Literature: Resistance to ‘Nigeria’
When the British began to expand into northern Nigeria at the end of the nineteenth century they encountered the militaristic heritage of the Fulani Empire and the Hausa. Regardless, for the above noted accounting reasons, the area was rapidly incorporated into the colony of Nigeria. Graham Furniss recently published an analysis of Hausa fiction from the 1930s. He notes that the most common theme in these texts is the “Hausa military tradition in its confrontation with the British.” (Furniss, 1998, p. 96) In northern ‘Nigeria’ the literature of resistance did not develop in the post-colonial period, it arose as a relatively immediate impact of the imposition of stricter colonial authority at the turn of the century. The northern region of ‘Nigeria’ was only recently appended to the political entity, bears few connections to its other components and has had a literature of resistance for seventy years.
Indisputably, Ken Saro Wiwa is the most globally renowned Nigerian writer of the past fifteen years. However, his acclaim is owed as much to his tragic death as to his considerable literary talents and achievements.
In November 1993 General Sani Abacha, a former defense minister led a coup. Abacha declared himself president and promised restoration of democracy. His presidency, however, soon turned into a ruthless dictatorship: “the most widespread state-sponsored terror and brigandage in the country’s history.” Under his rule Nigerians saw profits from the country’s vast oil supply dwindle, as their leaders’ own wealth grew. Abacha siphoned off as much as $4 billion, and Nigeria’s reputation as the most corrupt nation in the world was confirmed. Those who spoke out against him were either executed or jailed. It was during this time that Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni nationalists were sentenced to death while journalists and opposition politicians were jailed by the thousands.
Nigeria’s history since independence has been one of frustration and unrealized potential. Within seven years of independence it was involved in a bloody civil war precipitated by the succession of Biafra. The country has been dominated by the military, corruption is rampant and Africa’s largest oil-producer often sees line-ups at the pumps. It is a dysfunctional concept imposed from outside a century ago.
Karl Maier describes the state of Nigeria as having been “cobbled together.” (Maier, 2000, p. 21) This is not entirely accurate. A century ago the colony was cobbled together. The independent state was not cobbled together but rather simply inherited the boundaries that the colonial authorities had cobbled together. Not surprisingly, in this situation the literature of the region is a literature of resistance to the cobblers.
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