History, Historians and Nation-Building in Nigeria
According to the historian Jorma Kalela, “Why history?” is more fruitful than the question of “what is history?” The former question is posed because people need knowledge of the past, which they can use as they deem fit as the past is always used in the present. In the United States of America we heard of the Tea Party and talks of the Founding Fathers. In Britain, the Brexiteers anchored leaving the European Union on supposed British values and traditions that they believed Europe was eroding. Using the past is equally true for China, which is the most persistent civilization and culture area. China’s heritage and past imbues the Middle Kingdom with confidence about its place in the world.
In Nigeria, the Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba and the other hundreds of ethnic nationalities are together due to history. Because more than a hundred years ago the British came to colonise the Nigeria area. Thus, although one can say these groups have nothing in common before 1914, and therefore that they should not be together, such thinking misses a basic point. They are now together because of history, a common and shared history. A jointly shared history of colonization, which they experienced together for over six decades.
History, will therefore always be about the past and the contemporary. How the past or history is used only heightens the politics in the usage of the history, that is, what historians choose to emphasise, what the elite, the religious authorities, and the government or the people decide to remember and value. As a result the entire gamut of experiences will be there, but often groups will emphasise certain strands and leave out others towards the achievement of certain aims. In Nigeria such battlegrounds are: religion, colonialism and 1914, 1953, 1966, the Civil War, June 12 and May 29 and other historical experiences. Such histories are often subjected to diverse interpretations and meanings. Some of which may be benign and others malignant to the national well-being.
The diverse interpretations of past historical events highlight that history and meaning can be twisted by groups within a nation or internationally. However, despite this bending of history to serve specific agendas, it is very much to the historian to remain impartial and objective and tell the story of the past as it was. Being objective prevents history from degenerating to myth-making. This is often a difficult task, as historians may find it difficult to limit the influence of their ethnic, regional, religious and cultural orientations from affecting their professional role as objective practitioners of the craft of history. As a result, some Nigerian historians against the tenets of the discipline may be less than objective in accounting for the past based on their ethnicity, religion or politics.
Despite such limitations with regards to interpretations of the past by some historians, it is still to be asserted that the relevance of history to society is in the broad perspective it provides by synthesizing how the roots of the present are located in a past, that even though long gone is very much still alive. Its influence being felt in the foundations upon which the present exists. The reality being that societies and nations in the past and in contemporary times have always used history as anchors. As history helps the present to make sense of the world, to understand trends and utilise same to shape the course of human actions locally and globally.
The relevance of historians in this grand scheme in Nigeria is to contribute to providing understanding, to shaping thought. To imbue the civic spirit of nationhood and community, patriotism and hardnosed idealism in citizens. It means historians helping the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory to work out compromises on the basis of an enlightened comprehension of the challenges facing the nation; and how to build a stronger Nigerian state and nation-hood.
Fundamentally, it is in the nation’s shared history of common roots before 1900 and after that historians can locate and provide the nation with the basis upon which it can face challenges and build stronger, better and more prosperous local, state and national communities. Historians can strengthen the nation through the histories they have researched and know so well and by how they explain the past as a source of lessons and inspiration to the present generation towards building a stronger and united Nigerian federation.