Wiebe Boer: How the coloniser’s tool became Nigeria’s unifying sport

When Wiebe Boer was 16, he went to an immigration office to apply for Nigerian citizenship. He was born to missionaries in Jos, and had lived all his life in Nigeria, moving between towns and cities in the north. So, he had nominally fulfilled the conditions of naturalization, which says you have to have resided in Nigeria for a continuous period of fifteen years. But he was denied. “The immigration officer just thought I was stupid,” he says, with a slight smile on his face. “That was when you could only have single citizenship, so he was actually protecting me. But, obviously, that forever impacted me, because I’d always thought I was Nigerian, and then this guy is telling me I’m not.”

Boer’s Nigerianness is the first thing I was told to take note of when I was sent his book, A Story of Heroes and Epics: The History of Football in Nigeria (1904-1960). “He’s Dutch, but he grew up in Nigeria.” Perhaps this was to pre-empt my reaction to his book: another history of Nigeria written by a white man. Boer’s book is also potentially problematic because it tells the story of a sport imported through colonisation that has now become a symbol of national unity. The writer knows this too.

“Cynics may consider the story of a nationwide phenomenon developed over the colonial period a tragedy;” he writes in the book’s conclusion, “one demonstrating the total success and domination of the colonial power in the colonial encounter. As I have attempted to outline, however, despite its total foreignness, in a matter of decades, football emerged as the sport of choice of the Nigerian masses, regardless of the greater promotion of other activities they chose to ignore.”

Copies of A Story of Heroes and Epics: The History of Football in Nigeria (1904-1960) by Wiebe Boer. Photo: Adaku Nwakanma

In 1997, Boer started his graduate studies at Yale University. He was contemplating what to work on, he says, and thought, “If I’m going to write a history about something in Nigeria, a country I grew up in, I wanted it to be important and let it be a thing that people in Nigeria say is the only thing that ties us together.” So, for the first two years that he was doing course work, he asked Nigerians he knew and met one question: “What is something that’s positive, national, unifying and historical about Nigeria?” The answer he got, regardless of ethnicity, region, religion, age, gender and socio-economic class was football.

He completed his Phd in History, but had no interest to work in academia, so he went into development. But he always wanted to publish the work on the history of football in Nigeria for a large audience. “It was always something that was nagging me,” he says. “You know, I put in all these work. The ambition was to write something for Nigeria that was important, and you know, if it’s just a PhD thesis that is only on five shelves, it’s not something that’s as useful.”

He left the U.S., worked in Mauritania, returned to the U.S. for a bit, and finally came to Nigeria in 2010. He thought it was time to figure out who would be interested in the book, but he was working, building The Tony Elumelu Foundation, and there was just no time. While at the foundation, however, he met an entrepreneur with a small business in Ibadan making bags, who the foundation was supporting, and discovered her husband was Bankole Olayebi, the publisher of Bookcraft. So, he asked, “Bankole, I wrote this book, this 500-page academic thing on football. Would there be an interest?” Anyone who is familiar with Bookcraft’s work as a publisher of books that straddle the popular and academic can predict the answer to that question.

“The academic version is like 500 pages, very dense and it has a lot of stuff about spectacle and masculinity and a lot of stuff on cricket and polo and athletic imperative and the British colonial system,” Boer says of his book. He’s in his office at All On, an off grid energy investment fund for Nigeria where he’s Chief Executive Officer. “It’s interesting if you’re an academic, but if you’re the popular reader of football, you’ll read it and say, ‘Why are you killing my vibe?’” His editor worked on it, taking out the denser academic topics. He had already written his thesis in a fluid way, because he feels people who make academic writing difficult “can’t really communicate properly.” The result of the multi-year process is a book that examines the history of football in Nigeria from when the colonial masters brought the round ball across the ocean to the country’s independence.

“I think it’s very easy to say football was a colonial construct forced on people,” Boer says. “But in the colonial state, the senior officials were focused on other sports, so the fact that Nigerians rejected them and accepted football, the sport of the missionaries and lower class colonial officials, was itself a form of colonial protest. It’s easy to miss that and think I’m trying to praise the British, who brought this cultural thing, and Nigerians just blindly followed it because they weren’t thinking. If you look at the history of cricket and how it was promoted, football was really marginalised. So, the Nigerian public just said, this is what we prefer.”

Monochrome portrait of Nnamdi Azikiwe
“I don’t think anyone used it quite effectively and to promote the nation as Azikiwe did.” Photo: Codepen.io

To emphasise this, A Story of Heroes and Epics is also the story of Nnamdi Azikiwe. Nigeria’s first president was a football star in his 20s, a football promoter in his 30s, and in his 40s he did tours across the country with sports—football included—as a showcase. He eventually became the first indigenous governor-general in Nigeria, but by then, he had also illustrated how sports can be indigenised in a way that is similar to how cricket was in India: by becoming the sport of local elites. His athletic clubs were the summation of his verve for the sport, but they were also borne out of rejection. He was rejected by the British from being part of the empire games, and rejected, again, back in Nigeria when he wanted to join the Yoruba Tennis Club. The man born in Zungeru—now in Niger State, Nigeria—and known as Ibrahim Zungeru, as a kid, always had a big view of Nigeria, and he used football to fulfil his nationalist dreams.

“Maybe this is a romanticized view of his role,” Boer says, “but it does seem like he used it for the right reasons. You get a sense that he used football to celebrate unity and national identity, not necessarily to glorify himself. I think it’s changed a little bit if you look at the two biggest political figures who used football in post-colonial Nigeria. Abiola, in the 1980s, was a businessman before anything else, and he used football quite effectively. It was both to popularize the game and promote himself. The other was Orji Uzor Kalu, the former governor of Abia state, who took Enyimba, even though it was a state government thing, and used it to promote himself. But I don’t think anyone used it quite effectively and to promote the nation as Azikiwe did.”

Beyond the attention of local elites like Azikiwe, Boer also thinks the sport became popular in Nigeria, over cricket, which the British were much more interested in, because of its simplicity and the Nigerian character. “It’s hard to say what that is, but for the most parts with Nigerians, there’s a lot of virtuosity and spontaneity, and cricket doesn’t allow for that. Football is all about that.

“Football has also been interracial. Cricket was divided: there was a European cricket board, and an African cricket board. There was cricket inter-colonials, but it was colonial officials in Nigeria versus colonial officials in the gold coast. In football, you had that a few times, but for the most part, it was indigenes of Nigeria who were representing.”

The racial dynamics of football and its nuances are the kind of detail only someone like Boer could have been sensitive to. By researching the history of football, he realized that until the 1950s, the term Nigerian used to mean everyone who was in Nigeria. So, there were European Nigerians, Syrian Nigerians, African Nigerians, etc. For a someone who at 16 was confronted with the reality of his nationality, his reaction was recognition: “Haha, you see!”

There were other parts of Boer’s identity that came to bear in his book beyond the obvious one—race. As a child of Dutch missionaries, he is sensitive to how the role of missionaries in African history is looked upon negatively, especially in academia, as importing religion that came with colonialism to which Africans were forced to convert. “The real history is more nuanced than that,” he says. Lamin Sanneh, one of his professors at Yale, advised that if he was going to write about religious history, everyone would think he is biased. “He said, ‘you can make this point, but in a totally different way.’” No Nigerian tribe or culture has an indigenous word for football, or even ball, so it’s as alien as christianity. Yet, the sport can be used for examining other cultures imported through colonialism that now have a positive influence on Nigeria.  But Boer is also aware of how the Brits used football as a tool of their imperial rule.

“There was one chapter [in the academic thesis] on sports in the service of empire and how the colonial state tried to use sport to promote colonial ideals and colonial power, even in the way towns were set up. There would be the GRA, which is where the British officials would be, then there would be the Sabon Gari, where the non-northerners lived, then there would be the indigenes, and they would use football fields to divide these communities, which is an incredibly subtle way of using sports to segregate.”

The interview ends, and we prepare to leave his office. Boer asks if I’m a football fan. I say I used to play but barely watch. I ask if he ever played too, and he says he wasn’t good. But three of his four sons play now, and they’re very good. I tell him soccer can be boring to watch and he seems a little taken aback. “That’s the other reason I wrote this book;” he says, “I’m a football fanatic.”

The presentation of “A Story of Heroes and Epics: The History of Football in Nigeria” will hold at Freedom Park, Lagos Island, Lagos, by 4pm on 10 June 2018.