African History As Tradition: Chris Ogbogbo and the Quest for Nigeria’s Future, By Toyin Falola
…Ogbogbo has won an important battle on our behalf. When our children return to school this September, they will find that history is returning to our curriculum. After more than 30 years, they will resume the acquisition of knowledge that powerful people wanted to hide. That is a reason to celebrate Ogbogbo’s efforts to make it happen.
On September 6, at the University of Ibadan, Dr. Christopher B. N. Ogbogbo delivered an impassioned inaugural lecture on the nature of tradition, Nigerian history’s erosion in collective consciousness, and wrong-headed policies chipping away at the future of our country. His lecture, titled “In Defence of Tradition”, narrated his own journey as a historian, history scholar and teacher, lawyer, and academic activist dedicated to demonstrating and establishing the truth through his intellectual exertions for society.
Through the years, Ogbogbo has put himself on the line to defend the tradition of learning history as a school subject in Nigeria — a tradition that was truncated during Nigeria’s locust years. He has also defended the traditions of academic excellence and prodigious output that characterise the University of Ibadan School of History. These projects are intertwined, and Ogbogbo tracked his career trajectory for the audience, laying out the many interlocked roads of fate and serendipity that made him a historian.
Since I have known Ogbogbo, I have associated him with a vision: To get history, as a school subject, restored to the curriculum. He has used every position held in the course of his career — from a university lecturer to the president of the Historical Society of Nigeria — to further this mission. Ogbogbo and others have worked assiduously to restore dignity to a Nigerian society that excised its narrative from the pedagogical arena. They have deployed multiple strategies, pounding the pavement of the powers that be and preaching the gospel of why learning and understanding history in our school is a cultural, national, and political imperative.
From media houses all the way to the corridors of power in Aso Rock, Ogbogbo has asserted that the study of history is one of the best heritages we can bequeath to the millions of children that we spawn every year. Ogbogbo has pursued this goal as an academic activist, a scholar who does not restrict learning to self-absorbed, abstract details in dusty books. He seeks the means to engage with society, with the intention of bettering it. Ogbogbo believes in the importance of the study of history with the conviction of a religious truth. Thanks to his unrelenting efforts, and his faith that this mission was possible, history is returning to Nigerian schools this September as an academic subject.
The inaugural lecture gave Ogbogbo an opportunity to report on his stewardship as a bearer of the University of Ibadan School of History’s intellectual traditions, and also to document the legwork that he put into restoring the traditions that were lost when history was yanked out of the curriculum. Ogbogbo’s report gives us a lens for viewing tradition beyond the traditional meaning of an activity, behaviour, or meme that is uncritically handed down through the generations. In Africa, we tend to either cling to tradition, reject or weaponise it.
When we are faced with modernity’s corrosive forces threatening our way of life or established patterns of behaviour, we reach for “tradition,” arguing to preserve it as a refuge and fortress to maintain our safe zones. When the cost of holding on to tradition becomes too much too bear, or when we are seduced by shinier and newer cultures thrust in our faces, we discard tradition and argue for “modernity.” In all of these confusions, “tradition” accrues different meanings and historical baggage that can prevent people from having meaningful dialogue on its potentials and possibilities.
Ogbogbo elaborated on how the failure to take history seriously affects the country. We cannot produce meaningful change, because we have little idea of where we have been or what we have done in the past. We exist as a society living only in the present, unaware of where the rain started beating us…
For Ogbogbo, tradition is more than habits mindlessly replicated by Africans simply because they are Africans, or practices that are condemned to repetition throughout time, without ever being updated. For him, tradition is not a conservative attitude or cultural puritanism for its own sake. He insists that tradition should not be anti-modernity; it should be treated as a historical tool of discernment, through which Nigeria and Africa can build a veritable and viable modernity. His argument is that tradition is history, and history itself is a tradition.
Tradition is history because — in the performative routines of our day-to-day life — the embodied actions inducing certain modes of behaviour, and the accretion of knowledge that has become sediment in our bodies, are the sum total of our society and the processes of history that have led us to this point. Tradition is history and history is the tradition of collected human experiences that have become codified through time and through our interactions with each other. Within those traditions are histories of age-old wisdom, insight, and communal values encoded in artefacts and mundane behaviour. These traditions of history encapsulate social and cultural evolutions, modes of social and political organising, experimentation into different spheres of human existence, and the multifarious building blocks that form the structures of our existing society.
So, what happens to a society that recklessly discards its traditions? What becomes of a country that deliberately expunges the study of history from its schools and treats history, a mode of intellectual engagement and a methodology for understanding the rituals that fashioned the society, as a no-go area? Such a society has declared war on itself; it will pay heavily for its sin of abandoning history. That is why Nigeria is in its current state today: It is a country that fails to study, understand, and engage its own history.
Ogbogbo elaborated on how the failure to take history seriously affects the country. We cannot produce meaningful change, because we have little idea of where we have been or what we have done in the past. We exist as a society living only in the present, unaware of where the rain started beating us, what knowledge is seeded in our bodies, and which direction we need to take as a people or country. Without the benefit of a backward glance, to see where we have come from, we have become lost. We lack the compass that helps us intuit, understand ourselves, and recognise who we want to be in the world. As a society detached from its own history, we plan without understanding why things exist in their current forms, and without knowing what tools must be fashioned to make them better. If there is one thing every Nigerian can agree on, it is that we want change in our society. We all want a change for the better, regardless of who we are and how we think such a goal might be achieved.
“Change” was the rallying cry of the 2015 elections, helping the current administration topple the incumbent. The drive for drastic social and political change was missing an anchor — a careful chart of continuities and discontinuities in the traditions forming the social structures of our society as we live them, and the means through which we can use them to stimulate meaningful dialogues for development. Without understanding history as traditions and traditions as history, we will continue to undermine our best efforts at becoming a modern society. We will never properly understand the formative process that contoured our society.
Mighty Chris, I have had the joy and privilege of marching with you…Today, you have become our modern Prophet Isaiah, enduring the struggles here and there for our discipline. You have kept the faith of your predecessors at Ibadan; and you have kept the tradition of the Ogbogbo clan, reproducing the fame and traditions of your ancestors. We are all beneficiaries of your selfless efforts.
A culture where people lack a sense of history will never have peace in its political sphere, because it will never properly understand the stories that fashion the spirit of a place or locale. Such a society is quick to make policies carving up resources between states, local governments, and regions — when those policies fail, they will not understand why their hurriedly assembled ideas could not function as coherent entities. Imagine what Nigerian history and political culture would have looked like if historians had been included in every step of the making of modern Nigeria.
As I mentioned earlier, Ogbogbo has won an important battle on our behalf. When our children return to school this September, they will find that history is returning to our curriculum. After more than 30 years, they will resume the acquisition of knowledge that powerful people wanted to hide. That is a reason to celebrate Ogbogbo’s efforts to make it happen. We can look forward to a future where our children are empowered with historical facts and details, fashioning the future they want with the knowledge of history as a resource. We know that history is a way of shaping human understanding of processes, allowing us to apply that understanding and its lessons to other important social processes.
Learning the history of the Nigerian Civil War, for example, can teach us not only what happened between 1967 and 1970, but also how to look for evidence to build our cases, how to evaluate them, and how that process can teach us a whole host of other things about the society we live in. History, as a mode of recreating the past, is a skill set that is also useful in areas such as popular culture, where set designers, art directors, and script writers benefit from history’s knowledge to create more credible art and expand the imagination of the public.
As Ogbogbo argued, it is about understanding traditions as a structure on which every other structure is built, and taking those traditions seriously enough to use them in creating a better functioning society. When we learn history, more is at stake than an accumulation of facts about past events or the mastery of traditions. In fact, we should understand that there is no past in history. The past is not even past, it is present continuous, and it continues to shape the path to the future. When we arm ourselves with the past, even as we live in the present, we are emboldened with a confidence, built by knowledge, that allows us to lead the way into the future.
Mighty Chris, I have had the joy and privilege of marching with you. Increasing years on earth do play tricks on my memory but I hope I am right that it was Prophet Isaiah, standing on the same pedestal as one of the four leading prophets before Jesus Christ — Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Jeremiah — who told us that he offered his back to the enemies who struck him; his cheeks to those who forcefully plucked his beard; and he even refused to turn his face away from insult and those who spit on it. Today, you have become our modern Prophet Isaiah, enduring the struggles here and there for our discipline. You have kept the faith of your predecessors at Ibadan; and you have kept the tradition of the Ogbogbo clan, reproducing the fame and traditions of your ancestors. We are all beneficiaries of your selfless efforts. Today, we celebrate you!
Toyin Falola is a past president of African Studies Association.