Book Review: The History of Nigeria by Toyin Falola

I read The History of Nigeria over a couple of months, allowing me enough time to absorb the interesting facts and information while simultaneously giving me a break from Falola’s stiff writing style. The book is much welcome as there are few histories available about Nigeria.

It covers the history spanning from the ancient till the 1999 transition of power from a military regime to a civilian administration, yet it is no where near comprehensive (there are no comprehensive history books about Nigeria that I know of). In fact, most of the pre-independence history is briefly covered with an occasional mention of a prominent figure or key event. Likewise, the post-independence is not exhaustive or all-encompassing, but is certainly slowed down and delved further into with more detailed analysis of the political and economic factors.

The Early History
Nigeria boasts some ancient tribal kingdoms with a rich history of their own. Everything changed, however, with the arrival of the European powers that setup colonies in Africa. Nigeria was one of the prime locations for the slave trade for a few hundred years after which it became a British protectorate, on January 1, 1901. Ruled as part of the British Empire until it gained independence in October 1, 1960, its raw natural resources were exported to England and then imported as manufactured goods.

While Nigeria’s three main ethnic factions are the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani, there are many more minor ethnic tribes overshadowed by these three major factions. Its borders drawn by the British in 1914 forced all of these tribes to be under one banner. Perhaps the single most prominent event is the discovery of oil in the Niger Delta area, in 1956, since this would later become the greatest blessing and the greatest curse of the country.

These are the main themes explored in the first one-third of the book. Reading the remaining two-thirds of the book helps explain to some extent the chaotic state of affairs. Nigeria is infamous for its corruption and coups d’états. After gaining independence, Nigeria proclaimed itself a republic in 1963 with a Nigerian representing the country rather than the Queen of England. In 1966, a military coup ended the first republic and the first military regime began. This was to become the fate of Nigeria, continuous coups and a couple of failed civilian administrations in between, until 1999.

Courtesy of

The absolute main factor triggering this instability was the continuous presence of ethnic tribal rivalry. If one faction ruled, other factions grumbled. The greatest division though was the north and south, where the north is mainly Islamic (Hausa-Fulani) with pockets of Christianity and the south is mainly Christian with pockets of Muslims. The Islamic north has Shari’a law in many states and has always wanted to enforce this in the south while the south has a secular judiciary. And in the south, there is an east and west division demarcated by the river Niger, where the east is the Igbo and the west is the Yoruba. Spread throughout the country are many minor factions, some with states of their own within these three major divisions. Such clear lines of division are a legacy of the divide-and-rule  principle of the British Empire, which has plagued Nigeria for too long.

With the establishment of an oil industry and an ever increasing shift from an agricultural economy to an oil-based one, oil revenues filled the government coffers and was a source for greed by those longing for quick money. Once in power, the privileges and wealth only made the ruling party more power hungry. Every general that instigated a coup or every civilian leader that took over power, claimed to do so for the benefit of the country, to help the poor and improve the economy. The ruling leader would blame the previous one for ignoring the plight, misery and poverty of the masses and would even blame him of squandering the wealth of the nation. Sweeping reforms, economic development and improved living standards were promised. They were empty promises. Most fell into the same trap: money, power and corruption. Those that did not were either assassinated or grossly mismanaged the economy to the point that they were forced out of power.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

There are recurring subheadings in each chapter (for example, Economics and Politics) which do make it easy to identify the key themes of each time period and give the book a consistent structure. The problem with this format, however, resulted in the facts being presented stiffly and inorganically. The dry tone due to an objective standpoint did not help make the reading process any smoother. Had it not been for my deep interest in the content and the lack of availability of alternative titles (or access to them), I might have abandoned the book or skimmed through just for the key facts.

Interestingly, there were a few minor occasions towards the last chapters where Falola’s voice shone through but this was at the expense of his objectivity. With the undertone of anger running in some passages about Abacha with his tyrannical regime and about the unjust execution of nine activists (which included Ken Saro-Wiwa) and about the misery and abjection of the masses, those were the moments when I connected to the narrative and emotionally resonated to the history of this nation.

I think to make an impact with a non-fiction narrative of history, it is best to have both objectivity and subjectivity. Ultimately, we all form our own opinions, which are shaped by a myriad of factors. To have a book about history that is not a text-book, it is certainly plausible from my perspective for the author’s view to be shared with the readers and his emotions expressed appropriately, provided that the emotions alone are not the sole driving force of the narrative. In this day where creative non-fiction blends the border even further between fiction and non-fiction, a little excitement in a history book would go a long way to engage a reader more fully.

Overall, I would conclude that this is an adequate book of history about Nigeria and until a more comprehensive one is written, it is a good source for understanding the general trend of economics and politics that brought about many different coups and a couple of failed republics. Further useful references include a chronology of key events, a list of notable people with short descriptions (including persons not referred to in the narrative), and a selected bibliography from each chapter. Do not expect an engaging read in terms of style or structure, but do expect an informative one.



4 thoughts on “Book Review: The History of Nigeria by Toyin Falola

  1. Hey Samir,

    Thanks for this detailed and thoughtful review. I’m an Igbo girl living in the US now, and writing a paper about Nigerian history. I realized I knew close to nothing! This seems like a good start though, and I think I will make a point to do some intensive research.


  2. Thanks for the comment, Kate. My interest in Nigeria is that it was my home for over 19 years and all my earliest memories were formed there.

    You raise interesting observations about British school curriculums and their colonial history… I wasn’t ware of this but I’ll definitely look into it.

  3. What sparked your interest in Nigeria? I always think it’s peculiar how the effects of the British Empire are unspoken in British schools. When I was at the World Scout Jamboree in Sweden last year I often found myself surprised at what I learnt through people from countries where they had been under British rule. People asked me about the royal wedding and were horrified that I as a British person had watched less than some of them had on television. What I learnt was that I know nothing of history. I was amazed to find that English is one of the official languages of Uganda and that they have shillings for money.

    I really enjoyed your post. Thanks, Kate.

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