Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The dangers of history: A rejoinder to Abdulbasit Kassim, by Dr Samaila Suleiman

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“History is the most dangerous product which the chemistry of the mind has concocted. Its properties are well known. It produces dreams and drunkenness. It fills people with false memories, exaggerates their reactions, exacerbates old grievances, torments them in their repose, and encourages either a delirium of grandeur or a delusion of persecution. It makes whole nations bitter, arrogant, insufferable and vainglorious” – Paul Valery

In his recent article titled “Edward Colston, History Wars and the Legacies of Slave Owners In Nigeria”, my good friend and colleague, Abdulbasit Kassim, calls for the need to hold prominent historical figures in Nigeria “to account for the actions they perpetrated in the past”. This has generated a lot of interest on the place of history and memory in contemporary Nigeria. My intervention here should not be seen as a rebuttal of his ideas, but an attempt to draw attention to the dangers of political use of history in volatile contexts.

Under the present postmodern conditions, the distinction between truth and falsehood is increasingly distorted and the abuse of history, and the production and circulation of propaganda and fake news, as instruments of racial, ethnic and religious polarization, have become a significant feature of the place of the past in present politics and conflicts. History is a dangerously fragile terrain prone to all kinds of manipulation. We have seen this in the case of Rwandan genocide and the wars in former Yugoslavia where historical narratives were weaponized to incite hatred and violence. In post-genocide Rwanda, the government suspended the teaching of history, criminalized its manipulation and prosecuted some historians who were found culpable of supporting the genocide through their perilous discourses. Whether this particular post-war reconciliation plan in Rwanda has worked or not is a different question. Winston Churchill once said that the problem with the Balkans is that they produce more history than they can consume.

In Nigeria, the protracted conflicts around settler-indigene and farmer versus herder issues are usually occasioned by competing views of history, memories of slavery and violence against particular communities. And the prolonged absence of history from school curricular has compounded this conundrum by creating a dangerous vacuum in historical knowledge, which politicians and ethnic entrepreneurs exploit to further divide communities for their selfish gains. We saw how contestations over citizenship rights sparked a vicious abuse of history in Jos. Rival ethnic associations commissioned history projects as a claim-making strategy while oral histories and archives were manipulated to justify claims over the ownership of the town of Jos. Between 1990s and 2000s, these claims and counter-claims, which began on the pages of newspapers, had deteriorated into violent communal hostilities. History is a weapon of mass destruction!

How do we engage the “dark legacies” of history without inflaming existing inter-communal tensions, mutual hatred and suspicion? Who do we hold accountable for slavery, Jihad and the Nigerian Civil War? How do we dishonor the memories and legacies of the Danfodios and Lamidos of northern Nigeria, or the Tinubus’ of Yoruba land for the “atrocities” they committed in their times? How do we atone for historical sins spanning many centuries and generations? How do we redress the question of the proceeds of illegal “generational wealth” bequeathed to their grandchildren? Do we have the equal sagacity to debate the role of native “ethnic minorities” in the colonial conquest and destruction of pre-colonial polities? What determines the moral yardsticks of justice and fairness? All these are valid academic questions with delicate political undertones, requiring utmost caution and sincerity.

I should stress, at this point, that it would be difficult to dishonor and dismantle national monuments honoring the legacies of historical actors, without activating the ethnic and religious sensibilities of Nigerians. Nigerians are overly political. Even scholars are not immune from this hard reality. The desecration and toppling of historical statues and heritage properties that occasion the Rhodes Must Fall protests in South Africa and the current Black Lives Matter movements in the United States and parts of Europe were motivated by enduring legacies of historical discrimination and domination. The binaries and fault lines are clear and the success of these movements is predicted on concrete politics of exclusion and racial violence against black communities.

In volatile countries still struggling to come to terms with the basic principles of their corporate existence, and debating issues as trivial as dates of national commemoration, there could be danger in activating a public debate on politically charged topics such as legacies of slavery. In 2014 there was a debate regarding the implications of commemorating Nigeria’s bicentennial history from 1914 amalgamation to 2014. The then governor of Lagos state, Babatunde Fashola, warned against distorting Nigerian history and asserts that “Nigeria became a sovereign nation on 1st October 1960”, not in 1914. In the same vein, there was a dispute over the status and rightful ownership of the colonial seat of power/administration and the venue of the amalgamation between Niger and Kogi States. We have too many historical and contemporary liabilities and we cannot discuss history, much less Nigerian history and its legacies, without taking into account the politics and sociology of sources, our methodological and conceptual preferences and interpretations.

Don’t get me wrong! I am not against constructive revisionism. There is no harm in shaming the past with a view to throwing light on contemporary issues. As with all revisionist initiatives, there is great intellectual merit in rethinking our premises and assumptions. However, we should not be oblivious of the subtle power of history to exacerbate communal discord and sanction violence, are usually reluctant to apportion blame. The Boko Haram violence and the resurgence of violent agitations for Biafara are some of the few cases of the consequences of the narratives of war trauma, jihad and marginality. The illusion that historical narratives are free from existing social and political pressures and tensions is no longer tenable.

On the issue of who is winning or losing the “history wars” in Nigeria, there is need to tease out the problem of meanings of what constitutes the dominant, marginal or silenced histories. Our history is, the more so, complicated by the vicious problem of minority agitation, which has created a culture of recrimination, a problem that political devolution, Federal Character principle and quota system have failed to resolve. We are all minorities with marginal voices when it comes to negotiating access to resources at the center and history writing is a potent instrument of this politics of control. What we are dealing with is a battle for the supremacy of representation and nobody is prevented from writing and discussing the many angles of the past beyond the “dominant narratives”. Nigerian historians have been teaching and writing about marginal or silenced stories for decades and from competing perspectives. For example, the framework for teaching the jihad in Usmanu Danfodio University is substantially and ideologically different from the pedagogies of the Jihad in universities in other parts of Nigeria. We document and teach history based on our different contexts the commitments. I have addressed this question in detail in my recent article on what I call the “Middle Belt historiography of resistance”.

The subject of historical crime can be best addressed in their specific contexts, not in terms of an overarching, linear, progressive narrative, which projects back existing realities into the past regardless of spatial and temporal variation. As Leopald Von Ranke, argues, “every age is equal in the sight of God”. Although our intentions may be purely academic, the stories we tell can have dangerous implications on existing intergroup relations especially when readers see them in terms of prevailing socio-political and religious circumstances. We should be particularly wary of conversations and heterodoxies that are capable of magnifying inherited acrimonies or activating victimhood and revenge mentality. Our fixation with the themes of war and violence will do a great disservice to our fragile nation for we have no control over what we produce as history for public consumption. Once discourses go into public sphere, interpretation and meaning are at the discretion of readers. The ultimate goal of our critique past systems of oppression should be to inhibit the propensity for repetition of injustice, without unduly endangering peace. The chances of healing and reconciling deep historical injuries are greater within the context of pleasant/cordial historical experiences than in revisiting and avenging past atrocities.

Mr Suleiman, Ph.D is a lecturer with the Department of History, Bayero University, Kano

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