An evening with Prof. Murray Last: Fish, drinks and all

November 5, 2015
3 mins read

THE text came last Wednesday evening as usual, from Jibo Ibrahim: “Fish with Prof. Murray Last at 7. 30 pm”, it said tersely. So a few minutes after seven thirty, I arrived at our rendezvous. Seated were Jibo and his wife, Charmaine; Professor Ebere and our august guest, Professor Murray Last. It was our first meeting, but I have read practically everything that he has written, or as much as I have come across.

The most recent being a chapter that he contributed to a very new book, edited by our friend Raufu Mustapha, a professor of Political Science at Oxford University, on Islam in Northern Nigeria. The fish didn’t take too long to arrive and the drinks flowed, but we had started tucking into a multi-directional conversation, soon after Jibo introduced me to Murray Last.

Remarkable intellectual

Now, this remarkable intellectual has truly encyclopedic knowledge of Northern Nigeria.

He wrote his famous Ph. D thesis on the Sokoto Calipahate for the University of Ibadan, in 1963. As a matter of fact, Murray Last invented the phrase “SOKOTO CALIPHATE”, because until his doctoral work, and commencing from the British conquest of the Sokoto Caliphate, which started from Ilorin and Bida in 1897, and climaxing in Sokoto in 1903, the British narrative spoke of the “Fulani Empire”, in order to pejoratively reduce it into an ethnic project, rather than what it really was: the most important and most extensive political and religious reformative project in pre-colonial African history!

Murray Last, working within the ambience of the Ibadan History Project, one of the greatest intellectually resourceful historical projects in African history, re-defined and  re-interpreted the jihad of 1804, as one of the greatest processes in recent human and African history, in doing his doctorate in history, at the University of Ibadan.

Murray Last would go on to do another doctorate in anthropology. And since 1970, has returned annually to a MAGUZAWA village in Katsina state, to study the community. The Maguzawa are “pagan” Hausa communities, who refused to convert to Islam and have retained a code of existence dating back to pre-Islamic life in Northern Nigeria. He has also become a world authority on “Hausa medicine” and those nuanced issues of everyday life in Northern Nigeria.

An evening like we had, allowed a peek into various aspects of life, not in a structured manner, but in an incredibly elaborate manner of discovery;because so many things were talked about and pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of existence began to fit in.

For instance, Last revealed that the infamous Sambisa Forest was actually started as a reserve, just to allow a colonial Resident in Borno to have a place to hunt! In the same manner, that the famous Gobirau Minaret in Katsina, was actually constructed in the 1920s, by a colonial Resident.

It was Murray Last who made a detailed study of the Muslim Cemetery records in Kano, and came to the remarkable conclusion that far more people die in Kano on Fridays than any other days of the week!

In the Islamic belief system, it is a blessing to die on a Friday and furthermore, it is the day that is believed the world would end! The incredible element of his study was that far more women and children die on Fridays than the men; it was also curious that “pious and religious men” don’t seem to die on Fridays!

There was a lot more! For instance, Murray Last noticed the fact that only 70 Fulbe Jihadists rode into Zaria, while the Habe Emir rode out with over 3000 people as the city was incorporated into the Sokoto Caliphate.

Professor Ebere was surprised about that fact and wondered why. Murray Last also reminded about the civil war that took place inside Kano that obliged Sokoto to send in troops to eventually suppress the revolt.

In an incredible colonial exploitation of the facts of history, the troops that the Brirish used to conquer Sokoto, the capital of the caliphate, were mainly recruited from Kano! He also pointed out that open spaces and parks in British cities and colonies, are seen as part of civilised existence today, but they had a military raison d’etre: they were created as spaces to camp mainly cavalry troops and their horses (that will need to fodder), in order to suppress revolts and uprisings against the ruling classes!

There were other far more revealing, even incredibly “subversive” insights, about individuals and episodes, in the history of the past fifty years in Northern Nigeria, that I am unable to put into this narrative.

It was a most incredible night of eating and drinking but above all, of feeding the mind with one of the most remarkable intellectuals who has dedicated his life to the study of the history of Northern Nigeria, Professor Murray Last. Remarkable evening indeed!

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