Our History of Forgetting History

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Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. Chinua Achebe

The first time I heard about Biafra was while reading the Steve Jobs autobiography by Walter Isaacson. The second time I heard about it was while watching the Nigerian version of the Rick Ross “Hold Me Back” video.

To put this in perspective, I lived in Nigeria for 18 continuous years, went to nursery school, primary school, secondary school and if it counts A-level college…all in Nigeria. I did Social Studies and History along the way…took numerous notes and read plenty text books. And at no time in my long Nigerian school history was I taught about the Biafran war. It did not appear in my JAMB exam, common entrance exam, JSS exam or SSCE exam or any of the many exams the average Nigerian kid is blessed forced to write. And I definitely did not see any documentary’s on TV or radio. It was as if the war never happened…

Or at least we like to act like the war never happened. It was as if we went out of our way to erase every trace of the war from our memory. It is omitted from our history and our educational curriculum.

So the only history we have has been largely oral, from the stories of people who experienced the war to others who heard stories from those that experienced the war. And for years this is how the war has been documented…orally….from generation to generation. And perhaps one day we would all wake up and find the war erased from our memories.

But it won’t disappear…because civil war did not end in 1970, it still goes on today. It is not in the same bloody manner as the first civil war, there are no guns being shot, explosion being triggered, there are no children starving or armies fighting…there is none of that. Instead the war has shifted into stealth mode…a quiet war. An ethnic type of war fought in small pockets across Nigeria, on our streets, in our schools and in our politics. It is a kind of clandestine war of ethnicity that pits one ethnic group against the other.

People want to hire their own tribe, others want to marry from their own village all because this ethnic group hates that other ethnic group and so on. Nigeria as we stand is united on paper but fragmented in reality.

Fragmented, largely,  because we have chosen not to remember face our history. But until we face the past, we will not be ready to face the future. Until we can discuss, teach and debate about the civil war in our classrooms and radio stations we will continue to wage a quiet civil war. We would try and patch it with presidential rotations (south and north) and other quasi solutions, but it would not solve anything until we tackle our issues head on.

But sadly Nigeria suffers from severe memory loss. Not because we can’t remember, but because it is easier to forget. Forgetting requires no effort. So we forget events and dates. We even forget the meaning of the words in our National Anthem, for instance…“the labors of our heroes past shall never be in vain…”

Because for years the labors of our heroes past has been in vain. Because we forgot what they died fighting for. We forget that on June 12th 1993 a certain man IBB cancelled, for no reason what so-ever, the freest and fairest presidential election in Nigerian history. And that as recent as 2011 that same man IBB…the one who for no reason cancelled the 1993 presidential election attempted to run for President. It takes a nation that forgets for that to even happen. If June 12th had been made a public day or better yet the national democracy day, I doubt that IBB would have been bold enough to even think of running.

And while we are on the topic of forgetfulness, let’s not forget about Ken Saro Wiwa, civil rights activist who led a peaceful protest against the destruction of the Ogoni land by big oil companies, only to be tried and hanged murdered by a kangaroo court. What happened after his death? Did Ogoni land get better? Did we get a Ken Saro Wiwa holiday? Or a Ken Saro Wiwa Federal road? In fact according to the guardian UK, the Nigerian senate rejected proposals for an annual Ken Saro-Wiwa Day, rejected proposals to have a street named after him and ultimately rejected proposals to have a national monument created in his honor. It was as if his death like the war never happened.

And we need to change that. It is a travesty when our children know more about the American Civil war and World Wars than they do about the Civil War that happened in their own background. That is outrageous. Nigeria needs to start telling its history to its children. Our children like me should not have to learn about Nigeria from foreigners that live thousands of miles away. That has to change.

Now I am not saying we should talk about the war to figure out who is right or wrong, which I think is the fear of many. I believe we need to talk about the war and other ethnic issues so that we can become comfortable with ethnicity. The moment Nigerians become comfortable and can discuss freely about ethnicity with other ethnic groups, that is the moment the civil war will begin to end.

I conclude with the words of Stephen Colbert:

“There’s an old saying about those who forget history. I don’t remember it, but it’s good.”

In the same way there are many things Nigeria can learn from its history. Ironically we don’t remember them…but we swear it’s good! Let’s remember our history…

Illustration courtesy of ofilispeaks.com and picture courtesy of LIFE Magazine

This entry is an excerpt from the upcoming book How Intelligence Kills: A Critical Look At Our Dangerous Addiction To Religion, Intelligence and Respect.


Ofili is an author who blogs about life, success and entrepreneurial excellence. Follow him on Twitter , Facebook or subscribe to his blog for more honest talk! To bring Ofili to your school or organization as a speaker simply go here. His third book is titled How Intelligence Kills Us and will be coming out in the second quarter of 2013 (he hopes). To read his other books for free on your android phone go to http://bit.ly/freelaziness




Words by Okechukwu Ofili of ofilispeaks.com
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37 comments on “Our History of Forgetting History

  1. Princess on said:

    Wait. You first heard about Biafra from the Steve Jobs biography? Like a year and a half ago? First time? Really?

    • Ofili
      Ofili on said:

      My parents talked about Ojukwu and the war when I was young, but that was not directed me. I knew something happened, but had no idea what it was or what it entailed. It was not until I read Steve Jobs book that I realized the gravity of the situation and that was when I googled Biafra for the first time in my life.

    • Well, we really do not suffer from memory loss (technology could have fixed that) But the quick-fix approach of sweeping an embarrassment under the proverbial carpet always work for us.

      I believe, even the book, THE BIAFRA STORY, by Frederick Forsyth, is off the library shelves, and under the carpets, in many homes, schools, and offices in Nigeria. You will soon forget too, I tell you. It feels cool to forget. Stay cool.

  2. Princess on said:

    Right. I have just finished reading this.

    I completely agree.

    In fact, I teach African Studies in a primary school and your sentiments mirror my own. When I attempted to teach the children about the Biafran war, I found it so hard. They were learning about the second World War at the time and the levels of interest and knowledge were incomparable. Most of the children had never even heard about a war in Nigeria. They wre thus, uninterested. A lot of it was my fault perhaps. Getting them interested required me to pull out all the stops but even my knowledge of what happened was too limited to pull out anything…

    Interestingly, I was teaching another set of children about the Ogoni crisis. There was lots of interest there but again, very little background knowledge. Ken Saro Who? They had never heard about any of this. America’s Britain’s, even South Africa’s history was well-known to them. Ours? Lol, nope.

    But, we’re working on it. Some of us are making sure that our children don’t grow up like us.

    Thanks for this.

  3. Anonymous on said:

    “Now I am not saying we should talk about the war to figure out who is right or wrong, which I think is the fear of many. I believe we need to talk about the war and other ethnic issues so that we can become comfortable with ethnicity.”


  4. inam on said:


  5. frakata on said:

    You know i’ve been gripping about this for as long as i can remember… the reason things like Ogoni land Massacre, raping of the southern region and to a degree boko haram continue without recourse is because of our collective Amnesia about this. If from grade school, all Nigerians are taught the enormous sacrifices made by not just Biafrans but all Nigerians, then maybe we would take country pride and freedom a bit more serious.

  6. Olufemi on said:

    Hey Ofili! You really hit the nail on the head but the funny thing is that as much as we try to sweep it under the mat (carpet or rug for the tush) the effect of the war is still affecting the whole system called Nigeria.

  7. I now know how lucky I am that my parents talked about the Biafran War as a child. I did a lot of research on it as a teenager and found it sad that we don’t have a lot of history books on the subject. I am looking forward to the day (hopefully in my generation) where we can have a frank and honest discussion about the mistakes of the past and what we can do so we do not repeat them and leave Nigeria a better country for our children. I am also looking forward to the day when we will transcend tribalism and ethnicity and be NIGERIAN first before Yoruba, Hausa, Ibo, etc and strive to collectively advance the nation than one sector, tribe, family, etc. God bless Nigeria!

  8. I think the ‘senior citizens’ should stand up and say it as it happened. Everyone has a version which should be collectively put together. We (Nigerians) like to borrow culture andd trash ours. I know the world wars dates cos of past school exams but can barely guess right the civil war date.

    We shall know our history when we all collectively stand up and ask questions

  9. EreOluwa on said:

    MeE thinks the challenge is those at the top “ogas @ d top”, if I am right, these same set of people have been ‘ruling’ this country for as long as we can know; if not they themselves, members of their family, a brother, a cousin etc. How will they not sweep our heroes history under the carpet? They are the Mammons destroying our unity and our sense of belonging. check history of leaders the ‘baton’ of leadership has been rotating to the same set of people because of their greediness; can’t you see they are covering the TRUTH, but not for long.. citizens are stirring up, that are ready for a change.. and the change will come at our time. Mark it!

  10. Adewunmi on said:

    You have said the bitter truth. I believe we should include the events in our school curriculum and make it compulsory subject. For our children to understand and appreciate the National Anthem, they must know and internalise our history. Then, the labours of our heroes past will not be in vain.

  11. kemi on said:

    Ofili, I’m quite surprised at your claims. I was a science student in secondary school, but I still was very informed about the civil. How the first putch in Nigeria was led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, and the subsequent destructions that that stirred. Perhaps one of the reasons we know more about the America civil war is because most of things we learn in school, the contents of all our courses and subjects are brought from the west.
    I must say it has been of little or of no help dwelling on the matter. Everyone has their own part of the story to tell, hence this has constantly brought more discord than peace. I lost a friend over this. She’s from the east. Since she read ‘There Was A Country’ herspite and disdain for anything Nigeria has been more than anything. The Biafran Story has been with since it happened. There has been textbooks, and a lot more. If we desire to read it for history sake, good. But when the real intent is to tell, or aportion blames, we are never going to move on as a country. The weight of our social problems is already killing as it is. Let’s move on.

  12. Thanks for this great piece…. Gracias for starting this important conversation. I have in my mind to pen down my memoir, and part of what I want to write is about my history, ethnicity and religion but alas it is so difficult researching about all these.
    That Book by Fred Forsyth is the most cherished book I have in my book shelve right now, though not happy that all we know about the war is being transmitted to us by foreigners. I thank God for people like Chimamanda Ndichie, Ofili et all – young people of my generation who are writing about our untold history and are asking questions.
    Thanks Boss
    Nnadozie latest post is How to Succeed in Any Business TypeMy Profile

  13. 50% of what I know about Biafra and the war came from my father and mother right from childhood. The rest of everything else? I had to proactively search for more information or watched documentaries on PBS or YouTube. I had a lot of questions, and needed a lot of my confusion sorted out. Information was scarce. I was never taught in school about the war, instead we were forced to learn about Usman dan Fodio and all the northern heroes. When Biafra is brought up in conversations and articles, folks become tense and unwilling to see the need for dialague. “Afterall, it’s in the past na, YOU PEOPLE should chill jo.” That’s the attitude.

    I agree with you that to move forward, we have to come to terms with the past. Everybody else does it (for the most part, and for the sake of peace), why can’t we?

    Nicely written piece.

  14. Neither did i! I’mma hunt the book down! Its sad cause when people write about Biafra nowadays, they say its singing the same song over and over again, well for me, history is elevated literature, it is the story of who we are and if we don’t know who we are unlikely to become.

  15. Tamera Waks on said:

    I got a greater insight into the Biafran war bcos of my course in skool.I Studied History and Int’l Relations in UNN.
    I tell ya i flet so baaad after the semester. Its a very sad story very sad and can understand why some wouldnt want to talk about it. Others are hushing it for personal , sentimental reasons. Particularly Rivers people. Bcos of their betrayal of d Ibos and the abandoned property issue in Port harcourt they wouldnt want d case file to be re-opend. We all have lessons to learn from the war not blame game.That was y Achebe was highly critisized. I challenge the others to tell their own part of the war.

  16. muchacho on said:

    the way forward is to perhaps go backwards(better still go back in time), it will enable us as a people exorcise our demons, so we can truely forgive and better understand one another and then the nessesary task of nation building can progress, devoid of mistrust and mischief. a befitting legacy for our kids….. methinks.

  17. Emeka on said:

    Who’s dis ofili guy seff…U think U can jst pop out of nowhere and make a fan out of me just like that? Uwrite so well man, I admire jor!

  18. The elders say “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain a child forever”. Thank you for addressing the most crucial issue about tomorrow; yesterday.

  19. It’s truly a fantastic as well as valuable item of details. I am just joyful which you provided this handy information around. Remember to continue being us all advised in this way. Many thanks for discussing.

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