Nigeria needs history and a name change
My last week’s column that exploded Natasha H. Akpoti’s wildly unfounded conspiracy theories about Nigeria highlights the imperative for a radical, systemic curricular overhaul of Nigeria’s education system to make history compulsory from primary school to university. It also dramatises the truism that you can’t build something on nothing.
Aristotle popularised the idea that nature abhors a vacuum. I would add that even the mind abhors a vacuum. Most human beings are intrinsically inquisitive and have an abiding yearning to learn about their past. If no systematic, empirical, and veridical body of historical knowledge exists to satisfy this longing, they will either invent it themselves or fall prey to the crackpot conspiracies of charlatans.
The enthusiasm with which people shared—and believed—Akpoti’s conspiratorial, logically impoverished, and chronologically impossible history of Nigeria is proof of this. So is the unnerving ignorance displayed by Buhari’s lawyers on Atiku Abubakar’s citizenship and the position of British northern Cameroon in the formation of Nigeria.
Plus, it’s impossible to fashion a functional country out of a disparate fragment of people such as Nigeria without a deliberate, well-thought-out collective history as a part of formal pedagogy in schools. Nations, as Anglo-Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson points out, are imagined communities. History is an important part of the imagination that brings forth nations out of aggregates of dissimilar people. That is why in the United States, to give an example I am intimately familiar with, history is mandatory from elementary school to university irrespective of course of study.
The result is that in spite of their own peculiar fissures, Americans have a fair grasp of their history—even if it’s only the sanitised, officially sanctioned version of their history. My nine-year-old son knows more about American history than most Nigerian university graduates who didn’t study history know about Nigerian history.
In the last few years, the claim that the Nigerian government “banned history” from the national curriculum has become a hackneyed, predictable refrain. It’s often uttered in moments of glaring display of historical ignorance, especially by young people. But this refrain is both dishonest and inaccurate. History was never a mandatory subject at any point in Nigeria’s history. It was always optional before it was discontinued because of progressively dwindling student enrolment.
When I started secondary school more than three decades ago, history and government were offered as alternatives to each other for students in the humanities and social sciences concentration. That is, you enrolled in either history or government but not both. In my secondary school, no one chose history. Apparently, this is a national phenomenon, which caused the ministry of education to discontinue offering the subject.
Nevertheless, even the secondary school history curriculum that students were taught (with which I am familiar because I studied it on my own) is deficient, poorly, and incapable of nurturing the sort of historical knowledge that is indispensable to national self-fashioning. At some point, the curricula of history and government were indistinguishable.
So people who advocate the return of history to the national secondary school curriculum should go beyond merely advocacy for its return; they should also insist that professional historians radically reorder the history curriculum and then compel the government to make it compulsory, not merely an option, for all secondary school students. A history curriculum appropriate for primary schools should also be designed and made mandatory. Finally, every higher education student, irrespective of disciplinary orientation, should be made to take at least two semesters’ worth of history courses as part of general education.
I ended my August 10, 2013 column entitled “A Know Nothing Nation” by observing that, “Until our educational system and national orientation are reformed to deepen and broaden our knowledge about ourselves, our quest for nationhood will continue to be stuck in prolonged infancy.” History is the vehicle to reach that goal.
History bridges our past, our present, and our future. That was what Irish-British philosopher Edmund Burke meant when he said, “History is a pact between the dead, the living and the yet unborn.” We ignore history at own peril. And this leads me to why Nigeria needs to change its name.
Why Nigeria Needs a New Name
I have written copiously on the need to change our colonial name. After formal independence from British colonialism, we changed our constitution, our national anthem, and our national currency, but we are still burdened with the name and national colours handed down to us by colonialism. Whenever Nigeria gets a thinking, self-respecting leadership, we need to throw away these avoidably odious holdovers of colonialism.
Nigeria is one of only a few previously colonised countries in the world that still bear the name imposed on them by their historical oppressors. As I showed last week, the name Nigeria was invented by Flora Shaw, Lugard’s wife, from the term “Niger-area,” and she intended for the name to refer only to what is now northern Nigeria. She didn’t have southern Nigeria in mind when she came up with the name. In fact, part of the reasons she invented the name was to differentiate the north from the south.
Well, that’s now an insignificant point. What is significant is that the name “Nigeria” traces lexical descent from the River Niger, which has symbolic significance for most communities in what is now Nigeria. However, as I showed last week, even “Niger” is a foreign word—whether you think it’s derived from the Latin niger or the Berber ger-n-ger.
I pointed out in my February 25, 2017 column entitled “A Vote for ‘Naija’ and Against ‘Nigeria’”— in response to the misguided campaign by the National Orientation Agency to ban the use of the affectionate diminutive term Naija in place of Nigeria—that, “If we must name our country after the longest river in our land, why not adopt one or all of its local names? Yoruba people call River Niger ‘Oya,’ the Baatonu people call it ‘Kora,’ Hausa people call it ‘Kwara,’ Igbo people call it ‘Orimiri,’ etc.”
If you blend the local names for River Niger from our country’s three major ethnic groups, you may come up with something like “Kwoyamiri.” Or, perhaps, “Oyakwamiri.” That’s an infinitely better, more authentic name than “Nigeria.”
If that doesn’t work, what stops us from adopting the as yet unclaimed name of a powerful precolonial West African empire called Songhai—on the model of Ghana, Benin, Mali, etc.? I pointed out in a previous column that, “it was actually an Igbo man from Ohafia by the name of Dr Kalu Ezera who first suggested, in 1960, that Nigeria’s name should be changed to the United Republic of Songhai. But the reactionary colonial lackeys who formed the core of Nigeria’s early ‘nationalists’ ignored him. So the campaign to change Nigeria’s name to Songhai is neither new nor informed by ethnic or religious loyalties.”
A lot of the resistance to changing Nigeria’s name is often predicated on the notion that it’s too late. Well, the southern African country of Swaziland recently changed its name to Eswatini, and the entire world now refers to it by that name. In any case, it’s never too late to do the right thing.