I have spent this week at the Library of Congress looking at issues of the Northern Nigerian Hausa-language newspaper Gaskiya Ta Fi Kwabo from the 1940s to the 1960s, and issues of the English/Hausa-language Bornu People from the 1960s. Although I have read numerous primary and secondary sources dealing with this period, written about the period, and devoted a great deal of thought to it, I encountered numerous surprises in the newspapers, not least among them the various beauty contests that apparently occurred in Northern Nigeria during the 1960s. Advertisements that showed men in traditional Northern garb (presumably not Muslim, however) enjoying a Guinness also surprised me.
I am quick to argue that Islam – understood as a fluid set of ideas and traditions – played a major role in Northern Nigerian politics and society in this period. So I would caution against viewing the beauty contests and Guinness advertisements as markers of some kind of secularist dominance. But that does not mean that Northern Nigeria has been static, or that “Islam” always meant the same things over time there, or affected various aspects of life in the same way. Looking at photographs of beauty contest winners from the 1960s, it is hard not to think of the 2002 riots in Kaduna over the “Miss World” beauty pageant. A mere forty years has passed, yet there is a world of difference between then and now.
Looking at these newspapers from decades past reminded me that however much one studies a place or a period, there is always something about the texture of life there and then that will remain elusive. Even scholarly accounts that emphasize detail, complexity, and ambiguity will remain mere approximations of past realities that can never be fully grasped. This is not just about being a foreigner. That sense of elusiveness can hold true for one’s own country as well – a photo album I saw the other day of New York City subway scenes from the 1970s offers a mix of simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar sights. I can imagine myself into the New York City of the 1970s, but to some extent it remains opaque and foreign to me.
Turning back to Nigeria, the 1960s are, by now, a time period that most living Nigerians never experienced, as even a quick glance at this “population pyramid” will show. Ahmadu Bello, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Aminu Kano, a host of others, and the few members of that generation who remain living are still powerful symbols and sources of inspiration (and sometimes controversy) for Northerners today. Significantly, at a conference I attended in Kano in 2011, Mallam Maitama Sule, who served as a young man as a minister in the First Republic, drew by far the strongest applause from the crowd, even though many younger religious leaders and politicians also gave speeches. The reverence for the past notwithstanding, for many Northerners the 1960s, the First Republic, and the colonial era that preceded it are phenomena experienced second-hand. And in the midst of remembering there is much forgetting.
Anyways, enough philosophizing. This post will (barring major events that urgently warrant commentary) be my last post until December 31, when I plan to return with a year-end summary, followed on January 1 by a look at what 2013 may have in store, politically, for the Sahel and the Horn. I wish you happy holidays, relaxation, and merriment.