By Ambassador Usman Sarki
Claims of which tribe superseded the other in settling on a piece of land or territory is one of the issues that is at the heart of inter-community disturbances in Nigeria. Solutions to such social relations of conflicts can only be found in history if proper inquiries are made and the results utilized to iron out differences and bring about amicable and peaceful resolution of conflicts in our communities.
Perhaps, a correct recourse to the teaching of history might be the solution to a number of problems in Nigeria that now threaten to create serious unrest and even the disintegration of the nation. The situation in Southern Kaduna, for instance, can be resolved if there is a concerted effort to teach history of the peoples of the area and the larger contexts in which they found themselves in the Nigerian setting today.
The late Dr. Yusuf Bala Usman might not be everyone’s mentor as he is to some of us but he maintained an exceptionally very clear vision about what purpose history should serve. In one of his lectures, he challenged Nigerian and African historians to “begin to face up to one of our most important tasks; the creation of a conceptual framework with which the specific nature of African historical and contemporary reality can be understood. Only with such an understanding can the people of this continent forge political communities suited to their needs and situation in this epoch”.
Dr. Bala Usman contrasted this against the narrow and racially inclined or motivated Western historiography which only saw a linear, biologically driven history without a transformative social movement inherent in its dynamics, its being and its motive force. Such an affirmative and positivist posture contrasted sharply with the worldview that Dr. Bala Usman represented. He fought all such views such as the position asserted in 1909 by John Buchan in his book The African Colony.
Writing on the South African “native” problem at the turn of the twentieth century, Mr. Buchan took pains to portray the Africans as mere biological entities of a lower order than the White man, whose history can be dismissed out of hand as being “primitive” and, therefore, not worthy of notice. He dwelt on the issue at length and concluded thus: “There are kinds of history which a modern education ignores, and which a modern mind is hardly trained to understand”.
John Buchan dismissively consigned African history to the realm of “savagery” and as being neither literature nor history but something akin to a natural event like a thunderstorm, that rudely intrudes on your consciousness, but hardly of any practical importance. This view of the Africans and their history still persists and it is this consigning of our heritage to the realm of “savagery” that continues to fuel racism and racial discrimination against Africans and people of African descent across the world.
The spate of killings of African-Americans and the rise of the “Black Lives Matter” movement are historical events that are linked by an organic thread of denigration and condescension toward Africans who are hardly seen as humans. It is important that Africans and particularly Nigerians understand that history is not just a study of the past, to be delved into as a leisurely pursuit with no particular purpose in mind other than as an amusement or the gratification of our curiosity about some former events.
History is actually much more than that. Its study and perpetuation are an existential matter that must be progressively and consciously cultivated with the objective of asserting our identity and claiming a space among humanity. To be consequential and worthy of respect, a nation must necessarily rescue its past from oblivion and commit its entire energy towards the realization of that singular and most profound of undertakings.
History is a political activity in its conception and pursuit, because no nation has ever been established along purely “economic” lines or any other. This is the crux of Dr. Bala Usman’s thesis about “forging of political communities” in Africa. Therefore, history cannot be an “art” per se, that can be conceived, produced and then be hidden away in some corner of a museum for posterity.
History is a living subject that demands attention and insists on being taken seriously as part of the fabric of a nation or a society that seeks to perpetuate itself and prevent accidental oblivion. History, therefore, defines our existence and informs our being, which is a clear affirmation of our claim to be humans and part of the larger human family.
This claim is what makes it important for us to ask the question, who owns history? Ownership here is not meant in the sense of possession of a property per se but in the sense of a collective patrimony or matrimony as the case may be, of a people. This popular or “people’s” conception of history should drive its teaching and the remodeling of curricular in our schools and universities.
It stresses more the utilitarian aspect of the teaching of history than its mere antiquarian values such as would be appreciated in certain epochs in Europe. It is, therefore, suggested here that there should be a method behind the teaching of history that produces certain values, ethics and ethos in Nigerians and indeed in Africans as well as an understanding of their place in the world and the destination to which they are headed.
The eminent English historian, Edward Gibbon, suggested that history is nothing but the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind. He maintained also that the narratives of antiquity are justified by the experience of modern times. How to reconcile these two appraisals of the subject under inquiry, will naturally lead us to ask the question- who owns history?
I intended this to be a rhetorical question, but it could equally be a matter of philosophical inquiry that could be useful in situating people in a proximate location to their distant antecedents. The methodology of instruction of history might differ from one age and clime to another, but certain standard reference points have come to be accepted as essential to the teaching of the subject.
For instance, the classification of history according to epochs and periodization can be a useful tool in standardization of instruction. Proceeding from Prehistory, to Ancient, Middle and Modern Ages might seem a convenient method to adopt for European civilizations. However, it may not be so appropriate for other societies. Likewise, the categorization of history according to material distinctions such as Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages, etc, might offer certain guidelines with limitations toward the development of frameworks for instruction.
But these might not altogether be satisfactory when applied to certain geographical areas where such materials were not discovered or were unavailable at all for the purposes of development of cultures and the emergence of civilizations. Other appropriate methodologies and distinctive frameworks will, therefore, have to be found or invented to satisfy context-specific history teaching and assessment.
This realization should naturally result in the proposition of the way forward. It will seem that to start such a process, the proverbial wheel will not have to be reinvented. Where credible records of the past are deemed to be available such as in the case of Ancient Egypt or China, the classification of these countries’ histories according to dynastic progressions and revolutions can be acknowledged and accepted.
Coming closer home, the history of Kanem-Borno Empire, for instance, can also lend itself to such categorization especially when approached from the more solid evidences of written accounts. This does not, however, preclude the approach to the histories of other Nigerian and African societies where fortune and conditions did not favour the creation of early written records, or availability of rich archeological findings. Oral traditions can hence be admitted into the equation when carefully sifted, classified and reduced to verifiable information.
The resort to oral evidence may have its pitfalls, as quite rightly suggested by experts. However, there are situations where oral evidence can be admitted in the development of historiography and historical research methodology. As far as ancient societies are concerned and more especially those in Africa, state formation processes cannot be conceivably understood or appreciated without the admission of oral testimonies.
The legends of origins of peoples, the development of kingship systems, the arrival of people in certain spots, migrations and encounters with other groups, wars and other forms of intercourses, the tracing of lineages etc, are mostly transmitted orally before the arrival of the colonial administrations in various African societies.
Proceeding from such considerations, African history in general and Nigeria’s in particular, should be approached from perspectives that admit a variety of frameworks and sources of inquiry, to be able to offer a holistic and generally satisfactory rendition of our past. This does not of course suggest an eclectic approach whereby all sorts of methods can be admitted or accepted indiscriminately.
Far from that, it merely suggests that admissible frameworks could be developed taking into account the specificities and peculiarities of African and Nigerian societies and build up or develop some research methodologies from there. Instead of the simplistic and sometimes racist classification of our history on the basis of an emphatic relationship with European history, ours should deviate towards much more elastic but rational systems of inquiry based on proven and traceable factors.
Instead of seeing our history in linear terms moving first from nothingness then to the arrival of Europeans in our midst, and from thence to the colonial and post-colonial periods, we could device better and more acceptable systems of rationalization that takes into account other factors that have shaped our societies and histories. The periods of state formation in most of our societies predated the arrival of Europeans on our shores. Therefore, the first tentative steps towards establishing frameworks for the study of African history should start from that point of departure.
Long-distance trading is the second pedestal on which African historiography could be made to stand, since that presupposes an organizational level must have been attained that allowed for the production of surplus commodities to be exchanged with other outlaying communities. It also indicates that a reasonably well organized system of transportation and trade routes linking various African communities must have been developed, that facilitated intercourses and exchanges, that subsequently led to the differentiation of classes and accumulation of wealth.
Such process inevitably led to the development of political structures, the emergence of class distinctions and stratification of societies, all leading to growth of sophistication in taste, manners, outlooks and levels of organisation. Hence, the need to clearly demonstrate this complex and interrelated progression of African history and the need to move away from a linear, biologically motivated conception of our history.
The author used to be the Deputy Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the UN in New York