Wiebe Boer: Son of Dutch Missionary Parents, Nigerian at Heart
Born in the Northern part of Nigeria to Dutch missionary parents, the C.EO of All On; an off-grid investment company, Wiebe Boer, is as Nigerian as they come. Despite being denied citizenship even after staying 16 years in Nigeria, his love for the country is yet to wane. In this exclusive interview with THISDAY, Boer, who is also an author and historian, sheds light on his Nigerian background, and his recently published book on ‘The History of Football in Nigeria’. Sunday Ehigiatorbrings excepts
Who is Wiebe Boer?
My name is Wiebe Boer. For my day job, I am the CEO of ‘All On’; an off grid energy investment company here in Nigeria funded by Shell. For my ‘side hustle’, I am a historian and author of the book ‘The History of Football in Nigeria’.
How was your upbringing ?
I was born and brought up in the Northern part of Nigeria to Dutch missionary parents. My father and mother came to Taraba State, Nigeria, in 1966 as missionaries to spread the gospel and engage with the Nigerian church and leadership. They consciously taught us Hausa and not Dutch because they wanted us to connect with Nigeria and Nigerians.
You authored the book ‘The History of Football in Nigeria’, what inspired you into writing such a historical piece?
I did my PhD in History at Yale University with a dual focus on West African Colonial History and African Religious History. My doctoral dissertation was actually on the topic, which the book is about. It was looking at sports and social life in colonial Nigeria and the social interaction between the colonial state and Nigerians that happened on the margins So it looked at everything; from cricket to polo, to every other sport and social interaction you can imagine – including social clubs and then how eventually football became the most popular sport in Nigeria.
I have also written quite a few articles over time on a variety of topics ranging from conflict resolution, land rights, religious history and more. There is also a book called ‘Football in Africa’ where I wrote a chapter on Nigeria. I have also co-edited a book titled ‘Africans Investing in Africa’. So that’s quite a variety, but this is the full book that I authored myself.
You mentioned having a background in history and particularly doing a PhD in African History at Yale. What fueled your interest in that field?
I was born here; I grew up here and spent my whole upbringing here in Nigeria. Being born in Nigeria does not give a foreigner any rights to citizenship. You have to live in the country for 16 years consecutively before you can apply. When I turned 16, I went to the Immigration Office at the Federal Secretariat in Jos to start the process, but was denied before it really even started.
So it was at that point that I realised I have spent all my life here but I’m not actually considered to be from here. So that led me on the journey to say to myself, “look, I want to study the history and understand Nigeria so well that, even if I’m not given the right to be a Nigerian, I know more about Nigeria than anyone else”. So that was the impetus.
Hope you have gotten the citizenship now?
No I haven’t gotten it. I left Nigeria for a period and have not been back yet for 16 years to restart the process.
Why the focus on sport in Nigeria?
When I was looking for a topic to write my doctoral dissertation on, I asked every Nigerian I met for the first two years of my graduate school, what was one thing about Nigeria that is positive, national, unifying and historical. The only answer that I ever received from anyone regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, religion, socio economic class, etc. was always just football.
The only thing we have in common in Nigeria is football. The only thing positive, national and unifying is football. So I took that as a mandate and decided that’s the story I wanted to tell how something so foreign became so central to Nigeria’s unified national identity. There is not even a major Nigerian language that has an indigenous word for ball. So football doesn’t connect to something from the pre-colonial times. It is something so foreign but within such a short time, it became so popular and localised to the point where it became something that people would say, this is what brings us together. So I wanted to trace the story of how that happened.
But really, it was a way to tell a story of Nigerian history that is about positivity. Something we had in common because most history that Nigerians study is about why we are different, how we don’t get along, etc. But football is actually something that we all have in common. It is a history that we share. That was why I wanted to do that.
Against the backdrop that Nigerians don’t see something the way an outsider would see them, how do you think they would view this book?
I think in terms of the view of the public on social media there has been a lot of comments that I’ve seen where people say, Oh! They see this book written about Nigerian history of football in Nigeria, but it’s written by an ‘Oyinbo guy’, and ‘why is an Oyinbo guy writing our history?’, ‘why can’t we write it ourselves?’
The questions are kind of a strange because, anyone should be free to write anything about anything they want to, be they foreigners or not. If a Nigerian wrote the history of the Netherlands; the country my parents are from, I don’t think anyone would ask why a Nigerian is writing the history of the Netherlands. So it was a very strange thing. But what often happens is when people make those comments then others will reply to them and say, do you even know who this person is? He was born in Nigeria; he has lived here longer than you.
It’s an interesting question that people usually asked though, but the reality is, the fact that I’m very familiar with Nigeria and I’ve lived here so long, and still considered an outsider, makes me have a different perspective. I have enough knowledge and familiarity of the country to write a story that was clearly from the perspective of someone who knew the length and breadth of this nation very deeply.
At the same time, as an outsider, I have a very national view and I don’t have any particular agenda other than to tell a positive and unifying story of Nigeria. I think one positive thing about writing as an outsider is that you can be free to write without biases that one that belongs might otherwise have. Some Nigerians probably cheer for the Super Eagles and have no idea where it all started from. That is the story this book tells.
Is this a kind of book that promotes the cultural heritage of Nigeria?
This book is focused on football and since football is not traditional to Nigeria, it doesn’t necessarily. It however does draw more insight on the heritage of our heroes in that every one of Nigeria’s founding fathers is mentioned in the book in some way or the other. They all had a role to play and then it does talk about how Nigerians took the game and made it their own. Maybe Nigerians changed the way the British may have wanted them to play in an overly structured way and they learnt how to play it in a more dynamic way. But for the most part, it’s not necessarily about Nigerian traditional heritage.
Does it capture the under celebrated or uncelebrated football heroes of Nigeria?
Yes, it captures the heroes during the colonial period which ended in 1960. Many of them were actually national leaders like Nnamdi Azikiwe who was a useful footballer; he played football in his secondary school in Lagos. He played for a team in Lagos and won the Lagos league in the 1920s. He then went to become the captain of the Lincoln University football team in the US.
He came back eventually, and started something called the Zik’s Athletic Clubs. He wasn’t allowed to be part of the white European clubs. He also wanted to join the Yoruba tennis club but they wouldn’t let him because he was Igbo and he said but I’m a Nigerian so why does it matter? Afterwards, He started a network of clubs across Nigeria called Zik’s Athletics’ Clubs (Z.A.C). Basically, every major city in Nigeria had them. And in those clubs, there would be football pitches, facilities for people to play a variety of sports, and so on. And it was purposefully set up so that any Nigerian could participate regardless of where they were from and.
During World War II, Zik took the best football players from those clubs and created one team, and then took them all around Nigeria playing matches across the nation. They played matches against local sides in cities all over the country. And then after the match, he would give a speech about some kind of anti-colonial and pro-independence theme. But because the purpose of the matches was to raise money for the War Fund, the colonial officials would be standing right next to him, even while he was talking against them and they couldn’t do anything about it. It was a brilliant form of anti-colonial protest.
He continued to have a big role in football and when he was inaugurated as Governor General in November, 1960, the Egyptian national team came to play the Nigerians national team. There were also football games all over the nation to celebrate his inauguration.
Others like Awolowo were also involved in football and played the game when they were younger. Tafawa Balewa was the chairman of the Referees Association. Ahmadu Bello was an Eton Fives player, but still promoted football throughout the North, both as Minister of Public Works and then as Premier of the Northern Region.
Give a summary of the major chapters of the book?
The first chapter is about how football started in Calabar. It was first played in Nigeria in Calabar in 1904 after being introduced by Presbyterian missionaries. Initially, the way Nigeria was structured in colonial times was like this: Lagos was a colony and then there was a separate Southern Protectorate which was headquartered in Calabar, then the Northern Protectorate which was initially headquartered in Lokoja, and then Zungeru and then eventually Kaduna.
In 1906, the capital of Southern Nigeria was moved to Lagos. So what happened then is football had started there and when all the officials and everything moved to Lagos, they also brought it with them to Lagos.
So basically it started in Calabar. Then, it went to Lagos and really took off in Lagos; in the schools, in the companies and in the government agencies like the public works department, the Marine Department, the railway, all of these now had their own football teams. Others included the police and the regiment as well as trading companies. So it was through those institutions that football went from Lagos and Calabar to the rest of Nigeria and became a national phenomenon.
Chapter two is Lagos. Chapter three is about how it went through the whole nation and how it became more organised following the formation of the Nigerian Football Association in 1933. Then there’s a chapter on how football spread through school sports and how school sports also helped to create interaction for Nigerians across the nation.
In those days, people didn’t travel that much. So if you are from what is now called Western Nigeria, you may not have even met people from the East. But through football, Christ the King teams would come to Lagos and play King’s College and so through that you would actually get to know each other.
And then there’s a chapter on the World War II tours that I talked about above. There is also a chapter about what was called The Governor’s Cup. The Governor’s Cup is what is now known as the Aeteo Cup, which is the Federation Cup; the FA Cup for Nigeria. The cup started in 1945. It was donated by the governor of the colonial government, Arthur Richards. At the time he donated the trophy it was basically just a Lagos event. By the end of the 1940s it was teams all over the country. By 1951 a team from Plateau Province actually made the final. In 1952 a team from Kano won. So quite quickly it actually became national in scope and it has continued to be so every year since 1945. It is the longest surviving tournament in Nigeria.
And what happened with that tournament is very quickly within a decade. If you look at the number of communities that were participating, it showed how interconnected Nigeria was, the kinds of small towns that were having teams in the tournament showed how broadly football had spread by then.
Then there is a chapter on the 1949 UK Tourist team where a selection of 18 players from around Nigeria represented the country for the first time. They had a series of seven matches against amateur clubs in England. Considering it was the best 18 of Nigeria and they were playing amateur clubs in England and only won two games, showed that the quality of Nigeria football was still not that high, though the tour created a lot of excitement.
The team was made up of 18 players; nine of them were graduates of Hope Waddell Training Institute in Calabar, that’s where football was first played in Nigeria. Among the 18, there was only one from the North, his name was John Dankaro. He was from what is now Taraba State but he grew up in Plateau and actually was a star footballer for the Tin Mines. His brother was Sunday Dankaro, who in the 70s and 80s was the chairman of the Nigerian Football Association.
Thunder Balogun was also on that team and then Etim Henshaw was the captain.. There was a guy named Titus Okere who in 1952 signed for Swindon Town in England and became Nigeria’s first professional football player overseas. But he actually wasn’t very good and he couldn’t even make the first team for Swindon Town which was in the Second Division. So it kind of shocked Nigeria to think that their better player was really struggling.
Thunder Balogun then went to England and played for Queens Park Rangers. He was the first Nigerian to score against Arsenal. He actually played quite well, but then he got injured. And then, he eventually became a coach. In the 1950s, you had those guys who were going to Europe.
Then there is a chapter on the last decade of colonialism and how matches against the Gold Coast and other countries helped create a sort of national identity for Nigeria. There is also a chapter on women’s football and how they have been far more successful internationally than their male counterparts.
The final chapter is on football and independence. There was a lot that happened as regards football at independence. There was a tournament that was organized, and they built what is now the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos. The initial version of that was built for independence. There was a tournament that involved Mali, Ghana and one other country in Nigeria. It was a small tournament to celebrate independence and so football had become a big deal.
Nigeria joined FIFA in 1959ctually before the country became independent.
The chapter on women’s football, is it also historical?
Yes, it’s a bit different though because organised women’s football didn’t start until 1989. In colonial times, the British colonial government actually didn’t allow organised women’s football because they said women shouldn’t play football. It was actually illegal to host women’s football games on football pitches that were recognised by the Nigerian Football Association. And the referees from the Referees Association couldn’t ref games with women.
But in any case, even though for the women, they didn’t officially become a recognised sport until 1989 by 1991, they were in the World Cup. They actually developed and have been more successful than even the men.
Are there other things you would also want us to take cognisance of about the book?
A lot of people, when they look at the book, they see how thoroughly researched it is and most people think that there isn’t a historical record in Nigeria to use to write proper history. But what I found when I was doing my research is that we actually have very good archival material. And so any topic that someone wants to write on Nigerian history, the materials are all there.
We have National Archives. There’s one here in Lagos, there are others in Enugu, Ibadan, and Kaduna, the three former regional capitals and they are all fantastic in terms of the archival materials available. . They have records of everything. So if you wanted to find out how did the royal family of your hometown come to be, and then you’ll find it may be in the provincial report of 1929. There will be something that you can find out about. So everything is there. I have used it to tell the story of football in Nigeria, but you can actually use the materials there to tell any historical stories about Nigeria and people should try and do that.
I am forced to ask how long it took you to do this research work?
The actual research and writing you know was for my doctorate. So you basically spend a year for research and then a year for writing. Often, the year of research takes that long because it’s so hard to find the materials. But I actually was able to do most of the research in three months. Because first, I was so excited about the topic, and secondly, there was just so much there. And so I actually had to say, Okay, ‘I have enough materials, I need to stop’.
But yes, it took about two years. I basically finished my PhD, started my career and then waited 15 years before I published the book with the help of my editor Kunle Kas and the publisher of Bookcraft in Ibadan.
Did it in any way take you outside the country to research or is the research locally grounded?
At Yale University where I was studying, they have digital copies of every Nigerian newspaper from 1860. So I looked at every Nigerian newspaper from 1860 to 1960.
And then, I spent time in Oxford. Oxford has a great archive of the personal papers of former colonial officials and missionaries in Nigeria. So I used that and then I came to Nigeria and traveled all over Nigeria; for the archives, but then also to meet and learn from the old players like Etim Henshaw and Justin Onwudiwe.
Who and who is the book targeted to?
It is targeted basically to everyone in Nigeria. Not necessarily just football fans. In fact, you just have to be someone who loves Nigeria and is interested in Nigeria; it’s a story of Nigeria that happens to be about football. So it is targeted to every Nigerian and anyone interested in Nigeria and loves Nigeria.
People could be quick to assume it is focused on people who love football. But someone who doesn’t have that much interest in football but is interested in the story of Nigeria would still find the book appealing.
Any final word?
If you are a Nigerian, love Nigeria, or interested in anything related to Nigeria, it’s a book you must read. Ensure to get a copy from any major bookshop around you. It’s also available online from Roving Heights, Konga, Jumia, and Amazon.