Uploaded by Jeremy Weate on March 18, 2011
Historian and author Max Siollun talks about the need for contemporary writers to make Nigerian history more interesting to readers.
I was literally heartbroken when not too long ago, a Nigerian acquaintance of mine (born and raised in Nigeria) told me that she thought Herbert Macaulay was a white American. She could recite (in chronological order) most of the post-World War II American Presidents, but she had no idea that Herbert Macaulay was a Nigerian. She was shocked when I told her that Macaulay was to Nigeria, what George Washington was to the United States of America.
How could a Nigerian born and raised in her own country be so unaware of her country’s past? I soon discovered that she was not (as I hoped) a lone island of historical blindness. When I posted some video clips of Nigeria’s former leaders, Nigerian viewers were stunned by the precise articulation and fluent oratory of men like Tafawa Balewa and Nnamdi Azikiwe. They seemed totally unaware that Nigeria could actually produce leaders who spoke “Queen’s English” and who sounded intelligent. It occurred to me that probably less than 10% of Nigerians could recognise the voices of Nigeria’s early leaders such as Obafemi Awolowo or Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto.
The Elephant in the Room
Why do so many Nigerians know so little about their own country’s history? The federal government must take much responsibility for this. Nigerian history is not intensively taught in schools largely because after the civil war, the federal government tried to brush the country’s past under the carpet in order to foster reconciliation. It deliberately imposed a historical blackout on Nigeria’s younger generation because it did not want students to know that the country’s early history was rife with ethnic violence, military coups and people who murdered their political opponents in the middle of the night or during rush hour traffic. Teaching that to young people seemed like it would be an excellent way to raise a new generation of angry, embittered racists.
But the government is not entirely to blame. The absence of a library culture, and Nigerians’ quest for ‘professional’ academic paths such as medicine, engineering, law and accountancy, has also increased people’s alienation to their history.
We writers must also share the responsibility. Reading historical narratives is not the same suspense-filled experience as reading a murder mystery or a fantasy Harry Potter-type novel. We writers must present Nigerian history as something more than a mechanical rendering of dates and facts. Chimamanda Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun” (although a work of fiction) has historical credibility because she weaved real life historical figures like Yakubu Gowon and Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu into the fabric of the novel. In essence, she was “teaching” Nigerian history to her readers in a surreptitious manner.
Time to ‘Sex up’ Nigerian History
Dry, ponderous academic style renditions of Nigerian history will not do. In my writing, I have tried to dramatise the historic events I write about and bring the characters to life, so as to capture the reader’s imagination. The reader momentarily suspends the belief that what they are reading is in fact….fact! we must. To interest readers in Nigerian history, we must turn our national characters into “stars” and, in the popular vernacular of the Iraq war, “sex up” Nigerian history. That is the challenge for me and other writers….
About the author
Max Siollun is a writer and historian with extensive knowledge of Nigerian military history. He is a graduate of the University of London and resides in the United Kingdom and the United States. He is the author of the critically acclaimed “Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria's Military Coup Culture.” His next book “Soldiers of Fortune: Nigerian Politics under Buhari and Babangida” will be published later this year by Cassava Republic Press.