President Buhari, Kankara boys and the imperatives of history


By Samaila Suleiman

On December 17, President Buhari addressed the 344 schoolboys of Government Boys Science Secondary School, Kankara, who were freed by their abductors after six days in captivity. The president, in his words of encouragement, admonished the traumatised children about the futility of historical studies, compared to their chosen field of science. According to him, science is the bedrock of civilisational progress, stressing that those who study History and English language have no prospects in the job market. Such derisive commentary, on the professional value of History, is tragic and scary, to say the least. At a time when the teaching of History is being restored in our primary and secondary schools, following decades of moratorium, such dispiriting commentary by the number one citizen of the country could have disastrous consequences on the minds of aspiring historians.

History was kind to President Buhari in his GCE result, for he earned a distinction in the subject. Similarly, the strength of his presidential campaigns was entirely predicated on the history of his personal integrity and honesty. Unfortunately, the president is unkind to history today in all ramifications. However, the problem is that there is no guarantee that history would be kind to him when he leaves office in 2023.

The president’s vote of no confidence in History has ignited a panic regarding the job prospects of historians. Nevertheless, I am writing this piece neither in defence of history nor to edify the president on the values of History. Historians do not require any presidential validation to be taken seriously in a sane country. My interest in commenting on Buhari’s verdict on historical studies is borne out of the social responsibility of historians to assuage the fears of concerned history students, who are constantly haunted by the spectre of ahistoricism. Whether we like it or not, we cannot escape from history because our lives are governed by what happened in the past. History, in the words of Peter Furtado, “is in the air we breathe, in the cities we inhabit and in the landscape we roam”.

History as “endangered species”

Ever since the birth of history as an intellectual pursuit in the classical Greco-Roman tradition, the discipline has encountered and endured manifold epistemological and social challenges. It has survived the naturalism of the scientific revolution, the cultural arrogance of the Enlightenment period, the nihilism of postmodernism and the bellicosities of neo-liberal ahistoricism. President Buhari’s pessimism about History is thus a familiar rhetoric, which represents a crude version of the neo-liberal assault on the discipline. In neo-liberal thinking, the value of knowledge is measured in terms of tangible deliverables. This is the governing philosophy of capitalist consumerism. With the ascendancy of science and technology as the only reliable ventures that could guarantee material prosperity, History and other associated disciplines are treated as “endangered species”. We are seeing a growing trend towards “deregulation of cultural production”, in which disciplines in the humanities, hitherto seen as the cornerstone of national values and citizenship education, are neglected in favour of applied sciences. In postcolonial Nigeria, History, which should serve as the moral compass of the nation, has become a national liability. Those who choose this career path are doomed as less fortunate among their peers in the pure and, even, social sciences. This is the neo-liberal thinking that undergirds President Buhari’s needless admonition to the Kankara boys. As students of science, there was no need for the president to give them any career lesson on the “uselessness” of historical studies.

One of the tragic cultural assaults committed against Nigeria is in denying Nigerians the opportunity to learn and appreciate the rich cultures and histories of the different ethnic groups that constitute the nation. Nigeria is gasping for air in the wake of the endemic crisis of nationhood and the poverty of historical consciousness, but President Buhari thinks that historians are liabilities to the nation. Nigeria needs more historians today more than ever before! What the country requires is a heavy investment in cultural engineering in order to create a shared narrative of unity that values and celebrates diversity as a national treasure.

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The relegation of History in Nigeria goes back to the late 1980s. The Structural Adjustment Programme of the government then set in motion a trajectory of fiscal crises, which led to drastic cuts in public expenditure on education. The Federal Government gradually lost its initial proclivity for cultural engineering. The glaring evidence of this was the removal of History from the school curricula. A new national policy on education, which came into effect in 1977, and has been revised three times thereafter (1981, 1998 and 2004) successively excised History from the syllabi of junior secondary schools and introduced Social Studies in its stead. The suspension of historical instruction in Nigerian schools has had profound repercussions on the teaching of History at the university level by cutting the supply of candidates to the universities. It also created incentives for the use and abuse of history for ethnic, religious, regional and sectional propaganda. It was under such an anti-historical didactic climate that we studied History – as an endangered discipline.

What President Buhari told the Kankara schoolboys is capable of not only worsening the public misconception about the utility of History, but also emasculating the current drive towards the restoration of History at the basic education level and its disarticulation from the social studies curriculum. Historians, under the auspices of the Historical Society of Nigeria, have come along way in convincing the government to reinstate the teaching of History in Nigerian schools.

The value of History goes beyond individual career development. How nations are governed and administered is not only a function of politics and economics. Nations are creations of a “system of cultural signification” through which they are reified into what Benedict Anderson calls “imagined communities” or what Homi Bhabha refers to as “nations as narration”.

History as a Career

Despite the official disdain for History, there are boundless career opportunities for historians in both the public and private sectors. Graduates of History have gone to make great careers for themselves in different sectors of national development. There are historians at various levels of education, in banks, the media, civil service, the police, the military, museums, archives and heritage departments, and the publishing industry. Historians also provide consultancies to businesses and public agencies. Employers in public and private sectors value the skills and competencies that students of History acquire in the course of their study: Research and writing skills; the ability to assemble and evaluate multiple/contradictory evidence; critical thinking capacity; independent perspective; the aptitude to assess diverse interpretations; a good appreciation of different factors that influence the activities of groups and individuals in society; and a broad perspective that gives them the range and flexibility required in many work situations. Armed with these skills, there are countless historians who have done very well in the banking industry, education, media and other critical sectors of the economy. The first indigenous vice chancellor of the University of Ibadan, Professor Kenneth Dike, was a globally acclaimed historian and an accomplished administrator. Adamu Ciroma, a graduate of History from the University of Ibadan, has had a successful career in the media and banking industries. He was managing director of New Nigerian and Daily Times before he became governor of Central Bank of Nigeria. Ciroma was particularly proud of his History background to which he attributed his success as CBN governor. He was also three-times minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. In the same vein, the present chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Yakubu Mahmood, who validated Buhari’s electoral victory in 2019, is a first-class graduate of History from Usmanu Danfodio University, Sokoto. He was also a one-time executive secretary of the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND). Other examples of historians who made great careers outside the historical profession abound.

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Personally, I am profoundly indebted to the historical profession for availing me with opportunities I never envisaged in my life. Apart from qualifying me for a job as a university academic, historical practice has, with all sense of modesty, afforded me other prestigious professional opportunities: International fellowships and research grants; participation in various international networks of scholars across the humanities, social and even natural sciences; and the opportunities of presenting my work to international audiences at some of the best universities around the world.

History as Statecraft

The value of History goes beyond individual career development. How nations are governed and administered is not only a function of politics and economics. Nations are creations of a “system of cultural signification” through which they are reified into what Benedict Anderson calls “imagined communities” or what Homi Bhabha refers to as “nations as narration”. The process of how nations are imagined, narrated, taught, archived and exhibited is largely a function of what I call the “History Machine”, through which the state sponsors and supervises the production of official history in schools, archives, museums and heritage sites. Historical knowledge serves as the necessary foundation for patriotic citizenship and nationalism.

History provided the necessary ideological justification for the independence of Nigeria from colonial overrule. The role of nationalist historians such as Kenneth Dike in the struggle for decolonisation in Africa is well documented. In addition to their intellectual contributions, historians were responsible for the founding of major national cultural institutions in Nigeria, such as the National Archives and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

Between 1960 and the 1980s, the Nigerian state was privileged as a historical subject. Historical practice was organised mainly as a state enterprise, performing the function of manpower production for the state. In 1952, a visitation panel to the University College Ibadan underscored the significance of History as a source of personnel for the public service, when it recommended the introduction of a honors degree in History in the University. The panel also stressed the importance of the History Department, not only in the scholarship in the humanities but also in assisting the work of the Faculties of Science and Medicine.

Therefore, history is essential for effective statecraft as it offers insights and analogies that are useful to making informed policy decisions. This is why the United States created the Office of the Historian as a unit of the Department of State to make informed policy recommendations, prepare and produce the official history of U.S. foreign policy. President Buhari should be properly advised on the indispensability of historians and the imperative of historical knowledge in state policy and governance.

The symbolic significance of history, as a tangible cultural capital, feeds into the real sectors of the economy in terms of tourism, business and trade. In tourism theory, historical curiosity is considered as a critical factor, which influences tourists’ initial decision to travel to different destinations.

The Economy of History

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Nations that do not appreciate the importance of History not only risk the danger of missing out on its social engineering utility, but also the enormous economic advantages associated with historical conservation. History matters for economic growth, as well as for statecraft! There is a huge economy around it. Historical artifacts and landmarks have enormous potentials for revenue-generation and job creation. The symbolic significance of history, as a tangible cultural capital, feeds into the real sectors of the economy in terms of tourism, business and trade. In tourism theory, historical curiosity is considered as a critical factor, which influences tourists’ initial decision to travel to different destinations.

In many countries around the world, history is a big business! In the United Kingdom, for example, businesses around heritage buildings contribute over £47 billion to the British economy and generate over 1.4 million jobs. In Scotland alone, the heritage sector is worth £11.6 billion to the economy, and the cultural splendour of Scottish antiquities attracts most of the tourists who visit the country. It is the mainstay of the country’s tourism economy, with 53 per cent of the tourists visiting to experience the history of a particular town or city at least once a year, and 42 per cent of them visiting museums and heritage sites. Historical conservation is a thriving business, even in developing countries, including Egypt, Kenya, Senegal and Ghana. Even war-torn nations, like Iraq and Syria, are committed to safeguarding their historical sites and monuments for cultural, as well as economic, reasons.

While the economy of history is flourishing and generating billions of of dollars in other parts of the world, the Nigerian heritage sector is in A utter state of defacement. We are sitting on the ruins of classic monuments and heritage sites that are fast disappearing from our cultural landscape. Nigeria boasts of over 65 national monuments, such as the Sukur Landscape in Adamawa, Kano Ancient City Walls and Gates, and the tomb of Shehu Usman dan Fodio in Sokoto. Most of these monuments are dilapidated due to the general lack of government and private sector support and poor conservation practices. At present, the dismal condition of historical conservation in Nigeria costs the country heavily in real fiscal terms. According to the Nigeria Tourism Development Master Plan, spending by international tourists has a direct impact on the Nigerian economy estimated at US$280 million.

On the final note, I want to reassure History students that career aspirations in the discipline are not pointless. In any case, the success of an individual is not essentially predicated on one’s academic background. The sky is your limit as long as you get the hang of historical research, critical thinking, interpretation and communication, which are necessary requirements in multiple work situations.

As for the humanities as a whole, I would posit that the survival of humanity depends on the humanities, as evident in the growing existential crisis associated with industrial capitalism and the threats of post-humanism. The erosion of human values in the wake of rapid technological advancement in today’s world is visible everywhere. Human happiness and compassion are fast dissipating. The future of humanity would remain bleak as long as we promote the notion that humanities do not matter.

Samaila Suleiman, a lecturer at the Department of History, Bayero University, Kano, is deputy director, Aminu Kano Centre for Democratic Studies, Mambayya House.

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