Book Review: Partitioned Borgu By Dafe Ujorha

Reading Time: 7 minutes

 X-raying one of the poorest regions in West Africa

 Title: Partitioned Borgu

State, Society and Politics in a West African Border Region

Author: Dr. Hussaini Abdu

Adonis & Abbey Publishers, London

Year: 2019

Pages: 405

Reviewer: Tadaferua Ujorha

In Partitioned BorguDr. Hussaini Abdu explores the multi-themed history of Borgu, this ‘single culture’ area that bestrides both Nigeria and the Republic of Benin. The territory under consideration here is huge, and the author indicates that Kaiama, one of the smallest local governments in the region, is larger than all the Southeast states, with the exception of Enugu state. Borgu is not only a neglected community; it is an understudied theme in Nigerian and West African history. One can speak of a double neglect suffered by Borgu, or maybe triple, if you think of Borgu as being cut off from Nigeria’s political mainstream. It is a place ‘where government is never felt’ (p.333). The author states ‘it is easier to access radio signals from Benin Republic’ if you are in some parts of Borgu, than to receive one from Nigeria. This may be a fourth level of neglect.

If ‘government is never felt’ in Borgu, then this situation leads us to the concept of “enclave development”, and it was the late Claude Ake who first gave expression to this idea. In PartitionedBorguDr. Abdu, a Political Scientist and Development Expert, describes Ake’s concept as ‘a situation where development activities continued to be concentrated in a few urban areas to the detriment of the vast rural formations’ (p.314). This is very true of Nigeria today, as well as many other African countries, and this disequilibrium is felt and has become a source of tension and conflict over the years. Borgu, with parts in Niger, Kwara and Kebbi states, illustrates this concept in the specific context of Borgu being the neglected ‘rural formation’. Once you drive out of many state capitals in Nigeria, development and growth immediately begin to thin and to evaporate.  This can be illustrated with Katampe II, in Bwari Area Council of the FCT, a place less than an hour from the Abuja City Centre, where cattle, dogs and nomads contest for water from the same stream. In many parts of Nigeria the infrastructure deficit immediately becomes obvious, and the level of poverty, neglect and marginalisation, widens and deepens at the same time. There is an urgent need then to ‘flatten the curve’ of “enclave development”. 

It can be  argued that Abdu’s book takes up the concept of “enclave development”, and illustrates it using Borgu as a case study. All the colonial notes and records, and facts of the economy and society in pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial Borgu which he cites or relies on, help in buttressing the point  that the community, in spite of its human resources, abundance of minerals and vast swathes of  land, is one of the most neglected communities in the whole of West Africa. This sorry state is a fallout of the quality of colonial administration, and the alimentary nature of governance in independent Nigeria. The situation is worsened by the concentration of power at the centre, he insists.

One British colonial officer argued that Borgu deserves reparations, and made this call long before Nigeria became independent. On this Dr. Abdu states ‘in 1929, the Resident at Ilorin, Hermon-Hodge, felt that “some reparation should be made to Bussa (and indeed the entire Borgu) for the suffering and sacrifices which have reduced a proud and comparatively populous race to a soured and sporadic handful”(p.265). Given this general background it is no surprise that the author argues for a major development effort in the region, and drives home this point by making a call for the creation of Borgu state. Partitioned Borguis 405 pages long. It has eleven chapters, a conclusion, and a foreword written by Professor Anthony Ashiwaju, Nigeria’s eminent scholar on Border and Borderland Studies.


British Borgu, unlike French Borgu, did not enjoy much in terms of Western education. Dr. Abdu, Country Director, Plan International Nigeria, indicates ‘Like most parts of northern Nigeria, education had a late start. The first set of educated people in British Borgu was trained at Birnin Kebbi. Borgu had its first elementary school in 1924, led by a former student of the Birnin Kebbi School. Unlike the French system, the pupils were taught in Hausa, not English. English language was introduced only in 1947 after a change in British colonial education policy.’(p.274). The work adds ‘ The Resident at Sokoto, Major John Burden, during the same period was reported to have told the Governor ‘natives should be educated through their hands, not through their heads’(p.275). On the other hand, in French Borgu, French was the language of instruction, and the initial set of schools were set up, first in 1898 and another in 1901.

Long distance trade involving caravans was also de-emphasised by the British in favour of rail transportation. According to the author ‘With this, trading routes across Borgu were diverted as a new transportation system with a new orientation was introduced…. Borgu towns whose prosperity had depended on river and caravan trade were supplanted by the railway network…It therefore reinforced the exclusion of Borgu from major trading routes and consequently alienated it from the national economic mainstream’ (p.313). On the other side ‘French Borgu appears to have had a better response to the situation as they introduced the compulsory growing of cotton and processing of shea butter, together with the construction of  a network of roads, which brought relative material prosperity  to the region. The French had, during this period, developed a better communication system including roads and a rail line. In fact, due to the French’s relatively better understanding and greater economic interest in the region, some of the markets in British Borgu collapsed(p.271).

Furthermore, parts of Borgu were also ceded to Gwandu Province as a result of losses of land to France ‘The partitioning of the region between the British and their French rivals, along with their succeeding policies, profoundly affected trade, produce and the income of the people, resulting in massive emigration. Borgu slowly became a shadow of itself within the first two decades of colonial rule’ (p.263).   French Borgu became a magnet to traders in British Borgu ‘most migrated across the often ignored artificial frontiers to the west into French Borgu. Trading opportunities and lesser demands for taxes attracted British Borgu people to the French Borgu towns of Parakou, Kandi, and Djougou(p.267). Very soon there followed the revolts in the two Borgu’s in 1915 and 1916, which were largely a reaction to taxation, and the weight of colonial policies.

The roads in Borgu  have been in poor shape right from colonial times. Dr. Abdu states ‘With communities removed from the centres and not connected to any market, political and urban centre, the roads were hardly noticed; they are federal roads and also rural without any strategic link to any urban corridor, the state governments have been reluctant to do anything about them(p.323). As a result of the bad roads, and the general inaccessible terrain in Borgu, he concludes ‘projects are hardly inspected, services hardly supervised, researchers hardly visit, media and major civil society organisations hardly cover, leading to a black hole that serves well only the underhand who thrive in the dark (p.335).


He now shows that robust economic activities defined Borgu in pre-colonial times. Long distance trade was in its element, and local industries flourished. On page 129 he describes in an unforgettable way one trading caravan of the period  ‘the movement of caravans was properly structured, with a clear leadership and support mechanism. The group is led by the Madugu (Madugu Uban Tafiya-Madugu the leader of the journey). He was responsible for security and regulating movement and providing directives that had to be followed. Like a parade, the Madugu was in front, followed by load carrying beasts, then the women led by the Maduga(leader of the women)’(pp.138-139).

The long distance trade gives insight into the dynamic commercial activities that occurred at the time ‘ The Hausa long- distance trade was preceded by three muslim commercial networks in the Borgu and the middle Volta-basin-the Mande Dyula, the Yarsa and Dendi. Each of these networks had its own trade language.’(p.134) … ‘The long distance trade significantly impacted on the economy and society of Borgu as it became the principal source of income for the states and kings of Borgu. The caravans were arbitrarily taxed by the governments of Nikki, Bussa, Wawa,Parakou and others.’(p.141) This prosperity vanished when the rail system, initiated by the colonial government, came into being.

Dr. Abdu also sheds light on other aspects of the economy  ‘Small-scale industrial activities contributed significantly to the Borgu economy, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Borgu was a major shea butter producing country in the West African region. Iron smelting also supported agriculture and the war efforts of the Borgu states. Weaving and dyeing was also a major artisan- led industry, supporting the local economy (p.124). Blacksmithing revolutionised agriculture and war in Borgu as iron tools and arms were produced. With iron tools, people could produce more, settle in more locations and could defend themselves’p.124).The economy  in pre-colonial Borgu was more alive, more vigorous than what later obtained in colonial times.

There are a number of issues raised in Partitioned Borguwhich deserve some mention. For reason of space, just a few would suffice at this point. Some are historical in nature, while others are surprising details about Borgu, and will certainly interest the general reader. He comments on the origin of the name ‘Yoruba’  ‘Borgu was probably the etymological origin of the name ‘Yoruba’, originally used as a name for Borgu’s Oyo neighbours until, eventually in the nineteenth century, it became the pan–ethnic name of the peoples and area linked to the Oduduwa legend and speakers of the language’(p.156). He sheds light on Borgu as the name of the people, ‘ the use of the name might have been popularised by Borgu’s northern neighbours and later Europeans. Although there is limited documentation of Borgu before the colonial times, it is not clear if the people actually called themselves Borgu’(p.33).

Borgu was also the place where the Royal West Africa Frontier Force was first stationed, and RWAFF was the precursor to the Nigerian Army. It is the first location where Lord Lugard saw duty in Nigeria. Lord Lugard had the intention of setting up a plantation in Borgu, but this never saw the light of day.  No government in modern times has fulfilled this vision of Lugard’s which he expressed in 1904, a hundred and sixteen years ago. Joyce Cary, the famous British writer, was a District officer in Kaiama at a point, and Borgu features in some of his works.  

One striking quality of the work is the author’s candour. He asserts in the early pages ‘Borgu is too complex  and diverse to be covered by a single effort’(p.26), and he goes on to refer to his ‘iffy French and poor relationship with the Benin/French academic community and its traditions’(p.28). Another area is the conclusion, which can also serve as a template for the development of border regions across Africa, because the basic border experience of underdevelopment, is identical. Historians, researchers, sociologists, friends of Borgu,  and persons interested in an effort which re-examines colonial reports and records, as a way of reconstructing Borgu’s history and understanding its present, will enjoy this book. This well researched work explains  why Borgu is underdeveloped and has become one of the poorest, most marginalised parts of West Africa. There are, however, a number of typographical errors in the text which can be taken care of in the next edition. Dr. Abdu’s path breaking effort will inspire many to develop interest in the multifaceted ecosystem which is Borgu’s history.

Ujorha, a Freelance Journalist, writes from tada46@yahoo.com

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