Urhobo Historical Society

 Usman, Ekeh And The Urhobo "Nation"

By Sanusi Lamido Sanusi
Assitant General Manager
 United Bank for Africa Plc
57 Marina, Lagos

On 17th April 2001, Dr Yusufu Bala Usman, firebrand northern intellectual, presented a paper in Kano entitled "Ignorance, Knowledge and Democratic Politics in Nigeria". The paper was posted on various Internet web-sites and published in several national dailies and weeklies including the Guardian. Possibly because the writer had focussed his criticism on the Chairman of the Editorial Board of the Guardian, Dr. G. G. Darah, the newspaper almost gloatingly published several rejoinders attacking Bala Usman's position and personality, often going far beyond the immediate issues raised in his paper. 

It is not my intention to respond to all the critics of Bala Usman nor even put up a defence of his premises. What interests me here is the rejoinder to Usman written by Professor Peter Ekeh, by far the most prominent intellectual among the critics, entitled "The Mischief of History: Bala Usman's unmaking of Nigerian History". I aim to achieve three things in this write up.

In the first instance, I intend to show that Peter Ekeh (whom I select as representative of the whole group of critics) deliberately distorted the brilliant points made by Bala Usman. He chose to construct a caricature of what I will call the "Usmanian thesis" and then attack his own fabrication.

In the second instance, and this is the core of the paper, I will establish that the point made by Bala Usman which is that the "Urhobo nation", the "Igbo nation", the Yoruba "race", the "Hausa-Fulani" etc as national groups were a product of colonialism was exactly the point made by Professor Ekeh two decades ago. This was in his paper, "Colonialism and Social Structure" which was an inaugural lecture delivered at the University of Ibadan on Thursday 5th June, 1980 on the occasion of his becoming a Professor of Political Science. I will quote freely from his critique of Usman in "the Mischief of History" and his position in "Colonialism and Social Structure" to expose the intellectual dishonesty of our academics and the moral bankruptcy of so called "erudite scholars". Peter Ekeh has committed intellectual suicide.

In the third instance, I will proffer an explanation for the perplexing volte-face of Peter Ekeh. In brief I will show that the development is a sad reflection of the "tribalization" of a hitherto towering intellect.

The first point in our discourse is to make a distinction between what Bala Usman said and what his critics attribute to him. It is clear to all objective readers that although in the paper under consideration Bala Usman made an example of G. G. Darah and the Urhobo nation, this was a specific case of a general pattern of misrepresentation of Nigerian history encompassing all groups. To quote him: "It is the Yoruba race, the Ijaw nation, the Igbo nation, the Hausa-Fulani nation etc who are said to be the original building blocks which are said to have agreed to come together to form Nigeria".It is this myth which Bala Usman challenges, a myth promoted by "racist and fascist" ethnic and religious organizations, which claim that "Nigeria is made up of ethnic, regional and religious groups which are monolithic and all those who belong to them have a common interest…." It is therefore patently untrue and mischievous for Professor Ekeh to claim as he did in his rejoinder that to Bala the Hausa, Fulani and Kanuri had history but "the rest of us had no history before the British arrived". Bala Usman's grouse is not with one ethnic group or another but with fascist and undemocratic elements who divide Nigerian people on the grounds of a contingent, socially constructed ethnic and religious consciousness which camouflages fundamental distortions and conflicting interests within these so-called homogeneous groups. In his other publication, "The misrepresentation of Nigeria" (which Professor Ekeh liberally quoted from), Dr Usman had given examples from Hausaland, Yorubaland and Igboland to show that groups like Arewa Consultative Forum, Afenifere or Ohanaeze, which claim to represent some identity groups with a coherent and monolithic existence prior to colonialism are frauds. "Arewa", "Yoruba" and "Igbo" as understood in present-day Nigeria, are products of colonialism. More on this later.

The second distortion of Bala's message is more serious. His critics suggest that he argues that the Urhobos or the Igbos and Yorubas had no history in the sense of being non-existent before colonialism. This particular falsehood is laughable because the claim itself is an epitome of insipidity. Dr. Usman never suggested that colonialists "created" Urhobos or Yorubas or Hausa-Fulanis the way Muslims and Christians for instance believe God created Adam. One is therefore amused at the extent some critics went to dig up any mention of words like "sobo" (meaning Urhobo) and "Yoruba" before colonialism. Certainly there were human beings called Yoruba or Hausa who spoke those languages before colonialism. The point is not this but that the existence of the Yoruba or the Hausa or the Urhobo as a cohesive ethnic group was the product of colonial intervention in the territories they inhabited which became known as Nigeria. 

Let me now move to the second point of discourse which, as I said, is the main point of this write up. The point made by Bala Usman, for which Peter Ekeh castigated him as a man undertaking a "campaign aimed at undermining the autonomy of the history of Nigerian ethnic nationalities" through "intellectual mischief making" and the use of a "defective methodology of history", is exactly the one made by Professor Ekeh in his University of Ibadan lecture in 1980. Peter Ekeh is adamant that Bala Usman has exaggerated the role of colonialism in the formation of Nigerian nationalities. Bala is said to belong to the "Trevor - Roper school of history" which strives to invent the "illusion that all pre-imperial times were also pre-historical". To make his point that Bala is nothing but an imperialist historian recruited by Abuja in its "struggles against the Nigerian Nation (sic)", Professor Ekeh makes the following bold assertion: "The ethnic composition of the Western Niger Delta has not changed since the Portuguese made their first voyage….. more than five centuries ago". 

Now let us go back to Professor Ekeh's paper 'Colonialism and Social Structure' and see what he had to say. Ekeh's inaugural lecture, to quote him, "questions the tenets of the most illustrious and consolidated body of scholarship in this land, the Ibadan school of history". The school's laudable effort to counteract the "imperialist motivated" misrepresentation of Africa had sadly led to "the conscious and deliberate running down of the significance of colonialism in Africa". Ekeh summarizes his disagreement with the Ibadan school thus: "It sees colonialism as an episode and not, as I argue, an epoch".

Permit me to further quote the learned Professor speaking in 1980:

"With the benefit of hindsight and of time-distance from the colonial situation, future social historians will clearly see that the colonial period is unmatched in our history in the growth and development of institutions, constructs and social processes. In their model forms they constitute what I refer to as social structures."

The reader would be forgiven for imagining that Professor Ekeh was also infected by the "Trevor-Roper syndrome". But this is just the beginning. Professor Ekeh is pained that Bala Usman, a man who has self consciously worn the progressive label all of his life, (should) end up as a disciple of imperialist historian Trevor-Roper." He specifically quotes Bala Usman's assertion that nothing like a Yoruba "Race" exists, and that even based on the works of Kenneth Dike the "Igbo nation" also did not exist before colonialism. These nationalities and others, according to Bala "came to be formed in the course of the formation of Nigeria in the 19th and 20th centuries." Professor Ekeh says Kenneth Dike will "probably…. turn in his grave" at these words. Bala Usman merely "picks sentences and fragments of paragraphs" from the works of scholars dead and alive to support his warped thesis. His essay was nothing but "an exercise in insults and ridicule of a whole ethnic group … viewed as representative of the Niger Delta".

The best response is to quote at length once more from Professor Ekeh's inaugural lecture. The learned Professor says:

"Let me give the example of ethnic groups as emergent social structures. In pre-colonial Africa, the dominant form of social organization consisted of tribal societies which were geographically defined and in which persons found their total existence. With colonialism, the integrity of tribal societies was destroyed. Popular views to the contrary, these tribal societies were not replaced case by case with ethnic groups. In many instances what resulted were ethnic groups that are compositions of several tribal entities. By 1820 an Ekiti man would have been astounded if he were called a "Yoruba man" whom he understood, if he was so knowledgeable, as a man from Oyo. In any case, an Ekiti would probably need an interpreter in order to communicate effectively with a Yoruba man in 1820. Eluwa, the secretary of the Ibo State Union, confessed that by the early 1950s he participated in persuading many "Ibos" to accept that they were indeed Ibos. Hausa is a composition of several tribal organizations that found their common relevance in modern Nigeria. Thomas Hodgkin was right when he reminded Biobaku: "Everyone recognizes that the notion of 'being a Nigerian' is a new kind of conception. But it would seem that the notion of 'being a Yoruba' is not very much older." As I contended elsewhere, I would add - I am sure to the amazement of many in this audience -that Nigerian ethnic groups have their socio-political meaning only in terms of the development of Nigeria. As social formations, these ethnic groups are not older than Nigeria."

And now, the coupe de grace on his own Urhobo “nation”:

"Perhaps I should remind you that even before our own eyes some of these social formations of ethnic groups are crumbling. The Ikwerre in Rivers State have, after the civil war rediscovered a new ethnicity separate from the Ibo. Less than thirty years ago, Urhobos and Isokos were the same ethnic group. In the early sixties, following the creation of the Midwest State, there was a separation between the two and so they are now two different ethnic groups."

Compare Professor Ekeh’s last statement above to his revisionist thesis in 2001 that "the ethnic composition of the Western Nigeria-Delta has not changed for over 500 years".

The complete lack of intellectual honesty displayed by Professor Ekeh is now clear to readers. Anyone familiar with Ekeh's decimating attack on the Ibadan School of History would have been taken aback by his brazen volte-face in his criticism of Bala Usman. As an academic Professor Ekeh had two options before him, if he were indeed worthy of the name. The first was to boldly support Bala Usman whose thesis was nothing but a reproduction of the theme of Ekeh's own brilliant 1980 paper. The second was to admit his culpability in the formulation of the "Usmanian thesis" and then publicly renounce his own position of 1980. Professor Ekeh did neither.

In attacking Bala Usman in this manner, the good professor displayed more than intellectual dishonesty. He also displayed the intellectual arrogance of theNigerian intellectual. Ekeh did not imagine, not to talk of expect, that those likely to have sympathy for Bala Usman (theimperialist “sheep and goats” of Nigeria) could even by accident have knowledge of his Ibadan lecture of 1980 and expose his intellectual volte-face. It was this arrogant disregard for our intellect that gave Ekeh the temerity to proceed with his catastrophic blunder. It is a common error, this underestimation of the northern intelligence; a mistake repeatedly made. As they say in Latin, Dum vitant stulti vitia, in contraria currunt (in attempting to avoid mistakes stupid people end up making them). 

I will now briefly make my final point. The information available to Professor Ekeh on pre-colonial and colonial Nigeria did not significantly change between 1980 and 2001. What changed was Professor Ekeh's politics. In 1980, he was a Professor of Political Science with strong nationalist credentials. His paper was motivated, in his own words by "a desire to know, not to control". Indeed underlying the attack on the Ibadan School was a critique of ethnic nationalism and the fraudulent history appropriated by politicians for its legitimation, whether or not in fact this was the intent of the historians. It is possible that Professor Ekeh was never a true nationalist. His bold attack on the Ibadan School of History in 1980, at the height of the power of President Shehu Shagari may have been a service to the government of the day, which was in political alliance with the “Niger-Delta”. Now that the bread is buttered on the side of “resource control” and ethnic nationalism, Ekeh abandons all nationalist pretensions without as much as an apologia to those who became nationalists by reading his works. For who can deny after this article the tremendous influence of Ekeh’s thought in shaping Bala Usman’s conception of Nigerian History and skepticism for undemocratic politics of ethnicity and religion? By 2001, this “nationalist” had been reduced to "Chair, Urhobo Historical Society" and a fighter for "resource control by the Niger-Delta". Indeed, professor Ekeh's rejoinder to Bala was sent to my e-mail by the administrator of nigerdeltacongress.com under the sensational heading "Urhobo leader carpets Bala Usman!"A spontaneous display of triumphalism whose pre-maturity is now apparent.

By becoming a champion of ethnicity (in the name of “nations”), Professor Ekeh has become a willing ideologue for anti-democratic fascistic elements that preach ethnic and religious hatred while cruelly oppressing their masses, and abandoned the noble principles he preached in 1980. Whether it is in the name of religion, region or ethnicity, the Nigerian elite everywhere strives to keep people in perpetual ignorance of their real enemies. To do this it fabricates the myth of monolithic homogeneous groups that predated colonialism to which they wish to return. They ignore the role of colonialism in forging these identities and the need to transcend them and form a truly national identity. Far from abandoning his cloak of progress, Bala Usman has held on to it long after his compatriots from the south jumped ship to become warriors for ethnicity. It is this politics that Bala Usman is fighting and in defence of which Peter Ekeh committed his intellectual suicide.