Historian and author of ‘Nigeria’s March to The Gallows: Nigeria, South Sudan and the False Security of Secession’, Gbọláhàn Adébíyì, writes like a baker: ‘while researching and writing is rigorous, the joys of the rigour are in the eventual publishing, a properly-baked cake—between writer and editor—to share with all.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Growing up, there were no children literature books lying around for reading nor were any such books read to my inquisitive ears. My childhood was full of solitude and playfulness as my parents struggled to make ends meet. So, instead of being surrounded by stacks of books, I was surrounded by old furniture.
In primary school, I read tales like ‘The Bell and The Cat’ and ‘The Dark Continent’ in a book series titled Your Mastery of English.
I never saw or visited a library until I was eleven years old, and this was during my first year in secondary school. At this point, my reading became quite extensive but limited to the secondary school/WAEC syllabus. Alongside my classmates, I devoured texts like D. Olu Olagoke’s The Incorruptible Judge,’ Ifeanyi Ifeogbuna’s A Woman of Substance, Femi Osofisan’s Women of Owu, Asare Kanadu’s A Woman in Her Prime, Kobina Sekyi’s The Blinkards, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, and George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man.
I also read poetry. John Donne’s ‘Death Be Not Proud’ and Sola Owonibi’s ‘Homeless Not Hopeless’ have left on me the strongest mark—a quiet and calm demeanour regarding death and life. All these texts, though read more than a decade ago, continue to shape my thought patterns and, in a way, have influenced my literary writings.
In recent years, my reading segued into some classics: Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Femi Osofisan’s Esu and the Vagabond Minstrels, and Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man…
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
That would be John Campbell’s book, Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink.
Campbell claims that the lingua franca of the pre-independence Sokoto Caliphate was Hausa-Fulani and that the largest ethnic groups are still the Hausa-Fulani. In my opinion, such hyphenated identity construct ‘Hausa-Fulani’ in that context is awful, and disappointingly, I found no reference for that claim.
While we can’t dispute the fact that the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate, following Fulani Jihād, propagated Hausa as the lingua franca in some regions of northern Nigeria, it’s important to note that Hausa had been the lingua franca in these regions before the Fulani Jihād of 1804.
My disagreement with ‘Hausa-Fulani’ stems from using Fulani as the main nominal qualified with ‘Hausa’. Such hyphenated identity construct, ‘Hausa-Fulani’, presents Fulani as host community while positioning Hausa as occupant, an appendage, despite Hausa language existing before Fulani Jihād of 1804 and predominating as the lingua franca in regions that later became part of northern Nigeria today. Besides, regarding population in northern Nigeria, Hausas outnumber Fulanis. Hausas are widespread in West Africa as a result of trade, whereas Fulanis, also widespread (but across three regions in Africa), have been a nomadic people.
In Nigeria, the Hausa are the largest ethnic group, and this is the more reason why its language already dominated within the pre-independence Sokoto Caliphate. Back then, Hausa served as language of commerce and administration while Arabic echoed in Koranic schools and mosques as language of instruction and worship respectively.
Fulfulde is the language of the Fulanis. Perhaps word-borrowing from Fulfulde into Hausa has enabled Campbell’s claim, but that would be a weak premise to build such use on. Yorùbá language has borrowed some words from English language. Should we start using the term ‘Yoruba-English’?
To then use this identity construct ‘Hausa-Fulani’ (instead of just ‘Hausa’) to represent the lingua franca of many parts of northern Nigeria is indefensible historically, since the Hausa language and the Hausa people in their numerous numbers still survive Fulani Jihād frontliners who replaced the Hausa political elite since 1804.
I never saw or visited a library until I was eleven years old, and this was during my first year in secondary school.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
That would be the Qur’an which I read up to a sūrahs on Abraham. I remember that, before plunging into the pages of the book, the introduction written by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem implored me to always put the sūrahs and the āyāt in context for better understanding. His advice was relatable because my studying history has stressed ‘context’ as one of the principles of historical process and thinking. Undoubtedly, the history of Islam is replete with jihāds, though not excluding the Crusades of Christianity; putting the Qur’an in the context of time and space, therefore, enabled me to see Islam in a new light. To understand Islam is to situate one’s study of the Qur’an in the times of Prophet Muhammed (S.A.W.)
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
It depends really. If I have pending deadlines, I edit as I write. But if there are no deadlines, I draft, then edit. I do the latter often for personal publishing. Still, it goes both ways for me.
What was your process for writing ‘Nigeria’s March to The Gallows: Nigeria, South Sudan and the FalseSecurity of Secession’?
Well. It was at first a draft with a clear abstract, but the draft itself was full of weak arguments and muddled thoughts, all disjointed and confusing for the most part.
When my editor pointed out these inadequacies, I had to get down to building up my arguments with precision, focusing on the coherence of paragraphs and use of clear language.
I must confess that while researching and writing is rigorous, the joys of the rigour are in the eventual publishing, a properly-baked cake—between writer and editor—to share with all.
John Donne’s Death Be Not Proud and Sola Owonibi’s Homeless Not Hopeless have left on me the strongest mark—a quiet and calm demeanour regarding death and life.
And in what ways has the need to restructure Nigeria changed or evolved since the essay?
There’s been increase in sufferings on the streets. On the faces of workers, small business owners, some I personally know and some I see on transit day in day out, I see frustration and anger in their eyes.
For the hopefuls who see the 2023 elections as an opportunity for Nigeria to get things right, calls for restructuring, though they appear to be less chorused, are at the basis of their support for Peter Obi, their favourite among the presidential candidates. Many times, I ask myself, are we demanding too much by wanting an enabling and equitable society?
To answer your question, the need to restructure Nigeria has not changed a bit. In fact, if it has even evolved, it is only becoming more urgent that the country be restructured, whether or not the distinguished technocrat, Obi, wins.
What do you think is missing or under-discussed in current conversations about the upcoming presidential election?
I think our conversations should cover both national and local elections because all politics is local. However, given the ‘pride of place’ of an interesting document called the 1999 Constitution, it is understandable why all the attention is on the over-powerful presidential office.
This brings us back again to restructuring which is not talked about enough. But then, is it just about talking? The Buhari-led administration rode into presidential office in 2015 on promises of restructuring and disappointed spectacularly- hastening Nigeria’s march to the gallows. What could still rescue the country from its march would be the restructuring of Nigeria towards an enabling and equitable republic. So, what else is there to say that hasn’t already been said?
If anything else, I would suggest conversations shift to how all votes can be transmitted and recorded electronically only, and that we start to discuss why live coverage of all collation centres is necessary.
Your work centres on African foreign affairs. What is one thing you would change about the way history is documented in Nigeria?
Documenting history in Nigeria can be laborious given the poor state of historical documents at the national archives. Local and foreign researchers undergo stress finding sources indicated as available on the register. It is embarrassing that our country still uses paper documentation in the twenty-first century. Over-dependence on the old practice of preserving historical documents in paper is dangerous.
In terms of what I would change, I would upgrade our national archives to modern paper-preservation technology and introduce digital archiving of historical documents to make these documents easily accessible online from anywhere in Nigeria and the world.
Many times, I ask myself, are we demanding too much by wanting an enabling and equitable society?
And what’s one thing you wish more people understood about the challenges of documenting history in Nigeria?
There are little to no research funds available for Nigerian researchers. Even to access the little that’s available, one has to go through bottlenecks. Compared to their Western counterparts and even some Nigerian scholars who have moved to Western countries for greener pastures, Nigerian-based scholars are consistently out-published and out-funded.
Despite the reintroduction of history to primary and secondary school curriculum, the number of Nigerian historians documenting history is likely to keep falling. It is also glaring that the West will continue to dominate historical knowledge production in Nigeria, even in Africa, for a long time, given the availability of numerous research funds, grants, bonuses, and incentives in the West.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I have not received any on a one-on-one or group basis. However, I’ve read many on The Republic’s First Draft series, and one of them has stayed with me till now and will stay with me till death.
It was the advice from Tope Folarin’s First Draft that goes ‘Always call yourself a writer.’ I received the instruction warmly. I had to update my bio, intentionally making ‘writer’ come first. And I must add that to be called a writer is to be called to clarity. And if one must turn writing to work, one must read and one must write.
Who’s an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
Shashi Tharoor. He has written several books, among which my favourite is Why I Am a Hindu.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)?
They are many. Among them are:
Saheed Aderinto. He’s been breaking the conventional way of writing history in Nigeria. Historical research of old has been overly compartmentalized, but his scholarship is one of several others that is using an inter-disciplinary approach to historical research, making history richer in output and easily relatable to modern readers: in effect, solidifying history among academic disciplines relevant for modern/post-modern times. I do admire his courage in researching into subjects like ‘childhood,’ ‘animality,’ ‘sex’ and ‘guns’ particularly, in colonial Nigeria, thereby shifting frontiers of historical research to under-researched/so-called sensitive topics. When Sex Threatened the State—a fascinating title—and Animality and Colonial Subjecthood in Africa, his latest work, are part of the books I’ve catalogued for reading before this year runs out.
The next author would be Max Siollun. Attesting to Siollun’s rigour in research writing is the frequency in which one of his books, Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture is cited in footnotes. This book together with his latest book What Britain Did to Nigeria: A Short History of Conquest and Rule are also part of my reading list before this year runs out.
Frantz Fanon. I call him a revolutionary writer. He wrote one of the bibles every African historian should study and have on the shelf. Most parts of Africa may seem to have moved on from what he postulated in The Wretched of the Earth, however, no matter how long it takes, Africa will have to purge itself of some colonial intoxicants and force the world to see (not acknowledge) but to see its humanism.
F. Ade Ajayi. He authored a book that is authoritative regarding church history in Nigeria, Christian Missions in Nigeria: The Making of a New Elite. Ajayi and Kenneth Dike blazed a trail in African historiography. Ajayi was said to have mandated, before his demise, that his private library remain open free of charge to students and researchers.
To be called a writer is to be called to clarity. And if one must turn writing to work, one must read and one must write.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
It’s been fascinating to examine Nigeria’s religiosity within the framework of Nigerian history. Olufemi Vaughan’s Religion and the Making of Nigeria rides into the heart of the topic gallantly.
Charles Ekpo’s ‘Nigeria: The Paradox of A Secular State’ is an interesting journal article that argued for the theocratic diarchy of Nigeria against the country’s pretence as a secular state. I was convinced at once because of the noticeable role religion plays in the nooks and crannies of the Nigerian life.
I also find Alhassan Pereira Ibrahim’s ‘The God of Colonization’ to be an impressive piece. Not forgetting Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth which would influence my writing of a revolution series.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on an oral history project that focuses on how and why atheism has been on the rise (quietly) in Nigeria.
Question from Zainab Omaki: If you could meet any author living or dead, who would it be and why?
That would be Wole Soyinka.
In his memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn, Wole Soyinka explained how and why he turned down the offer to become president of Nigeria. If I could meet him? I don’t intend to make trouble really. He’s old. So, if I could meet him, I would like to have a robust discussion around why he aborted that (in my opinion) promising chapter of Nigerian history.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
Do you listen to music? What genre(s) of music do you like (and why)?⎈
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