Book Review – An unlikely country

According to a decades-old (but false) saying “aerodynamically the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly, but it doesn’t know it, so it goes flying”.

It’s a line that comes to the mind many times while reading “Nigeria. A new history of a turbulent century”, by Richard Bourne, a senior research fellow at the UK’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies. However, in this case, it should sound a little different: “Politically – so the revised saying might go – Nigeria shouldn’t be a country, but it doesn’t know it, and keeps existing”.

bok 2Since the very beginning, in fact, Bourne underlines an elements he considers the key of many developments Nigeria has witnessed: the merger of what until 1914 were two distinct British protectorates into a single country, was something unnatural, which had more to do with big politics than with the actual situation on the ground. “How could [first Governor general Frederick Lugard and his successors] create a modern nation out of the 250 or so ethnicities in this region, with three large cultural and religious blocs and a major dysfunctionality between a numerous, poor and largely Muslim north and an increasingly educated, Christian and richer south?”, the author writes in the second page of Section 1 of the book, under a revealing title: “The invention of a country”. In the first four parts of the book (the fifth is dedicated to a series of reflections ranging from the theme of unity to those of oil, politics and business, ethnicity and religion) this question intertwines with another one, as powerful as the former: why so many Nigerians remain in poverty despite the fact that the nation is the biggest economy in Africa and so rich in natural resources?

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The answer is not a simple one, even if in the eyes of the non-specialist the many upheavals of Nigerian history – especially those involving the army – might seem obscure and confused. That’s probably why Bourne adopts a writing style that leaves little place to anecdotes and digressions, privileging the bare facts and a straightforward narration covering four main subjects. They are: the already mentioned unlikely birth of the nation; the rise of both a push for freedom and regionalism, the fall of the first republic and the role the generals played  during the Biafra war and in the following years; the dictatorship of Sani Abacha followed by the return of democracy. The title Bourne gives to the last part of the book is in itself a synthesis of his thesis: “a decade of pain, then disappointment in democracy”.

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The whole book, however, ends on a more optimistic note, when the author analyzes the outcome of the March 2015 elections. Leaving aside the profile of the new president Muhammadu Buhari and of the defeated incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, the electoral results, in Bourne’s view, are good news for at least two reasons. One is Jonathan’s attitude following the elections. His decision to go on television and congratulate the elected president, the author writes, “was designed to take the wind out of angry supporters and marked a new stage of civility in national politics”. Moreover, despite realistically thinking that “it was unrealistic to suppose that a change of government alone would have magical results”, Bourne admits that “what Nigerians had shown (…) was impressive resilience, with more confidence in the future of themselves and their state”.Globally, it can be said that the book does not actually give an answer to the puzzling question asked at the beginning. Just like in the bumblebee saying, Nigeria keeps going against many – it would be unfair saying all – odds: Bourne, it seem, can just give the details of this journey, which he does egregiously, also filling in some way a gap in the media coverage of Nigeria.

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The Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast, has taken the lion’s share of reports and books published in the last years. While many of them are the result of a combination of careful research and impressive field work, their authors inevitably have an approach which differs slightly from Bourne’s. The “new history of a turbulent century”, in fact, gives the self-proclaimed African branch of the so-called Islamic state its true place in the context. The insurgents are only an element in a broader picture, a consequence of political and social factors the roots of which run deeper than it is usually imagined. And Nigeria is one of the instrument that can best help to get aware of this depth.  (D.M.)

Richard Bourne, Nigeria: A New History of a Turbulent Century,  Zed Books, London, 2015, 344 pages,



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