Nigerian People: Who We Really Are

Posted: April 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

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By Diran Apata
I closed my last message with the following words:

“In short, what I am saying here is that we the peoples of Nigeria, as we have been since the beginning of British imperialism over us, are only a shadow of ourselves. We are running our country the way we are running it because we are not acting authentically as ourselves.- – – To see us authentically as our true selves, the place to look at us is not as members of Nigeria. The place to look at us is before Nigeria”

So, come with me as we look at ourselves before the British made us Nigerians. What sort of political existence did we have? Were we peoples with little or no civilization?  Because there are so many of our nationalities, we are constrained to pick only a very few for answering these important questions.

Let us start with the Kanuri nation of our northeast. The Kanuri are among the most illustrious peoples in the pre-colonial history of Sub-Saharan Africa. About the beginning of the Christian era, they began to establish a number of kingdoms in the country of the Lake Chad. The foundation of this early political prosperity was the Kanuri people’s very advanced agriculture. Making sophisticated use of the waters of the Chad Lake and its rivers, as well as of the fertile land of the lake area, they established the base for a generally prosperous economy.

The Kanuri people also developed into great craftsmen and artisans, producing various fine products of metals, wood, and leather. Very prosperous trade developed in their country. And that trade became a major link in the chain of commerce which interconnected the Lake Chad area with much of the interior of Sub-Saharan Africa. To the north, Kanuri traders took trade to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea even before the rise of Islam in the Middle East. With the rise of Islam and the massive expansion of the Arab people to all parts of the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, the Kanuri trade with the Mediterranean became a very big trade, bringing large numbers of Arab and Berber traders from the north, and taking large numbers of Kanuri traders to the north. This turned the Kanuri country into a very prosperous country indeed. It resulted in the rise of an empire, which we call the Kanem-Bornu Empire today.  And that empire became one of the earliest Islamic civilizations in the heart of Africa. The Islamic civilization of the Kanem-Bornu Empire has the distinction of producing some of the first books ever written on the soil of Black Africa.  By the 16th century, the rulers of Kanem-Bornu regularly established embassies with the rulers of the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean world. By that date, this empire of the Kanuri and related peoples stood equal in many things with the leading countries of the Europe of the time – such as Spain, Portugal and England.

Still in our North, let us look at homeland of the Hausa-Fulani nation. The Hausa nation, the largest single nation in the grassland interior of West Africa (the Western Sudan), had, by about the 13th century, established a number of kingdoms in this expansive country. These kingdoms were rich in agriculture, livestock rearing, and trade.  The products of Hausa artisans and craftsmen were widely sought in the lands of the Sudan. And Hausa traders were very important in the trade of West Africa in general – east with Kanem-Bornu, west with the countries of the Upper Niger, and south with Yorubaland. The trans-Saharan trade also brought a lot of wealth, as well as Islamic civilization, to Hausaland.

Then in the early 19th century, a reformist Islamic movement led by immigrant Fulani people resulted in the unification of Hausaland into one Sultanate. As a result of this revolution, this homeland of the people whom we now call the Hausa-Fulani grew tremendously in most facets of civilization. Trade blossomed, generating a lot of wealth. Islamic literacy and scholarship blossomed too. This Hausa-Fulani Sultanate was, by the end of the 19th century, the largest state in the wide Western Sudan, and in all of Black Africa.

We will now move south, over the Niger-Benue valley.  Here, let us look at the Yoruba nation. The Yoruba are distinguished as the owners of the greatest urban civilization in the whole of Black Africa. Their first town was built in the 10th century. By the time the first Portuguese explorers came to the coast of West Africa in the middle of the 15th century, Yorubaland was already the home of tens of large towns, most of them walled.  As of that date, no country of Europe could boast of as many towns and cities as Yorubaland. In the course of the 19th century, transformational wars among the Yoruba people destroyed some of the cities; but more cities arose to replace the destroyed ones and some of these were even larger than Yorubaland itself had owned before.

This growth of urbanism enormously advanced Yoruba civilization in general. Yorubaland in the urban era was a land of very prosperous farming. The first Europeans to enter into the Yoruba interior came in 1825. They described the towns as heavily populated, and as generally “clean habitations” in which public places like palaces and shrines were richly decorated with beautiful works of art. After seeing many Yoruba towns, they concluded that the Yoruba people had “a genius for the art of sculpture”.  They described the entry to most towns as through “a spacious avenue of noble trees”.  They described the Yoruba countryside as a country filled with “fields of Indian corn”,  “plantations of cotton”, “extensive plantations of corn and plantains”, “rich plantations of yams”, “acres of indigo”, and described Yoruba farmers as “an industrious race”.

It was also a land of great productions in crafts, artisanship, and manufactures of various kinds. Cloth and mats woven by the Yoruba were highly sought in most parts of West Africa. So were Yoruba beads and garments. Yorubaland also owned the greatest artistic tradition, and the only naturalistic art tradition, in Black Africa.  Yoruba naturalistic art is universally acclaimed today as among the greatest products of the artistic heritage of the human race.  A leading modern art historian, Frank Willet, says of Yoruba naturalistic art productions that they “stand comparison with anything which ancient Egypt, classical Greece and Rome, or Renaissance Europe, had to offer”.

The 1825 explorers described Yoruba people as very hospitable people.  In every town or village, the explorers were thronged by inquisitive crowds whom they described as “generally speaking, neatly dressed – – – and very clean in their personal appearance”, and “pleasing in their manners” and self-respecting. Every king or village ruler whom they met was dignified and professional as ruler – and very helpful. In one town, the Oba was holding a meeting with his chiefs when the explorers arrived. Their journal keeper described that meeting as “the most venerable-looking group of human beings I ever saw”.

Moreover, Yorubaland in the Yoruba urban era was also a land of great trade and great traders. Trade routes interconnected the whole country copiously, some of them trade routes that traversed almost all the country. On those routes, traders were to be met in large numbers at all hours. Usually, travelling Yoruba traders and their porters travelled  together in large groups or caravans An American missionary, William H. Clarke,  who travelled extensively in Yorubaland in the 1850s, reported that he met caravans of traders everywhere, and described Yorubaland as “a land of caravans”. He gave some details as follows:

“The trade in native produce and art keeps up continual intercommunication between the several adjacent towns, the one interchanging its abundance of

one article for that of another. Thus on those smaller routes (between towns)  may be seen caravans of fifties passing almost daily from one town to another, acting as the great reservoirs of trade”

Then he added that on the long-distance routes,”a network of trade is carried to a distance of hundreds of miles. – – – Hundreds and thousands of people are thus engaged in the carrying trade.- – -..”

Each Yoruba town had large marketplaces that were crowded on their market days. When one approached a town where a market was on, one could hear from many miles away the  huge humming of voices as if one were approaching the sea. Some marketplaces all over the country specialized in night trading. Clarke wrote that in Yoruba marketplaces:

“the articles from the Mediterranean and Western (European)coast may be seen in close proximity, and productions of the four quarters ofthe globe within a circumference whose diameter may be measured by a fewyards”.

Clarke wrote that the caravans sometimes merged together, and that in such a situation “a correct idea of the extent of trade may be found in the imposing numbers (of traders and porters) that stretch over several miles in length”.

Believe me, I love telling these stories. They teach us the true measures of ourselves as nations and peoples. They tell our children that they are descendants of great peoples.

I am not stopping here. I will continue in my message of next Sunday to our Edo nation, and our Igbo nation and probably others.

Look out for it.

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