By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
I know the title of this week’s column sounds a little verbose, even melodramatic, but it captures the sensation of outrage I felt when I read Vanguard’s March 12 editorial titled “History Ends in Nigeria.” The editorial laments a recent decision to expunge history from Nigeria’s secondary school curriculum putatively because students disdain the subject and because there are no teachers to teach it.
After a little digging, I discovered that the decision to discontinue the teaching of history in Nigerian secondary schools was actually taken in 2012. A professor of pharmacology at the University of Nigeria by the name of Peter Nwangwu is one of the first people to call attention to the idiocy of this policy. In a January 24, 2012 interview with the News Agency of Nigeria, he noted that “The study of history nurtures a spirit of critical inquiry and assists the young learner in the formation of historical consciousness.”
He is right. Cicero, the famous Roman statesman and orator, also once said, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.” Malcolm X was blunter. He is widely quoted to have said, “History is a people's memory, and without memory man is demoted to the lower animals.” By discontinuing the teaching of history, Nigeria’s policymakers are condemning future generations to the tragedy of being perpetual children at best and “lower animals” at worst.
This is particularly worrisome because even in the best of times, Nigerians are some of the most historically ignorant people I’ve ever met. Historical knowledge has never been popular with Nigerians. They hate for historical facts to stand in the way of their jingoistic fantasies. Take, for instance, the Usman Dan Fodio jihad. Almost every region of Nigeria cherishes barefaced historical lies about this relatively recent historical event.
Many people in the far north, for example, think that it was the jihad that brought forth Islam to Nigeria. I used to think it was only barely educated folks who held on to this historical fallacy until I had a conversation with a professor of political science three years ago. He told me he was fired from his high-ranking government position because his detractors convinced the late President Umaru Yar’adua that he’d undermined Muslims in the organization he headed. “That’s a ridiculous charge,” he told me. “I’m a descendant of Usman Dan Fodio. My ancestors brought Islam to this part of the world.”
I was embarrassed on the man’s behalf. I couldn’t resist telling him that the presence of Islam in Nigeria preceded the Usman Dan Fodio jihad by several centuries. What Dan Fodio did was to reform Islam where it already existed. And this happened only in the 19th century. The earliest record of Islamic presence in northern Nigeria (in the ancient Kanem- Borno Empire to be specific) dates back to the 9th century, that is, just two centuries away from the birth of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. In Hausaland, Islam had been widespread since at least the 13th century.
Islam came to West Africa primarily through the trans-Saharan trade, which lasted from about the 8th century to the 16th century. The trade saw Arab traders travel from Arabia through North Africa to parts of West Africa in search of gold, salt, and human labor. All communities on this route, which include Hausa land, Borgu, Nupe land, parts of Yoruba land, the Gambia, Senegal, Mauritania, Niger, Mali, etc. are historically Muslim.
In the Middle Belt, too, non-Muslims like to brag about their ancestors’ resistance to Usman Dan Fodio’s Islamic proselytization. That’s a historical lie. Usman Dan Fodio’s jihad didn’t seek to convert non-Muslims to Islam; its raison d'être was to purge Islam of syncretism. What people in the Middle Belt resisted were slave raids by jihadists. Since Islam forbids the enslavement of fellow Muslims, it was in the economic interest of the jihadists to ensure that their non-Muslim neighbors remained non-Muslims so that they would continue to provide a ready source of slave labor.
In the south, there are also several narratives of how communities purportedly resisted the attempts by jihadists to “dip the Qur’an into the Atlantic Ocean.” That, too, is a lie. Historical records show that the Usman Dan Fodio jihad didn’t even attempt to go to the south. Insights from the late Professor Abdullahi Smith’s writings (which are distilled from translations of the travel notes of Arab travelers who witnessed events in nineteenth-century “Nigeria”) tell us that the Ilorin jihad wasn’t even a direct offshoot of the Usman Dan Fodio jihad.
Alimi, the progenitor of the current ruling family in Ilorin, was an itinerant Fulani preacher in Yoruba land whom Afonja, the Yoruba leader in Ilorin at the time, invited to Ilorin to be his “Alfa” to help him defeat the Alaafin of Oyo with whom he was engaged in battles of supremacy. After settling in Ilorin, many of his Yoruba students decided to follow him to his new place. In time, Alimi grew so popular that Afonja feared that he would eclipse him, so he asked him to leave. It was Alimi’s students, most of whom were Yoruba, that fought and defeated Afonja. This happened during the period of the Usman Dan Fodio jihad, but Alimi and his disciples were not given the “flag” of the jihad until after at least three visits to Sokoto. They weren’t given the flag because they weren’t directly connected to the Sokoto jihad.
Yet people talk of stopping the jihad at Ilorin and preventing it from getting to the south. Northern Muslim politicians from the First Republic also encouraged this ignorance. For instance, Muhammadu Ribadu, Nigeria’s first Minister of Defense, was reported to have once said, “The political conquest of the South was a religious obligation that the Northern People’s Congress owe the world of Islam; the Quran has to be dipped into the Atlantic Ocean before the Jihad could stop.”
A country that is so scandalously amnesic, that is so insufferably ignorant of its most recent history, can’t afford to stop the teaching of history to its youth. There is no serious nation I know of that doesn’t make the teaching of history mandatory.