Abubukar Garba: Of Nigeria’s Greatest Archaeologist’s Exit

Abubukar Garba: Of Nigeria’s Greatest Archaeologist’s Exit

The passing away and burial on Sunday of Prof. Abubakar Garba has brought a remarkable life of scholarship to an end. I will admit, that Garba, who combined introversion and humility, and therefore confusing everyone of the difference between the two words, was little-known even here in Nigeria or Borno where he lived for the best part of his life. It is very sad that it was so.

Taciturn, as so much knowledge would make any man, Garba could not talk even when he wants to, nor would he when it was ‘demanded’ of him. All my knowledge of him, he would only talk when it was absolutely necessary. I have seen him quite a number of times before I knew he was the one. I have read about him and his works several times, including newspaper articles praising his academic breakthroughs; my boss, late Prof. M. Nur Alkali too would always cite the work as a point of reference for the reconstruction of the history of Lake Chad. Out of respect, whenever he visited my late father and boss, he would defy all pleas to sit on a chair. That was why I was shocked the first time I knew he was the one.

An accomplished archaeologist, Garba’s work on the archaeology of the prehistory of Nigeria is so far among the best discoveries about African past. That is why, knowing this, I have been greatly shocked that even the university where he served until his exit, the University of Maiduguri, did not to the best of my knowledge, 72 hours after he had passed away, deem it fit to pay its worthy son a deserving respect.

His work took our knowledge of Nigeria’s, or perhaps Africa’s past, to 8,500 years back, validating and improving on the works of historians and archaeologists like Sir Thurstan Shaw, Sir Liman Ciroma, the first Nigerian archaeologist, Prof. Akin Mobagunje and Graham Connah, among others.

In 1987, Mal. Ya’u, a herdsman looking for water for his cattle in a village in Yobe, Ndafuna, Fune local government, stumbled upon what would become a very important artefact. While digging a well along River Komadugu-daga in the village, he came across what became the most important material for the reconstruction of African History, particularly the Lake Chad region. Ya’u drew the attention of the village head to it and subsequently the state government.

The government sought the services of the University of Maiduguri to study the site and conduct a research regarding the discovery of Ya’u. UNIMAID jointly with the University of Frankfurt, excavated the canoe in 1994 and subsequently subjected it to dating in Germany. The radiocarbon dating it was subjected to indicated that the canoe was 8,500 years old, the second oldest (second only to the Pesse Canoe) in the world. In this joint work, Prof. Garba was the ‘lead’ Nigerian in the team. Perhaps the work further reinforced Cheik Ante Diop’s (and his disciples’) argument that says human civilisation originated from Africa. In Swaziland and Congo, for instance, the two oldest calculators known to mankind, dated to be 28,000 years, were discovered—whereas its European equivalent was in 1642 by Blaise Pascal, a Frenchman. It was remarkably, after scrutiny, discovered that the African calculators were used to calculate menstrual period, indicating as far back as such a time, Africans know how to calculate their periods!

The canoe’s sophistication has shown the presence of high-level technology and civilization in the Lake Chad region. The choice of materials, which also bespeaks of the technology available to its manufacturers, shows us that African civilisation and technology are by far older and more sophisticated than those in the West. Canoes are constructed with trees (wood/timber) that are fundamentally softer such that carving them, along with other architectural requirements, can be easily done. I have little idea of the vegetation and/or in essence the geographical situation of such a distant past with any deep knowledge—and indeed the matter is not about the vegetation as it is about what use it was made of it. What the Dufuna discovery has shown us is that our people, some 8,500 years ago knew how to harness resources made available to them by nature and put them to best use. Similarly, if the ‘vegetation’ from which the canoe was developed was not as at the time typical of the area, we can simply agree that it must have been brought there from elsewhere by a resident group of people, probably long-distance travellers or traders, who knew how to process it. Or, alternatively, what we can deduce from it, is that, for instance, if we disagree with above instances, it must have been—the most uncharitable conclusion so to say—brought to the place by outsiders because there was something of great interest to them: a big market, a workshop, among other things. Interestingly, whatever the true culture of the Dufuna ‘finds’ might be, it’s 4,500 years ahead of Greeco-Roman civilisation, 3,500years ahead of Chinese civilization and 3,000years older than Egyptian civilisation.

Those of us whose area of academic interest is (peoples and eventually) state formation in the Lake Chad region consider Garba’s discovery, besides those of Thurstan Shaw, Akin Mobagunje and Graham Connah, a new step in our understanding of human past in the region. It has shown us that our people even at such a distant past could organise themselves and build great and sophisticated technologies, a feat achieved in Europe only in the 17th and 18th centuries. It has shown us that the peopling of the region was quite old, perhaps older by about 6000 years of what Eurocentric historiography wants us to believe. The sophistication therein showed that the builders of the canoe must have been involved in tech-driven agriculture (Neolithic population) and long-distance trade/commerce.

Marine Revolution, a revolution in water transportation, occurred in Europe only in the 16th century, 6,900 years later, about which time Christopher Columbus made his so-called discovery of America. Perhaps unfortunately Europe ‘deployed’ the feat to slave trade, to enhance the greatest wickedness meted on man. Slave trade took African manpower to the Americas (then only recently known to them) to provide European plantation owners with labour, which ultimately led to Industrial Revolution in Europe, one of the greatest advances in the history of mankind, in the 18th and 19th centuries—an attainment which has continued to dramatically change the world in all facets.

Chek Ante Diop had written a great book, (The African Origin of Civilisation) that is still unfortunately ‘poorly’ circulated, considering its value. In the book, he sought to, as did Prof. George James in 1954 (in his work the Stolen Legacies) to prove African origin of human civilisation. Here, some scholars have argued that at the moment, what is important is NOT in knowing the origin per se but about accepting present situations and working towards ‘moving forward’. This is true, but only to an extent. It is true that Africa has been left behind and needs to catch up with the rest of the world, rather than ‘intellectual lamentations’. But then I agree with the argument of Prof. Molefi Kete Asante of Temple University who said, for our continent to catch up, we must decolonize our curriculum and all the information about Africa. We must of course, change the narrative of Africa in such a way that boosts African confidence, the confidence of young men and women, to be able to find their rightful place in the world. If an African child says he doesn’t know and can’t understand Mathematics, Asante thought, the story would probably change if he’s told that his or her people started it—and taught the rest of the world! Or if someone says we cannot catch up with the rest of the world in technology, the story may change if we tell them that: we can, because our people started it!

It is in this light that Garba’s work has its place and value. And it is in the same light that we must recognize his efforts in extending the frontiers of our knowledge of ourselves and opening up new points of conversations about Africa. Obviously, it will hurt those of us who hold his discovery in such esteem when his exit is treated as though he’s like an ‘ordinary person’. The federal government is clearly unaware of the exit of one of the most illustrious citizens of Nigeria—as are the governments of Yobe and Borno. It is such a sad moment. May the soul of Prof. Garba rest in peace.

I am consoled that having related the situation to my colleagues at office, they agreed and offered to help keep his memories. There can’t be a better consolation.


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