How Nigeria is finally telling its own history

Max Siollun
By Max Siollun

Nigerian historian and author of 'What Britain Did to Nigeria: A Short History of Conquest and Rule'

Posted on Friday, 21 January 2022 11:15

Front view of the national museum in Benin City, Edo state, Nigeria June 12, 2018. Picture taken June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

A common complaint from Nigerians is that the teaching and dissemination of their history has been deprioritised or even forgotten.

For years, school students in Nigeria were not taught their country’s history… until the government restored it to the curriculum in 2019. This lacuna was filled with accounts written by British colonial officers and expatriate historians. For decades, young Nigerians grew up on a diet of the coloniser’s narrative.

Reading much of the written history of Nigeria is like observing the country through the telescopic sights of a British rifle.

Now there is a growing demand to hear Nigeria’s story told from the perspective of its indigenes. Although partly this is due to the greater racial awareness generated by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaigns and racial and social justice unrest of 2020, other trends have coalesced to bring Nigerian history to the centre stage.

Firstly, Nigeria’s habit of recycling its political elites; secondly its overwhelmingly young population growing up in the short-attention-span era of YouTube and social media; and thirdly, the global wave of video streaming that has also swept Africa.

Nigeria must tell its own story

When the first generation of post-independence Nigerian historians – such as Jacob Ade-Ajayi, Adiele Afigbo, Kenneth Dike, Tekena Tamuno and Yusufu Bala Usman – departed, few talented historians had lined up behind them. Perhaps that’s unsurprising in a developing country obsessed with fast oil wealth and training young people for the professions. Nigeria’s history was relegated to the wilderness for decades. Government failed to prioritise it. Now Nigeria’s demography may help make history big business.

Two-thirds of Nigerians are under 30 years old. The country’s youth contrasts with its elderly political leaders. Nigeria emerged from two decades of military rule and transitioned to elected civilian rule in 1999, but its leadership has been dominated by retired generals from prior military dictatorships.

President Muhammadu Buhari is a 78-year-old retired army major general who led a military regime between 1983 and 1985. He returned to power as an elected civilian president 30 years later. More than two-thirds of Nigerians had not been born when Buhari was first head of state. They struggled to reconcile conflicting accounts of him as a severe and uncompromising military disciplinarian with his new demeanour as an avuncular senior citizen.

Despite Buhari’s promise that “before you is a former military ruler and a converted democrat who is ready to operate under democratic norms”, young Nigerians puzzled over their president’s antecedents.

Clarissa Ebuzeme, a young lawyer in her 20s who lives in Abuja, told me: “Millennials and Gen Z are finally becoming real adults and more self-aware and want to know what happened in Nigeria in [the past].[…] People wanted to know more about what happened in the 1980s when he [Buhari] was military head of state.”

Young people consider that a way to discover the nature of the man now leading their country is to delve into history and learn about the military coup plots that took Buhari in and out of power three decades ago.

Ghosts from the past

Other ghosts from our past are haunting today’s youth. For years, activists in the southeast have campaigned for secession. The attempted secession of Biafra in 1967 led to a civil war that lasted almost three years, claimed a million lives and split the army into rival warring factions. For the first time in African history, Western television viewers were presented with footage of emaciated, starving African children, imposing another stereotype of Africans.

Although Nigeria was reunited, the emotionally explosive faultlines and structural problems that led to the secession remain unresolved. The war’s legacy and the curiosity of the generations born after it have created their own industry.

Barely a year goes by without a new book about Nigeria’s devastating civil war. One of the most successful African books of the 21st century, Half of a Yellow Sun, is a novel based on real characters and events from the war. Published almost 30 years after the war started, its author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, was born a decade after the first shot was fired.

Even the neglected topic of Nigeria under British colonial rule is getting airtime. For decades there were no new books on the topic. Then, suddenly, like proverbial London buses, five books on Britain’s colonial rule of Nigeria appeared in 2021. They address topics such as Britain’s looting of the Benin kingdom in 1897 and whether those stolen artefacts should be returned, Nigerian resistance to British rule, and even salacious inter-racial affairs involving British colonial officials who condemned miscegenation by day but slept with African women by night.

Bottom line

Academia, professors and textbooks should not be the only outlets for disseminating history. Artistic licence can easily cross over into propaganda, however. For decades the US presented its tumultuous history in a monochrome way through Hollywood, with brutal conflict in the ‘Wild West’ and the slaughter of Native Americans mythologised in films about ‘cowboys and Indians’.

Evolving consumerism offers a new way to relay Nigeria’s history, and maybe we can do better than 20th-century Hollywood.

Two decades ago, the Financial Times described Nigeria’s then rudimentary film industry as “vibrant if somewhat bizarre […] with torrid tales of witchcraft and romantic adventure”.

Nollywood is now the second-­largest film industry in the world. This burgeoning domestic film industry coalesced with other tectonic shifts in global entertainment.

Nigeria has more than 170 million mobile-­phone accounts. Most of them can access feature films and documentaries online. Netflix and its rivals’ growth targets are based on securing a foothold in heavily populated developing countries. To win bigger audiences, Netflix was producing African-made films and programmes even before the BLM and racial justice protests of 2020.

Those momentous events combined with the success of the 2018 Marvel blockbuster Black Panther to create demand for more films starring and produced by Africans. Black Panther represented much more than box-office success. It shifted the African narrative. An almost all black cast starred in a film that did not conform to the usual negative images of Africa. It was not an outlier. Last month, Netflix released Amina, inspired by the warrior queen who reigned in 15th century Nigeria.

Africans are no longer being examined and studied by outsiders as if they were laboratory specimens. Social, demographic and technological trends have converged to give Africa a wonderful opportunity to tell its story. It should not be missed.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options