No one tried to wake up a drowsy Nigeria and make its leaders acknowledge their failings like Fela Anikulapo Kuti, born on October 15 1938. Perhaps Wole Soyinka and his literary work, or Gani Fawehimi and his fierce activism come close. But Fela was in a class of his own in his ability to poke sores Nigerians would rather keep hidden. In ‘Beasts of No Nation’, he mentioned a certain Buhari, the man who was responsible for his imprisonment in 1984. Nigerians retuned that same Buhari to power as a civilian president in 2015, without an apology for any of his callous acts as a military president. How did we forget?
Eight days after the 2016 celebration of independence, seven Nigerian judges were arrested by the Department of State Security in what was called “sting operations” over allegations of corruption. In any other country this kind of news would dominate the national conversation for months, but in Nigeria, we talked about it for a while and moved on.
Five days later, 21 of the girls abducted by Boko Haram in Chibok, Borno, were returned. Twitter was filled, in a callous act of irresponsible journalism, with images of these girls, and again, we talked about it. The kidnap of the Chibok girls had generated international news frenzy and a #bringbackourgirls campaign that had everyone in the world reacting. One would think the return of these girls and the hope for rescue of the 198 left in captivity would be potent enough to hold our collective attention. But, no it didn’t. The next day President Muhammadu Buhari and his wife, Aishat Buhari, took their pillow talk international, and became the focus of conversations in the country, over the Chibok girls.
This act of moving on quickly in the face of short, sensational news cycles is, admittedly, not a unique Nigerian problem. But 7 October was the anniversary of the Asaba Massacre, the killing of men and boys by Federal troops during the Nigerian civil war, and the day went by with barely a mention of it. Also, on October 19 1986, Dele Giwa, journalist and founder of Newswatch Magazine was murdered via a parcel bomb delivered to his residence, an event recognised by many as important in the military reign of terror and vice-grip they had on imagination of Nigerians. Again, the day went by like any other.
A lot of people blame the erasure of history from school curriculums in the 2009/2010 by the federal government for this spotty national memory, but even that is amnesia in action. History had been dead in the curriculum long before the government conducted its internment. An event must have occurred in our history that turned us to a forgetful lot, a nation amnesiacs, a country straight out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.
There are ways to activate the Nigerian consciousness, and the return of history to the curriculum is just a small part it. Movies, novels, plays, songs, poems, and other creative aspects of culture are not just avenues for entertainment but, if done well, ways of keeping the collective memory alive. Hamilton, the award-winning Broadway musical by Lin-manuel Miranda is an example of creative work that reminds a people of a vital part of their history they run the risk of forgetting.
If a generation of children had grown up to poems about the Asaba Masacare, or movies about Dele Giwa’s assassination, the chances for remembrance would have been higher. There’s no certainty to this, of course, for like a woman who forgets to consult her diary before leaving the house, it’s possible to forget these cultural-memory placeholders too. There are many artists who lived and created work that would survive the times in an ideal place, but are now forgotten. There's nothing ideal about Nigeria. Again, Nigeria is a good example of this possibility.
Influential Nigerians bank on this collective amnesia. Criminals on the run from foreign governments run for office knowing no one remembers a time when their names were a disgrace to their people. Political sins are forgiven before they are acknowledged, because no one really wants to know. Even the legislature, representatives of the people, acts based on this amnesia. A bill to make the criminal aspects of Sharia law part of the legal system passed the second reading on October 28 2016 without conversation around it in the country—a supposedly secular country.
Whatever is left of our identity will be forever lost if we can neither recall the past nor document history as it happens in real time. But when you realise that Wole Soyinka, one of the people who should never forget the ills of the men who battered the country’s imagination, for he has spent his life recording it, voiced a reluctant support for Buhari, you begin to question the value of remembrance. There are no easy answers, but reminding our selves that we’re forgetting things too quickly is a necessity.