Review: Formation, by Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi

Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi's book retells Nigeria’s origin story in a way that is accessible and enjoyable to a modern audience. Review by Stephen Williams.


Image : Luis TATO/AFP

The historian, journalist and author Robert Harris once famously remarked: “History is too important to be left to historians.” Formation’s authors, Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi, took this message to heart. 

The finance professionals’ intriguing study tracks the unlikely series of events and characters that led to the creation of the modern Nigerian nation: from 1804 when the first jihadists began their attack on a collection of independent nations, to 1914 when Nigeria took on its current shape through the amalgamation of three territories under British colonial rule. 

The book aims to sheds light on an increasingly forgotten and mythologised period of Nigeria’s history, where violence was a primary organising principle for elite competition and the attainment of political power. 

The authors begin their story with a description of Nigeria’s two principle waterways – the Niger and Benue. The two rivers at the centre of the narrative, say Fagbule and Fawehinmi, “are the raison d’être for Nigeria in the first place” which served “at once to attract and divide the humans of Nigeria”.

The Niger has long been pivotal to the history of the West Africa region in general, a vital route for commodities including salt, and a key intersection with trans-Saharan trade routes which linked with the trade centres of Timbuktu and Djenne in present day Mali.

Dan Fodio: A pivotal figure

The lands watered by these great rivers have always attracted dynamic, ambitious – and occasionally grasping – characters. One of the most influential among these was Usman Dan Fodio, an ascetic sheikh who led a successful revolution by Fulani tribes against the Hausa elite, “as pivotal a figure in the nation’s history of the greatest men his country would ever see”. 

He was the early prototype for future northern Nigerian leaders – a charismatic and revolutionary Islamic preacher who rose up and built a following of people who were disaffected by the excesses of the ruling elite. 

“Unmoved by worldly power or riches, almost to the point of naïveté, the Sheikh possessed bulletproof personal integrity that has stood up to the dispassionate scrutiny of multiple histories. To borrow Kipling’s famous words – he met with triumph and disaster and treated both impostors the same.”

The years following Dan Fodio’s victorious uprising were characterised by a complex series of power struggles, conflicts and succession disputes: “Dan Fodio’s jihad, the seminal event in Nigeria’s history up to the early nineteenth century, would trigger outsized reverberations across time and space, eventually affecting the lives of millions of people across multiple continents. The immediate consequence of the jihad south of the Niger-Benue rivers would be an armed conflagration of previously unimaginable proportions.”

Hastened by the rise of Dan Fodio’s Fulani Empire, the southern Oyo Empire span into drastic decline. Its disintegration triggered a devastating civil war, driven by conflicts between the alafin, or ruler, and his chiefs, including both provincial rulers and lineage chiefs and councillors at the capital.

“An internecine, scorched earth civil war commenced, with changing allegiances, alliances, and partnerships, resulting in devastating consequences for human life across the former empire,” the authors write.

The shadow of slavery 

Meanwhile, Nigeria was gaining a global role as a major hub of the Atlantic slave trade. An increased appetite for slaves, triggered partly by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 which doubled the size of the continental United States, fuelled vicious internal conflict in West Africa as outside powers sought labour for the American cotton fields. 

The hunt for slaves led to one of the most remarkable experiments in Nigerian history. Chief Sodeke first settled Abeokuta (translating roughly as “refuge among rocks”) in 1830 as a place of refuge from slave hunters. The village populations scattered over the open country took refuge among the rocks surrounding the city, forming a free confederacy of distinct groups, each preserving traditional customs, religious rites and the names of their original villages.

The authors see the “remarkably astute geopolitical and foreign policy posturing of this small settlement and its accomplished civil and military leaders” as a pivotal moment in Nigerian self-awareness.

The arrival of the British 

Still, despite this bold experiment, foreign interference could not be kept at bay for long. A colourful troupe of “mad men and missionaries” arrived in the country, among them pioneer explorer Mungo Park, a Scottish doctor determined to navigate the length of the River Niger.

The global Industrial Revolution, which began in the eighteenth century in Britain, hardened imperial interest in Nigeria. The authors describe how the shift in export trade away from slave trading to palm oil and other commodities “dramatically altered the state of affairs in the still inchoate country”, leading to the eventual formation of Nigeria through a combination of imperial vision and capitalist zeal.

The book chronicles the destructive consequences as the imperial elite allied with and fought existing indigenous ruling classes, in what the authors describe as a Game of Thrones in the Niger heartland.

Key among the British imperial administrators was Frederick Lugard, the driver of the country’s amalgamation and the first governor general of Nigeria. The authors say that Lugard’s vision can now be bought into its proper context, describing him as a sometimes “detestable” protagonist who nonetheless bought about events that had been a century in the making. 

“With proper context, we demonstrate how Lugard’s revolution was in many ways the completion and expansion of the work started by [Dan Fodio],” they claim. 

Formation concludes at the end of the First World War, a global catastrophe that did not exclude the newly amalgamated country of Nigeria in its ramifications.

From start to finish, covering roughly the century and a decade from 1804 to 1914, Formation is written from the viewpoint of a curious observer, centring the perspectives of indigenous peoples, and retelling Nigeria’s origin story in a way that is accessible and enjoyable to a modern audience.

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