Africa’s Messy Post-Colonial Era Resonates Today, Historian Toyin Falola Says
When Toyin Falola was a teenager, he dropped out of high school to join the first major peasant rebellion in post-colonial Africa. The two-year Agbekoya conflict in southwest Nigeria claimed the life of his grandfather, and by the time Falola entered college, the riots shaped everything.
“Because I had gone to school, I said why would I not be the chronicler of this event?” Falola told KGOU’s World Views. “That became the driving force, and between then and now I’ve never done any topic that doesn’t have a connection with it.”
He chronicled his time in the rebellion in his 2014 book Counting The Tiger’s Teeth. He’s also published a memoir of his childhood, which Falola says is about the intersections of time and tradition during a period of transition in Africa. Britain’s colonial rule was coming to an end, and West Africa struggled with identity as many new nations were drawn along seemingly arbitrary lines.
“Those colonial boundaries created new notions of citizenship – Nigerians, Ghanans,” Falola said. “But bear in mind, everywhere – including the U.S. – notions of citizenship, those notions are always contested.”
Couple that tension with ethnic and religious factors, and then add a final variable – money – from Nigeria’s rich energy reserves, and you get a powder keg.
“You have what you also have in the U.S. now – class division in which a few people benefit from access to oil money, become mostly wealthy, and leave behind the majority of the population in poverty,” Falola said. “These divisions are manifested in various kinds of violence and conflict. In the southeast, the Niger delta, you have constant rebellions attacking oil companies.”
Falola says the current migrant crisis as millions of refugees leave war-torn Syria and Iraq has overshadowed internal migration within Africa. That has economic implications.
“I’m Yoruba. You can go to Accra and speak Yoruba on the streets because there are so many Nigerians there,” Falola said. “Nigeria has displaced the UK as Ghana’s second trading partner.”
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REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Dr. Toyin Falola, welcome to World Views.
TOYIN FALOLA: Thank you very much.
CRUISE: Now, you have been given maybe an honorary title as the "Grand Historian of Africa," which is quote the title. And I thought maybe we would start today by talking a little bit about your own personal path. Your decisions that got you here. And I'm curious why you have chosen to study history. What is it about history that intrigues you, and led you in this direction? I understand that you were actually interested in science when you were younger, and now find yourself the "Grand Historian of Africa."
FALOLA: Thank you. Actually, I was programmed to be a medical doctor...
CRUISE: Oh, a medical doctor!
FALOLA: ...which I didn't do. As a teenager I dropped out of high school to join the first major peasant rebellion in post-colonial Africa, in southwest Nigeria. Which lasted two years. I just released a memoir about that. And in the process many people died, including my grandfather. So when I was in college, that experience kept coming back. And because I had gone to school, and I said why would I not be the chronicler of this event?
CRUISE: Because you had witnessed...
FALOLA: Because I was a participant. I was part of it. And that became the driving force. And between then and now I've never done any topic that I don't have a connection with it. So all the books I write, there's always one connection.
CRUISE: It's part of yourself that the history that you're sharing with the greater audience. That's wonderful. And you have released a memoir a couple of years ago. A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt. Which, I love the name. I wonder what that comes from. Why did you choose that name?
FALOLA: Well, it's a proverb. It's a Yoruba proverb. That you have the capacity as an orator. But bear in mind that capacity is within our reality. What we might say is a written test. But I try to balance it in the written test, using the concept of moonlight stories as I did that memoir. There are two memoirs now. The one you just evoked covered my childhood years before the age of 12. And then the second one, Counting the Tiger's Teeth - you know that's impossible (laughs) - covers the years when I was 16 and 17.
CRUISE: The time during the rebellion.
FALOLA: Yes, during the rebellion. And I'm currently writing another one. The Agony of Friendship.
CRUISE: The Agony of Friendship? And that will cover...?
FALOLA: That will cover, it's my "mad" book. People who have disappointed me and those I have also disappointed (laughs).
CRUISE: Well, maybe go back to the early one. You grew up in Nigeria, obviously. What are some of the memories that you share in that beautiful book about your childhood, and I imagine things have changed quite a bit since then.
FALOLA: A lot. And actually, it's about intersections in time, in generation, in tradition, in culture. It covered the period of the 1950s and 60s. The period when the British were packing their luggage to leave the county. So the country was in a flux, and the memoir captured that. Should you, as a [unintelligible] restore your past, and use your past? Should you, if you want to get married, should you take the monogamous or polygamous option? What options were there? Do you need to go to school to make a living? Because a majority of the people were not going to school. Actually, in my elementary school only 12 boys went to high school. If you didn't go to school, it wasn't a disadvantage. It was to be successful as a carpenter or a plumber or a bricklayer. Should you speak your language or speak English? What kind of food should you eat? Why do you want to eat British food? Which they eventually rejected.
CRUISE: So it's these identity questions that come about during this period.
FALOLA: Yes, and that was what I was witnessing. And subsequently, as with all post-colonial states, many of these issues became resolved via violence. The country engaged in a civil war within the very decade that the British left. So there were very difficult issues to resolve. And the memoir was able to capture many of those tensions at various levels.
CRUISE: Is it somehow cathartic as well to work through some of your experiences by putting it on the written page and sharing it?
FALOLA: Especially ruptures within families, which was sometimes very painful to recount.
CRUISE: In your opinion, was your violence...was it going to happen? Was it inevitable from these identity questions that were arising? Or were there other paths?
FALOLA: Yes. In the last chapter I began to gesture toward that. That how do you resolve many of these tensions? Because the ecumenic values are not developed to manage them. Cultures were being contested. Should you become a Christian, now what does that mean? It means you abandon your gods and goddesses. [Unintelligible]. If you become a Christian, then you begin to say, well, I don't believe in Shango anymore. As you become a Muslim, and there are Muslims in my family as well. So within the same household you can have three people doing different religions. There were no conflicts then, but the conflicts came later, actually. Today, now Christians and Muslims keep fighting. Both of them attack what they call paganism and things like that. But those foundations are beginning to unfold in the 60s.
CRUISE: And bringing it up to the current day, you mentioned that these tensions still exist. And maybe you explain that. There's the religious aspect. There's an ethnic aspect, and a geographic aspect. And then you throw oil into the mix in Nigeria. How does that all play, and how has the last 50-60 years kind of gotten us to where we are today? Where we're hearing stories of an organization like Boko Haram, who is maybe taking advantage of these tensions?
FALOLA: Well, the foundation of modern Nigeria is with the foundation of many African states - lied in colonial encounters. Africans did not say they wanted the modern countries of Ghana and Nigeria. They just cobbled them together. And in cobbling them together they've done severe damages. Created states that superimpose the previous nations. And the states, until now, have not become nation-states. So all this division keep it magnified. Ethnic divisions. And then you now have what you also have in the U.S. now. Class division in which a few people benefit from access to oil money becoming mostly wealthy, leaving behind the majority of the population in poverty, which is creating its own problem. But these divisions are manifested in various kinds of violence and conflict. In the southeast, the Niger delta, you have constant rebellions attacking oil companies.
CRUISE: And that is where most of the oil companies are.
FALOLA: They are minority population. And they're using their money to run the country. And they're not happy about that. Then you have above them, the Igbo area, a lot of kidnapping. Many of your listeners may not know about this, that kidnapping is a lucrative business in which you just grab one person, and you seek ransom. We just made the place very deadly in terms of negotiations, because they kidnap you and say go bring $10 million. And then you have in the northeast Boko Haram. Which is a use of Islam to register protest. But it has gotten out of hand because in the last 10 years, there have been over one million displaced people. So displaced populations. And then you have about 50,000 people who have been killed. And the military, for 10 years, has been unable to check them. And they just recorded a few successes in the last couple of months. Is lingering. But that lingering of Boko Haram is tied to a number of other issues don't talk about. Issues of the environment and global warming. People don't talk about that. The area of Lake Chad - the water has been receding. Grains are falling in short supply, and that has not only increased poverty levels, it has accentuated it in three countries - Cameroon, Nigeria, and Niger. And also in Chad. People do not link, they don't connect these to the impact of the environment.
CRUISE: So it's a resource struggle as well. But that resource is water.
FALOLA: And then there is this trouble of transluminence that people don't talk about. And why they miss that is just for sheer ignorance. What happens is, those colonial boundaries created new notions of citizenship. Nigerians, Ghanans. But bear in mind, everywhere, including the U.S. notions of citizenship, those notions are always contested. But complicating the contestation in the case of Africa, what we used to call pastoralists, those who relied on the animals for a living. They develop a different notion of property. In fact, property does not exist in their language. They do not tie themselves down to a specific place. So they just follow grazing and grass. So that's why they are translumens. They move like the bats. They move like the bugs, migrating bugs. So what those boundaries did is to say, 'Look, you can't move anymore. You have to stay in one place.' And whenever you have pastoralists, you don't ask them to move. It will always unleash violence. Because they must move. You find it among the Kalenjin in Kenya, where the Kikuyu took over their grazing land and relocated them elsewhere, amid a lot of violence. Today you have the Fulani herdsmen. They call them Fulani herdsmen in West Africa with AK-47s. Because when you pin them down in one location, they and their cattle will die. Because they follow the environment as grass grows in various places.
CRUISE: So it's part of their culture, but it's also their livelihood and their economy.
FALOLA: But we're not talking about thousands of people, we're talking about millions of people. So you have a crisis in east Africa over this. You have crisis in the entirety of West Africa over this. Because part of the people you call Boko Haram, not all of them are actually Nigerians. Thousands and thousands of them move from Burkina Faso, from Niger, from other countries to move to Nigeria. They have no postal code, no address. So ultimately, the state began to contract the mediation of economic issues to the police. That's a mistake. You have to contract the mediation to development. Because if you contract the policing of your citizens to the police, the only answer that its citizens will offer you will be violence.
CRUISE: As power is up for grabs.
FALOLA: Yes, yes. They want to fight. So there are so many dimensions of this crisis. But they're framing it as Islamic. But it's bigger than that. Much, much bigger than that.
CRUISE: And these displaced persons, as you mentioned, particularly from Nigeria, they're displaced within the region, but there's also been patterns of immigration or emigration elsewhere. What do we know about Nigerian immigrants here, either recently or historically?
FALOLA: It's very big, actually. The percentage of Africans coming to the U.S. has been increasing.
CRUISE: Because of the violence and tension?
FALOLA: No, just because of so many reasons. Actually, where they're doing the violence, they don't migrate.
CRUISE: They don't have the ability to?
FALOLA: Part of the [unintelligible] of migration is a consequence of poverty. That's not what [unintelligible] says. It is people with resources that leave.
CRUISE: Have the money to leave.
FALOLA: Yes. So not just Nigeria, they actually don't come to the U.S. They do their own internal migration. The bulk of the people who come to the U.S. tend to be secular. They've received western education. They have credentials to work. African immigrants are the highest educated people in the cluster of foreign migrants in the U.S. So these are very mobile, well-trained people with enormous amounts of culture capital who come here. And that's why they've been able to insert themselves.
CRUISE: Insert and contribute greatly, too.
FALOLA: There's no major American university or hospital that you won't find Africans. The Nigerian Pharmacists Association has 6,000 members. Just to tell you how substantial this is.
CRUISE: And very interesting that dichotomy between the wealthy that leave and the poor that migrate but stay internally or in that region. Very, very interesting.
FALOLA: That the migration, that the bulk of it is to the west, that's not correct. Two million Egyptians migrate every year to Arab countries. Internal migration within Africa is much, much higher actually. You find after 1994, the collapse of apartheid, millions of people southern Africa - Malawi, Zimbabwe, they live in Pretoria, [unintelligible], which has unleashed some xenophobia in that part of the world. You have many, a lot of internal movement within West Africa. I'm Yoruba. You can go to Accra and speak Yoruba on the streets because there are so many Nigerians there. Nigeria has displaced the UK as Ghana's second trading partner. You have people going as far as Gambia. Nigeria is going to [unintelligible] Central Africa. So while we tend to overlook the extensive nature of that internal migrations in Africa, Boutros-Ghali, who died recently, when he lost the bid for the second term as the UN Secretary-General, he created an Afro-Arab summit, and it was gracious to include me as a member. In which as we began to notice, this trend - in lighter number - oil-rich countries - Qatar, Dubai, Libya - they rely on thousands and thousands of migrant workers. Palestinians, Eritreans, people from the Sahara Desert. There were no mechanisms in place to protect them or grant them citizenship. But [unintelligible]. Qatar, if you're a Qatari citizen they give you a check. You don't have to work. To get by, they give you a check. But they need domestic servants. They need people to clean their streets. They're able to recruit Palestinians and people from other, in the case of Gadhafi, building his formidable army of migrants. Avoiding Libyans themselves to maintain his power base.
CRUISE: Absolutely, and I have witnessed that personally in Dubai for sure. Well unfortunately, we are out of time. But thank you so, so much for sharing your personal experiences with us.
FALOLA: It's been a pleasure, and I hope to come back some other time.
CRUISE: Well, we hope to have you. Thank you.
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