You can wipe out a generation of people. You can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow they’ll still come back. But if you destroy their achievements, and their history, then it’s like they never existed.Monuments Men
As I write these words, I think of King Josiah living in a pagan Judah, when the Israelites re-discovered the Law of Moses after it had been lost for generations. Josiah had the words of the Law read aloud to him, and at the end of it he rent his clothes.
Today, I want to tear my clothes. As a black African, like many others of Sub-Saharan African descent, I can picture times when I sit calmly and simmer as some aspect of our history is recounted. I sat and simmered in Christian private school in seventh grade as our teacher explained that the civil war was really not about slavery at all, it was about “states rights.” I sat and simmered in US history class in high school when our teacher asked the white wealthy students with trust funds what they thought about affirmative action, and they regurgitated their parents views.
Each time I was the only black person in the classroom, and though I had a reputation for being willing to argue a point successfully against any number of opponents, especially when it came to religion, I just didn’t have the info on those issues. Honestly at the time I didn’t know enough about Black history to vehemently defend any particular point of view. At the same time, my last name isn’t Johnson, it’s Ovienmhada. I am an Edo man. I am an Esan man. So in my naivety, I thought I was somehow disconnected from that struggle.
I reckoned that maybe because Nigeria was the 8th largest exporter of oil in the world, that meant something. I thought that since I was born in Ikeja, Lagos and not Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, that somehow my family and ancestors made it, that we were unaffected by the stain of slavery, our only guilt being selling people to Europeans not knowing what was in store for them. We were civilized more or less, we had a history, and I know what my last name means. Ovienmhada: The scepter of a king does not belong in the hands of a slave. I was sold a vision of Nigeria by my parents who speak Esan, Yoruba, and English, thinking it was authentic. Little did I know of who sold that vision of our nationhood to my parents in the first place.
The first time I was ever called “nigger” was in the first grade at Gold Dust Elementary school in north Phoenix. It was kid named Christopher that called me that word. Looking back, I don’t think he actually knew what that word meant. I remember his rebellious older brother who was in the sixth grade, who I’m 99% sure taught him how to use that word. I learned more than a few curse words from Chris’s older brother.
I thought to myself, “I wonder how often the word ‘nigger’ would be used if African nations had nuclear weapons?”
I didn’t know much about the word nigger at the time, except that it was something you never let a white person call you, and a word that calls for violence. It was my rapscallion Nigerian friends that taught me that. Take it for what you will, but I was a 6 year old listening to advice from 8 year olds.
So when my friend Chris called me that one day during a playground disagreement, I choked him until he took it back. Several hours later, we were friends again and walked home together with his big brother, who would swear at women in cars as they drove by.
It was also in the first grade after that incident when I looked on a map and made my first mental connection between the countries “Niger” “Nigeria” and “nigger”. I still didn’t know about slavery at the time, but I remember thinking to myself, “If ‘nigger’ is such a bad word, then why name a country ‘Niger’ or ‘Nigeria’?” It was only many years later that I learned that we black West Africans, never actually named our country.
How many first graders have mis-pronounced Niger on their first try?
You can use google to search for the etymological origins of the word Nigeria. Or if you want to soften the blow you can read this version which is accurate, though not quite academic, and seasoned with a little Rasta spice and a tinge of conspiracy. Nevertheless, I can’t help but love anyone who ends an essay with “Lion!”
The person responsible for our country’s name was a female journalist named Flora Shaw, and she was 44 years and 20 days old when her iconic – if not infamous – column for The Times of London was published. It was the first time the word Nigeria was ever used in print. Her article was written in an effort to determine what to call the “agglomeration of pagan and Mahomedan States” that at the time was under the name “Royal Niger Company Territories”. The column in question, titled “Nigeria” was published on January 8, 1897. Since the copyright limit in England is maximum the life of the author plus 70 years, I’m able to post the original article here.
It wouldn’t be wholly dissimilar from a female blogger who has her own opinion column on CNN writing up an article from the comfort of her home office, wrapped in a snuggy, while sipping on a coffee, and being given the privilege of naming some newly discovered island full of tens of millions of inhabitants simply because she was dating a politician who would eventually be sent over there.
At the time Flora Shaw was the girlfriend of a Military Commander, Lord Frederick Lugard, who would later become the Governor of the Northern and Southern Protectorates of that region.
The last time I was called nigger was by a group of three guys, in a pickup truck about 2 years ago. We were waiting at a street light on Rural Road and the 202 freeway. It was completely unprovoked, and I can only presume my crime was being black while driving a brand new electric car. I stared at them for a moment in pity, and then ignored them the rest of the time as I waited for the light to turn green. To their credit, they only called me nigger once. If looks could kill…
I have to admit I thought to myself, “I wonder how often the word ‘nigger’ would be used if African nations had nuclear weapons?” I chuckled and drove off.
The Perfect Storm
I challenge anyone of West African descent to read the full history of our people, and still have it in you to remain patriotic to the likes of a nation often termed the “Giant of Africa”.
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion…For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
Psalm 137:1-4 KJV
I have spent the last few weeks reading that very history. I’ve subscribed to Online British Newspapers so I could download scanned news archives from the 19th century. I’ve read first hand accounts from English Captains who conquered the locals. I’ve downloaded and read scans of declassified documents from the US State Department during the Nigeria-Biafra Civil war, courtesy of the Freedom of Information Act.
To my horror, I’m finding out that I’m the citizen of an African piece of paper. The geographical expression called Nigeria is the result of a perfect storm of a Fulani Invasion, a European Colonial Invasion, the largest forced migration in the history of mankind, and Religion. I’m only about ten percent into the history of my country, and the ten percent I’ve found is enough to make my stomach turn.
There are a group of now ethnic Nigerians called the Fulani that came from a place called Futa Jallon in what is now Guinea, in Northwest Africa. They only entered the region in 1804, in what is known as the Fulani Jihad. The Fulani conquered all the northern Nigerian states and stopped just short of the rivers Niger and Benue. They established a Caliphate of Emirs under one supreme ruler called the Sultan of Sokoto. They brought Islam, the Arabic written language, and Feudalism to their conquered Hausa city-states. Today the Fulanis are so integrated with the conquered Hausas that they are collectively referred to as the Hausa-Fulani.
One hundred years later, the British conquered the Hausa-Fulani Nobles and established indirect rule of the Northern Protectorate through their puppet rulers. The British had picked their minority through which to rule.
The shortest war in human history lasted 38 minutes. It was on the southeast coast of Africa between the United Kingdom and the Zanzibar Sultanate. The Sultan didn’t stand a chance. The difference in military might between the Europeans and Africans was akin to the difference between the Martians and humans in the infamous novel War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.
Like in War of the Worlds, disease played a major role in West Africa’s long isolation from the rest of the world. West Africans had developed evolutionary immunities to diseases like Malaria that would plague foreigners. Legends arose of powerful curses which guarded the land from entry by foreigners by the flaming sword of fever, from which foreigners would continually die.
In 1553, the first English expedition to Benin City was led by two captains. Captain Thomas Windham (England) and Captain Antonio Anes Pinteado (Portugal). They arrived with 140 able bodied sailors, and upon finally reaching the Kingdom of Benin, were dying at the rate of 4 and 5 men a day from fever. The King Of Benin spoke fluent Portugese, as Benin and Portugal had a trading relationship for decades before the British came. He filled their ships with pepper, and they made their way back to England. The crew returned to England with scarcely 40 of them remaining. Both captains died from fever before leaving the shores of Nigeria.
Alas, nature’s defense wasn’t enough and eventually technological superiority won the day. We West Africans had purchased low quality small arms (flint-lock rifles and the like) from the Portuguese as early as 1485 (and later from the British as well), but they were no match for the Maxim gun, Naval Bombardment, or the 7 pounder field guns, called by West African natives “them gun that shoot twice” (counting the shell’s explosion as the second shot), and war rockets.
Another thing they object to strongly is the war rocket, which they look on as an invention of the devil, and cannot understand how the wretched thing keeps working its way through the thickest of forest, looking for them everywhere, as it were.Captain Alain Boisragon, The Benin Massacre of 1897
Like the Americans before us, the last thing many of our soldiers would see is “the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air.”
British trade and the charter of the Royal Niger Company, led to a need to protect British trade interests with the sometimes non-compliant African Kings. Many communities on the coastline served as middle-men between the Europeans and the interior Kingdoms rich in palm oil and other goods, that were all but inaccessible to the white man for the time being. These groups, like the Jakris and the Ijaws told fanciful and scary tales of the white man that made interior Kingdoms like that of Benin very distrustful of Europeans over time, and ensured their monopoly over European trade for as long as time would allow.
At times Kings would command the suspension of all trade with the white man, only to incur the wrath of the European traders who would call on the British Forces to open up trade routes, either by negotiation, or by force.
By this time slavery, population decline, and economic competition with “slave houses” had already severely weakened these great West African kingdoms, that were mere shadows of their former selves. The Europeans made short work of them with the exception of a few African victories here and there by the Ijaws, the Ashantis and the infamous Benin Massacre, and maybe a few others that I’m yet to discover.
I was shocked when listening to a portion of my audiobook Nigeria and West Africa, by Wendy McElroy. The British were attempting to consolidate Nigeria after the Berlin Conference of 1884-85.
“The British responded [to French incursion] by signing a flurry of treaties with local chiefs. One of these chiefs was a remarkable man, King Jaja of Opobo, who had worked his way up from slavery onto a throne. King Jaja wanted to know what the British meant by the word “protection”. The British Consul assured him, ‘I write as you request in reference to the word “protection” as used in the proposed treaty, that the Queen does not want to take your country or your markets, but at the same time is anxious that no other nation should take them. She undertakes to extend her gracious favor and protection, which will leave your country still under your government.'”Nigeria and West Africa, by Wendy McElroy
King Jaja was later kidnapped after being invited to “negotiations” under false pretenses, after refusing to stop taxing British Merchants, and sent into exile in Saint Vincent (the Caribbean). Later, as an old man and in ill health, after years fighting the British Parliament in the legal system, he was granted permission to be repatriated to Opobo, but died en-route, allegedly by a poisoned cup of tea.
One of the most important legacies of colonialism are the borders drawn around the artificial nation-state. I’ll let my favorite amateur historian explain it.
“When we talk about preserving borders in that region, we talk about maintaining the pillars of instability, because that’s what the colonial powers wanted. They didn’t want a country that is going to be roughly unified, that could decide all at once and all together that what they really wanted was to get rid of the colonial power. These lines are drawn to create fragmentation and competition, and a balance of power, and the British are so much smarter than the Americans ever were when it came to figuring out how to govern these places…The British go in and they find some minority group…and they empower them and they put them in the bureaucracy and they make them the people that carry out British policies. They go in there and they create a class of people above the majority. In Iraq they empowered the Sunnis.”Dan Carlin, Common Sense: Riding Chaos to Stasis
Conquer the locals by force of arms, then give a minority group power and weapons with the mandate to rule over the masses. When the masses revolt – even after independence – the minority group has every incentive to use any means necessary to keep the status quo, with international backing from the once colonial power.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you that humans are inherently good. Look at nature, and look at evolution. Intelligence is the mark of a predator.
As sad as King Jaja’s story is, further digging shows that King Jaja himself only became a King as a result of instability in the region created by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He was a slave himself, and due to his intellect and hard work, he rose to become the head of a slave trading house. These “houses” were natively owned money making companies that further destabilized the region.
By the time Jaja was born, the Atlantic slave trade had been going on for over 200 years. It was the largest forced migration in all of human history. Due to the genocide of Native Americans in North, Central, and South America, there was a labor shortage in the new world. This demand for a labor force fixed European sights on West Africa. Though slavery had been part of West African tradition, it wasn’t special until Europeans came.
What would happen to the GDP in America today if 40% of it’s total population, in the form of people younger than 30, just disappeared. What would happen to the birth rate?
Demand for humans sent prices through the roof, and these “Houses” rose to power because of all the wealth they acquired from trading slaves for money, European goods, and guns. These slave trading houses out competed the neighboring tribes and kingdoms and their owners were treated as absolute monarchs. Jaja was a slave in a house, who rose to become the ruler of that house. The money he made was from the trafficking of human beings among other exports.
Demand for human beings was so high, that war between the West African kingdoms rose to its peak. Neighboring villages would go to war with each other for a trading dispute over yams. The conquered group would be rounded up and sold to the Europeans and Americans. The West African economy changed. Traders and workers in traditional African industries left them to pursue money in slaving.
From 1650 until 1850 there was a drastic decrease in West African population due to the preference of slavers for buying male slaves. This immediate population decrease, and the economic preference for the young and healthy, destroyed entire communities, clans, and kingdoms. It left the old and feeble with no one to take care of them.
Rather than a consequence of war, enslaving your enemies became more and more a reason to go to war.Dr. Kimani Nehusi
The West African region, that was once stable and orderly before the slave trade, had turned into turmoil. It turns out my teenage speculations were very wrong, we Africans were just as stained by the legacy of slavery as the African Americans that were sold.
In general, estimates range between 8 and 20 million people. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database estimates that the Atlantic slave trade took around 12.8 million people between the years 1450 and 1900. Of those people, half of them died en-route to their destination.
Nigeria is currently the most populated African country at about 160 million people. One in four Africans is a Nigerian. Though commonly referred to as the “Giant of Africa”, that’s not how we started.
To put the slave trade in perspective, let’s look at the Nigerian census. Of course our Nigerian census history is mired in controversy, as the first one might have been an undercount due to the fear of tax collection, and all subsequent counts were probably over counts due to the policy of distribution of federal wealth to state governments based on population. The first official census of Nigeria was taken in 1952-53. It yielded 31.6 million people. The next one was taken in 1963 and yielded 55.6 million.
No one knows what the population of West Africa was in the 1600s when the slave trade began, but it would probably be much less than the 31.6 million figure in 1952, in the region now called Nigeria. If you take into account other slave coast nations like Benin (no relation to Benin City or the Bini people) and Togo we can be generous and say the total population of Slave Coast Africa was 31.6 million people, just as an example. Now over the course of 200 years you forcibly remove 12.8 million of those people, leaving 18.8 million people left. For the sake of simplicity we’re ignoring any decrease in population due to low birth rates for absence of men, high death rates, and economic turmoil that a mass displacement of young healthy people would cause. You’ve just made 40% of the population disappear.
What would happen to the GDP in America today if 40% of it’s total population, in the form of people younger than 30, just disappeared. What would happen to the birth rate?
You will find no where in the world more mired in superstition than West Africa. For thousands of years, before we ever saw white men, or were forcibly converted to Islam, the political power of West African Kings was largely contingent on religion. The power of the Kings was upheld by the fetish priests. Religion was a means of control then, and it still is today.
An example of how hard wired this belief was, is how the the Oba (king) of Benin was able to shut down trade. The surrounding Kings from Lagos to Bonny, many of whom the British said, “should know better” paid tribute to the “powerful Juju” of the Oba of Benin.
Is killing a criminal called capital punishment in England, while the same practice is called “human sacrifice” because it took place in Africa?
At the center of Benin City, there was a special kind of tree grown called the Oba’s tree which was believed to hold special power. Any time the king wished to stop trade he would issue an edict banning the trade, and then cut a branch off of his tree and place it in the middle of the trade route. It was death and a curse to pass. The power of fear and superstition was so effective that European traders were unable to force their hired hands, guides, or middlemen to cross. The only way to open trade would be to depose the king or negotiate, and the king didn’t want to negotiate.
An unfortunate part of the history of West Africa is ritual human sacrifice. It was fairly common, from the Kingdom of Dahomey, to the Kindom of Benin, to the Igbo tribes. The more I study this though, the more some of it looks more like capital punishment than sacrifice. It’s a little naive to believe that every person killed by an African monarch was an innocent slave or unfortunate, and not a condemned criminal.
On January 13, 1897, the London Times published an article on the “Benin Massacre” where the Bini people launched a pre-emptive strike against a band of 250 soldiers (English officers commanding Hausa soldiers in disguise) that were illegally in Benin territory. The article detailed aspects of human sacrifice in Benin City, some of which sound an awfully lot like capital punishment. How do you differentiate between capital punishment and human sacrifice when politics and law are steeped in religion?
Is killing a criminal called capital punishment in England, while the same practice is called “human sacrifice” because it took place in Africa?
It’s a pertinent question to ask when even today’s media calls Syrian Sunni Rebels executing captured Syrian soldiers “self determination” when done on Syrian soil, and “terrorism” when done on Iraqi soil to Iraqi soldiers.
Nevertheless West Africa was very receptive to Christianity, though the Europeans interpreted our receptiveness as “childishness” and a “blank canvas upon which to draw”.
To this day, Nigeria is a country where people are afraid to pick up spare change found on the street for fear that it will turn into a snake or scorpion in their pocket. There is still ritual sacrifice and kidnapping, and it picks up during election season. Our “educated” leaders think that boiling an orphan’s liver will bring quick access to wealth and fame.
Surprisingly, Juju seems to stop working any time a curious and skeptical white person inquires of its power. When asked to demonstrate by someone of European descent, witch doctors can’t seem to “get it up”. It’s inexplicable to think Juju has any power, when it didn’t stop Europe from conquering all of Africa.
In a continent where child soldiers in the Central African Republic are given drugs and charms and told they’ll be bullet proof when they go into battle, why didn’t Juju save Africans from the Maxim gun? Why did Ghana lose to the USA even with Captain Juju on their side? Why have I had conversations with Nigerians holding Masters degrees that believe this nonsense?
Today 12 of the 36 states have implemented Sharia law in a bloodless coup and challenge to the secular Nigerian constitution. The impotent government did not respond to enforce one law that governs all Nigerians everywhere.
The End Result
The mixture of these catalysts in the right proportions and at the same time resulted in a perfect storm that caused the societal, cultural, economic, and political collapse of West Africa. The collapse from which we have still not recovered today. Our Kings were conquered and deposed, faux Kings in the form of slave traders rose to power, our art, which substituted for a written language, was taken to museums all over Europe, our resources were plundered, and we adopted Christianity and Islam.
West African Culture
It was in high school that I noticed that people from my tribe, even royalty, mixed in native attire with European clothing. This is less noticeable with “native cloth” being exported from Europe to be bought by Nigerians, but this is best seen in the addition of the singlet to Benin traditional wear. There is a reason that we in America jokingly call the singlet a “wife beater”. It’s tacky, and you don’t expect people to go out in public wearing such clothing. Keep in mind that the singlet is a European invention meant to be worn underneath dress clothes in order to absorb sweat. Also realize that the colonization of Africa was in part done to find customers who would buy European goods.
There is a photograph in my parents house of my mother’s father before he died. He lived to the age of 94, he is wearing a traditional Esan wrap, with coral beads, sandals, and a singlet. He was the youngest son of a Chief, the first Pharmacist in Benin. His father had 25 wives. Yet there he was, God rest his soul, wearing a singlet under beautiful African cloth like someone on Jerry Springer.
Before my wedding, I had an argument with my mother over why I’d be wearing a white Hanes t-shirt, or God forbid a singlet, underneath our traditional clothing. Her answer was, “That’s how we’ve always done it, it’s our culture.”
“But that’s not now we’ve always done it,” I stressed. “Europeans sold us singlets, and we bought them, and because that’s all you’ve known, now you’re claiming that’s our culture.”
Of course it was my mother, and it was a wedding, so I wasn’t going to win. I didn’t press the issue more than that, and agreed to wear what she said, regardless of thinking I looked like an idiot. I am a bit of a perfectionist. But it was then I realized that our “culture”, or what she was raised to believe is our culture is a caricature of what we once were. Unlike me, she hadn’t seen depictions of ancient Obas adorned in coral beads so numerous and heavy that palace attendants had to scratch them when they itched.
For all the pride we Nigerians take in our culture, at least in the South, we are a mere shadow of our former selves. Since contact with Europe, nearly everything about our civilization has declined. Royal canoes that could hold 80-100 men have been replaced by tiny fishing vessels akin to kayaks.
The great wall and moat of Benin, the
second largest manmade structure in the history of mankind (the first being the great wall of China) largest manmade structure in the history of mankind (the second being the great wall of China) 1fell into disrepair and was already being overgrown by trees by the time the Punitive Expedition led by Harry Rawson sacked Benin in 1898.
No less than 2500 of our great bronze workings created by the Benin metalworkers sit in museums from London and Berlin, to New York and Philadelphia, captured as spoils of war in 1898 and sold and re-sold all over Europe.
Meanwhile today Nigerian locals make cheap imitations from scrap metal no where near the quality of bronze statues, ivory face masks, and commemorative plaques produced in the 16th century.
The idea of Africans living in huts is a half truth, yes small scattered tribes and nomads lived in huts, but our Kings built cities. When the Dutch came to Benin in the 17th century, they didn’t find huts. They found a sprawling city with long and broad streets stretching beyond the horizon, towers topped by bronze eagles, a mighty palace, horses, and evenly spaced houses reminiscent of Europe.
The king’s palace or court is a square, and is as large as the town of Haarlem and entirely surrounded by a special wall, like that which encircles the town. It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses, and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries, about as large as the Exchange at Amsterdam, but one larger than another, resting on wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles…”Olfert Dapper, Nauwkeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaansche Gewesten
150 years later at the close of the 19th century, a Benin man scarcely knew what a horse was, and had much less seen one.
The concept of Nigeria was originated by Britain, the borders drawn by Britain, and all the tribes and kingdoms united for the ease of British Administration. Yet the greatest proponents for continuing to unite this failed state that enslaves its own people, continuing the work that it’s colonial masters started, are the so called Nigerians.
To paraphrase and combine what Dokubo Asari said in two separate instances:
“In 1885 some European Martians sat down in Berlin and balkanized Africa, as if we were meat to be sold after they slaughter a cow. They balkanized Africa and it is very shameful for you to accept that! The Berlin Conference is an insult on Africa! So anyone who owns up to ‘Nigeria’ is saying he is inferior. This is where we get it wrong! That you accept an evil! These are racial supremacists sitting down in Berlin. This is Apartheid, and this is the root of the problem.”
I don’t agree with everything Asari says, but I can’t deny the truth no matter who’s mouth it comes out of.
That we should celebrate a faux unity that we did not decide for ourselves, that our art and history should be held hostage in European museums, and that my parents should be taught that the way things were in the 1950s long after the collapse of West African empires, is the way things have always been, is shameful.
That we should be selling oil at a discount and devaluing our currency in order to get IMF loans, only for our corrupt leaders to embezzle those very oil profits and put it in foreign banks so the same nations loaning us money and buying discounted oil can now have that oil for free by investing the billions we store in their accounts, is shameful.
For you to say that Nigeria is sacrosanct, that you must impose Nigeria because you are benefitting – you are gaining – from this contraption that is killing me? No, I will not accept.Dokubo Asari
To continue the colonial legacy and colonial boundaries after independence, and not question our history, assured by some sort of idealistic optimism that it’ll all work out if we believe in ourselves, or “There is God oh!” is shameful.
That today Nigerians celebrate the blockade and starvation to death of three million Biafrans, our Igbo brothers who’s only “crime” was to want to break the the oppressive yoke when their own government wouldn’t protect them from genocide in the North, is shameful.
That we should continue to repeat 100 years of failure at becoming what we were never meant to be, because we might lose the title “Giant of Africa” or because someone somewhere said, “The failure of Nigeria will be the failure of the Black man,” is shameful. The black man cannot fail at a task he has not yet started.
The black man is a ghost, wandering, and without a home. I think I know what nigger really means. Nigger means ghost.
Lord, if there is anything we have done to offend you, please forgive us. I cast myself upon the mercies God, for I fear what must be done to create a home for the black man. How much African blood must be spilled that hasn’t already been poured out? I will no longer sit down and accept this evil. I cannot live, grow rich, and die an exile.
I want to sing the Lord God’s song.
I want them to bury me in Zion.
“They extend for some 16,000 kilometres in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They cover 6,500 square kilometres and were all dug by the Edo people. In all, they are four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops. They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet.” – Pearce, Fred. African Queen. New Scientist, 11 September 1999, Issue 2203.↩