By Moses E. Ochonu
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.
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. 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.
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.
Moses E. Ochonu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org