The complexities of our colonial legacy

It happened by accident. In 1829 the naturalist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward was trying to hatch a moth pupa. He placed it in a sealed glass container, along with some soil and dried leaves, and set it aside. Sometime later he was surprised to find that a fern and some grass had taken root in the soil, despite having no water. As Sathnam Sanghera writes in Empireworld, the discovery ‘revolutionised the logistics of international plant transportation’. Suddenly there was a means of securely transporting seeds and seedlings across vast distances. Empireworld is a sequel to Sanghera’s wildly successful Empireland. Where the latter examined the legacies of empire in Britain, this book

What’s to become of Africa’s teeming youth?

Demographers are attached to their theories. The field’s most enduring is the ‘demographic transition’, whereby modernisation inexorably lowers a society’s once-high fertility to replacement rate. Unfortunately, reality is obstreperous and doesn’t always obey the rules. The United Nations Population Division bases population projections on the assumption that all countries will eventually follow the pattern of plummeting birth rates first observed across the West. Edward Paice’s Youthquake addresses the exception so far: Africa. The continent is hardly a minor asterisk. Although for many regions demographic forecasts for this century have been ratcheting downwards, in the past 20 years the UNPD has had to revise its median-variant forecast for Africa by 2050 upwards

A broken nation: Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, by Wole Soyinka, reviewed

One of the best episodes in Wole Soyinka’s third novel (his first since 1973) takes place not in Nigeria but in Salzburg. An engineer-turned-entrepreneur has died in hospital there after a bomb attack back home. His grasping clan descends from Lagos to parade their last respects — and stake their claims. The drive to the cemetery triggers a ‘torrent of eulogies to Austrian horticulture’. In a ‘concerted sibling gush’, plutocratic relatives swoon over the contrast between these clean, green vistas and the choking inferno of Lagos — an urban nightmare aggravated by their own mercenary scams. Soyinka’s characters often hide behind such ‘straw masks’ of pretentiousness, hypocrisy and fakery. The

Who really owns the Benin Bronzes?

Should the British Museum return its priceless collection of Benin Bronzes? For years, the museum has stood firm in its refusal to hand back artwork looted from the ancient kingdom of Benin, in what is now southern Nigeria. In doing so, it has defied the trend set by regional institutions in Britain, such as the university of Aberdeen. Earlier this year, the university confirmed that it would repatriate a bust of an Oba, or king of Benin, which it has had since the 1950s. As a result of refusing to take a similar stance, the British Museum has been heavily criticised – but there is a strong case to be made that its

Nigeria’s abduction epidemic and the silence of the West

Every day, more and more children are going missing in Nigeria. At least 140 schoolchildren were kidnapped in Nigeria’s northwestern Kaduna city yesterday. A day earlier, another eight people – including two nurses and an infant – were abducted in Zaria, around 50 miles north of Kaduna. This marked the fourth attack on a Kaduna state school and the third on a Zaria hospital in the past five months. Over 1,000 schoolchildren have now been kidnapped in Nigeria since December; around 200 of them are still missing. Yet the international condemnation has been muted. It all marks a stark contrast to the ‘Bring back our girls’ backlash that greeted the kidnapping by Boko Haram of 276 Chibok schoolgirls

Boko Haram’s demise will only strengthen Isis in Africa

Multiple reports have confirmed that the Boko Haram chief Abubakar Shekau is dead. Shekau’s demise came after Boko Haram last week clashed with Isis in Sambisa forest in northeast Nigeria. Some reports suggested that the Boko Haram leader detonated a suicide vest rather than be captured by the Isis militants. Isis’s West African Province (ISWAP) is often characterised as being under the Boko Haram umbrella, but the two factions have become deadly rivals in the region. And with terror engulfing the continent, along with the rise of an African Islamic State, it is Isis that is now the beneficiary of Shekau’s death. In 2009, Shekau took over the group founded

The problem of the Benin Bronzes will never go away

A book about the looted African art known as the Benin Bronzes begins by clarifying that most of them are not actually bronze, and none of them comes from the country of Benin. Yet as this gripping work of live history makes clear, such name ambiguity feels entirely appropriate for art so sophisticated in creation yet so controversial in acquisition. Little about the Benin Bronzes is black and white. The exact age is unknown for the cache of carved ivory, coral and metal plaques, heads, statuary, swords and other ceremonial objects, the best guess emphasising the circa in ‘circa 16th century’. Who the heads represent is also not settled —

Are we witnessing the birth of an African Islamic State?

On Monday, 13 soldiers were killed by the Islamic State in northeastern Nigeria. A week ago, just after midnight on Friday morning, a Boko Haram suicide bomber blew up 14 villagers in northern Cameroon. These attacks — passing us by, as they do, in a stream of news and information — are becoming increasingly common in the beleaguered states of West Africa.  At the end of last year, Islamists kidnapped 344 schoolboys in an apparent ransom attempt. While the raid saw a continuation of Boko Haram’s strategy (in 2014 the group kidnapped 276 schoolgirls, to global condemnation) it marked a change in the terror group’s ambitions. Previously the group had confined itself mainly

Why we’ll all be fleeing to Nigeria

I keep thinking what I’ll do when we regain our liberty — and I picture that beer at the end of Ice Cold in Alex, when after surviving his trek through the Sahara, a sweaty John Mills traces his finger up the frosted schooner, drinks the golden liquid down in one and says: ‘Worth waiting for.’ A month ago I had big ambitions for the future at home on the farm in Kenya. We were planting thousands of avocado trees, we were about to start rearing organic broiler chickens, there was a tilapia farm to expand, a new dairy project, and preparations for the Nairobi livestock breeders’ show later this

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

Death by water haunts the stories of Africans in Europe that flow through this fourth novel by Helon Habila. From the drowning of Milton’s swain Lycidas (a sort of tidal refrain for the book) to the capsized boat in the closing pages that offers victims in their hundreds to the ‘enraged leviathan’ of the sea, the imperious waves help wash these personal histories in an aura of myth. Whether privileged or penniless, the migrants whose journeys fill this episodic fresco of a work all crave the stories ‘traded as a currency among homeless, rootless people’. They hunger for narratives because ‘the water they all crossed to come here has dissolved

Alms for arms

In the rush to declare Isis dead now that its caliphate has been routed from Iraq and Syria, it’s easy to forget that its Nigerian fellow traveller, Boko Haram, is still going strong. April’s five-year anniversary of the Chibok schoolgirls’ kidnapping, for example, passed with barely a celebrity tweet to mark it, despite the fact that 112 of the girls are still missing. Nor is much fuss likely to be made next month, when an insurgency that has killed nearly 30,000 will enter its second decade as violent as ever. Out of sight and out of mind, Boko Haram’s power is growing. And to find out why, all you have

A tragic fall from grace

Nurture hatred in your heart and you will keep ‘an unfed tiger in a house full of children’. A man who passes on a plausible lie ‘may be offering a rattlesnake in a calabash of food’. Someone who lugs grievances around carries ‘a full pitcher of resentment from which, every step or so on its rough journey through the worn path of life, a drop or two spilled’. This second book from the young Nigerian author whose debut, The Fishermen, reached the Man Booker shortlist does not quite escape that difficult second novel syndrome. It’s overlong, raggedly structured and freighted with rambling digressions. Yet almost every page trumpets the gifts

The ties that bound us

Only Neil MacGregor could do it — take us in a single thread from a blackened copper coin, about the size of a 10p piece, dating from Rome in about 200 AD, to a packed music hall in London during the first world war. In his new 30-part series for Radio 4, Living with the Gods, the former director of the British Museum looks at the ways in which societies come together through shared rituals and beliefs and how these rituals are developed and used to make sense of our place in a universe beyond human comprehension. One side of the coin shows a fire burning within the Temple of

The bank that keeps poor nations poor

What is the point of the World Bank? You probably think of it, if at all, as a benign institution, a kind of giant, multilateral aid agency, whose job it is to bring liquidity to developing nations and help them grow out of poverty. Until not so long ago, that was indeed its function. Created alongside the International Monetary Fund at the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, the bank did sterling work in its early years helping countries like France recover from the war; and later, giving mostly third world countries the vital seed money needed to help attract investors to risky capital projects. Its multiplier effect on investment can be

Stitches in time

When Martha Ann Ricks was 76 she travelled from her home in Liberia to London to meet Queen Victoria. The daughter of a slave, who had purchased freedom for his family from his American owner and taken them to west Africa, she wanted to honour the Queen whom she believed had played a pivotal role in abolishing slavery. ‘She stoops,’ Ricks told a reporter from the Pall Mall Gazette of that meeting in a corridor at Windsor Castle on 16 July 1892, ‘and I don’t stoop though I’m older than her… But she has had troubles, great troubles. No wonder her shoulders are bent.’ Ricks considered herself fortunate that aged

Party piece

The National Theatre could hardly resist Barber Shop Chronicles. The play shines a light on a disregarded ethnic community, black urban males, who like to hang around in barber salons seeking friendship, laughs and tittle-tattle. Setting the play in a single venue would just be a sitcom, like Desmond’s, so the show establishes a series of shops stretching from London to the capitals of various sub-Saharan nations. This makes it a global epic. In theory, at least. In fact, it’s still a sitcom with some melodramatic bits on the end. The disjoined structure is tiresome at first as the action keeps legging it from Britain to Nigeria and Ghana and

Every horror imaginable

The group of kidnapped women were terrified. They had been brought back to the camp as booty and were being urged to convert to Islam with machetes pressed to their necks. They did their best to gabble words that sounded like the prayers they were being taught before one fighter noticed a captive with a swollen belly. ‘I’m not pregnant,’ she insisted, spreading her hands over her belly in an instinctive reaction that only showed she was lying. The most senior of the armed men, who looked barely 20 years old, ordered her to lie down on the ground. ‘We don’t bring any Christian babies into the world here,’ he

United nations

The Indian Prime Minister has twigged something that President Trump has yet to understand. On Monday, celebrated as World Radio Day, Narendra Modi tweeted his congratulations to ‘all radio lovers and those who work for the radio industry and keep the medium active and vibrant’. Modi uses radio to reach out to those in his country who live in its most remote and inaccessible corners, giving a monthly address to the nation known as ‘Mann Ki Baat’ (or ‘To mind’). He says it’s his way of ‘sharing his thoughts’ with his citizens, and a useful way of extending the tentacles of government into those areas where television sets are uncommon,

Abandoned to their fate

Another day in northern Nigeria, another Christian village reeling from an attack by the Muslim Fulani herdsmen who used to be their neighbours — and who are now cleansing them from the area. The locals daren’t collect the freshest bodies. Some who tried earlier have already been killed, spotted by the waiting militia and hacked down or shot. The Fulani are watching everything closely from the surrounding mountains. Every week, their progress across the northern states of Plateau and Kaduna continues. Every week, more massacres — another village burned, its church razed, its inhabitants slaughtered, raped or chased away. A young woman, whose husband and two children have just been

The road to the Jungle

 Calais On Sunday evening a British motorist, Abraham Reichman, 35, from Stamford Hill, north London, hit two Eritrean migrants who were trying to block the A16 outside Calais. They had leapt in front of his car, he says, as he slowed down to avoid dozens of migrants on the motorway. Terrified, Mr Reichman drove off at speed to the police station, where he later found out that one of the Eritreans had died. The police released him after several hours but he is under investigation for homicide involontaire. It is not difficult to meet migrants so determined to get to the land of milk and honey on the British side