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Reviewed by:
  • Constructions of Belonging: Igbo communities and the Nigerian state in the twentieth century
  • Rebecca Golden
Axel Harneit-Sievers , Constructions of Belonging: Igbo communities and the Nigerian state in the twentieth century. Rochester NY: University of Rochester Press (hb £45.00 - 978 15804 6167 2). 2006, 400 pp.

Harneit-Sievers endeavours to identify key factors in the construction of Igbo communities in the last century. His research invokes colonialism, Christianity, political ethnicity and the post-colonial state as 'external' elements, and town unions, neo-traditional institutions and documents on local histories as 'internal' components in the Igbo struggle for identity. The author is ambitious in the volume of material addressed; however, much of the ethnographic evidence is presented in terms of generalities rather than emic, detailed experiences, rendering this potentially rich volume rather dry.

The book is organized into four parts: historical and anthropological introductions; external factors in creating community; internal factors; and local case studies. Part 1 consists of two chapters that address historical, political and social structures in south-eastern Nigeria, including Nri hegemony and the Arochukwu military-religious machine, as well as an interesting albeit brief discussion of economic structures (trade networks). Contrasting notions of centre/periphery and monarchy/republic, Harneit-Sievers establishes a framework for the subsequent chapters.

Part 2 (four chapters) describes Igbo community creation through external influences such as colonialism, missionization, and post-colonial nationhood. British reorganization tactics (administrative and geographic institutions) are discussed in terms of communal and gerontocratic power shifts in identity. The women's war of 1929 is cited as an example of resistance to colonial politico-economic changes (taxation), but the argument is underdeveloped, particularly when the author posits that opposition was a key feature in constructivist identity formation. Chapter 4 contrasts Anglican and Catholic missionization [End Page 311] with traditional Igbo political systems, proposing that Christianity established territorial organization over community identity. However, there is no discussion of Igbo cosmology as a defining aspect of the Nigerian civil war, nor of economic migration as one of the more definitive aspects of external identity construction. The last chapter of the section illustrates well the precarious nature of contemporary Nigerian federalism and the scramble for local government area formation (the LGA is the smallest politico-administrative unit) and federal funds in the contexts of national poverty, wealth and Igbo ethnicity.

Part 3 (three chapters) discusses how Igbo community was created through town unions, traditional rulers, autonomous communities and local histories. Chapter 7 argues that town union creation was the most important aspect of self-organization in Igbo culture in the last century, although it was recently usurped by neo-traditional kingship institutions. Tension between the two institutions, or how the town union figured in daily life, are topics not tackled by Harneit-Sievers. Chapter 8 presents a strong argument for traditional rulers as agents of the state. A relatively modern 'invention' developed during Abacha's regime when rulers were added to the national payroll; the author argues that traditional rulers have been rendered weak administrative chiefs, thus further complicating the imposition/imagination discords surrounding the post-colonial state. The section's last chapter proposes that Igbo documentation of local histories has contributed to the construction of communities, but no specific examples are offered from Igbo perspectives.

Part 4 consists of three case studies with common themes of community boundaries, institutionalization and local historical discourse. The case studies are situated in Umuopara (boundaries), Enuguwu-Ukwu (institutionalization), and Nike (historical discourse on slaves and 'free-born') and further portray the thematic arguments presented throughout the volume.

Harneit-Sievers concludes by contending that a certain 'Igbo exceptionalism' continues to exist within the Nigerian state through autonomous definitions and formations of community identities, and that relationships between the state and local communities are contested, negotiated and redefined. The author offers a solid historical account, an expansive literature review of related aspects of Igbo culture, and some interesting constructivist theoretical arguments about Igbo towns and communities. Nevertheless, the lack of an Igbo 'voice' and perspective in his narrative leaves the reader seeking a deeper understanding of Igbo concepts of community and identity.

Rebecca Golden
Tulane University


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pp. 311-312
Launched on MUSE
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