My dear friend Alex Pang brought me an especially charming gift from a recent sojourn in Britain: a late-colonial relic of a bygone time for the benighted land of Nigeria. The map is from early 1960, a twilight time in British rule when the design of independent Nigeria remained a bit of a mystery. The map includes full details of what is today western Cameroon, includng the lovely Anglophone cities of Buea and Bamenda. The British awarded Nigeria independence in October 1960, but left out western Cameroon, whose denizens voted to unite with the francophone (eastern) portion of Cameroon. The map thus represents an artifact of counter-history: what might have been had the English-speaking portion of Cameroon not voted against joining Nigeria in early 1961 (Curiously, the Islamic-majority northern area of western Cameroon did vote for union with Nigeria, though the largely Christian and English-speaking southern portion did not).
The question of colonial maps of Nigeria, at least to me, is no mere antiquarian’s passion. Given the hardships experienced by ordinary Nigerians today, in part because of then unwieldy and perhaps failing governing structure of the country, the manner in which Nigeria, as a nation, was imagined in the past — imagined even in maps — strikes me as of great consequence. How might the past help illuminate the present crisis in Nigeria. How might maps of the late colonial period — before the advent of the Nigerian nation and its quixotic forms of nationalism — provide insights into roads not taken, options ignored, paths traveled briefly and then abandoned?
When I witness my wife, Chizo Okon of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, suffer along with her fellow Nigerians, I am also moved by the plight of Africa’s largest nation — and wonder whether Nigeria is not too large to govern. Or rather, is the design of Nigeria somehow fatally flawed?
The old colonial maps are reminders that Nigeria was constructed by colonizers and constructed in haste as well. Colonizers after all conceived of the alien notion of elections to determine the nationality of peoples, as if their ow sense of identity was so plastic as to mold to whatever options they chose from the “menu” provided by their departing European rulers.
One final point about thoughts engendered by a random frayed road map. Having been engineered, Nigeria can be re-engineered. In this exercize, of re-engineering Nigeria, old maps — especially old maps from colonial Nigeria — may be no guide to those who wish to create a new Nigeria — or even many new Nigerias. For even the act of re-naming Nigeria — or the many parts that emerge from this corrupted whole constructed by ill-informed colonizers — can be grounded in the past.