What if our swords are useless?
President Muhammadu Buhari reminded us about the greatness of Nigeria during his nationwide broadcast last Saturday commemorating the 56th anniversary of our country’s independence from the United Kingdom when he said, “I ran for office because I know that good government is the only way to ensure prosperity and abundance for all.” He said, “I remain resolutely committed to this objective.” Buhari is the 15th Nigerian Chief of State since we gained independence October 1, 1960.
Nigerians did not ask for their country to be created. Now we have it. Our country was created by Britain for its own benefit and glory to become the successor state to the many independent states occupying this territory in pre-colonial times. Those independent states have since accepted the end of their suzerainty and have embraced the Nigerian nationhood.
The most important thing that the British introduced to us was a more potent importance of power. In the old Sokoto Caliphate, no one could consider himself superior to the Caliph. When the British came, they offered the Caliph an unequal treaty which Caliph Muhammadu Attahiru, refused. The resistance of the Caliphate came to a head at the battle of Burmi in 1903 when Attahiru was killed in battle by the forces of Colonel Frederick Lugard. Similar shock treatments were inflicted on the Ijebu Army at the Imagbon War of 1892 and the Benin expedition of 1897. The conquest of Nigeria was a piece meal operation which finally added up to a huge whole. The arrow heard were soldiers like Captain Bower, Major Ross, Colonel Frederick Lugard and Colonel Thomas Goldie and missionaries especially of the Church Missionary Society, CMS.
What was interesting about the exploit of these men was that the fighting was done mostly by Africans. Troops used by British officers at the battle of Burmi when the Caliph was killed were mostly Hausa mercenaries. Lugard, using his experience from India, had hired soldiers among the natives, making them to be loyal to the British crown. Therefore, the officer corps was mainly British. The soldiers were Nigerians. They were never allowed to cross into the officers corps. Though some Nigerians fought alongside British troops during the First World War, the situation was not to change until the end of the Second World War in 1945. One Lieutenant Ugboma was the first Nigerian to be made an army officer by the British. This was in November 1948. Three others were made 2nd lieutenants in June 1949: Wellington Bassey, Samuel Ademulegun and Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi.
The Second World War was to have great impact on Nigerians. Returning troops who had participated in active service in Burma, the Far East and East Africa saw that humanity was one. There was no superior race in the heat of battle. Thousands of Africans have helped to save the British Empire from collapse and Britain from conquest by Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler.
Though most of the traditional elite retained their positions under the Indirect Rule system introduced by Lugard, things were never to be the same again. They were to be greatly affected by the arrival of the British colonial powers. Henceforth, no traditional ruler can be installed without the approval of top colonial officials. In 1903, after the Caliph Attahiru was killed in battle, Lugard simply installed another prince, Muhammadu Attahiru the Second, as the new ruler. He forbade him to bear the title caliph and gave him the new title of Sultan which the ruler of Sokoto bears to this day.
In 1938, Abubakar Siddiq, another prince, was made the Sultan after the death of the incumbent. Some of the kingmakers had preferred Ahmadu Bello, as the new ruler, but their choice was overruled by the Resident. Instead, Abubakar Siddiq was installed the Sultan. Few years into Sultan Abubakar’s reign, Bello was soon implicated in an alleged corruption case and hurled before the Sultan court. Sentenced to term of imprisonment, Bello appealed to the high court presided over by a British judge and won. He rode back to Sokoto in triumph. His lawyer in that epic battle was Chief Bode Thomas, who was to become the deputy leader of the Action Group. Bello also became the first premier of the defunct Northern Region and today still looms large in our national consciousness.
Among the Yoruba of the West and the Edo country, the impact of imposition of colonial rule was even more telling on the traditional elite. In Ilesa and the Ekiti area, the leading generals of the old wars, Ogedengbe and Isola Fabunmi, refused to disband their Ipaye military brigade regarded as the elite forces during the last Ekitiparapo War. African soldiers led by British officers moved to Ilesha where Ogedengbe was arrested and he was detained in the newly constructed Agodi Prison for many months. Fabunmi faced a similar though different fate. Fabunmi was accused of plotting the assassination of the reigning Owa Ooye of Okemesi, his hometown. Though this was an unfounded allegation, the situation developed into a civil strife and Fabunmi was expelled from the town and he took refuge in a settlement close to Efon-Alaaye where he was welcomed by some of his old commanders and comrades. Fabunmi was later invited to Imesi- Ile (Okemesi and Imesi-Ile are twin towns) where he became the Owa Ooye (traditional ruler) of that town.
The man who suffered a worse fate was an oba from one of the Ekiti towns. At the end of the Yoruba Civil Wars of the 19th Century, the British imperialists had made all the rulers to sign treaties forbidding human sacrifices. The most important treaty was that of 1896 which ended the Kiriji War (or Ekitiparapo War) when the combatants were made to disarm at Igbajo and other major fronts of the conflict. In late 1940s, the Ekiti oba was accused by one of his subjects of engaging in human sacrifice. He was arrested and after preliminary investigations, was put in Agodi Prison, Ibadan. His lawyer at the trial was Chief Obafemi Awolowo, one of the legal giants of those days. The Kabiyesi was found guilty and executed for his crime.
Young people would be wondering what gave the British youths so much audacity to venture from their tiny island to conquer the world and plant the Union Jack on every continent. One of them, Cecil Rhodes, a wealthy businessman, created his own army, made up, as usual of British officers and African soldiers. Rhodes launched his wars and finally carved out a country for himself. The new territory was called Southern Rhodesia. That territory is now the independent Republic of Zimbabwe now under the never-ending rule of Robert Mugabe.
The British and other European youths of those days were able to move because they were armed with superior knowledge. They believed they know more than the peoples of other races and lands and they moved out to spread “civilisation” with guns in their right hand and bible in their left hand. Therefore, the entire continent of Africa, from Cape to Cairo, was blanketed with colonial flags. The only territory to escape was Ethiopia which was to suffer its own humiliation when it was occupied in the 1930s by Italian Fascist forces under the dictator, Benito Mussolini.
It is pertinent to note however that before the era of the European adventurers and imperialists, the Black man have had their days. In ancient times, Black pharaohs rule Egypt. Hannibal, the African ruler of Cartage, made three attempts to conquer Rome and he was the first person in history to dispatch elephants to the battle field. Less than 500 years ago, Black people were the lords of Australia and New Zealand and many other islands and territories of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Now, the situation is different. We live in Africa, though people of African descents are still spread all over the world. But are we now Lords of our land?
It is good that President Buhari, at a book presentation this week in his honour, joined other speakers to emphasise the importance of self-knowledge in our quest to dominate our environment and create life more abundant for our people. I am aware that for Buhari, this is more than mere rhetoric. Last year, shortly after he became the tenant of Aso Rock Villa, Gaskia Media had approached him to write the prologue to our epochal book, The Nigerian Century. He obliged us. The book was meant to memorialize the history of Nigeria as it marked the 100th anniversary of the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates and present our history in an accessible format to the youths of Nigeria, especially students in secondary and tertiary institutions.
There is now the need for the government to go beyond mere rhetoric. The Federal government is the biggest school proprietor in the country, presiding over more than 100 secondary schools and almost 500 numbers of tertiary institutions. Books about our history should be made available to the libraries and students of these institutions. In the post-modern world dominated by knowledge, a large population like ours amount to little unless it is an educated population. When an average secondary school leaver has never seen a newspaper in his life, then something must be wrong with our education system. The truth today is that many government-owned school, do not subscribe to any newspaper. Many of them are without libraries. Now we have young people claiming to have graduated from some of our universities who never own a single text book. They rely on what is called hand-outs.
How can we defend our land from the second coming of the Europeans or the Chinese if we do not possess the knowledge to dominate our environment and appreciate our history and civilization? At the battle of Burmi where Caliph Attahiru was killed in 1903, the army of the caliphate approached the British forces in close formations with flaming sword, flying robes and braying horses. They did not know that the world of war had shifted and that the Maxim gun was now the master of the battle field. As the first row of caliphate soldiers were cut down in a hail of bullets, the second row moved in only to suffer the same fate. In the most decisive battle, the sword of the Caliphate was useless. Superior knowledge had subdued an empire.
A teeming population brimming with ignorance is a danger to itself. It is time to make the pursuit of knowledge the natural habits of our young people or else trouble may come again in a more permanent and corrosive form.