Opinion: When a nation decides to forget her past

by Orji Sunday Sylvester

The past remains integral to us all, individually and collectively. We must concede the ancient their place, as I have argued. But their place is not simply back there in a separate and foreign country; it is assimilated in ourselves, and resurrected into an ever changing present”
-David Lowenthal

When David Lowenthal wrote those beautiful words in the ancient, memorable, annals of history, he delivered a vital counsel to those who would, in stark error, contemplate fiddling with history; the knowledge bank of all ages. He desired to have a generation of individuals and nations who would render to history her greatly cherished place of pride and above all a swift passage to posterity and the humanity therein.

He wished that from a single age to another, the vital knowledge of the past would always be invoked by all races and people in charting a cause for a progressive humanity. He left a lesson; that no nations should tap pleasure in mocking the works of her heroes by way of doing away with the remembrance of their heroics and the vanity of the cowards of each era. The wisest thing, he thought, would be to keep the memory of the past at heart and by so doing guard against sinking in the errors of the present and the present to come. While some nations heed his call, others, like Nigeria, picked the courage to do the contrary, to act the inverse, to exile history.

Over the past six years, starting from the 2009/2010 academic, several strings of words in their thousands that amounted into countless sermons failed to compel the government of Nigeria to choose the humble path of restoring history into the curriculum of primary and secondary schools in the country or at least go a step beyond making all too familiar wordy promises about doing so. The subtle rebuke suffered defiance. And the rash condemnation, too, yielded not a different result. The leaders of Nigeria assumed that there was nothing so important about the past of Nigeria that our children should know; not a thing.

Well, as we share in the joy of other nations who heed to that noble path, our joy, in shreds are rented for the bad choice of the Nigeria government to take away history and the study of it from the primary and secondary school curriculum in Nigeria. As Noble laureate, Wole Soyinka said: “I learnt not long ago that history has been taken off the curriculum in this country. Can you imagine? History? What is wrong with history? Or maybe I should ask, what is wrong with some peoples’ head?”

Somehow, a bill to make Nigerian history a core subject in primary and secondary schools, on November 9, 2016 was moved by Ayodeji Oladimeji, representing Ekiti Central Constituency I.  The bill titled “A bill for an Act to make History a Core Subject in Nigeria’s Primary and Secondary and Other related matters” was hastily defeated by the members of the House of Representatives. Hon. Zakari Mohammed to put it mildly said: “I know it’s important for people to know their history, but the word ‘core’ in the title is somehow.”
Kachi, seven, a primary four pupil a university of Nigeria primary school does not know that the famous Dr Nmandi Azikiwe is a Nigerian name. He had no idea about Herbert Macaulay; Nigeria’s great nationalist leader and cannot say a thing about either Obafemi Awolowo or Tafawa Balewa. He barely ever heard those names.

“I don’t know them, Dad did not tell me about them” he said with honest innocence. I had walked up to him sporting a smile to keep his young mind at peace. He stood, gazing at me before I threw the conversation at him; I wanted to know his hero (es) or model or idol. With a certain voice he replied: “Uncle, I love Ben 10. He is the strongest man in the world. He can kill the whole world. He is my hero. But, spider man is also good at flying from tall building. He does not die, I want to be like him.”

Professor of history in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Victor Ukaugu said, “I was among the15 professors that went to Ask Rock to convince former president Dr Goodluck Jonathan on returning history. He told us,  that without my knowledge of history, I would never have been a president of Nigeria.”

He continued, “In Nigeria today, no pupil, no secondary school students, no University student can tell you how Nigeria began. This is the only country that has had a civil war that led to the death of over three million persons and no lessons were learnt. But how do you learn lessons of a conflict without studying the conflict? There is no conflict that doesn’t have benefits because we are still paying the prize for the abandonment of history.”

The beautiful tales that knit, tightly, the tattered ruins of this nation was that kind gift the nation guiltily denied the young minds of this country; the fine stories of the conquest in the Yoruba empires; the sincere submissiveness of the northern citizens to the colonial lords; the stark rebellion of the ‘defiant’ Easterners directed at the white man and his reasonably strange imports. All too often, it appears, painfully though, that Nigeria is less concerned about holding fast to these timeless antecedents.

Whatever way, the abandonment of history is only another version of history that the generations to come would know, hear and suffer from. For whether or not we expel history, our actions would, one day, count as good or bad history. For instance, James Baldwin wrote in Notes of a Native Son: “People are trapped in history and history trapped in people”

But history is not just a subject. History is the stitches of the errors of the past with the patches of corrections, wrapped and passed to the present, afresh, in words. But, how would our children, permit me to ask, reach that self-awareness without the ageless morals that owe its existence to the knowledge of history. What, shall, our great grandchildren as a reply receive from these children, indeed parents of tomorrow, who are today starved of the great ideals, fine grain of tales, the painfully memorable civil war, and the nationalist goals that, once upon a time, drove the dead bones of our decayed parents’ into craving for a nation so green, so beautiful, once homely. The guilt of our leaders multiply each passing seconds that history suffers absence in Nigeria’s education curriculum. Maybe, hurtful vacuum created by this sick decision has weakened our resolve towards peace and unity as a nation.

No doubt, the rise in literate illiterates seem the foremost yield of the apathy towards history. Sometimes it is overwhelming to recall that Nigeria, said history, took a wide lead amongst African nations in championing the cause of a new African identity alongside Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Murmar Gadhafi of Libya. The move strongly sought, so to speak, to reject the bad history written of us by the European historians. Such histories that lowered us to half the status of apes and monies. When at last the responsibility of retelling our badly told stories through history, upon us, fall, those who fear the honesty of history to sell their misdeeds to the generation unborn stifled that opportunity with all hands.

When white missionaries established the first school in Nigeria, they, expectedly protected and propagated the study of history, even our own history. Today, Nigeria inherited easy mantle to continue in that line. However, instead, contemporary governments waxed weary in courage and treated our collective fate in unfair disdain. History in the colonial era received significant respect; to the end that the British Examination Board was called upon to assess the performance of students at secondary school level; starting from university of London in 1887, Cambridge University in 1910 and Oxford University in 1929. By the birth of independence, history flourished and Nigeria raised fine intellectuals in the field. From the late 1980s the people’s love and interest in the subject waned consistently, such that the number of students who sat for the subject in Senior Secondary Certificate progressively decreased.

Anyway, to the question whether there exist a consequence for this unrightful choice, no doubt. Even at the prevalence of this un-golden silence on the part of the leadership, common sense says that our choice is married to a consequence. And that consequence is not a good consequence. It is consequently a bad consequence.

Exactly, how long shall we silently strengthen the consequence of this misdeed by doing less than enough to retrace our straying steps? Only in silence did we stage a funeral where the future of our Children would be mortgaged for false frequently forged familiar fables of hope and action.  In the end, the nation would have subtly sealed a negotiation that would permit our offspring exchange ignorance for wisdom.

At the launch of the new educational curriculum in 2007 that perfected the formal exile of history from Nigeria’s educational calendar for secondary and primary schools, the Executive secretary of Nigeria Educational Research professor said: “This curriculum seeks to correct the abnormalities of the former one which is lacking in the area of human capacity development, eradication of poverty and the country’s quest for total emancipation as an independent nation”

The speech sorely failed to capture the consequence of those unspoken words that creates the needful diversity in human circles which primarily comes through history. The tolerance that come from a strong knowledge of another’s culture in a nation blessed with diversity like Nigeria is far-fetched. So, while we presumed that understanding was necessary to move Nigeria forward, the decision to scrap history; a useful stride towards that hope betrayed the realisation of our expectations.

Beyond the superficial, Nigeria leaders in the past years have thrived in accusing other nations, especially the Europeans of telling their story amiss, single sided. They took offence at being branded the descendants of black monkeys. That was the label that hitherto prevailed in western understanding of Africa until history was used to wade off such perceptions. It at that point seemed as though historical studies had paved a way for a more objective understanding of Africa, then Nigeria derided the relevance of such corrective mechanism. Since we are no longer called black monkeys, the country quickly, wrongly, resolved that our deal with history has ended.

The American child would always cherish the stories of the beautiful statue of Liberty.  The Japanese child would speak expressly of the sorrowful memories of the site of the Hiroshima bombing. The Egyptian child shall pride in the knowledge of the pharaohs and the ancient beauty of the heavenly pointing pyramids. The Italian child would never fiddle with the amazing remembrance of the rise and fall of the great Roman Empire. The Greek child would firmly keep the memory of Socrates; his wise teachings and his death and the great fables of powerful Greek gods and goddesses. The Indian child would rarely exhaust the inspiration that streams from the peaceful philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi. But the Nigerian child would keep a blank memory of old Oyo Empire, the Sokoto caliphate and the prestigious Arochukwu kingdom.

As days glide by, the repetitive errors of this beloved nation hastily call to mind the seemingly powerful prophetic past writing of Nigeria’s historical elder statesman’ Nwafor Orizu, whom in his book, Without Bitterness” wrote: “Unless we know what we are and how we came about to be what we are, we shall certainly be unable to know where and how to go further.”

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija


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