By Morenike Taire
There are three sides of every story, they say: The story of the “right”, the story of the “left” and the true story. In history, there are no true stories- only the story according to the writer of it.
Historically, we Africans have been disadvantaged because we had not the ability to record past and ancient occurrences by writing, having mastered the oral tradition of handing down history from generation to generation, by mouth.
This worked until the unique system was inadvertently truncated by the advent of Western education, with the historians of most families embracing another way of life.
With this truncation, in our particular situation, came modern history, whereby students of history leant only those things that were written down, mostly by people who were not present at the events, people with clear and dangerous biases and combinations of both.
The removal of History as a subject from the Nigerian primary school curriculum was both a blessing and a curse- a ‘curse’ because a people who do not know where they are coming from will have much difficulty even knowing where they are, not to talk of where they are going; a blessing because much of the material that had been published as History was no better than brainwashing.
Many children of Generation X played hopscotch to a certain song on playing grounds across schools in Western Nigeria: Ojukwu wanted to split Nigeria; Gowon said Nigeria must be one; We are going to fight together; To make Nigeria one!
Thus a whole generation was brainwashed into believing other people’s sides of the story to be the stark, unchangeable truth. Years of singing this song and playing to its strains stamped some clear messages into the brain of even the most intelligent child: Ojukwu was the villain of villains whose intentions had been to wreck the wonderful utopia known as Nigeria for no apparent reason other than his wickedness.
Gowon, on the other hand, was the angel sent by the Almighty to save the nation from the doom of this impending polarization. Out he had come with his blazing magic wand and commanded wholesomeness to the entity called Nigeria, and so it was!
This song does not expressly say so, but it is definitely implied that the unity of Nigeria is non negotiable; and that anyone who so much as suggests otherwise is an enemy of the state, like Ojukwu had been.
Thus, heroes, heroines and villains were assigned according to the whims of the assignors with no apparent reason for the assignments. At best heroism was assigned along ethnic and other less than honourable lines. Awolowo was revered by the Yoruba and envied by others because he protected and provided for Western Nigeria.
He was the villain, as far as many easterners are concerned, the fellow who sold them out during the war and deserving of nothing but curses. Some even hold him, and not those who started the war, directly responsible for the starvation of one million children.
Gowon has maintained his pristine reputation as a nationalist and peace loving individual, and no one speaks any more of the fact that he was installed in the first place as an olive branch of sorts to compensate for the wasting of Ahmadu Bello and Tafawa Balewa while at the same time assuaging Christian angst.
Nigerian sectarian history has Nnamdi Azikiwe- the Zik of Africa himself who spent most of his youth tirelessly contending for Nigeria’s independence – has largely been painted with the brush of a coward who deferred to nationalistic ideas and failed to bring Western education to his people on the kind of scale Awolowo had done to the Yoruba.
Before his passing the Nigerian state had failed to draw on the vast experience and great wisdom of recently belated Chief Alex Ekweme mostly on account of the perception of him as being a nationalist who never even pretended to align himself with any less than moderate sectarian sentiments.
Truth be blatantly told: the reason the country has come to be more divided than ever is not because we have a president from a certain part of the country but because our children are nurtured on the unwholesome milk of unbalanced history.
As revolution sweeps across Africa- a continent blighted by dictatorships for the later part of the 20th century- we have been forced to bring out and dust up our history books on modern villains like Libya’s despotic leader Muammar Ghadaffi and more recently, Robert Mugabe. As we struggle to balance present realities with happenstance of the past, we are better empowered to articulate present positions and navigate the way forward.
Africa is tense about Zimbabwe for instance not just because they are displeased by Mugabe’s political exit but mostly because they are better informed about the history of Emmerson Mnangagwa, aka “Garwe.”
Nelson Mandela, though referred to as one of the most beloved individuals that ever walked this earth in modern history, also has his own harsh critics. His Truth and Reconciliation Commission of 1996, set up by The 1995 Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act has been knocked for its immunity clauses and in fact has been fingered as being the cause of South Africa’s difficulty with moving forward.
Yet what this country needs more than anything right now is truth and re conciliation.
It is strange that the room in which people were shouting above the din demanding secession and restructuring has suddenly gone quiet. Perhaps what has happened is that we have suddenly realized that those things are not as urgent as reexamining and rewriting our history.