A PhD in African History

My project examines the history of Borno, a region located nowadays in north-eastern Nigeria on the western shores of Lake Chad. The aim of my thesis is to obtain a broad sense of the question of the boundaries and territory in Borno from 1810 to 2010.

The main interest of this thesis is to create links between precolonial, colonial and post-colonial history for a polity mainly studied for its precolonial history until then. Borno was a precolonial bounded territory and was dismembered by the Europeans in three different parts. It is hoped that this study will discover to what extent the nineteenth century African perception of Borno influenced the Europeans in their creation of boundaries in the Lake Chad basin.

Furthermore, I seek to discover the evolving concept of a Borno political space from the nineteenth century until nowadays. This research project highlights this distinctive spatial identity which has survived in colonial Nigeria through the actions of British colonial officers such as Benton or Palmer. In independent Nigeria, Borno kept its distinctive identity which was even reinforced within the federal framework.

Because of its ethnological inheritance, African history has often focused on the structural and social aspects of history. This project intends to apply a spatial approach to the political history of an African kingdom, colony and region of Nigeria. It places specific emphasis on competing conceptions of boundaries and territorialities in a two-century time span arguing that Borno nineteenth century framework has survived until 2010.

From 2009 to 2011, I have used British, French and German primary sources based in London, Oxford, Paris and Berlin. Numerous colonial sources are available at the British National Archives in Kew: these documents were useful to examine the politics of Northern Nigeria as a whole. My research trip to Oxford in December 2009 led me to discover papers of colonial administrators in Borno such as Lord Lugard or Palmer. In January 2010, an Economic History Society Research Fund enabled me to study at the Federal Archives and State Library in Berlin. I discovered how German colonial Borno in nowadays Cameroon and Nigeria was administered from 1902 to 1914.

Finally, in May 2010, I travelled to Paris to study the equivalent archives concerning the territories invaded by the French in nowadays Niger (Damagaram – Zinder). Archival work in three different countries will enable me to develop a comparative analysis of the Bornuese borderlands before and during the colonisation.

In 2010, the Martin Lynn scholarship from the Royal Historical Society and an award from the Institut Français de Recherche en Afrique enabled me to undertake a fieldtrip to Nigeria, Cameroun and Niger.

In the second week of June 2010, I flew from England to Lagos in order to give a paper at the University of Osun State as I was invited by Dr. Olukoya Ogen to talk about my research about Borno. I spent the first week of my stay in Nigeria in south-western universities before travelling to Ibadan.

I subsequently travelled to Abuja where I needed to obtain a new visa from the Immigration Office. My research trip to Kaduna and Maiduguri enabled me to research more thoroughly some themes already studied in Europe. The national archives completed my analysis of colonial and post-colonial papers as the holdings of this archives centre contain annual reports, official papers and newspapers dealing with the boundaries and territoriality of Borno. In addition, I visited Arewa House in Kaduna where I was be able to consult its rich documentation on Nigerian history and more precisely John Lavers’s papers. The latter was a distinguished scholar of Borno and spent his academic carrier in Northern Nigeria. His papers shed a light on the different archives and sources found in Nigeria. Thus, three weeks were devoted to the archives of Kaduna.

I spent the end of July in Borno in order to do some research in Maiduguri. As already arranged, academic hospitality was graciously given by the University of Maiduguri where I was able to meet scholars such as Yakubu Mukhtar, Bosoma Sheriff or Kyari Mohamed. I interviewed different academics but also members of the historical aristocracy of Borno. For example, I interviewed the Shehu of Borno on 19th July 2010.

From Maiduguri, I was able to investigate two different places located on the border of Cameroon and Niger. I interviewed members of the local governments, teachers, journalists and customs officers in a semi-directive method. Open-ended questions were asked about the notions, conceptions and perceptions of the Bornuese-Nigerian boundaries. Their own understanding of the Bornuese territory helped me to apprehend the concept (or its absence) of a Bornuese space. This method enabled me to cover different topics without being restricted to a detailed questionnaire. I used various nineteenth century and twentieth century maps to stimulate the discussion.

The choice of these two locations was made according to factors such as the proximity of the border, ancient or recent cross-border activities and the presence of the State. I spent four days in each area and, surprisingly, did not encounter any difficulties at the border points. On a more practical viewpoint, the chosen towns lent themselves to daily observation outside the normal run of interviews as I consider informal discussions to be as important as the more formal interviews.

The first area was Banki/Amchidé on the Nigeria/Cameroon border. The choice of this place was made because of the former presence of the German colonial power but also because of the recent modification of the border after the International Court of Justice’s decision of 2002. My next step was Maroua in Cameroun.

The second area was Namasak/Diffa on the Nigeria/Niger border on the banks of the Komadugu Yobe in Niger. I selected this area for its proximity to the river which was the northern limit of Bornuese power in the nineteenth century. I subsequently travelled to Zinder and Niamey where I interviewed Nigerien scholars.

Vincent Hiribarren


About perspectivesonafrica

Research and news about Africa
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2 Responses to A PhD in African History

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