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Historian collections of Yusufu Bala Usman

Title: The Historian and Society: Selected Historical Writings of Yusufu Bala Usman Author: Yusufu Bala Usman Genre: Drama Pages: 221 Year of Publication: 2023 Edited…

  • Title: The Historian and Society: Selected Historical Writings of Yusufu Bala Usman
  • Author: Yusufu Bala Usman
  • Genre: Drama
  • Pages: 221
  • Year of Publication: 2023
  • Edited by: George Amale Kwanashie and Norma Perchonock
  • Reviewer: M. Sani Umar

A Review by M. Sani Umar, Professor and Head of Department of History and Diplomatic Studies, University of Abuja, Abuja.

This book is a collection of twelve (12) essays by the late Dr. Yusufu Bala Usman, edited posthumously by two of his colleagues at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. The essays, many of which have not been published before, are on historical topics as well as contemporary topics which are connected with their historical backgrounds that are relevant for their appropriate understanding. The book is being published on the occasion of the 18th anniversary of his demise on 24th September 2005.

The editors wrote the Introduction that provides brief but excellent background on the intellectual biography of Dr. Bala Usman. They provide insights into the wide-ranging intellectual engagements of Dr. Bala Usman from his vigorous interventions on topical issues of public policy, which earned him great fame, to the less known but equally important teaching and supervision of post-graduate degrees (13 doctoral degrees and numerous MA and BA degrees). Arguably, Dr. Bala Usman’s fame as a historian derives more from his intellectual influence on the generation of scholars he trained than for his critical interventions on topical issues of his time. Yet, the essays published in this book are clearly indicative of the fact that he was also truly a great public intellectual who articulated cogent analysis on topical issues of public policy in his days. Undoubtedly, the volume is a welcome contribution to our understanding not only of the seminal importance of the scholarly accomplishments of Dr. Yusuf Bala Usman, but also of his valuable contextualization of contemporary issues within their historical backgrounds.

There are several recurrent and inter-related themes that can be discerned in the twelve (12) essays even though they were written at different times and contexts, as well as covering different themes in different periods. Five recurrent themes can be briefly highlighted here.

First, Dr. Usman never failed to emphasize the long-standing historical connections of economic, social and cultural relationships linking the various ethnic communities inhabiting all the areas and regions of present-day Nigeria. For Dr. Usman, a clear understanding of these connections is indispensable for both accurate historical reconstruction and crafting effective policies and strategies for solving Nigeria’s contemporary problems. The editors captured the importance that Dr. Usman attached to this theme when they quoted him in the epigraph: “the present is only meaningful against the background of the past … It also gets its meaning only as a prelude to the future.” The same idea is also reflected in the editors’ dedication of the volume to “future historians in the hope that they continue to understand and interpret the past and interrogate the present to enable us forge a progressive future for Nigeria and Africa.”

Second, Dr. Usman was a tireless critic of ethnocentrism in whatever guise whether in the historical reconstruction (Chapter 2) or in analyses of contemporary problems and their possible solutions (Chapter 9). In many instances, Dr. Usman presented the first theme as a critique and a correction to what he always considered as the errors and dangers of ethnocentrism.

 Third, Dr. Usman consistently rejects the conception of Nigeria’s pre-colonial history as nothing more than endless warfare among the various communities and polities (Chapters 1 and 6). In particular, Dr. Usman exposed the invocation of the conception of pre-colonial history of Nigeria and Africa at large as endless series of wars to justify colonial conquest and domination. He often exposed the racism in that erroneous conception of history. 

Relying on primary internal sources for reconstructing pre-colonial history was Dr. Usman’s main strategy of his incisive critique against both the ethnocentrism and racism in the conceptions of history as endless warfare among reconcilable ethnic groups (Chapters 2). In fact, Dr. Usman went further to emphasize the significance of relying on primary internal historical sources not only in correcting the errors of ethnocentric and racist conceptions of Nigeria’s history but also in achieving African unity and integration (Chapters 7 and 8).

Fourth, Dr. Usman often extended his argument for the centrality of economic, social and cultural relations in the historical development of Nigeria to African history more broadly. However, the careful and meticulous use of internal primary sources in critiquing ethnocentrism and racism are not sufficiently reflected in his generalizations about African history. Such generalizations are sometimes problematic.    

Fifth, there is an integral link between historical and contemporary events (Chapters 3, 4, 9-12). Dr. Usman brings the centrality of economic, social, political and cultural linkages in historical development to illuminate contemporary problems and challenges facing Nigeria and Africa at large (Chapters 4-5). Dr. Usman conceived these problems and challenges as arising from economic and political relations rather than ethnic rivalry and antagonism; hence the solutions should be economic and political rather than ethnic separation, which can only aggravate the problems given the longstanding historical connections and relationships.    

The image of Dr. Bala Usman that emerged from the various chapters in this volume is that of a great historian who was meticulous in his judicious use of primary sources in reconstructing the historical development of various communities within the areas of present-day Nigeria. His profile as an active public intellectual reveals his strong conviction of the direct relevance of an accurate understanding of historical forces that continue to exert great influence on contemporary challenges and issues. His policy recommendations indicate a clear patriotic belief in the strong bonds that unite diverse communities and their multiple cultures that constitute the citizenry of Nigeria, and a concomitant rejection of the primacy of ethnic and cultural particularisms.

One question is: Was Dr. Bala Usman a Marxist in his scholarly and intellectual engagements, and also a socialist in his interventions on policy matters? 

Neither the Introduction by the editors nor the twelve chapters by Dr. Usman reveal a direct answer. The Index of the book contains no entry on the two terms–Marxism and socialism. Thus, on the surface, the answer appears to be negative. However, the use of certain expressions (such as relations of production, primacy of material conditions in historical development, people’s power, and workers’ power) suggests an answer in the positive. By avoiding to explicitly label himself with the two monikers of Marxist historian and socialist activist, Dr. Usman seemed to have subscribed to the age-old adage that actions speak louder than words. 

In any case, the image of Dr. Yusuf Bala Usman that emerges from the pages of this volume is that of an erudite historian, with a deep interest in internal sources of African history, as well as a strong critic of colonial historiography. He was a Nigerian patriot, vehemently opposed to ethnic nationalism, a great public intellectual, willing, able and eager to bring his vast knowledge of history to illuminate contemporary issues. He was articulate and very clear in his arguments, solidly supported with ample and pertinent evidence. These intellectual assets and many more, make reading the essays in this volume, exciting and illuminating. 

May the soul of Dr. Yusufu Bala Usman rest in peace!


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