George Santayana, American poet and philosopher it was who said that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Africans in general did not start to write their own history until the bottom half of the last century.
Most of the early African history was written by Europeans. Even now, it would appear that African leaders and people still disdain history and collectively our social, political, legal and economic decisions are seldom guided by reference to African history and precedents. That partly explains why we repeat the same mistakes so often, and progress eludes us.
Perhaps it was the realisation that Nigerians don’t value history which emboldened a former President of Nigeria to remove history from the school curriculum. No British, American, Japanese, Chinese or German leader, among others, would have got away with it. Even the intellectual communities in most countries would have risen in revolt against that decision. But, Nigerian academics docilely accepted that atrocious decision without a murmur.
Consequently, anybody wanting to find out what happened in Nigeria in the 1970’s, for instance, can only laboriously assemble the pieces from newspapers and magazines. Granted, journalism represents the first draft of history, as an American editor had once pronounced. But news reports, interviews, analyses and features constitute only the basic materials of history. They seldom include all the pertinent information necessary for properly documented history.
The return of history to the academic syllabus by the Federal Government in May this year is, therefore, a welcome development because it provides Nigerians with a fresh opportunity to write their own history and to learn from them.
However, the return of history to the school syllabus poses several problems; mainly the supply of teachers and lecturers. When history was removed, the number of people seeking admission to study it in the universities dropped significantly for obvious reasons: there was no point pursuing a course which would result inexorably in unemployment.
Few graduates of history are available to teach at secondary schools, and fewer still can be found to teach at the universities given the insistence on doctorate degrees for lecturers. The long break in what should have been a continuous process of nurturing historians has created a scarcity of teachers which will be difficult to overcome in a long time.
Perhaps one way governments and philanthropists can help is to offer more scholarships to those wanting to read history and to guarantee them employment when they finish. We need history because our past is almost as important as our future is.
Care must also be taken to assemble a well-selected, diverse committee of historians to create a narrative of our history that will reflect the truth of our past without prejudice, and at the same time reinforce efforts at nation-building.