Urhobo Historical Society

Bala Usman, History and the Niger Delta

By Ben Naanen, Ph.D.



From September 2001 Issue of channel online logoOnline

Dr. Naanen is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria.



Bala Usman is a controversial intellectual. He has consistently sought to establish a link between history and contemporary Nigerian politics. Many a time he has deliberately forged a radically revisionist historiography in the attempt to make a case for Northern hegemony. At other times he has raised valid and important historical issues that either have been ignored or taken for granted to the detriment of our nation-state project.

The past few weeks have been particularly bad for the Ahmadu Bello University historian. His short paper, "Ignorance, Knowledge and Democracy in Politics in Nigeria" together with its more elaborate version published by CEDDERT, have raised a titanic storm that has tended to draw the author in an ocean of read link, Professor Peter Ekeh in a compelling argument, accused Bala of intellectual mischief (The Guardian, May 7, 2001). In a measured riposte, G. G. Darah was less concerned with the intellectual issue than with the questioning of Usmanís radical and pan-Nigerian credential (The Guardian May 14, 15 and 16). Others have also responded, including Chris Akiri who sought to reassert the historical roots of the Urhobo nation (The Guardian, May 21 and 22).

Bala Usmanís central thesis in the two publications has been developed years ago. We need to go back to 1996 when apparently this theory was first tested on a national audience. That was his marathon Vanguard newspaper lecture which he titled "Understanding Nigerian Economy and Polity" (The Punch April 12, 15, 16, May 7, 1996). For a better appreciation of Usmanís position, all the aforementioned essays of his have to be taken together in context.

Among other things, the controversial thesis posits that Nigerian groups, in pre-colonial times, did not individually constitute the ethnic blocks sharing a common aspiration as we know them today; they did not form homogenous political communities expressed in statehood, neither did they share a sense of collective nationhood. Rather, Usman emphasizes further, it was British conquest and the subsequent imposition of the colonial state that forged that sense of nationhood and common identify among the individual groups.

By such disingenuous argument, Bala Usman intends to destroy the historical legitimacy of the current movement for political restructuring and resource control that has been engendered by internal colonialism. Since none of these groups formed states or political entities that embraced all sections of the group, he argues, there is no basis for the agitation for confederation or ethnic autonomy as these groups cannot legitimately constitute the confederating or autonomous units or sovereign entities.

To quote Bala Usman in his 1996 lecture:

"The Kingdoms, chiefdoms, city-states and village confederations which the British conquered were not sovereign ethnic political blocs which can now be brought back into existence if Nigeria is dismembered, or which can provide the basis of political entities out of which a Nigerian confederation or commonwealth of independent states can be created. There was no Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, Kataf, Sayawa, Tiv, Baju, Jukin, Ogoni, Chamba, Ijaw, Itsekiri or Urhobo polity or sets of polities, which can be resurrected to constitute the component units of a confederation, or to stand on their own as independent states, if the Nigerian polity is loosened or dismembered." This, is a powerful argument.

What appeared to be the authorís attacks on the various ethnic communities in the South especially those in the vanguard for restructuring and resource control are barely attempts to corroborate contentious thesis. The attacks could as well have been dictated by prevailing political trends. It is does not seem a mere coincidence, therefore, that the Urhobo and Yoruba who are currently some of the most articulate proponents of restructuring and resource control, were carefully singled out for intellectual punishment by Bala Usman. G. G. Darah of The Guardian received more than a fair share of pen-whipping for daring to suggest that the Urhobo nation has 6000 years of history.

In 1996 at the height of Nigeriaís international isolation engendered largely by the pioneering ogoni struggle, particularly the Abacha regimeís execution of Saro Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists, it was the turn of the Ogoni to receive Bala Usmanís scorching attack. "Claims of ethnic cohesion made nowadays about the ĎOgoni Nation" are simply politically convenient misrepresentations of a different and complex reality". This reality includes the fact that there have never been any entity known as Ogoni outside colonial and independent Nigeria", Bala Usman pontiifically proclaimed. "The different village groups which the British conquered were inhabited by people speaking four different languagesÖ Some of these villages were autonomous and others were under the control of assertive Niger Delta polities like Opobo and Obolo. No entity known as ĎOgonií existed right up to British conquest".

Bala Usman was not done yet with the Ogoni. He was spoiling for an overkill as he stated further that

the pre-mid 19th century Ogoni Society is a figment of Saro-Wiwaís fertile imagination; like the Ogoni nation is a politically convenient fabrication, without any reality outside MOSOPís Inkatha-type politics. There is no evidence that the six or so polities that existed in that area in the first half of the 19th century constituted a distinct entity, regarded themselves as related or as "Ogoni".

The present contribution has a modest objective. It attempts to address certain key historical questions that are pertinent to our national experience raised by Bala Usman in the cited publications. First, it will be argued that Usmanís position that Nigerian groups had no collective identity or sense of nationhood as individual groups before colonial rule, is flawed in conception and by the facts of history. I would like to illustrate my case using the Ogoni whom Usman stridently attacked for daring to assert an "Ogoni Nation" which, according to him, did not exist. Second, deriving from this argument, the point will be made that contrary to Bala Usman, there is, indeed, a historical basis for confederation, ethnic autonomy or any other political configurations that potentially constitute viable and more enduring alternatives to the present more or less centralized state structure which the military imposed on Nigeria. Third, I would like to demonstrate further that Bala Usmanís claim that the Niger Delta has no justification to agitate for resource control, its right to its resources having been expropriated by the British Crown by right of conquest and passed on to the successor Nigerian state, is also grossly at variance with the facts of history.

Identity and Nationhood in Pre-colonial Times

The problem is Bala Usman seems to have located political centralization or "political community" as he calls it, as the only or main form of identity that bound together individual pre-colonial groups to create a sense of identity and common destiny. If there was no formal state structure encompassing a whole group then there was no common identity binding the group, necessitating collective action. It is like resurrecting the discarded historiographical debate about state formation in sub-Saharam Africa, a debate which tended to see the formation of states or political centralization as the very definition of civilization. Centralized polities were the ideal. The non-centralized or so-called acephalous societies represented the rudimentary stage of civilization. In the attempt to conform to contemporary intellectual correctness, states, kingdoms and empires were invented where something else existed. Today, we have learned to live with the reality that non-centralized societies had their own dynamics which ensured their survival and progress and that they were not more backward than the centralized polities.

The point we have to emphasize about Bala Usmanís theory is that historical evidence is at variance with the position that a common identity expressed in the form of a sense of community and collective aspiration among the various groups in Nigeria is a colonial creation. On the contrary, such collective sentiment or common ties binding ethnic communities long antedate the coming of Europeans. Such identity need not necessarily have expressed itself in the formation of a political community or state. Nor was there an opportunity for its collective articulation in any other form since the objective historical conditions for the concrete expression of such all-embracing ethnic identity or nationhood had not yet materialized. Colonialism provide that opportunity as we shall see presently.

Historically, war or external aggression provided a chance for the demonstration of group or national solidarity. But hardly was a whole group or collective threatened nor did the whole group go to war against a common external enemy. It was usually a section of the group such as particular villages or group of villages or clan, in which cases other villages or section of the group would rise to the defense of the threatened section.

It is superfluous going into the history of the individual groups as some of those who have responded to Usman have demonstrated the weakness of his thesis in respect of certain groups. There was no Yoruba encompassing all Yoruba as Usman has correctly stated, but there was definitely a Yoruba ethnic identity embracing all Yoruba. In this sense the Yoruba constituted an ethnic bloc before European incursion. Same applied to the Tiv, the Ogoni, the Urhobo, the Jukun, the Hausa before their intermingling with the immigrant Fulani, etc.

What colonialism did was to provide the objective conditions by creating the political and territorial space in the form of a multi-national or multi-ethnic Nigerian state which ensured the hardening, depending and enlargement of the existing feeling of ethnic community or nationhood among the constituent groups. The development of modern communication, especially roads, was also an important facilitating factor in this development. The decisive factor was, and continues to be, the competition over the control of power and allocation of resources in this multi-ethnic state. This competition, right from the beginning, assumed basically an ethnic character, consummating in recent years in the ascendancy of virulent and often militant and exclusive ethnic nationalism. Colonialism did not initiate this process of nationhood formation among the groups as Bala Usman has claimed. It rather provided space for the expression of an existing pre-colonial phenomenon.

We should not here be concerned with why the competition over power and resource allocation did not take some modern form other than ethnicity. We, nevertheless, have to make the quick observation that other forms of mobilizing solidarity such as class were rather sophisticated, requiring as they were particular levels of social development of society. But ethnicity is primordial, it is crude. The sentiment is always there and therefore, provides the easiest and perhaps cheapest way of mobilizing a people.

The political conclusion which can be drawn from this analysis is this: contrary to Bala Usman, there is in Nigeria the historical basis for confederation or any other democratic alternative to the hegemonic and centralized state structure of military creation. One may not necessarily be sympathetic to an ethnic confederation nor is one certain that Nigerians actually want a dismemberment of the polity. But such personal position hardly undermines the reality that the current "ethnic nation" can legitimately constitute the component units of a confederation or form autonomous political entities. Many of them are even larger and more cohesive than several sovereign states in the world today.

At another level, granted that Usman was correct in his claim, ethnic identity, no matter its origins, has become the most basic form of identity in Nigeria. Its ascendancy, at least for now, is a fait a compli. Can anything stop these ethnic communities from becoming the component units of a restructured Nigeria if the people so desire?

The Ogoni Case

As regards the Ogoni specifically, and in consonance with the preceding discussion, one is concerned about two false claims made by Bala Usman. One, that there was no entity known as Ogoni before British conquest. Second, that some Ogoni villages were under the sovereignty of polities such as Opobo and Obolo (Andoni).

Let us take the first claim, an effort which also enables us to illustrate the point we have made about the existence of pre-colonial nationhood. There is no lack of evidence that the term "Ogoni" (not the people themselves whose origins far antedated the name with which they were later known) was already in existence centuries before British rule. But the name was only known to European sources by the middle of the nineteenth century. W. B. Baikie, the physician and explorer, had stated in 1854 that: "to the North or North-South-West of Ozuzu lies Mbohia (Mboli or Eleme) called at Bonny Ikpofia. There are few towns here, it being chiefly bush country. Close to it is another similar District with inhabitants of like propensity. It is named Ogoni, but at Bonny it is known Egane." What else do we have to say about Bala Usmanís claim on this point?

One may add that Ogoni escaped mention in earlier European sources largely on account of its isolation for the greater part of its pre-colonial history. Two factors may help explain this isolation. First, the Ogoni forbade marriage with any group other than their Ibibio neighbours to the Northeast. Second, the Ogoni declined any measurable participation in the slave trade hence they for long escaped the attention of Europeans. As Gibbons the colonial administrator and anthropologist stated in a 1932 intelligence report, "no trace of the ogoni language was found in the Polyglotta Africana Ė an indication that but few of them were captured as slaves."

These two points need some expatiation for our present purpose. The main reason for the prohibition of inter-ethnic marriage was the desire to maintain ethnic purity and the determination to sustain their independence. Although the prohibition of external marriages could no longer be sustained in modern times, this long history of isolation accounts for Ogoniís social distinctiveness. Ogoni is about one of the few groups in the Eastern Delta that share few cultural and linguistic commonalties with their neighbours.

Ogoniís fiercely independent disposition in historical times is abundantly attested to by the traditions of its neighbours and European records, which also emphasize the peopleís reputation for hostility to outsiders. Other sources claimed they were warlike and had a large reputation for cannibalism. These were important factors in explaining why Ogoni was never subordinated by any group as they successfully defended their independence up to British conquest.

These factors, together with their control of trade routes to the coast, also explain why they were hardly enslaved. Gibbons emphasized further: "the fact that their (Ogoni) country lay on the main trade route between Bonny and the Imo river was a reason for the Bonny slave raiders not to molest the Ogoni for if the Ogoni were rendered hostile they could blockade the Bonny trade routes."

There is hardly any evidence to suggest that with the establishment of Opobo by Jaja in 1873 following a political and commercial dispute in Bonny that this founder of the nascent commercial state departed from Bonnyís tradition of friendship with the Ogoni. Jaja was too busy making money to contemplate any political design in Opoboís neighbours. Indeed Opoboís size and history and Jajaís overriding commercial interest were hardly consistent with imperial ambition. As Ogoniís position and food production were crucial to the Bonny economy, so also it was to Opobo. Jaja subsequently sought to make an ally of Ogoni by recruiting some of his traders from there, especially the Ko (Opuoko, according to the Ibani) axis.

In respect of Obolo, there is hardly a shred of evidence that they ever dominated neighbouring Ogoni villages. As a careful reading of the University of Port Harcourt historian, Nkporom Ejituwuís A History of Obolo (Andoni) in the Niger Delta, shows Andoni was never known for expansionist tendencies. The periodic eruption of hostilities between sections of the Andoni and the Ogoni is twentieth century phenomenon. Among other factors already noted, the economic relationship between the two neighbours, especially the role of ogoni as a food exporter, ensured mutual respect for each otherís sovereignty.

In the above sketch of the relations between Ogoni and her neighbours in pre-colonial times where does Bala Usmanís claim that some Ogoni villages were under the control of assertive Niger Delta polities like Opobo and Obolo fit in? One can without undue injustice treat such claims as fabrications, contrived obviously as they are to make a political point.

Colonial Conquest Resource Control

The question of resource control which Bala Usman sought to use history to discredit can now be addressed. In his "Ignorance, Knowledge and Democracy in Politics in Nigeria, he contemptuously dismissed the Niger Deltaís claim to the resources within its territory by deploying two arguments. First that by virtue of British conquest the Niger Delta lost its right over its resources to the British conquerors, a right which was transferred to the Nigerian state at independence. Second, that the oil located in the Niger Delta is the result of a geological process that took place on the upper reaches of the Niger and Benue and as such it is the people upcountry that should actually lay claim the oil in the Niger Delta. The last point which seems crazy, is scientifically and logically unfounded as shown by Peter Ekeh hence does not merit any further comment in the present discussion.

The first point calls for a thorough analysis of the process by which the various groups were brought under colonial rule. This is rather complicated history which has been rendered simplistic by the notion of a general conquest by the British. The British imposed their rule on the Niger Delta by fraud and treachery. Many of the chiefdoms, city, state, kingdoms and autonomous communities of the Niger Delta had, following the Berlin Treaty of 1885, been cajoled into signing a so-called treaty of protections and friendship with British agents.

These treaties are in two categories Ė those in three clauses and those in nine clauses. The treaties did not take away the sovereignty of the Niger Delta entities involved. Rather they were designed to protect that sovereignty against violation by other European powers as a means of safeguarding British commercial interest in the region. The three-clause treaty mainly forbade African signatories from entering into any treaty with any other foreign power. The nine-clause treaty included freedom of trade and religion. It also placed jurisdiction over European subjects under British consular authority, very much the same way embassies and High Commissions function in the contemporary world. article VIII specifically demanded from African Kings and Chiefs reciprocal protection for European property and vessels wreaked within their territories. Britain, however, was to use these seemingly innocuous treaties between sovereign equals as the basis for the annexation of the signatory states.

There was another category of autonomous entities which refused to sign any treaty of protection and had to resist the imposition of British rule by force of arms. The Ogoni is one of such groups. Having declared a protectorate over the Ogoni country at Kono Beach in March 1901, the British proceeded to subjugate Ogoni to British rule. Realising what, to all intents and purposes, had become the loss of their sovereignty, the Ogoni rose up in arms later in 1901, 1905 and 1907. The Gbenebeka deity became the rallying point for the resistance movement. The struggle culminated in the epic Battle of Deeyor in 1908 between British-led forces commanded by one Lt. Rose and Gokana. After two days of battle the Ogoni fighters ran short of a munitions and retreated. They neither surrendered nor sign any document formally ending the war. The British were later to acknowledge the heroism of Ogoni warriors. Following further uprising the Gbenebeka shrine at Gwrara was in 1915 eventually burnt down by a military escort under the command of one Major G. H. Walker.

The people who fought for the creation of Rivers State had based their demand on those facts of history. The Rivers State they were fighting for was not the type created in 1967 by General Yakubu Gowon. Rather it was supposed to be an autonomous Rivers State that would reflect the words and spirit of the treaties signed with Rivers Kings and Chiefs. In a petition to this effect sent to the Britain Government in 1956, the Conference of Rivers Chiefs and people stated that: "by the terms of those instruments neither Her Majesty the Queen nor our forebears, both parties to those treaties, had any the least intention that our Rivers country, our markets and our entire territory should be ruled by a Government which has its headquarters at Enugu or Ibadan or Lagos." (CO 554/1121) The petitioners went further:

Sir, Your Excellency knows more than we do that in the context of the Constitutional Laws of the Empire the Rivers State that came under British protection by those Treaties, as distinct and different from some other parts of Nigeria that were conquered, ceded or occupied for the mere asking, are not part of the British Empire. They are protected States within the Empire and really are still foreign territories in the tenets of International Law. (Ibid)

Whether we take entities that signed protection treaties with the British, or those that fought the alien invaders without surrendering or those that neither fought nor signed any treaties, one conclusion that appears inescapable is that the juridical basis of British rule in the Niger Delta did not exist. And that the acceptance by omission or commission of colonial rule by the people of that region of Nigeria, was the mother of all mistakes of history in this part of the world. Where does Bala Usmanís conquest theory fit into this aspect of Niger Delta history? How then do we justify the seizure of the resources of the Niger Delta?

On the contrary, it is Northern Nigeria that provides us with a clear picture of a conquered domain. The Sultan Attahiru Ahmadu had in 1902 sent Lugard a letter which Lugard, rightly or wrongly, saw as a declaration of war against Britain. The Sultan had fled by the time Lugard entered Sokoto with his forces. At the command of Lugard a new Sultan was appointed in 1903. Lugard minced no words in instructing the new Sultan Muhammadu Attahiru about the new status of the caliphate, which now passed under British rule by right of conquest: "the Fulani in old times under Dan Fodio conquered this country. They took the right to rule over it, to levy taxes, to dispose Kings and to create Kings. They in turn have by defeat lost their rule which has come into the hands of the British, all these things which I have said the Fulani by conquest took the right to do now pass to the British" (Crowther, 1978:184).

One can see the clear difference in the incorporation of Northern Nigeria where British forces marched victoriously from emirate to emirate and from chiefdom to chiefdom and that of the Niger Delta where incorporation in most cases was by treaty. Which of these two parts should actually lose its resources to the successor Nigeria state?


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