By Ambassador Usman Sarki
Where the revolutions of a mere sixty years cannot be correctly traced and accurately rendered, it becomes impossible to fathom how the events of centuries and millennia can be competently discerned and taught to citizens. This is the state into which Nigeria’s history and historiography have fallen. The decay is not only in scholarship and academic excellence but also in our national manners, taste and values. Such a state of affairs ordinarily should call for concerted efforts towards remediation and restoration of normal conditions. However, there seems to be no “normal conditions” in Nigeria. Rather; we seem to be moving from inconstancy to aberrations in most of our undertakings as a nation. Hence the evident disappearance of the inclination towards knowing the past in order to understand the present, and thence to prepare the nation for future eventualities.
The study of history is one discipline that makes a difference between existence and oblivion, between purpose and aimlessness, and between progress and stagnation for any nation. Drawing from the lessons of former times; and learning from the precepts and maxims of the accumulated achievements of humanity, is the surest path toward national renaissance and consolidation. Avoiding doing so because of expedience or deeming it an inconvenient effort, is surely to court insignificance and even oblivion. Nobody tells the tale of others batter than they can themselves. The will to know, to investigate and to record are the driving impulses of nations that aspire to achieve renown and avoid oblivion.
Writing on the late Roman Empire, and portraying the symptoms of its decline and fall, Edward Gibbon, that consummate English historian, traced the factors that led to the monumental collapse of one of the most enduring political edifices ever created by man. He traced the barrenness of the history and scholarship of the time. He noted the decline in manners and corruption of habits and national indolence that accompanied the loss of a sense of history by the Roman people and their leaders. Above all, Gibbon stressed the loss of patriotism and zeal by the Roman people on account of being distanced from their glorious history because of neglect, indolence and indifference. The lot that befell the Roman Empire and people can also afflict nations that are careless about their past, indifferent about their present, and unprepared for their future. Lessons to be drawn from this account are many, but the most sublime should be that the teaching of history should not be seen as a luxury or an inconvenience, but dire a necessity and an indispensable endeavour.
A gap of a mere forty years which is about two generations only, in the teaching of history to Nigerians has produced a marked difference in the state of minds and manners of citizens which is like the brilliance cast by the rising Sun and the paleness of its setting. Those who left universities and colleges in the 1970s and 1980s have, arguably, a more profound grounding on the national ethos of Nigeria engendered by an appreciation of her history and culture than the generations now coming to the fore. This is not an indictment of the latter and an edification of the former but a supposition that can be supported by casual observation of attitudes and temperaments to national discourses and evolving situations in the country.
Once upon a time, there were vibrant Departments of History across Nigerian universities that not only taught history and in the process, competed with each other but also produced teachers who were well grounded in the discipline and who in turn taught and brought up generations of cultured and better informed Nigerians. Today, it is understood there are very few, functional History Departments in our universities and where they supposedly exist, are not in an independent status but lumped together with other subjects like International Relations, Social Studies, Geography and the likes. This of course could have been the product of forced rationalization in the universities due to paucity of funds or changes in perceptions about History as a subject. Regardless of the reasons for that, it is about time that a serious effort is made to bring back historical studies in their own right in our schools especially those of higher learning
The development of curricular and training of competent instructors should take the center stage in such a regenerative effort. Also, the organisation of faculties and departments in the universities should be conscious of the need to make history departments stand-alone organs that could interface with other departments on independent and collaborative basis. All universities should be induced through appropriate subventions and even private endowments to establish serious historical schemes based on research, and the accumulation of materials like books, manuscripts, artifacts, audio-visual aids, and a variety of other resources that could aid and enhance the teaching and dissemination of history.
The choice of curriculum could depend on the structure of the courses and the historiography that a particular university is inclined to. However, there should be a general understanding that a common foundational approach to the study and teaching of history in all institutions of higher learning in the country is important. A uniformity of subjects to be taught, areas of research and specialization, outlooks towards national, continental and world history etc, could be aspired to. Ultimately, the aim should be the instilling of a uniform system of patriotism and zeal towards all Nigerian and African issues in the students. A phased but consistent system of instruction of history teachers and researchers should be developed in selected universities if not in all of them, where competent historians can be produced over a given period, who can now become the core of a national effort towards the regeneration of historical studies and scholarship in Nigeria.
Archeology, that companion of history, should also be reintroduced in our universities where they no longer seem to be taught. That discipline is of singular importance in establishing not only timelines in our historical evolution as societies and nations, but also in unearthing materials that could aid the further understanding of our past in tangible and substantial ways. The lack of world class museums in Nigeria can be attributed somehow to the decline and even the absence of archeological pursuits in the country. Physical evidences of our past that are unearthed, accurately classified and dated by experts are imperishable monuments and testaments of our progress as a people and justification of our claim to contributing to the progress of humanity.
The fact that Nigeria has produced far fewer UNESCO world heritage sites may be attributed to our careless approach to archeology and history than to the patent absence of any memorable evidences of past achievements. The fact that one of the oldest means of transportation ever constructed by humans was found at Dufuna in Yobe State should disabuse our minds about the paucity of interesting and edifying artifacts in our country. The Dufuna canoe was said to be as old as 7,000 years, possibly dating to the period when the Mega Chad extended to as far as the present Bauchi State. Other potentially significant findings can be unearthed with diligent search and adequate resourcing of expeditions and search missions. Such efforts and commitments embody the sum total of the national will to survive and become great by deliberate exertion, inquiry and scholarship.
Egypt is on the verge of constructing one of the largest museums in the world dedicated to housing its numerous artifacts, a lot of which have direct African antecedents and connections but about which we know so little and care so less. Where such interests and inclinations are lacking, we may be assured that the terms of our existence may be counted not in epochs and millennia, but in terms of mere generations. But Egypt’s and other African countries’ history will continue to be told and retold for centuries to come, due largely to the conduct of research, dedication to scholarship and the search for lost artifacts dictated by the search for glory and grandeur which Nigerians seem to be unconcerned with. No visitor to any of our cities will learn much about our past from any decent libraries, museums, archives, depositories or the likes on account our carelessness and indifference to our national greatness. Let us conspicuously avoid oblivion and instead embrace continuity and enduring presence through the enthronement of history, historical studies and historiography, whichever case may apply to our conditions and inclinations.
The author used to be Deputy Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations in New York