February 28, 2010
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Nigerians, History and National Memory

Nigerians, History and National Memory

It is disheartening to know that history is no longer taught in Nigeria’s secondary schools and tertiary institutions. Politicians, including a former governor of Bayelsa State, would want to abolish the humanities and leave only the hard sciences. There we go wrong, ignoring the humanities and promoting only the hard sciences. I want to add my voice to those calling for the reinstatement of history into the curriculum at all levels of education in Nigeria. It is ironical that at my University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the history department is one of the largest in the entire university. I believe this holds true of most American universities dedicated to the promotion of knowledge in both the sciences and the humanities; none is promoted at the expense of the other. Those who promote education in the developed countries know the importance of history in human development in their respective countries. Through history a nation builds up a national ideology which drives the populace to nationalism and patriotism. We know the place of history in the United States, Japan, and China, among so many countries in promoting a national ideology. Let me take the case of the United States. The United States of America is a concept, as any country should be, and its exceptionalism brings people from anywhere in the world to fulfill it. With history, Americans, from elementary through middle and high schools first and through compulsory core history courses in the university, learn about the founding of their nation, the declaration of independence, abolition of slavery, and their triumphs over adversities at different stages of their national experience. This knowledge makes every American feel proud of their nation which they believe is destined to always be exceptional among other nations of the world.

With history not being taught in Nigerian schools, it is not surprising that the current generation of Nigerians do not know much or anything about the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70), an experience that nearly tore the country apart. People learn from their past, and Nigeria’s history should teach contemporary Nigerians, especially the youths and politicians, certain lessons from that period of conflict in the country. War as an option in the civil discourse of a country should be avoided and every effort should be made to have a common ground on issues that divide a people. There appears to be general amnesia and ignorance among most Nigerians because of the lack of attention to history and the consequences of historical experience. What do most Nigerians really know about the likes of Herbert Macaulay, NnamdiAzikiwe, TafawaBalewa, Ahmadu Bello, and ObafemiAwolowo? It was a pleasant surprise some weeks ago when I watched on NTA a feature piece on NnamdiAzikiwe, whose nationalist struggle is comparable to Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah’s, Tanzania’s MwalimuNyerere’s, and Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta. After watching the program, I was not surprised that Azikiwedid not support secession. He was a true nationalist whose contributions to Nigeria as a nation need to be taught across the country. Only recently I saw a book on ObafemiAwolowo being announced. I watched a program on how Sir AbubakarTafawaBalewawas received in the United States in 1963, I believe. Streets were lined to see the leader of Africa’s biggest nation. How things have changed! However, Nigerians in general need to know and the young ones in particular need to be taught about our past leaders so that we can learn from them. The Ghanaian Akan mythical figure of Sankofa comes to my mind. Sankofa looks backwards as it moves forward. Let us not forget or be ignorant of the past. The past will influence our present and lead to a much better future if we learn from its successes and failures.

I have done a lot of traveling and seenmonuments in other countries but not in Nigeria. The Nigerian nation needs to memorialize its past heroes and heroines, including historical, cultural, and folkloric, to raise acute awareness of what Nigerians have achieved, can achieve, and can even surpass. If you visit Washington, DC, in the United States, you will see many sculptures and memorabilia of American heroes in museums, parks, and streets. In London, England, you see their heroes, the Nelsons and others, in gigantic statues standing for everyone to see. But this phenomenon is not confined to the so-called developed countries but also appears in developing countries such as Colombia, India, and South Africa that memorialize their people who have made great contributions to their respective nations. In Medellin, Colombia, Bolivar stands tall everywhere for Colombians to know who liberated their country (together with Venezuela, Ecuador, and Peru) through revolution. Go to Delhi, India, and see so many monuments that capture their history from the Moguls through Islamic conquest, colonization to the present. In addition to Mahatma Gandhi, so many other national heroes are memorialized in marble or bronze, parks, and museums. South Africa and Mexico have the same. Why have we not memorialized figures such as our nationalist leaders and the likes of AdekunleFajuyi, Murtala Mohammed, MbonuOjike, and many others across the country?  Abuja is bare and looks so sterile. The nation’s capital’s streets make me laugh with their names. Most ministers and some discredited leaders have streets named after them. There are no streets named after Wole Soyinka, the first black man to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. There is none for Chinua Achebe whose Things Fall Apart confronted the West and its Hegelian cohorts that Africans are a people with culture. What message is the country sending by ignoring the great people and rewarding many mediocre ones with street names? In Medellin, Colombia, the museums have special sections for their great artists, including Botero whose paintings of voluminous women and figures define him. What has Nigeria given as a form of memorializing to the likes of Ben Enwonwu and Bruce Onobrakpeya, great artists? True, Nigeria has provided the inspiration for its artists but the nation needs to do more to showcase them as permanent icons in the national psyche for the living to admire, revere, and learn from.

Nigeria needs to put back history into the curriculum of schools. I propose there should be core history courses that everybodypassing through senior secondary school and the university must take to graduate. With history in the school curriculum, there will be no ignorance of our past as Nigerians. Awareness of history will destroy the amnesia that seems to afflict so many Nigerians about their past. And again, invoking Sankofa, let us be aware of the past as we live in the present and look to the future. History will make us a strong nation and, aware of our duty as responsible citizens, will make us advance even more in the hard sciences. President MuhammaduBuhari’s call for leadership skills to be taught in schools should begin with the reinstatement of history into the curricula of secondary schools and tertiary institutions. History keeps our memory fresh.

  • Tanure Ojaide is a poet, writer, scholar and professor of Africana Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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