Excerpts from the book Emirs, Evangelicals & Empire, by Prof. Ian Linden


“I got a job teaching in the history department of Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, northern Nigeria, in the early 1970s. The name of the university gives a clue to why research for this book was fascinating and worth doing.

The Vice-Chancellor of the university was a Christian, Dr Ishaya Audu. He had been Sir Ahmadu Bello’s personal physician and went on to become Minister of External Affairs in 1979 under President Shehu Shagari.

My appointment at the university unwittingly placed me at the bottom end of a hierarchy. Yakubu Gowon was President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria at the time. He came from the same first clutch of Northern Christians as the Vice-Chancellor who, in turn, had a warm relationship with my head of department, an expatriate Professor, Robert Gavin, formerly of Ibadan University, and also with Professor James O’Connell, a Catholic priest in charge of the Politics department.

I naively neglected the fact that this placed me at the end of a Christian clientship chain with links up to the President of the Federal Republic and that this might make me vulnerable if one of the links disappeared. Especially if the link happened to be with the very top.

Yakubu Gowon was overthrown on 29 July 1975, by a close associate, Colonel Nanven Garba with the help of junior officers. The coup ushered in as President a Northern Muslim, Brigadier Murtala Muhammad, Gowon’s Minister for Communications.

In a short space of time, the Vice-Chancellor, a very fine one, left the university. Some months before, Professor Ishaya Audu had asked me to undertake research on the origins of the Hausa Christian community in the North.

This book is an account of the remarkable events that led up to the creation of the Wusasa in 1929. It was the first Christian community of northern Nigeria and the first – pioneering – centre before the advent of numerous Christian denominations later in the century. And it was the first to have arisen from the earliest Christian Mission to establish itself inside a Muslim walled city in Northern Nigeria, Zaria.

To describe Wusasa’s alumni is to talk of a small and closely-knit inter-marrying community whose members, between 1966 and 1975, became part of the Nigerian elite, the New Nigerians.

They joined a Christian elite that had formed in the South during the nineteenth century so well described by Professor Jacob Ajayi in his Christian Mission in Nigeria: 1841-1891. What bound them together, whether Hausa, Tiv or Angas was their schooldays. They had passed through, married into, or were in some way associated with, an African imitation of an English Public School, St. Bartholomew’s.

In the Nigerian context, to ask why a school grew up when and where it did may provide an answer to why Malam X is growing guinea-corn on two acres and Malam Y is a Federal Commissioner.

So this story begins in the world of Victorian and Edwardian England and ends with the New Nigerians. It concerns the impact of one man, one mission and one emirate set in the turbulent early days of Empire in Hausaland.

Walter Miller’s Times obituary on 27 August 1952 described him as “The Apostle to the Hausas”. Miller’s coup in getting Aliyu (Emir of Zazzau 1903 -1921) removed was his finest hour.

The removal of Aliyu was the political climax to his work in Zaria. But it finally made him persona non grata with the Northern Residents. The deposition of Emir Aliyu was a telling demonstration, had any been needed, that the handful of Zaria Christians led by Dr Miller was playing a disproportionately political role in the town.

If education was the means of creating a cohesive Christian elite, marriage and kinship were the way of sustaining it in a hostile environment. Down the road from Durumin Maigarke was Ethel Miller’s girls’ hostel. Her favourite was a (mulier fortis) of the Emir Aliyu, Ha nnatu, with whom she established a warm relationship.

Each morning she marched her cohort of ten or so girls from Sabon Gida, Ungwan Gimbiya to school at Miller’s compound led by their teacher, Kassawanu. Hannatu, of Bachama origin, had formerly been a nursemaid for Mrs Tugwell (wife to the Bishop of West Africa) in Lagos.

Fluent in Yoruba, Hausa and English, Hannatu came to Zaria in 1907 with a group of four girls chosen to be the nucleus of the new girls’ school. The aim was to have a group of educated Christian wives for the converts from the Zaria Mission. The girls had been selected from Freed Slaves Homes and were technically orphans.

Many men must have been eyeing the little Party as it proceeded to Durumin Maigarke, none more eagerly than the young men of the Christian community. That the girls’ training was directed at their becoming pious matrons was never disguised.

They were taught the full range of domestic skills alongside reading, writing and arithmetic and English. They were advised to weigh up any suitor’s virtues and defects – it was a seller’s market – ponder carefully, and stay engaged for at least six months before consenting to marriage.

One of the first decisions made by the Church Committee was that some reading ability was required before the girls could be confirmed. Girls had to be over 19, boys over 21 before they could marry.

The first wedding, one that etched itself in its white perfection on the memory of the first generation of Christians, was between Hawau, a Fulani girl who, at the age of 14, had worked as the Resident’s wife’s maid, and Abdulmajid Miller (from Katsina but baptized in 1898 at Tripoli, Libya). It took place in 1914 and set the tone for all later weddings. A ring and a Bible were ordered from abroad.

From July 1914 to January 1916 there were four weddings. In all their Englishness, they represented the founding of the first indigenous Christian community in the northern Nigeria emirates. Henry Miller married Martha Julie, an Adamawa girl, captured at an early age, who had passed through Lokoja Mission and Zungeru Freed Slaves Home. A few months later Kassawanu married a young student teacher at the boy’s school, Musa Aitken.

The last of the 1907 cohort, Adama, educated first at the CMS Girls’ school in Ibadan, married Ibrahim Joe, a Zaria tailor baptised in 1910. Finally, Ali Donli Fox wedded Ruth Gambo, a daughter of a Nupe butcher who lived near the Mission. Her father had allowed her to attend the school after the dispensary at the Mission saved her life.

The cohesion of the northern Christian community was greatly enhanced by these marriages which brought together freed slaves, immigrants from the South and converts from the town.

By the 1920s the children of the Banisra’ila (Isawa sect) were beginning to marry into the old Zaria town Christian community. The mixing gained ground in the next generation. The degree to which Christianity in its European package was adopted varied according to the convert’s personality and origins.

Bulus Audu, a farmer-trader, found a little place for the Englishness of Zaria Mission in his life; ‘team spirit’ was not relevant to the market price of the cake and cane sugar. There were men like John Tafida (Ma’ajin Zazzau later Dan Galadiman Zazzau) and Nuhu Bayero (later Dan Iyan Zazzau and Pro-Chancellor University of Lagos) with aristocratic backgrounds, who could move through a number of registers, from Church committees to the Byzantine politics of the Emir’s court.

Then there was Henry Miller, a former slave from the Lake Chad region, a pious man later to become the first Hausa clergyman, with a close identification with the values and aspirations of the Mission.”


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