When I was in Secondary School, some of my friends and I decided to study history instead of government. Our history teacher was shocked and surprised. It is quite interesting that despite being one of the most feared teachers in school, she became to the four of us the most approachable of teachers. She even managed to fill in the gap and keep up our studies when she was on maternity leave and the school made no provision for us to continue studying – since we were ‘merely’ studying ‘history’ – history said with much derision.
I have often lamented the fact that it is not compulsory to study history in Nigerian Schools. I know of no country that wishes to make something of itself where this is the norm. How can you chart a way forward for a nation that knows nothing of where its people have been, the dreams they have dreamed, the hopes, the victories, the tragedies and triumphs of the past? The answer is it is impossible. A people who do not know their history are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. Professor Marwick argues for the necessity of history, on the grounds that ‘knowledge of the past is essential to society …Without knowledge of the past we would be without identity, we would be lost on an endless sea of time’.
“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. ”
― Michael Crichton
We do not who we are because we do not know where we have been or who we have been. So we do not know who we may become.
What is Nigeria?
Many argue that Nigerian history began in 1960 (or 1914, if you want to be pedantic about it.) This is of course false. Nigerian history stretches to the dawn of time and far beyond the geographical space of what is now known as Nigeria. History speaks to more than mere facts, history speaks to a continuum that places us in this moment at the epicentre of a movement of human revolutions. Nigerian history speaks to not only the time of the exile of Ovonrawem Nogbaisi, but to what lay at the heart of the rise and fall of great empires – From Sundiata to Idris Alooma, from Amina to Osei Tutu.
What is History?
One of the most concise descriptions of historiography calls it:
‘the bodies of knowledge about the past produced by historians, together with everything that is involved in the production, communication of, and teaching about that knowledge.’
History is also about testimony – it is an account of someone who was there. As we know from court testimony, witness is unreliable because it is subjective. That subjectivity is also part of historiography. The account of the Civil War (1967-1970) would be constructed differently by different sides. Ultimately that subjectivity is as much as part of the history as the events themselves.
But Why is History Important? I hear you ask me…
History helps us understand change and how the society we live in came to be. We now live in a country that knows nothing of MKO Abiola, how can we expect people to understand the coups of 1966, and the persistent effects if they do not know of them? How can we argue for decolonising the mind, when there is no study of the history of the colonial enterprise?
“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
― George Orwell
Our failure to make the study of history compulsory in Nigerian schools is an act of self-destruction.
We should understand that the past causes the present, and so the future. We sit about and lament the destruction of the present, not realising that our inaction is a blot on our children’s future. We are the moment and should be the movement. Our preoccupation with the failure of our leaders as the sole reason for our national malaise, shows an abject underappreciation for Nigerian history.
As I state in my thesis, when discussing West African (16th-19th century) history…
‘Many kingdoms suffered from internal weaknesses due to conflicts over succession, weakened central government, ambitious governors or provincial rulers, violent attempts by vassal or constituent states or provinces to secede, continuously expanding empires that were difficult to administer and/or defend, incompetent, corrupt, extravagant, tyrannical and/or ineffective rulers who employed questionable imperial administration techniques ethnic and cultural clashes between heterogeneous peoples of a kingdom and religious conflict.’
These problems are persistent. Study to solve.
“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”
― Edmund Burke
History contributes to moral understanding. We assume that we know what the values of our ancestors were. But till we study the people we do not know what they believed. A past where Amina could lead men into battle victoriously has birthed a present where a woman cannot walk down a street without being told she cannot. A past where the Fon N’Nonmiton of Old Dahomey withstood the might of the Egba, hunted elephants and debated policy, has preceded a present where a man will refuse to speak to woman but insist on meeting her husband. Many nations have a charter of values, while in Nigeria our values seem to be a preoccupation with greed, disorder and violence. The values of history tell a different story.
So we do not know our values, we do not know who we are or where we have come from. History provides identity and studying history is essential for good citizenship. A people who do not know who they are cannot be good citizens. A country with good citizens will produce good leaders. But if you like vote till tomorrow and cross carpet a billion times, a country with bad citizens will produce bad leaders. Secede till tomorrow, divide a million times, Naija’s problem is staring at you in the mirror. History helps us understand the origins of modern political and social problems. The problems of Nigeria extend from a mix of pre-colonial incompetence, contemporary incongruence with the international system, and colonial artefacts. Our trouble today is a product of where we have been, without taking a journey into the past, we cannot hope to find solutions for today and tomorrow.
“Our children may learn about the heroes of the past. Our task is to make ourselves the architects of the future.”
― Jomo Kenyatta
History makes us appreciate that people in the past were not just ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but motivated in complex and inconsistent ways, just like us. Therefore the Nigerian who has a different ethnicity from you cannot be bad, just because they are different, and a person who has the same ethnicity is not irrevocably good. The study of history helps us to develop the ability to assess evidence of many sorts. We are presented with a great multitude of witnesses to the upheavals of the age; studying their motives helps us to understand ours.
We need to always remember that history is subjective. The lion and the hunter will tell a different story of the hunt. This does not make either testimony false. The study of history makes us realise that someone’s contrary opinion is not an attack for which we need to mount a spirited defence.
Finally the study of history prevents us from being unduly seduced by the prospect of ‘change’. The study of history is the study of change. A knowledge of history helps us ask the pertinent questions. We can step beyond ‘What?’ and ‘Where?’ to ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’
“The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”
― Winston S. Churchill
Again, our failure to make the study of history compulsory in Nigerian schools is an act of self-destruction. Destruction of the present and the future.