Guest Contributor: 'Sexing up' Nigerian History

Historian and author Max Siollun talks about the need for contemporary writers to make Nigerian history more interesting to readers.

Herbert Macauley

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.

Nnamdi AzikiweHow 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.

Yakubu Gowon

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.


  • We thank God for the governor’s reurtn and wish him more resounding health.But come to think of it, when will these politicians stop wasting our money abroad? Does that means Nigeria does not have the resources to build hospitals with modern equipment? It’s a big shame on the Nigerian leaders both past and present. At any slightest illness they fly abroad. Besides, these people are just taking us for granted. How many employer, even government can allow its employee to go for months without getting him/her dismissed. Nigeria leaders are cheats, may God punish them.

    Posted by Udo on August 07, 2013
  • l have read Max Siollun’s “Oil,Politics and Violence”.lt was so enjoyable-like a novel,yet it was a history book full of facts!l recommend it to all Nigerians interested in learning about out recent past.l actully find most books on history to be “dry”.Going by Siollun ’s arguement we can make history books more interesting without losing the basic facts.The Historical Society of Nigeria and history writers should consider this option.The Government also should encourage the teaching of history in schools.

    Posted by Solomon Arumemi on March 21, 2011
  • In my SS3 class, we were six history students in a class of over a hundred. History was and still is considered a boring subject and those of us “unfortunate” or “stupid” enough to study it were pitied. What amazes me is that my school guidance counselor encouraged us to pay more attention to American and British history and literature. In fact, if she had her way there would have been no history students or if there absolutely had to be only 1 – me, because she was sure I would pass regardless.
    I agree that History should be made a compulsory subject at every level of education and the media can certainly do a lot more than it is currently doing however, it is not a problem to be confronted by the Federal Government and Historians alone. Without sounding trite, we all have to address this issue. If we all tell our children the basics, who our heroes and fathers are, it will go a long way to help. I was shocked to discover that a third year student of mass communication in one of our great institutions had no idea who Anthony Enahoro is.
    I am currently in the field of communication and would love to help anyway I can. Kudos for raising awareness on this issue.

    Posted by Nkechi on March 24, 2011
  • This is Cassava Republic is indeed a broad of enlightenment with neither appraise or sarcastic mode of narrating for nothing but to educate the current and the generationext.I remember my Oranyan days,when we don’t have a permanent History class time-table,I have to create my personal history class to help Vangaruba realise his literary dream with the aid of the book"WEST AFRICAN HISTORY" from the Authors of great memory.
    Today no more grundging to read about history anymore while this republic is in vehement operation.

    Posted by Vangaruba on March 02, 2013
  • Well Said! Another reason for the failure is because our record system is piss poor.

    Posted by trae_z on March 20, 2011
  • Let’s start by returning the study of history as a compulsory course for students in all Nigerian schools, primary, secondary and post secondary.

    Posted by Lolade on March 18, 2011
  • I have been following Max Siollun’s effort on Facebook to make Nigerian history not just sexy but fresh, surprising and revealing. As all history should be. I have been impressed.

    I too was surprised by how articulate and well spoken past political leaders have been, especially the military boys. I suspect this is not just because I have not heard them before but because many our recent and present leaders have been so uninspiring. Listening to Ironsi I was struck that he seemed to be what used to call a ’ cultivated’ person; informed, considered and articulate, albeit an army officer. It made me feel the very worse has triumphed in the last 50 years.

    One small thing about ‘sexy’ history. There is an excessive focus on documents and libraries as a source of history but what illuminates Max Siollun’s grasp of Nigerian history, and makes his take so fresh is that he has talked to so many people. He seems to know what the participant and bystander saw and did.

    Posted by ebele on March 18, 2011

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