By Douglas Anele
One of the most worrisome drawbacks in our educational system, particularly from the last three decades onwards, is the neglect of Nigerian history in the curricula of our primary and secondary schools. In the developed and serious-minded developing countries around the world, the importance of history as a source of ideas required for actualising the quest for national development and nation-building is recognised by most people.
That explains why, for instance, the average American pupil or student is taught American history in school to enable her or him acquire reasonable knowledge of the iconic personalities and landmark events which embody the core values and principles of American society and shape her future direction. Overall, this has enabled generations of Americans to key into the so-called “American dream,” a euphemism for optimism that anyone, irrespective of antecedent personal circumstances, can be successful in the United States as long as the person is willing to work hard, pay taxes and obey the law.
It is not gain said that most Nigerians, especially members of the ruling elite (both military and civilian), do not know what they ought to know about Nigerian history. One of the benefits of history is that it documents both the achievements and failures of the past, thereby making it possible for people to understand the present and project rationally into the future. In other words, history actually improves the capacity of those who take its lessons seriously to avoid mistakes that could lead to disaster, considering the fallibility of human beings.
Therefore, a President or governor with a reasonable grasp of history would likely make a better leader than someone bereft of historical appreciation because reasoned knowledge of past events serves as a guide for understanding current situations in order to arrive at rational decisions some of which could have far-reaching consequences for millions of people.
History provides the “big picture,” a broad canvass for contextualising present events in the continuous flow of human activities. In my opinion, it would be difficult to lead effectively without the intellectual nourishment derivable from history. The issue of enlightened leadership bolstered by serious engagement with history is crucial for understanding the problem of poor leadership in Nigeria. Now, how many of our decision makers at the highest echelons of power really understand the imperatives of Nigerian history?
What is the level of historical consciousness and understanding among Nigerian youths today? A plausible case can be made that since independence on October 1, 1960, the country has been governed for the most part by intellectual and moral Lilliputians bereft of historical vision. Granted that the emergence of good leaders in any society is a complex phenomenon that largely depends on fortuitous intersection of planned and unplanned circumstances, transformational leaders all over the world tend to be actuated by a strong historical imagination.
I believe that we are yet to experience genuine positive attitudinal paradigm-shift mainly because none of our leaders assumed the reins of power motivated by a highly developed vision of the place of Nigeria in world history, by a Nigerian dream analogous to the American dream we mentioned earlier. In varying degrees our political leaders, because they are pachydermatous to the lessons of history, have repeatedly deployed their elevated political positions to promote parochial ethnic, religious and political interests, thereby plunging the country into unnecessary socio-economic and political black holes.
The irrational allegiance to tribal and religious affiliations, which culminated in the devastating Biafran war, has been very detrimental to us as a people since the end of British colonisation. Yet, even at this time when the need to close the cleavages that have been inhibiting realisation of a united, viable, just and egalitarian community of equals before the law has become more pressing, and considering the damage tribalism and nepotism had done to this country over the years, President Muhammadu Buhari has taken nepotism to an unprecedented height. Recently, Junaid Mohammed, one of his most ardent supporters who excoriated Goodluck Jonathan so relentlessly, made a compelling claim that Buhari’s government is the most nepotic in Nigerian history. Time will tell whether Buhari’s on-going northernisation of Nigeria will yield meaningful results. The point I wish to reiterate at this juncture is that Nigeria can never progress if tribalism, religion and nepotism continue to displace merit and excellence as the main planks of decision-making at the highest levels of governance in the country.
Because in-depth knowledge of Nigerian history has not been given the priority it deserves in our national life, Nigerian youths lack a developed sense of pride for belonging to a nation that really caters for their needs, a sense of direction that can prevent them from making the same mistakes made by the country’s founding fathers and their successors. For example, if Nigerians had internalised the historical fact that military interventions in politics have tended to do more harm than good, they would not have rejoiced when Yakubu Gowon was removed from office by Murtala Mohammed or when the civilian government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari was overthrown on December 31, 1983, and so on. Every successful coup has always been justified by the new rulers on the ground of corruption, incompetence and ineptitude of the previous administration. Invariably,Nigerians would later realise that the new rulers were not better than their predecessors – in fact they are often worse.
Consider for example the botched military coup of January 15, 1966 masterminded by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and five of his colleagues who were mostly Igbo. For sometime before that failed coup, the foundation of Nigeria’s unity was shaken by crises. To begin with, the controversial census of 1963-64 reignited ethnic tensions between northern and southern Nigeria. In addition, the election disputes of 1964 were worsened the following year by election crisis in the old Western region.
All this was aggravated by high-level corruption, ineptitude, nepotism and unwillingness by the political leaders to set aside their selfish interests for the sake of Nigeria. Of course, democratic governance, like a baby, requires years of painstaking nurturing to reach full maturity. Unfortunately, a section of the Nigerian military failed to understand this: it did not occur to the coup plotters and Nigerians that jubilated after the coup that approximately six years are not enough for the maturation of democratic governance. Nzeogwu justified the attempted coup of January 15 as follows:
“Our enemies are the political profiteers, swindlers, men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand ten percent, those that seek to keep the country permanently divided so that they can remain in office as ministers and VIPs of waste, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles.”
Because five out of the six majors that spearheaded the military coup were Igbo by birth, together with the fact that most of the politicians and military officers who lost their lives were non-Igbo, the rumour that it was an Igbo coup planned and executed to ensure Igbo domination gained ground across the country, especially in the north. Based on that rumour, on July 29, 1966, a murderous band of Nigerian soldiers from the North killed the first indigenous Major-General of the Nigerian Army and first military head of state, Major-General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, and his host and military governor of defunct western region, Lt-Col. Adekunle Fajuyi – they were murdered by a murderous band of soldiers led by Major T.Y. Danjuma.
The question whether the Nzeogwu-led coup was an Igbo coup has been debated for long time. As I indicated earlier, the preponderance of Igbo military officers as its ringleaders and the fact that no prominent Igbo politician was killed during the coup easily led to the conclusion that it was indeed an Igbo coup. But is that really the case? Is appearance always reality? Can a plausible case be made that despite appearances to the contrary, Nzeogwu and his group were motivated by a genuine sense of national restoration notwithstanding that they used a fatally flawed approach to achieve their objective? Of course, some of my readers implacably convinced that the January 15, 1966 military intervention was an Igbo coup would dismiss any contrary position from an Igbo like myself as evidence of ethnic prejudice. That does not really matter: as always, on any issue I try to base my conclusions on available facts known to me and on good reasoning.
To be continued.