By Obadiah Mailafia
THEY don’t teach history in our schools anymore. Today, we have a generation of Nigerians that do not know where they came from, let alone where they are going. Those who took decision to expunge history from the school curriculum are traitors. History is the queen of the human sciences just as mathematics is the handmaiden of the natural sciences. Philosophy is the mother of all. History teaches and humanises. It is the repository of the collective memory – a vital tool for nation building.
The tragedy of Africans is that we have no sense of history, unlike the Jews who have a long historical memory. Hugh Trover-Roper (who later became Lord Dacre) was Regius Professor of History at Oxford. His views on African history were notoriously ungenerous. According to him, Africa is “no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit…here is only the history of Europeans in Africa”.
If I became president someday, the first thing I would do is to sign an Executive Order restoring the study of history in our schools. But history shall not be my sole priority as far as education is concerned. As a matter of fact, my biggest priority will be science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the STEM disciplines. Mine is a vision of a first-rate technological-industrial economy; of a prosperous democracy anchored on the rule of law, human dignity, freedom and social justice.
Two controversies have recently cropped up. The first is the debate about the legacy of Cecil Rhodes, the arch-imperialist and robber-baron; the other being about the racist bigotry of American President Woodrow Wilson.
Cecil John Rhodes (1853 – 1902) was an Englishman who emigrated to Southern Africa and made it big in both business and politics. He became a multibillionaire mining magnate and later Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. Rhodes was an unapologetic imperialist who thought nothing of raping much of Southern Africa, from the Cape up to Zimbabwe and Zambia. In fact, he literally owned everything from Malawi to Zimbabwe and Zambia, for which the entire region was renamed after him as Rhodesia. Rhodes University in South Africa was also named after him.
His opinions about Africans, were unbelievably backward. He was the biggest apologist for British imperialism in Africa. A distinguished historian, Richard McFarlane, describes Rhodes as, “integral a participant in southern African and British imperial history as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln are in their respective eras in United States history”. Rhodes was a big promoter of British imperial ambitions to take possession of everything “from Cape to Cairo”.
His commitment to white Anglo-Saxon racial supremacism was clear and unabashed: “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race…If the whites maintain their position as the supreme race, the day may come when we shall be thankful that we have the natives with us in their proper position”.
Rhodes never married, claiming he had too much work and may prove not to be a very dutiful husband. It turns out that he was a homosexual who was hooked with his personal secretary Neville Pickering, to whom he had willed his entire estate. I have, regrettably, a link with Cecil Rhodes. He was an old boy of my own alma mater, Oriel College, University of Oxford. He gave a large endowment to my college. His life-sized statue looms like a shadow over Oriel.
Last year, the Provost wrote to me personally seeking my opinion as to whether I would like to see the statue removed. My own response at the time was, “let sleeping dogs lie”. But the “Rhodes Must Fall Campaign” has intensified. It all began in March 2015 on the idyllic campus of the University of Cape Town, where black students demanded removal of all Rhodes memorabilia from campus. It spread like a savannah bushfire to Britain. On January 19, 2016, the venerable Oxford Union – the world’s oldest students debating body and training ground for future British leaders – voted overwhelmingly by 245 to 2012 in favour of the removal of the Rhodes statue.
The pressures of public opinion have become relentless. It seems very clear which way the wind is blowing. It is evident that the Rhodes statue has become an affront to our 21st century sensibilities. It will have to go. Rhodes left more than UK£1 billion to Oxford under the Rhodes Trust for the provision of scholarships to the brightest young people from English-speaking world. The Rhodes Scholarship is the most prestigious students grant in the world. Rhodes intended it as a training opportunity for the brightest young people to prepare them for leadership in the Anglo-Saxon trans-Atlantic community.
Former Rhodes scholars have ranged from Presidents and Prime Ministers to famous writers, scientists, industrialists and judges from all over the world. Former American President Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar. I was on the board that nominated two Rhodes scholars from Nigeria and Ghana last year. I regret that the whole of English-speaking West Africa has only two slots while Australia and America have dozens each. I would insist that the Rhodes Scholarship scheme be reformed to give priority to Africa, from where Cecil Rhodes made most of his fortune.
The other palaver that has come up recently is the decision taken last Friday, June 26, by the President and Regents of the Ivy-League Princeton University to remove the name of Woodrow Wilson from its famous School of International Affairs. They argue that Wilson’s racist views cannot be reconciled with the ideals that both Princeton and the school stand for.
Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856 – 1924) was a distinguished academic, lawyer and statesman. He was perhaps the only academic with a PhD to have ever become president of the United States (1913—1921). He was a professor of political science at Princeton. His works on congress and on constitutional government and public administration were seminal contributions to scholarship. He was President of Princeton and later Governor of New Jersey before ascending the high magistracy of the American republic. Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber who had apparently opposed the decision initially, became a convert; arguing that “Wilson’s racist opinions and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school whose scholars, students and alumni must stand firmly against racism and for equality and justice”.
I would personally propose renaming the institution after former President Barrack Obama, whose wife Michelle, also happens to be a Princeton Alumnus.
What is being revealed about Woodrow Wilson is utterly shocking. Born in Augusta, Georgia, his was a Southern heritage with all that it meant in terms of Jim Crow racism. As President, he reinstated racial segregation in most federal agencies. He also defended the atrocities of the KKK and was a staunch opponent of the electoral franchise for Black people. He believed it be a “menace to society itself that the negroes should thus of a sudden be set free and left without tutelage or restraint”.
Woodrow Wilson was clearly a bad American. But his international policies were, paradoxically, well ahead of his times. He was the architect of the Versailles Settlement 1919 and the ensuing League of Nations. It literally broke his heart when Congress refused to ratify the Treaty. This singular failure destroyed the foundations of collective security; paving the way for another catastrophic war.
The founding fathers of the American Republic were racist slave-owners, including the principal draftsman of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. The rare exceptions were the likes of John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams. As racist bigots go, Woodrow Wilson was in a class of his own.