Bring Back Our History, By Moses E. Ochonu


I have written this piece solely to question the widespread idea that we had a glorious postcolonial past and that today’s sociopolitical and economic realities are radical departures from that past. I get tired of ahistorical whitewashing of founding statesmen men as exemplars of what was right about their nations, as embodiments of better times and politics in these countries, from which subsequent generations purportedly strayed.

The minister of Education, Malam Adamu Adamu, said recently that the Nigerian government plans to restore history to the secondary school curriculum. For inexplicable reasons, history was excised from the curriculum several years ago. The government’s decision is commendable but they should get started on its implementation because historical illiteracy and amnesia is slowly killing the country. We are a country afflicted by an epidemic of forgetting and “moving forward.” We move forward without understanding and resolving our past only to realise at great cost that our unfinished businesses are holding us captive and stalling our forward mobility.

Nigeria Founding Fathers

The absence of historical consciousness in Nigeria hurts and haunts the country in multiple ways. Take corruption. Many Nigerians believe that corruption only entered the Nigerian political lexicon during our latest flirtation with democracy, that is, post-1999. A few may cite the military era that preceded the Fourth Republic. Very few remember or are familiar with the corruption of the Second Republic, let alone the fact that the First Republic was rocked by multiple corruption scandals.

The absence of historical memory in the domain of corruption is the reason many Nigerians say Nigeria should “move forward” instead of investigating past crimes. Grappling with the past and addressing its tragedies and residual pains is seen as moving backwards, opening old wounds. It is the reason many are willing, even eager, to forgive past political crimes against the Nigerian people. It is the reason we are too quick to move on to new scandals, the reason we get bored with old crimes, and fail to see a trans-regime tapestry of corruption and abuse of power. It is the reason we see political malfeasance and misbehaviour in isolated blocks rather than as continuities, rather than as a continuum needing to be disrupted.

This dearth of history in our public discourse is the reason old criminals are quickly ignored and manage to sneak back, unnoticed, into the orbit of power, their crimes forgotten.

This dearth of history in our public discourse is the reason old criminals are quickly ignored and manage to sneak back, unnoticed, into the orbit of power, their crimes forgotten. It is the reason that politicians delay their corruption trials, knowing that our legendary short memory and disconnection from history will buy them time, enabling their troubles to fizzle out.

It is as though our baseline of remembering is yesterday. It was the literary icon, Chinua Achebe, who said perspicaciously that, if we are going to fix Nigeria, we should go back to when the rain started beating us. This was a compelling statement on the value of retrospective reflection, of history, in our search for diagnostic and ameliorative ideational tools. The irony and problem is that many Nigerians believe that the proverbial rain started beating us in 2010, 1999, or with the annulment of the June 12 presidential election in 1993. We have historical shortsightedness.

There are Nigerians who believe that election rigging, political opportunism, incompetence, and leadership indifference are phenomena associated with the post-1999 period, or that, at worst, they go back to the Second Republic. The First Republic is often understood in simplistic terms of the “good old days.” But those days weren’t so good, at least not politically. There are Nigerians for whom even the Obasanjo administration is a distant and irrelevant past, unrelated to the challenges of the present.

A Dangerous History?

Some people say Nigerian history is too contentious and that teaching it would create more problems that it would solve. All histories are contentious — and contested. This argument against the teaching of Nigerian history is founded on a naively simplistic notion of history. History is not a single, consensual story about an event, nation, or people, or an attempt to produce such a monolithic narrative. History is the sum of many stories, all of them purporting to explain the same thing. Every historical work tells just one out of many possible stories. The notion of narrating the past “as it happened” is passé, a futile quest that no historian I know subscribes to.

This complexity does not, however, take away from history’s importance to nation building. It enhances it. The idea that it would be dangerous to teach Nigerian secondary school students and university undergraduates about the Nigerian Civil War, to use an oft-cited example, is responsible for the unforgivable ignorance of Nigerians about this recent war that continues to haunt and plague the nation. This idea, too, rests on the erroneous notion that we must find a consensus on how to teach Nigerian history or that we must teach it uniformly across the country or we shouldn’t teach it at all. We have boxed ourselves into a corner of self-annihilating historical ignorance with this all-or-nothing logic.

We are now producing secondary school and university graduates who cannot make sense of Nigeria beyond 1999 or 1993, graduates whose only knowledge of the troubles of the First Republic and the Civil War is filtered through contemporary ethno-religious politics detached from a history of British conquest, amalgamation, colonisation, and the troubled, colonially stage-managed march to independence.

We seem to perpetually grope for symbols and histories upon which to posit and defend the basis for Nigeria’s oneness, but we prohibit the teaching of a history that demonstrates a long, precolonial period of intertwinements between Nigeria’s many constituencies.

How can we build a nation with generations buried in a depth of historical ignorance?

Speaking of nation building, no nation is to be taken for granted, and the imperative of building and rebuilding the nation is precisely why serious countries invest in the study of history, including the United States, where some American history is taught in middle school, is compulsory in secondary school, and is among a set of humanities and social science courses university students, regardless of their Majors, must take.

Nigerian history is no more dangerous than other histories. The disruptive crises and events that seem to proliferate in Nigerian history are offset and positively negated by a long history of associational, marital, mercantile, cultural, political, linguistic, and genetic comingling by Nigeria’s many ethnic groups and kingdoms.

We seem to perpetually grope for symbols and histories upon which to posit and defend the basis for Nigeria’s oneness, but we prohibit the teaching of a history that demonstrates a long, precolonial period of intertwinements between Nigeria’s many constituencies.

Ahistorical Nationalist Myths

Because we no longer study out past, the pioneer politicians who superintended the Nigerian state at independence are often lionised and almost divinised as icons of nationalist commitment and probity. Historically uninformed Nigerians portray them as paragons of ethical rectitude, but all three notable regional political heavyweights were dogged by corruption scandals in the First Republic. Awolowo was entangled in the Western Region Cocoa Marketing Board corruption scandal; Ahmadu Bello was tried in a colonial court for embezzlement; and Dr. Azikiwe was smeared by the corruption scandal in the Eastern Region-owned African Continental Bank (ACB).

There is a related notion out there that Nigeria’s founding fathers and the main political protagonists of the Second Republic, Balewa, Awolowo, Zik, Ahmadu Bello, and others, were exemplars of patriotism. We are told that Nigeria lost its way when it moved away from the vision of the founding fathers or First Republic statesmen, when subsequent generations of leaders abandoned any loyalty to Nigeria and began serving their pockets and ethno-regional interests. A binary opposition is posited between founding nationalists and their parochial, divisive successors.

Nothing could be more ahistorical than this portrayal. With the exception perhaps of Zik, these founding politicians did not even believe in the nation and merely went along with what the British desired and designed. They were more committed to their various provincial identities and aspirations and regularly dramatised the differences between the different peoples of the union in their speeches and writings.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo is often regarded as the oracle of Nigeria’s struggle with unity. Much of this reputation emanates from this statement he made:

“Nigeria is not a nation. It is a mere geographical expression. There are no ‘Nigerians’ in the same sense as there are ‘English,’ ‘Welsh,’ or ‘French.’ The word ‘Nigeria’ is a mere distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria and those who do not.” (Chief Obafemi Awolowo, 1947).

But Awolowo was hardly alone in his skepticism of Nigeria’s workability as a nation. Tafawa Balewa, for his part, made the following statement:

“Since 1914 the British Government has been trying to make Nigeria into one country, but the Nigerian people themselves are historically different in their backgrounds, in their religious beliefs and customs and do not show themselves any signs of willingness to unite … Nigerian unity is only a British invention.” (Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, 1948).

On a separate occasion, the future prime minister had this to say about the prospect of Nigerian nationhood:

“Since the amalgamation of the Southern and Northern Provinces in 1914, Nigeria has existed as one country only on paper. It is far from being united. The country is inhabited by peoples and tribes who speak different languages, who have different historic backgrounds in their way of life and have also attained different stages of development.”

Nigeria is not the only country that has erected myths around its founding fathers and politicians. The United States, where I reside, engages in this type of mythmaking and ahistorical lionisation of its founding fathers.

Two decades later, when the strains of regional rivalries and distrust had registered tragically, even the pan-Africanist, Nnamdi Azikiwe, suggested that he no longer believed in Nigeria as a nation:

“It is better for us and many admirers abroad that we should disintegrate in peace and not in pieces. Should the politicians fail to heed the warning, then I will venture the prediction that the experience of the Democratic Republic of Congo will be a child’s play if it ever comes to our turn to play such a tragic role.” (Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, 1964).

In his 1962 autobiography/memoir, Sir Ahmadu Bello made the following telling statement:

“The colonial master who ruled Nigeria introduced a system of unitary government not for the present or future unity or wellbeing of all indigenes of the country, but for its own administrative convenience. Lord Lugard and his amalgamation were far from popular amongst us at that time.” (Ahmadu Bello, My Life, p. 135).

These words are eerily similar to the centrifugal and provincial words of our politicians today, but we don’t make the connection to the past. If we don’t appreciate the propensity of history to repeat itself or for historical attitudes to persist into the present, how can we break the cycle?

Nigeria is not the only country that has erected myths around its founding fathers and politicians. The United States, where I reside, engages in this type of mythmaking and ahistorical lionisation of its founding fathers. The reputations of American founding fathers are sanitised and rewritten to exclude the odious things they did, said, and practiced, and their commitment to the country, circumscribed and self-interested as it was, is given a nationalist gloss, a hyper-patriotic makeover.

Go to Kenya. Jomo Kenyatta is venerated as a nationalist founding deity. But it was this same Kenyatta who, when asked about his involvement in the Mau Mau anticolonial rebellion, cowardly and opportunistically denied knowing Dedan Kimathi, the Mau Mau leader who, along with his fighters, laid down their lives to defend their sovereignty and rights, and whose rebellion ultimately pressured Britain to initiate decolonisation.

It was this same Kenyatta who, my Kenyan professor friend tells me, once berated Oginga Odinga because the latter had not amassed any wealth despite having served in the post-independence government for several years — for, so the story goes, not having anything to show for his position in the government. What was Odinga doing for himself, Kenyatta is said to have asked his then political ally. In other words, Kenyatta was scolding Odinga for not stealing and personalising state funds as other “nationalists” had been doing as a reward for playing supporting cast to Kenyatta. How many Kenyans know this history in its full, uncomfortable complexity?

We historians have a name for this problem of excluding a rigorous study of the past from an interpretation of the present: presentism. It is the obsession with the present as a stand-alone period detached from and uninformed by the past.

Today, the late elder Kenyatta takes his place as the sole occupant of a pantheon of anticolonial nationalist heroes while Dedan Kimathi lies buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Kenya.

The myth of African nationalist founding fathers extends everywhere on the continent. In Tanzania, it is now forgotten that Mwalimu Nyerere, despite his commendable ascetic lifestyle and nationalist intentions, was an intolerant politician who drove several of his opponents, including Oscar Kambona, his former best friend, into exile.

It is now hardly remembered that Guinea’s Sekou Toure was a paranoid dictator and ethnic bigot who violently hounded his political opponents and their ethnic kinsmen.

There are no perfect nationalists or founding fathers anywhere, and I do not write this to discredit the legacies of Africa’s many founding nationalist heroes who are, despite their imperfections, enjoying deserved retrospective appreciation in their countries. But this reputational restoration is in some cases simply a case of present troubles making the past seem better than it was. Some of it is attributable to historical illiteracy, and to the crude reduction of history to a set of fumigated nationalist narratives. Some of it is a product of chronometric nostalgia, the idea of every generation regarding its era or the past generally as being better than the present.

I have written this piece solely to question the widespread idea that we had a glorious postcolonial past and that today’s sociopolitical and economic realities are radical departures from that past. I get tired of ahistorical whitewashing of founding statesmen men as exemplars of what was right about their nations, as embodiments of better times and politics in these countries, from which subsequent generations purportedly strayed.

This narrative is not founded on compelling evidence from that past, and is largely a fantastical, feel-good, critique of the present. It is a critique that works by romanticising the past and its political actors. More crucially, I would argue that it is a product of our aversion to history, to actually studying what occurred in the past — even if some of it is an unsettling revision of what we believe to have occurred — in order to understand how that past informs and is implicated in the affairs of the present.

We historians have a name for this problem of excluding a rigorous study of the past from an interpretation of the present: presentism. It is the obsession with the present as a stand-alone period detached from and uninformed by the past. Presentism says basically that the present explains itself, that we do not need the past to illuminate our present conditions and circumstances. Presentism is a dangerous societal disease, and it currently appears to be domiciled in Nigeria.

Let us tackle this disease headlong. So I say to Malam Adamu, #BringBackOurHistory.

Moses E. Ochonu can be reached at meochonu@gmail.com.

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