Issues is a new NT series in which academics and policy experts write on their areas of expertise. If you would like to contribute to the series send an email to Olumide (his email address is on the page under the link).
The columnist this week is historian Max Siollun.
“I Thought Herbert Macaulay was a White American”
I was literally heartbroken when not too long ago, a Nigerian acquaintance of mine (born and raised in Nigeria) told me that she thought Herbert Macaulay was a white American. She could recite (in chronological order) most of the post World War 2 American Presidents, but she had no idea that Herbert Macaulay was a Nigerian. She was shocked when I told her that Macaulay was to Nigeria, what George Washington was to the United States of America.
How could a Nigerian born and raised in her own country be so unaware of her country’s past? I soon discovered that she was not (as I hoped) a lone island of historical blindness. When I posted some video clips of Nigeria’s former leaders, Nigerian viewers were stunned by the precise articulation and fluent oratory of men like Balewa and Azikiwe. They seemed totally unaware that Nigeria could actually produce leaders who spoke “Queen’s English” and who sounded intelligent. It occurred to me that probably less than 10% of Nigerians could recognise the voices of Nigeria’s early leaders such as Awolowo or the Sardauna.
Nigerian History: The elephant in the room
Why do so many Nigerians know so little about their own country’s history? The blame…actually….I don’t think “blame” is the right word here, but the federal government must take much RESPONSIBILITY for deliberately imposing a ”history blackout” on Nigeria’s younger generation. Nigerian history is not intensively taught in schools largely because after the civil war, the federal government tried to brush the country’s past under the carpet in order to foster reconciliation. It did not want students to know that the country’s early history was rife with ethnic violence, military coups and people who murdered their political opponents in the middle of the night or during rush hour traffic. Teaching that to young people would be an excellent way to raise a new generation of angry embittered racists.
Is the government ENTIRELY to blame though? The absence of a library culture, and Nigerians’ quest for ‘professional’ academic paths such as medicine, engineering, law and accountancy, has naturally increased the alienation of history.
Blame us, not the government
Are “we” (the writers) also to blame? Reading historical narratives is not the same suspense filled experience of reading a murder-mystery or suspend belief fantasy of a Harry Potter novel. We writers must present Nigerian history as something more than a mechanical rendering of dates and facts. Chimamanda’s Half of a Yellow Sun (although technically a fiction work) has historical credibility because she weaved real life historical figures like Gowon and Ojukwu into the fabric of a fiction novel. In essence she was “teaching” Nigerian history to her readers in a surreptitious manner.
Time to sex up Nigerian history
Dry, ponderous academic style renditions of Nigerian history will not do. In my writing I have tried to dramatise the historic events I write about, and bring the characters to life, so as to capture the reader’s imagination and momentarily suspend the reader’s belief that what they are reading is in fact….fact! In the popular vernacular of the Iraq war, we must “sex up” Nigerian history. To interest readers in Nigerian history, we must turn our national characters into “stars”. That is the challenge for me and other writers.
Max Siollun is a historian and commentator on Nigerian political and governmental issues, with a focus on those pertaining to Nigerian history and the Nigerian military. He is the author of Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture 1966-1976.