Dr. Philip Akpen’s book, Infrastructures and Urban Amenities in Colonial Northern Nigeria is an additionally interesting book, coming after Historians are still not sure if there is History in the wake of Hayden White’s dismissal of that possibility. Akpen is interesting to read for three reasons. Hayden White’s reason for denying the possibility of History is that all narratives are performances “in which facts dance according to the drummer’s tunes”. That is how he arrived at his theory that all History is emplotment and not different from what we find in fictional narratives. Akpen would win in any court a charge of emplotment in this book. Even if he were subjective, he handled it so well that objectivity was not pushed to the back. It is not clear which the typical Nigerian Historian would prefer: to be praised for objectivity or to be hailed for reckoning with the impossibility of objectivity in its empiricist, rationalist sense.
The second inviting feature about this book is the facts of the matter. As already indicated, Akpen sets out to show the processes and sequence of infrastructure provisioning in colonial Northern Nigeria. Although he ends up covering more than Northern Nigeria by locating his details in the wider Nigerian and African contexts, he has been adequately faithful to his title. There, the reader finds all the details, particularly the colonial consideration and the sequence in the provision of whichever urban infrastructure considered – railway, water, hospitals, airports and the likes. It is the sort of details that we should all read for the good reason that the details reveal why we are the way we are today. Those who look for and buy Akpen’s book will understand one or two more secrets about each of the major cities in the North: from Bida to Jos, Makurdi to Kaduna, Sokoto to Bauchi and Kano to Maiduguri. Without preempting such readers, they are likely to arrive at the conclusion that Marxist geographer, David Harvey is correct when he says that capitalism works by what he calls the spatial fix. Capitalism is full of turbulent turns. It is a criss – ridden system. But it survives each and every turn, coming out stronger and stronger in terms of bigger profit margins for its key players.
One way it does that is Harvey’s spatial fix argument. Simply put, capitalism fixes itself by shifting space in favour of newer or yet unexplored terrains. In doing so, it escapes being constrained by each particular threat to higher profit margin. Although Harvey developed his argument to explain global capitalism, it is also applicable on a mini-scale such as Nigeria. Thus one can see from Akpen’s book every other town or cities in Nigeria outside Lagos got whatever amenities it got only if incorporating it served to consolidate colonial capitalist logic. That logic was to keep expanding or consolidating Nigeria for capitalism by intruding into newer areas either for administrative reasons or cheaper labour or escape Mosquito bites or control particular raw material(s). The only exception to this would be the interesting case of Lokoja enjoying water supply before Lagos. Akpen tells us that it was because that was Lugard’s operational base.
The last element that makes this an inviting read as far as this reviewer is concerned is the elaborate ensemble of people that participated in the production of the book and the unconscious? statement the listing makes on the social character of knowledge as well as on the degree of national integration in Nigeria, even today. An Igbo family sponsored the author’s university education. A Kogi born professor employed him as a lecturer at Nasarawa State University. A bunch of academics of Nigerian, American and numerous other nationalities made his First degree worth it at Bayero University, Kano. And a Nigerian of Yoruba identity recommended and referenced his application for postdoctoral engagement at the truly prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies – the only social science university focused exclusively on the ‘Third World’. Still on this, there is the list of senior academics he isolates for noting. One is the late Bala Usman, particularly for his statement that contestation of the Nigerian State by any ethnic group lacks basis because the colonialists did not hand back Nigeria as an entity made up of ethnic groups but as a completely new and much more qualitative entity. He then adds Professors Abdullahi Mahdi, George Kwanashie, Enoch Oyedele and Mike Umale Adikwu. While Mahdi, Kwanashie and Oyedele are some of the giants on whose back the Zaria School of History rested as long as it was blazing the trail, Adikwu was the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Abuja who approved leave for the author to go far and wide and conquer History. His seven-book size page ‘Acknowledgment’ tends to even make a stronger statement on two issues of permanent importance: the social character of knowledge production and the high degree of integration of Nigerians than the subject matter of the book.
As Maigani columnist of the now rested New Nigerian used to write, whoever asks a Historian for evidence without getting plenty of that? What this book suggests is if you want evidence on national integration, look for Akpen or one of his types, particularly from the BUK-ABU-UNIJOS axis filled with products of the Zaria School of History and its near emotional concern with national integration. Tragically, these universities as they are today are mere shadows of themselves.
All in all, Akpen’s book is a book for the moment: the Historian’s own way of suggesting that what we have or do not have today has a historical background. And there is no need breaking each other’s heads when we can correct claims of marginalisation by reflecting on how we arrived at a sorry pass. That is, if we have had a dedicated developmental elite who feel embarrassed by the past and are determined to compensate for what was our own ‘the centuries of humiliation’ in the hands of Others.
This is probably what Akpen’s sequel might take on, with particular reference to the late Professor Claude Ake’s capture of the present crisis, several decades ahead of it. Problematizing the African crisis, Ake had turned conventional wisdom upside down and said that the crisis is primarily political, not economic. First of all, he asked the question, “Can people trying to function in a state of siege as is the case with most of our leaders have a development strategy? When we think of development, we are thinking of the objective interests of society and the paradox is that it is often the leaders who are in no position to think of the objective interest of the society.
Ake attributed the inability of our leaders to think for the larger interests of society to the militarization of society and, for him, “The militarization of society is the outcome of the overvaluing of political power and the intense struggle to obtain and keep it. This has transformed politics into warfare. In this competition, every form of force is mobilized and deployed, the winners have the near absolute power and the losers not only forgo power but face a real prospect of losing liberty and even life. As politics changed from reliance on argument to force, its vocabulary has changed and its organization also and, in the circumstances, it is not surprising that where development is pursued at all, its pursuit is full of ambiguities and contradictions.
In other words, the struggle for power has become deterministic and a source of conflict in terms of electoral violence, military coups, ethno-regional and Islamist insurgencies, etc.