Are Nigerians afraid of their own history? By Tolu Ogunlesi
“We need to understand one thing: History will always be contested territory.”
The title of today’s piece comes from the opening line of an opinion piece that appeared on the Al Jazeera website two weeks ago, by British journalist Barnaby Phillips (a former BBC correspondent in Nigeria), titled ‘War, tragedy, and the power of memory’.
Barely two weeks after that piece was published, there was a news break that the screening of Half of a Yellow Sun, the film adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s 2006 award-winning novel of the same title, due to launch in cinemas in Nigeria last Friday, would not happen as planned, because the Film and Video Censors Board had delayed the approval needed for the film to show in Nigeria.
At the moment we don’t know why, because the Censors Board has not explained its action (or inaction). Some have suggested it might be to do with the levels of nudity/sex in the movie. Others think it might be to do with the controversial nature of the film’s big theme – the Nigerian Civil War. Recall the heated (and often poisonous) debates that followed the publication in 2012 of Chinua Achebe’s Biafra memoir, There Was A Country?
While we await the full story, this is a good opportunity, I believe, to examine our attitudes to History, as a nation of many different peoples. Recall Phillips question. Are we scared of our History? Is that why History is allegedly being smothered off the national school curriculum? Sometime last year I interviewed someone in Lagos who first made the claim that History had been purged from the Nigerian secondary school curriculum. And then earlier this year my friend Cheta Nwanze took to Twitter to lament the same thing.
It’s hard to believe, so I decided to do a bit of research. I found only a handful of stories that shed light on the matter. One was a January 2012 report by this newspaper, titled “Don faults removal of History from school curricula”, and quoting a University of Nigeria professor.
Another – the most direct – is a hard-hitting Vanguard newspaper editorial from last month that points out that “official reasons Nigeria advances for expunging history as a course of study are that students are shunning it, as there were few jobs for history graduates, and there is dearth of history teachers.”
And then a third is a 2012 interview with Godswill Obioma, Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council (NERDC) – the government body responsible for the Nigerian school curriculum. Professor Obioma talks about the revision of the curriculum, which saw the old system of twenty subjects condensed into ten. “[T]hose ones that are strictly social studies, which have to do with government, history, geography and social relationship of community, have been put under Social Studies,” Obioma is quoted as saying.
I have actually not found a pronouncement by the Nigerian Government that it is expunging history from the curriculum. Obioma’s interview doesn’t say History has been eliminated, instead it suggests that it’s been subsumed into Social Studies.
I don’t think the government will be foolish enough to actually push history out of the school curriculum. I’ll therefore give them the benefit of doubt, and perhaps wait for an official pronouncement to clarify the matter.
What I think the government is more likely to do is fail to accord it any importance. And in that regard History is not the only victim.
As University of Ilorin Professor, A. A. Adeyinka, said in a 1993 paper, ‘The Place of History in the Nigerian Secondary Grammar School Curriculum’: “In an attempt to catch up with the developing countries of the world in the areas of Science and Technology, the Nigerian Governments (at Federal and State levels) continue to pay greater attention to the teaching of Science subjects, such as Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics, at the expense of such an Arts subject as History, the society itself, including the employers of labour, tends to discourage the study of History by assigning a lower status to History and History teachers.”
So on that level there’s an obvious bias against the Arts in Nigeria. But on another level is the discomfort that History and its unearthing appear to generate within us. And that’s the focus of today’s piece.
We need to understand one thing: History will always be contested territory. There will inevitably be many versions of history, as many as the people who have taken it upon themselves to compose it. But we cannot afford to shut it up, simply because we feel uncomfortable. What we should be doing is encouraging as many versions as possible, knowing that only in the proliferation of stories will we stand the best chance of realizing, not necessarily the truth (as there will hardly ever be a single truth), but the fullest possible picture.
As Nasir el-Rufai said when asked regarding his controversial account of his years as a civil servant: “I have said it all and if you don’t agree, write your own.”
Nigerian History is a mostly dark tunnel. It’s not pitch-dark, no. (I’ve recently realized that lots of Nigerians are writing, about lots of interesting things. The problem is with what we call our publishing industry; most of the books are inadequately edited, designed and printed in unappealing ways, and, worst of all, poorly distributed).
But it’s nowhere near as lit-up as it should be. If this were another country, in this year of the centenary there would be a deluge of books and films examining one aspect or the other of Nigerian history. But this is Nigeria, where the government only cares about the jamborees it sponsors in the name of commemoration. Anything that demands depth, or that might lend itself to permanent usefulness, is avoided. It’s far easier to gather ‘movers and shakers’ to Abuja for a night of boring speeches and awards and music than to ask the difficult question: How can we use this centenary as a medium to expand and deepen our understanding of our country?
My hope is that this HOAYS movie will inspire a wave of storytelling – and not just material focused on the Civil War.
And this storytelling revolution must not be restricted to any medium. It must – and will, hopefully – be tweeted, televised, Instagrammed, photographed, chanted, painted, cartooned, etc.
I’m glad that we’re already seeing attempts to keep our history alive. From efforts like the Nigeria Nostalgia Project on Facebook, to the dedication of one of this year’s Social Media Week events to Nigerian History (I thoroughly enjoyed Ed Keazor’s presentation: How Social Media demystified Nigerian History: 100 Greatest Unknown Nigerians) to the emergence of films like Half of a Yellow Sun, Lancelot Imasuen’s Invasion 1897 (on the British invasion of the Bini Kingdom), and Izu Ojukwu’s ’76 (set around the February 1976 assassination of Murtala Mohammed). Nollywood no doubt has a big role to play in keeping our history alive. Our filmmakers need our support and encouragement, to cast their nets even deeper and wider.
Chinua Achebe made famous a good number of Igbo Proverbs. One of my favourites is this: “Those who do not know where the rain began to beat them cannot say where they dried their bodies.”
We shun or disregard our history at our own peril. If we think shining a light on contentious parts of our history is dangerous, then we must realise that refusing to shine that light is a million times worse.
As HOAYS Director, Biyi Bandele, put it to the BBC recently: “One of the reasons Nigeria is more divided today – 40 years after the end of the war – than it was before the war started, is because we have refused to talk about the elephant in the room.”
May Nigerian History continue to rest in peace. Now that’s one prayer that should inspire no Amens.