A Proud, Free and All But Forgotten Nigeria

On September 26, 1960, the US-weekly LIFE Magazine published an exclusive report on Nigeria as a prelude to its imminent uncoupling from colonial Britain. In the 15-page photoessay that followed, the Nigerian ensemble appears in full-page colour images – its people, institutions and budding industries matched with succinct, stylized captions.

The report unveiled a visual portrait of the existing landscape, in this way memorialising Britain’s legacy whilst granting its readers a glimpse of the conditions that tempered the Promised Land. The usual suspects were present: inter-ethic politics, a nascent modern government and tensions between geo-political zones, here the autocratic North and more liberal South. The notion of independence in itself was not the story’s focal point. Much of that had already been heavily debated in the immediate post-war period from as early as October 1945 with the 5th Pan African Congress in Manchester, UK. This convening of delegates who would one day lead democratic movements in their own countries marked the symbolic start of the continent’s march towards a collective autonomy. With India pioneering self-governance in 1947, an Nkrumah-led Ghana following suit a decade later, and Nigeria one week away from sharing this status, there was little need to convince its readers: this was a time of accelerated social and political change.


Text-Graphic_Hopeful-Launch_PortraitThe report’s opening commentary weighed potential against threats and feat against opportunity, effectively capturing the staunch optimism upheld amongst many a raised eyebrow. From its first phrase, its tone is tinged with palpable First World superiority, evident in a smattering of words such as “primitivism” and “savagery” and allusions to the “farsighted[ness of] British colonial policies”. Even then, Nigeria’s ability to achieve a coherent unity was in question. How would the “many moods and colours” reflected in its 400 native institutions successfully weld themselves into a confident nation-state, encompassing of its multiplicities and capable of playing politics on an international stage?

Despite its casual conceit, the questions raised were not far off from the consciousness of the era. Nor indeed the thinking of Nigeria’s prominent political agents. These sentiments are echoed in the words of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who had published his autobiography, Awo, nine-months earlier:

“After independence we will have to stand on our own and rely on our own resources, the unifying force, the cement…which hitherto been supplied by the United Kingdom Government will be removed, and will have to be replaced by new virtues of our own capable of keeping all the diverse elements of the country together, in mutual trust and harmony and with a common national purpose.”

Hopeful-Nigeria-MasqueradesIn the months that followed these words, Nigerians prepped their soon-to-be independent country for the elaborate celebrations. Streets were draped with colourful streamers and new cloth wrappers accordingly printed with commemorative insignia, waiting to be sewn into fancy garments for the special day. Few expenses were spared. In the capital city of Lagos, public spaces and buildings were adorned with decorative lights. Businesses and homes across the territory followed suit. “Nigeria, We Hail Thee”, the former national anthem, was drafted and its accompanying tune composed – albeit with expatriate assistance. But once all symbolic processions and obligations had been adhered to in true British ceremonial fashion, it was time to address the real issue: how to deliver a vision of a new society free of European control.

One crucial way in which this new freedom was to be registered was in wrangling out a national identity. This was a balancing act that stretched with one hand to reclaim the narrative of indigenous traditions and with the other, latched on to its expressed notions of modernity – all the while teetering on deepening tribalism and regionalism. The very process of carving out a post-colonial identity is a delicate one. Doing so prioritises one set of collective memories over another. It involves the deconstruction and reassembly of composite cultural precedents – ours myths, systems of knowledge, ideologies and paradigms – into a coherent narrative. Add to that the challenge of delivering an identity that resonates with a populace of diverse histories and directives, and one begins to question whether perhaps the model unit of modern politics, the nation-state, can be appropriately reconfigured for all.

This is the story many Nigerians are familiar with. A story told in the language of political and economic transitions. But this tells us little of the people who lived, worked, shopped, and partied in the Nigeria that was. With a poor culture of documentation, there is little insight into how we lived and how we didn’t live. These are the everyday elements of life, the things rendered boring and unremarkable by their familiarity. Their value is immediately obvious once we try to locate exemplary expressions or trace the triggers and turning points in their evolution. LIFE magazine may be excused for an exoticised rendition typical of foreign media of the day for the mere fact that it attempted to document the disposition of a country ready to be birthed. Even now, more than 50 years on, we can appreciate the rich visual narrative depicted and wonder at these emblems of a proud and hopeful beginning.


See here for the full commentary of the LIFE Magazine article “The Hopeful Launching of the Proud and Free Nigeria”

From behind its centuries-old masks of savagery and primitivism, the most populous nation in Africa looks out eagerly on a world it is about to join as an independent nation. On Oct. 1, Nigeria and its 36 million black inhabitants gain freedom from Britain. Like the other new nations of Africa, it is ambitious and proud. “We want independence,” said a Nigerian civil servant, “because we want to be accepted on our own terms – and to be able to turn our backs on those who won’t accept us.”

The free world, with the worrisome Congo on its mind, can temper its anxiety over Nigeria – because of farsighted British colonial policies. The Congo plunged into catastrophe when Belgium thrust independence on an unready people. In Nigeria, Britain has encouraged and trained a native leadership. The dangerous black vs. white antipathy which is wounding such lands as Rhodesia is absent from Nigeria where Britain barred whites from owning land. Besides, killing heat and disease, which gave Nigeria the name “the white man’s grave,” has kept the white population down to 27,000.

It is an exotic, variegated land and the handsome photographs on the following pages show the diversity in its many moods and colours. But diversity could make it difficult to presence the country’s unity. There are some 400 tribes whose local chieftains, dressed in the splendid trappings of their office may be swayed by tribal loyalties. There are rival religions – white-robbed Moslems who make obeisance to Allah, Christian coverts led by foreign missionaries, pagans dancing to their juju gods.

Hopeful-Nigeria-Levers-Brothers-Soap-FactoryThere are fundamental antagonisms between its three regions. The north, made up of mountains and arid plains and three times larger than the rest of Nigeria, is mainly Moslem land of minareted cities and feudal emirs. It fears the liberalism of the Christian south. The south, a region of swamps, rain forests and grasslands, fears the autocratic conservatism of the north and is itself split. The comparatively urbanized west, run by the Yoruba tribe, is the hustling center of education and bold government. In the east, where oil has been discovered, the dominant Ibo live in small farming villages.

In a nation where 250 languages are spoken, political parties must graft themselves onto a multicelullar tribal system. A modern economy must be built where most commerce is by “mammy traders” who deal on the level of one lump of sugar and one cigaret. And the human sinews of government, the civil servants, must be strung in large part with men of bare high school education. But Nigerians, with intense British help, are driving ahead, compressing into a few years decades of normal maturing. In a land where mud hut villages are common, an ultra-up-to-date university is rising up. A Nigerian cabinet and prime minister already virtually run domestic affairs and the three regions are self-governing.

This embryonic democracy is oriented towards the West and will stay that way unless, says one Nigeria, “the West is stupid.” “I am an Africa,” he goes on. “When a Belgian in Congo slaps Lumumba, he slaps me and the whole African race. So we acquire bad feelings secondhand.”

Hopeful Nigeria-P11-Factory-1

“In a gleaming modern canning factory, a worker operates a fruit-condenser. This plant was built by the western government to diversify the single crop of cocoa by encouraging citrus growing. Managed by a European, it has serious trouble with careless workers breaking delicate machinery.”


Hopeful Nigeria-Ahmadu Bello

“In the dominant north, where religious power equals political power, the premier is Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sarduna of Sokoto. A six-foot-three giant of a man, he is the nephew of the Moslem spiritual leader, the Sultan of Sokoto.”


Hopeful Nigeria-Judge

“The impact of father and son is shown by a remarkable father and son. The Alake of Abeokuta is oba or king of nearly 500,000 Nigerians. His son, Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, is the respected chief justice of the federal supreme court.”


Hopeful Nigeria-P8-Bonfire

“By the light of a huge bonfire, Moslem children learn the Koran in a study session called karatu. While teacher walks the circle to feed the fire and help with the hard passages, the students chant the lessons written on wooden boards called walla. The older ones also attend state elementary schools.”


Hopeful Nigeria-P13

“Standing before the grassy hills of the north, Ibrahim Maidongba shows off his one-year-old daughter. In his village of Maikujeri, he is the barber, a man of status but of no education, tied irrevocably to the world of his forebears. But Ibrahim’s daughter, whom he adorns with brilliant beads, will grow up in a new Nigeria. She will be raised to think with pride of her African heritage, but her national ambition will be to match in years the white world’s centuries of progress.”

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