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Pathways to Nigeria’s Future: A Review of Toyin Falola’s Understanding Modern Nigeria

By Raheem Oluwafunminiyi

Nigeria has often been of keen interest to the international community. It is the most populous black nation in the world, has a vast deposit of oil and mineral resources, a sizeable youthful population, and despite its constant flip-flops remains one of the largest economies in Africa. Given its backward turn of fortunes for much of its post-military trajectory, one is not sure whether the country can still be regarded as the Giant of Africa. A look at recent happenings in the country would tell even the most disinterested mind that all is not well. The escalation of the Boko Haram insurgency, which is now over ten years and still counting, appears to have overwhelmed the Nigerian military with mixed fortunes recorded in its fight against the deadly group. The relentless killing and destruction left by marauding herdsmen across the country also leave a sour taste in the mouth. That would have been enough to nip in the bud if secessionist tendencies in the southwest and southeast of the country had not also left unnecessary destruction of properties and wanton killings of unknown proportion in its wake. Although temporarily halted by the barrel of the gun, the mother of it all was the #EndSARS protest that rocked Lagos, especially, and other parts of the country in 2020. This was at the time Nigeria was battling with how to manage the deadly pandemic inflicted transnationally by COVID-19.

Apart from the fact that Nigeria suffers an acutely debilitating security challenge, there is a reason to believe that the country is deliberately sabotaged on all fronts; otherwise, what could have emboldened bandits to the extent of kidnapping citizens, including corps members, and demanding a huge ransom with little or no intervention by the state? In any case, there have been fears within the international intelligence circle as far back as the early 2000s that Nigeria may witness yet another military coup, and in the event of one, the likely consequence would be a humanitarian catastrophe of huge proportion. It is nearly two decades since these fears first emerged, yet Nigeria somehow retains its unity, although predictions of impending crisis cannot be overruled. To think that these current challenges emerged in recent times would be to make a mockery of Nigeria’s turbulent history. It is on this premise that the book, Understanding Modern Nigeria: Ethnicity, Democracy, and Development, written by Professor Toyin Falola and published by Cambridge University Press, comes at an auspicious time.

Falola is a renowned Professor of History, University Distinguished Teaching Professor, and the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities, the University of Texas at Austin, United States. His intellectual oeuvre is not one for debate, as one may be surprised to discover something new today while counting. His works on virtually all aspects of Nigerian everyday life remain unparalleled, and because they are highly regarded at home and across the Atlantic for their rich interventions to the African Question, they are counted as classics. In Understanding Modern Nigeria, Falola gives us a 672-page book, which is not only the most voluminous single-authored book on Nigeria’s postcolonial history, but it also virtually touches on and critically analyses three fundamental issues that have often eluded Nigeria’s path to progress.

Ethnicity stands out first as one of the most serious spectacles that emerged in the closing decades of the colonial period and played a very huge role in the sad political tragedy that befell Nigeria only six years into independence. On the one hand, the democratic experience failed woefully, not lasting up to six years after independence and stretching on to close to five decades after. Until 1999, Nigeria had witnessed seven military administrations which returned power to civilian rule, which the country has enjoyed for more than two decades now, although with continued threats of cracks. On the other hand, development is a relative term used in relation to how Nigeria has fared in economic, political, and social terms. The author analysed each of these three terms – ethnicity, democracy, and development – to make sense of how to “understand” how Nigeria reached its peculiar state of global concern.


What makes the book unique, unusual, and different is that it diagnoses several and very germane issues that confront Nigeria as a country and then does not leave the reader hanging. Rather, policies are prescribed to mitigate these challenges. In other words, Falola has written a book that is critical but highly beneficial for the Nigerian political leadership at all levels of government. It comes as a “first opinion” away from and outside the opinions served by public servants working in government that the present and successive administrations could use to gauge the feelings and feel the aspirations and pulse of the citizenry.

Divided into six thematic parts, Parts I and II both dovetail with one another. Part I introduces the reader to the intricacies of the book itself. Part II provides a historical context to understanding Nigeria from its colonial phase, which was marked by zealous nationalism and introduction of regionalism to the independent phase that triggered one of the most brutal civil wars in the mid-20th century, a post-civil war phase that grounded military dictatorship upon the country, and then a post-military civilian phase since 1999, which has left some distressing imprint on the country. Part III discusses ethnicity, democracy, and governance, three very disturbing themes that have become a stumbling block to Nigeria’s progress for much of its political history.

What later became known as Nigeria was previously an aggregation of diverse peoples who lived under different suzerain, empires, and kingdoms. While some had existed even before the creation of modern states in Europe, others emerged from the ashes of the fall of empires. Falola observes that the sad trajectory of ethnicity in Nigeria found its origin with the creation of regions and political parties. As he rightly claims, these political parties, brought about by heightened nationalist fervour, were nothing more than ethnic champions led by sons-of-the-soil. As the country became independent, these parties continued to play the ethnic rather than national card, causing internal crisis and schisms. The military had little choice but to dissolve what it viewed as cankerworms.

In Falola’s view, the Nigerian political class did not appear to learn any useful lesson from its experience and continued to strengthen the chord of ethnicity during the brief democratic experiment between 1978-1983. It is unlikely that any other lessons will be learned, given recent happenings in the country, at least since the 1990s. The book points to the fact that since ethnicity plays a major factor in successive governments’ decision-making, the governance of the country has been retrogressive. States like China and Myanmar, where state-sponsored killings target Rohingya Muslims in Southeast Asia, are clear examples of what Falola calls the calamitous experiment in ethnic performance, which is used as the basis for crimes against humanity. This part of the book is a must-read because it pays very strong and detailed attention to how the early political leadership missed the opportunity to set Nigeria on a sound footing after independence. The integration of ethnicity into the rubric of Nigerian politics can be a positive force. This is possible when the country’s diversity is harnessed by a leadership with a broader, nationalistic, and political mindset. A country that prides itself as a melting pot can, thus, benefit from a structured political process even if ethnicity comes to play.

Part IV shifts its analysis to the consequences of democracy and governance. The points of discussion here are ten-fold. Falola explains the corrupt turn Nigeria has taken, particularly with the country’s newfound oil wealth. As oil created the nouveau-riche, so did power become concentrated in the hands of a few. Criminality and theft surged even as governance became even more centralised. The country’s administrative structure changed from three regions to thirty-six states with 774 local governments, which pushed the grassroots farther from their representatives. Here, Falola shows that power was not used to develop the people and the country but rather helped reproduce underdevelopment. This explains why despite Nigeria’s abundant wealth, its citizens wallow in abject poverty, which has given rise to violence, all kinds of organised crimes, and consistent resistance against the state by very powerful non-state actors. Without overstating the issue, this part of the book is highly revealing as it touches the very heart of Nigeria’s development crisis. There is no better way to understand Nigeria than this.

In Part V of the book, readers are taken into discussions surrounding reforms and revolution, and here, I find the analysis on youth and politics quite interesting. The book highlights the fact that active youth participation in any society is often a determining factor in the socio-economic and political progression of such a society. This has been a difficult path for Nigerian youth, who are usually side-lined by the more wealthy and elderly political class and have been rendered weak and vulnerable to political machinations at all levels of governance, resulting in political apathy among them. Falola advocates for a more flexible system that would include the active participation of the youth in the governance of the country. He believes that this would help to ensure that vital issues concerning them are adequately addressed. There is so much to unpack in this part of the book, which is quite understandably so. The #EndSARS protest that rocked the nation in 2020 is a reminder that the youths, when provoked, can change the political configurations of the state. Falola makes it clear that protests are no longer called with a megaphone. Governments could either be removed or restored, not through the barrel of the gun this time around, but through social media. Several examples abound across the world. We are reminded that social media forced a Nigerian minister out of office recently following the allegations of a forged NYSC certificate.

Part VI concludes the book with “Pathways to the Future.” In the author’s view, the book reveals different components that are responsible for, and have a compelling influence on, the development of Nigerian society. It then moves on to identify the ways through which the country can reverse itself to strengthen its prospect. One of the pathways suggested by the author is for Nigeria to return to the secularist philosophy that should govern the conduct of a multi-ethnic, multireligious, and multicultural community. Within this pathway are several solutions that Falola identifies to guide Nigeria back on track, whether in mechanised agriculture, youth inclusion, friendly business environment, cultural revival, the collaboration between government and the citizenry, and most importantly, the eradication of corruption. Falola recognises that Nigeria’s challenges are daunting, yet they can be addressed with serious leadership convinced of the need to build transparent institutions that promote social justice and human rights, irrespective of status, age, or position.

Falola’s Understanding Nigeria does not give the reader a glimpse but rather a robust insight into Nigeria’s past and present. Due to his vast grasp of what makes up Nigeria today, the reader can now understand where Nigeria’s future lies only if we can look into the very rich recommendations highlighted in the book and make use of them. Whether one holds a political position or not, the book speaks to every Nigerian citizen who yearns for a better country. That the biggest supporters of government agree that the country seems to be on the brink of a dangerous situation indicates that drastic steps are required immediately to salvage the situation. By reading Understanding Nigeria, it is hoped that everyone concerned will be fully informed of their role in transforming the country for the better.

One of the main pluses of the book is its very robust use of sources that are directly related to the arguments raised in each of the themes. It is also written in very lucid language, and as much as possible avoids any kind of speciality. The author says it as it is and does not pretend to be all-knowing but rather allows the facts to speak for themselves. Not only are very concise and easily readable maps scattered across the book, but they also puncture very captivating pictures that help connect with the ideas spelt out in the book. These, I suspect, are deliberate attempts to make the book easily accessible and understood by all categories of people and ages. Now that, as part of government policy, history is taught in many Nigerian schools, this book will serve as an intellectual building block for young minds to know about their country’s past and present. It will also easily complement the work of Geography instructors, but most importantly, the book is for a general readership. It is often touted that citizens are affected by collective amnesia because we lack a sense of history. This has led to the unfortunate retention of people with questionable characters in the corridors of power, despite the crimes they once committed, which are detrimental to the progress of the state. The book, therefore, makes for an interesting read for policymakers, political leaders, instructors, students, and virtually anyone who wishes to understand where we were, where we should be, and where we will be in the not-too-distant future in Nigeria.

To quote the author, “The objective of this book is to present the challenges of postcolonial Nigeria against the background of the expectations of its people.” If this has not been duly justified in a 672-page book, particularly one written by Africa’s most published scholar and one of its most distinguished intellectuals, anyone who feels otherwise should give us a far superior version of Understanding Modern Nigeria. Until then, Falola has given us one of the most authoritative histories of postcolonial Nigeria in recent times, for which we cannot but be thankful.


Raheem Oluwafunminiyi, an independent scholar, writes from Osogbo and can be reached via




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