Magazine article The Spectator

'Nigeria: A New History of a Turbulent Century', by Richard Bourne - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Nigeria: A New History of a Turbulent Century', by Richard Bourne - Review

Article excerpt

Nigeria: A New History of a Turbulent Century Richard Bourne

Zed Books, pp.229, £14.99, ISBN: 9781780329062

A giant was born in 1914, an African giant. The same year European powers set about each other in the trenches a framework was laid out for a nation that over the next century would grow into Africa's mightiest economy, one with a population so prodigious it will soon overtake every other barring China and India.

The founding on 1 January that year of the colony of Nigeria was an act of extreme imperial chutzpah. Desert emirates in the north and coastal kingdoms in the south had for years been under nominal control as British protectorates, but for London to unite such diversity was to believe a mosaic has no cracks. The story of Nigeria, first under Britain, later as an African nation independent since 1960, has largely been the story of those cracks.

Any attempt at a history risks being grimly repetitive. The Nigerian cycle of political crisis, economic mismanagement and civil strife might appear relentless. To the outsider, Biafra and Boko Haram, Abacha and Abiola, coup and corruption can merge into one. So Richard Bourne is to be congratulated for avoiding such sameness in his 'new history'. By focusing on the streams that have shaped the nation, he captures one that is multi-dimensional in its fault lines, tantalising in its possibilities yet exasperating in its performance.

He lays out how traders drove Britain's interest in Nigeria, one begun by the Scottish explorer Mungo Park's 18th-century charting of the Niger river. It did not end well for Park, who would drown in the river -- an omen perhaps for Britain's relationship with the delta and its vast hinterland.

Just as in India, Bourne shows how in West Africa it was commerce that came first, with colonialism only being retro-fitted. Instead of Robert Clive's profiteering East India Company, we have palm-oil monopolists fixing prices, the Royal Niger Company and colonial officers gerry-mandering elections. So diverse were local chieftaincies, fiefdoms and monarchies that it took the wife of a British governor-general to name the ensemble. In an 1897 letter Flora Shaw suggested one drawn from the mighty river -- Nigeria.

The colonial period 1914-1960 is not given soft treatment. While Nigerian businessmen prospered more than Africans in most racially charged parts of the continent, Bourne argues that a significant failure of British administration created in part the conditions for Nigeria's modern malaise. …

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