In the week of April 18th through 25th, 2001, the Nigerian internet community received an ample supply of Bala Usman’s essay provocatively titled “Ignorance, Knowledge and Democratic Politics in Nigeria." It is the text of his presentation at a symposium at Bayero University, Kano, on Tuesday, 17th April 2001.
By Peter P. Ekeh
In the week of April 18th through 25th, 2001, the Nigerian internet community received an ample supply of Bala Usman’s essay provocatively titled “Ignorance, Knowledge and Democratic Politics in Nigeria." It is the text of his presentation at a symposium at Bayero University, Kano, on Tuesday, 17th April 2001. As he himself affirms in this much-publicized essay, it is only a sequel to a longer document published in the same venue in the internet at Ceddert. Bala Usman acknowledged the following assistance in the preparation of the earlier document: “In preparing this brief, we have benefited from the support and assistance of our colleague Abubakar Siddique Mohammed, and our staff, Sunday Jonathan and Garba Wada.” The authorship is thus Bala Usman’s in the main.
Titled, "The Misrepresentation of Nigeria: The Facts and Figures," the earlier essay was a frontal attack on the notion that the Yoruba and Igbo had their own autonomous history, independent of Nigeria. It also took a swipe at the claim that the Niger Delta had its own destiny to worry about. The latter "Ignorance" essay took on the Urhobos of the Niger Delta. For whatever reason he embarked on this course of action, this essay was an exercise in insults and ridicule of a whole ethnic group that Bala Usman viewed as representative of the Niger Delta.
In both of these essays, Bala Usman marches on as a soldier of truth. He does not hesitate about the veracity of his declarations -- from the Hausa origins of the name "Yoruba" to the British invention of the term "Urhobo" in 1938! He picks sentences and fragments of paragraphs from Kenneth Dike, Ade Ajayi, J. Alagoa, Obaro Ikime, Onigu Otite, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and many others to show that these authors, dead and alive, support his campaign for the enthronement of the primacy of the Nigerian State. In this wonderful campaign against the evil of ignorance, there is only one solemn truth. It is that Nigeria owns all of us. No other entity matters. Bala Usman, the Truth Master, even labels as fascists those who do not subscribe to this idea of the supremacy and absolutism of the Nigerian State. Those who question the right of the Federal Government to take the resources of their people are accused of undermining the foundations of democracy in Nigeria! G. G. Darah of The Guardian is declared the epitome of ignorance because he dares to suggest that human existence in Urhoboland, in the Niger Delta, is up to six thousand years of age. This brand of history is different from the modesty-infested historiography that offers tentative truth-propositions.
I will leave it to Ade Ajayi, Adiele Afigbo, and others who study Igbo and Yoruba histories to accept or contest the claims made by Bala Usman regarding the Igbo and the Yoruba. But I will not wait for these influential historians before I challenge Bala Usman on his ill-mission on behalf of the Nigerian State. Let me state clearly my reasons for responding to Bala Usman’s two essays, especially the latter piece in which he is so scornful of the Urhobo and the Niger Delta. My reasons are fourfold.
First, I believe that Bala Usman has employed a defective methodology of history, in which the role of the British conquest of Nigeria is the only thing that counts.
Second, I believe Bala Usman has used historiography as a tool for mischief-making. History is an ennobling discipline that empowers people's cultures. In Bala Usman’s hands, however, history has become a tool for dividing people into their little clans, instead of employing it as an intellectual implement for uniting them.
Third, Bala Usman is completely wrong about the facts of Urhobo history. He is also wrong in his assumptions about human existence in the Niger Delta. Yet he turns around to accuse Darah and others of ignorance about the history of their own people.
Fourth, and most importantly, Bala Usman and his team of intellectuals are turning the Nigerian State into a monster that is waging war against the Nigerian people. These are serious issues that can only be ignored at Nigerians’ peril.
The Trevor-Roper Syndrome: The Ills of Imperialist Historiography
History can be a tool for intellectual mischief-making. Indeed, it has been so for most of the years in which imperial history has been written. Imperial history belittles all previous historical experiences in order, quite deliberately, to enhance its own presence. Conquering other people is an aggressive act that offends their inherent sense of justice. It is in order to create some measure of justification for imperial acts of conquest that imperial historians strive to invent the illusion that all pre-imperial times were also pre-historical. The moments worthy of historical epochs are said to begin with imperialism. This was as much the case with Roman imperialism as it was with English and British conquests and imperialism in Ireland and Africa.
It was not by accident that the principal apostle of the campaign for establishing the notion that Africans had no history, except the history of Europeans in Africa, was a British scholar of Roman imperialism. Regius Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, for a long time now a distinguished member of the House of Lords, the man was writing about the Roman Empire when he veered off, unprovoked, into a spiteful attack on the notion that Africa had any history worth studying. His infamous words deserve to be recalled:
"Undergraduates, seduced . . . by . . . journalistic fashion, demand that they be taught the history of black Africa. Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America . . . Please do not misunderstand me. I do not deny that men existed even in dark countries and dark centuries, nor that they had political life and culture, interesting to sociologists and anthropologists; but history, I believe, is essentially a form of movement, and purposive movement too" (Trevor-Roper 1965: 9).
It is a strange piece of irony that a man who has self-consciously worn the progressive label all his life may end up as a disciple of imperialist historian Trevor-Roper. No matter however one cuts it, Bala Usman is telling us in his two essays that the Igbo, Yoruba, Ijaw, and Urhobo -- his principal examples -- had no histories until they were created by British imperialism. His words hauntingly parallel Trevor-Roper’s and will probably cause Kenneth Dike to turn in his grave. He says,
"Anybody who has read the scholarly writings that have come out of the University of Ibadan from the early 1950’s knows that there has never been and there is nothing like a Yoruba "Race". Anyone who is familiar with the works of Professor Kenneth Dike, one of the greatest academics of the 20th century, knows that there is nothing like the Igbo nation. These, like the Hausa-Fulani, Ijaw, and the other nationalities of Nigeria, came to be formed in the course of the formation of Nigeria in the 19th and 20th centuries, as we have brought out in the Ceddert publication. "The Misrepresentation of Nigeria: The Facts and the Figures."