Nigeria is presented as an artificial entity in Quramo Productions’ “The Journey of an African Colony” the new feature-length documentary adapted from Olasupo Shasore’s books Possession and A Platter of Gold.
Shasore is also the narrator of the documentary.
Of course, you could argue that many countries are artificial, that it is in the very nature of countries to be artificial—but ours is an entity created by both outsiders and insiders in a way that the story, somehow, has never really been told to the people who have inherited the collection of lands now called Nigeria.
Until now that is.
“The Journey of an African Colony” covers decades of Nigeria’s history and unless you have had the time to wade through a plethora of sources, you are likely to come away with new information concerning this big, complex place. If you have wondered how a group of outsiders came into a new land and subjugated a series of cultures, the answer is an easy one: the ruling class were never really united.
To take one example, and it is an instructive one for those who believe the colonisers dreamed up and hatched a plan of colonisation wholly on their own, the feud between the Yoruba kings and brothers Akintoye and Kosoko was just as important to the capture of Lagos by the Brits as the British strategy of bringing the north and the south together to favour Great Britain’s economic pursuit. There’s an argument to be made as to how the latter might have been futile without the former. And if a theme emerges from the pre-Independence episodes of the documentary, it is that although there were wars aimed at conquering portions of Africa, partisan deals were just as many.
It just so happens that the wars have been covered a lot more than the deals. This is understandable: wars are bloodily electric; deals hold a lot less spectacle. As a historian, though, Shasore sees how both were necessary in creating Nigeria.
In his cool but emphatic telling, such figures as Oba Ovonramwen and Jaja of Opobo are shown to be a lot more complex than we have been led to believe by the purely heroic narratives now surrounding their lives. He peels back the goody-goody layers of those venerated men to show these were practical men who made unwitting mistakes on behalf of their people and themselves.
The famous Benin king is referred to as a “client” of the English queen—she protected his kingdom from other European powers. “Client” is a harmless word; it just happens to be a strange word for a king whose most popular action in the Nigerian mind was stubbornness. Jaja, on the other hand, has a story not unlike the one of Ken Saro Wiwa—at least the Saro Wiwa captured by Adewale Maja-Pearce in an infamous essay.
Wiwa and Jaja, although born centuries apart, appear to have similar psychological composition and ran into trouble in the same manner: They ran afoul of former friends and partners who held too much power. They were safe as friends to power. Once the balance shifted, they were imperilled.
But it is not just figures on the side of the colonised that are unmasked. In fact, the most unmasking is done on Lord Lugard, a man who has not received the widespread condemnation that his actions deserve.
I attended secondary school in Lokoja, a place still hosting Lugard’s footprints and if memory serves me right, the Englishman was more venerated than scorned in 1990s Lokoja. Shasore goes on Mount Patti to visit a tourist sight claimed to have hosted Lugard and his wife, the former Miss Shaw. After speaking about the man, Shasore says, Lugard “was not a hero”.
Well, that’s damning his devilry with politesse. In short: Lugard was a beast. There isn’t any other way of looking at his activities without coming to that conclusion. Even his country branded him a failure and was displeased with his manner and methods. In bringing the northern and southern protectorates together, Lord Lugard showed himself a bloodthirsty savage, chasing the Attahiru to his death with a maxim gun even after the northern king’s initial defeat. How is it that Lugard has survived as a person worthy of honour in this country?
Perhaps this is the fate of a people with a troubled relationship to history.
For Shasore, the way to capture the bulk of that history is to tell the many stories that come together to form the Nigerian narrative. He splits the stories into several parts, each being a capsule history of certain events. We go back and forth in time and this way and that geographically. The result is a peculiar chronology, altogether unavoidable for a project with so wide a scope and so tall an ambition.
Much of the ground covered is derived from the aforementioned books and part of the challenge for Shasore must have come in the selection of location for the telling of the many stories that formed Nigeria. It is a challenge he meets with subtle aplomb. Each place he goes to sees him immaculately dressed, dignified and distinctly patrician—you could say he is everything the history he is telling us isn’t. The history is his, too, but Shasore is never overwhelmed by the sanguinary nature of the story of his country. His assuredness and manner recalls Ali Mazrui, the scholar who presented the 1986 BBC/NTA programme The Africans: A Triple Heritage. (Mazrui also wrote and narrated his documentary.)
Shasore’s excellence is part of a whole that mostly never drags as historical documentaries without recreated scenes are wont to be. The competent handling of sound design by Kulanen Ikyo and the cinematography by Ola Cardoso could belong to regular cinematic fare without compromise. And without the burden of presenting an utter fiction to viewers, BB Shasore, the director here and of such films as Banana Island Ghost and God Calling, has done what is surely his best work behind the camera. The project clearly calls for seriousness and it is remarkable how well the filmmaking crew and their narrator meet that call.
As part of a longer work, “The Journey of an African Colony” doesn’t purport to have an answer to the perennial question—Should Nigeria stay together?—but it gives sufficient facts regardless of where you stand on the debate. Does the bloody incident at Iva Valley and the death of several miners mean that we need to stay together so that their lives have meaning? You decide.
But maybe Shasore is an advocate for remaining as one country in how much he saves his own barbed remarks for the colonisers. His documentary refrains from making any ethnic group villainous—a task that, given the many bigots in Nigerian history, should be easy-peasy for anyone with an ethnic agenda.
There is certainly a lot that is good about “The Journey of an African Colony”, but this striving for historical objectivity is its best quality. It should be seen.
“The Journey of an African Colony” will be screened at the Qfest holding in lagos from December 13 – 15, 2019.