- "Life Not Worth Living": Nigerian Petitions Reflecting an African Society's Experiences during World War II (African World Series) ed. by Chima J. Korieh
edited by chima j. korieh
Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2014, pp. 314, $45.00 paper.
"But for the Government you represent," one angry petitioner warned the district officer of Itu in Eastern Nigeria, "believe me, I would have taught you a lesson" (61). Such encounters between frustrated Africans and the colonial government form the basis of Korieh's volume; they cast the social history of wartime Nigeria into new and intimate relief. The book is not a full-length study of its subject, but rather a collection of 249 petitions, prefaced by two contextual essays. It is part a work in progress, incorporating Korieh's 2010 study, and anticipating future publications.1 There is no doubting Korieh's claim that "the import" of such sources "for understanding coloniality, the development of infra-politics, the self-assertion that yielded colonial responses to peasant demands is immense" (15). The succession of food controls inaugurated by the 1941 Nigerian General Defence Regulations left local traders and farmers in penury. In the words of George Illogu, one farmer who was denied an essential trading permit, "I am highly irritated, and I am despair at such a heart-rendering incident" (242).
Korieh's approach is notably different from that taken in continent-wide surveys, such as Killingray's,2 but also has a source-driven and local focus that differentiates it from the essays in Byfield, Parsons, Brown and Sikainga's recent volume.3 In its attention to African voices, and its warning of the need to differentiate between African actors, it differs significantly from the analytic framing of earlier works such as Olusanya's and Ubah's and is more likely to form a counterpart to recent work on the social history of Nigeria in the 1940s, such as Aderinto's work on wartime Lagos and Mordi's discussion of the Nigerian press.4 [End Page 207] Nonetheless, its focus on wartime petitioning is not matched in current work on World War II in Anglophone West Africa.
Its identification of letters of petitions as a major source for the study of the War in Africa and its bringing a body of these petitions to an international readership is the major contribution of this book. This rich body of source material has largely been ignored in the historiography of the War in West Africa, possibly because it is almost entirely located in African archives. "Life Not Worth Living" brings these petitions out of the archive and into research libraries and classrooms. As Korieh explains (19), he has presented the petitions with a minimum of editorial apparatus, although a number of letters are accompanied by explanatory footnotes elucidating official responses to the petitioners (sometimes this is a bald "ignore"; 242, fn. 240). Despite the problems of missing text and infelicities of spelling that often typify such petitions files, the texts read coherently and although Korieh has chosen to maintain original spelling, this presents no difficulty for the reader. Although he identifies numerous potential avenues of enquiry in his introduction, Korieh's petitions are divided thematically between those concerning petrol and transport restrictions, and those focusing on food control. Two appendices reproduce legislation that made it harder to traders to earn a living and maintain their mobility: the Food Control order made by AFB Bridges limiting the supply of gari to Northern Nigeria and the Control of Bicycle Spare Parts and Accessories (Eastern Princes) Order of October 1943 (281–85).
Compelling though they are, the petitions are not simply windows into colonial society, but are carefully crafted texts in their own right. Korieh goes some way to acknowledging this by outlining some of the features common to the genre in his Introduction, including their "candid" nature (11), their discursive range moving from "pleas in simple language" (12) to "more sophisticated outcries" (12). This latter type of petition is characterized both by "style and expression," including "technical and bombastic" language...