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Nigeria and 13yrs without history

By Mahmed Jega

Imagine, just imagine, that someone delivered a sharp knock on your head that wiped out thirteen years’ memory from your brain’s hippocampus. You will be a walking zombie with no idea where you came from, how you got here, or what you are supposed to do. Even animals are better than you, because they have an organised way of passing the benefits of memory and experience from one generation to another. On Animal Planet channel, you often see how a mother lioness teaches its cubs what it means to be a lion, the best foods, best-hunting grounds, how to bring down prey, how to kill it, where to start eating the carcass in case a stronger animal snatches it away, and which dangerous animals to avoid, including male lions from another pride.

In Nigeria however, we staggered along for 13 years with only minimal teaching of History in our basic schools. A former executive secretary of Nigeria Educational Research Council [NERC] once explained that this was done at the time Nigeria adopted the 6-3-3-4 system, which he said necessitated the merger of many school subjects. History, Geography, and Government were then merged into a new subject called Social Studies, which emphasized the teaching of current issues over past ones. Pray, how can one know the meaning of the present without knowing the cascade of events, episodes, and persons that brought it about?

Not that we were not warned. When the idea of merging some subjects was first mooted, with the consequent relegation of History and Geography into themes, Dr. Yusuf Bala Usman said, “Without History, we do not know who we are. Without Geography, we do not know where we are.”

Nigerian society immediately reaped the wages of this lacuna. Several historically false narratives were soon created by some groups in Nigerian society and politically elevated to the level of gospel truth. A ready example of this is Mr. Nnamdi Kanu and his Indigenous Peoples of Biafra [IPOB] movement, which managed to rally many South Eastern kids to their cause by painting historical Biafra as an Eldorado. Was it? One only had to read books and novels written by some of those who experienced it, such as Eddie Iroh’s trilogy Forty-Eight Guns for the General, Toads of War and Siren in the Night, Nelson Ottah’s Rebels Against Rebels, Dr. Bernard Odogwu’s No Place to Hide: Crises and Conflicts in Biafra; Chukwuemeka Ike’s Sunset at Dawn, Elechi Amadi’s Sunset in Biafra, Chinua Achebe’s Girls at War and Cyprian Ekwensi’s Survive the Peace to get a different idea. If anyone wants out of Nigeria, he should better look for a more pleasant alternative.

In the wake of deadly farmers/herders’ clashes leading to much loss of lives in the North Central states, I heard the Governor of Benue State saying that Sheikh Usman Danfodio planned to seize the fertile Benue valley from native settlers and resettle Fulani pastoralists there. Did he? Danfodio, his brother Abdullahi, his son Muhammadu Bello, his daughter Nana Asma’u and many of their associates together wrote hundreds of books, pamphlets, poems, and letters. Murray Last described them as the most literate leaders in pre-colonial Black Africa. Pray, where in these voluminous works did they ever mention the Benue valley and about resettling people into it? Was grazing land a problem 218 years ago, and was it ever listed as one of the motives of the Jihad? In my own lifetime, I knew when most of Northern Nigeria was shaded in the Geography Atlas as Sudan Savannah. As recently as the late 1960s, big game regularly crossed the Jega to Birnin Kebbi road, which was thickly forested. If not because History was relegated in the curriculum, how could anyone transplant a 21st Century problem back into the early 19th Century?

I heard a “professor” authoritatively saying in a social media post that Danfodio promised to dip the Qur’an in the sea. This man should attend a JS 1 Civics class. Despite its relegation too as a theme, any teacher of Islamic Studies will quickly point out that no Muslim, much less Danfodio, will dip the Qur’an into water, fresh, brackish or saline. This claim has however flourished in Nigerian politics for years.

The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana probably had Nigeria in mind when he said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In 2000AD, when I was editor of New Nigerian, I tried to convince a Northern elder statesman to grant me an interview on his life. He asked me why I wanted to hear about his life, and I said we wanted our readers to know the mistakes that were made in the past so that we will not make the same mistakes again. That was my mistake. It must have sounded to him like I was saying his generation ruined the country. He immediately stood up, swore that he will not grant me an interview, and yelled, “Everyone should go and make his own mistakes and learn from them!”

Geez! Imagine a world where every generation has to repeat the same mistakes and discover everything anew for itself. When we were in Form 1, our History teacher taught us that before humans discovered how to start a fire, they waited until bush fire roasted wild animals before they dined on them. Humans then discovered how to make fire by accident because one day, while he [or she] was cracking two stones to make a tool, the friction started a fire. It was one of the biggest leaps in human history. Imagine if we had no safety matches today and are still waiting for lightning to start a fire for us to cook.

In order to avoid such a calamity, Federal Ministry of Education Thursday last week launched the restoration of History as a stand-alone subject in the basic education curriculum. It was not the first time it did that. Minister of Education Malam Adamu Adamu first announced this step in 2016 but it apparently took six years before it finally happened. Also launched was a program of training for basic education level History teachers. Universal Basic Education Commission’s [UBEC] Executive Secretary Dr. Hamidu Bobboi said at the event that 3,700 teachers have been selected to be given a crash course in the teaching of History. I hope they are able to cope, if the young ones among them were only taught Social Studies in school.

Will they have the fire of our Form 1 History teacher Mr. Awe, who taught about Ghana, Songhai, Mali, Kebbi and Kanem Borno empires as if he was there? Mr. Awe was at his best discussing Mansa Musa of Mali. He said, unforgettably, that the price of gold in Cairo crashed to a very low level for ten years when Mansa Musa passed through the city on his way to and from Mecca. Not all our History teachers had Mr. Awe’s passion. We had an Indian History teacher, Mr. Sharma, who taught the subject absent-mindedly. He taught about West African civilisations “Mende, Loko, Susu and Shabror” straight from the textbook. He listlessly listed each World War 1 participant nation’s “motives for going to war.”

He said, “Austria/Hungary: Serbia has to be destroyed if Austria-Hungary is to remain a single unit. She wanted a short war, knowing that she will be destroyed in a long one.”

Up until today, I cannot make sense out of that statement. Mr. Sharma also taught that the First World War was caused by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. That was the trigger, but not the cause. Some teachers did great disservice to the teaching of History. Dr. Abdurrahman Umar’s History teacher in the old North Eastern State once said in class, “Mansa Musa died in 1327. How he died, do not ask Mr. Ayodele because I was not there!”

Students themselves are a problem. When Minister Adamu first announced the reintroduction of History as a stand-alone subject back in 2016, News Agency of Nigeria [NAN] posted a story in which two students told its reporter that they do not like History because it has too many dates and they have to “cram” them. Very good. They apparently prefer to cram vehicle plate numbers, GSM phone numbers, bank account numbers and Premier League match statistics.

Which reminds me. In the 1980s when I was a university teaching assistant, a final year student presented a seminar paper in which he said Christopher Columbus landed in America in 1942. I asked him if there was anything wrong with that date. He looked at it for several minutes and said, “There is nothing wrong with the date. I saw it in a textbook.” He couldn’t have. In 1942, America was on the verge of becoming the world’s pre-eminent power with millions of its troops pouring into Europe, North Africa and Asia to fight in World War Two. The correct date was 1492. Probably due to students’ phobia for dates, he shaved nearly 500 years off North American history. Here, we only shaved off 13 years, but we will probably need one or two generations ahead before we can repair the damage.

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