The Art of Forgetting

Recently, I had a conversation about the Nigerian education system with someone I consider to be a very close friend. I have spoken to this person about a long list of grievances but this conversation struck me as particularly important to the both of us. Over twitter messages, lengthy whatsapp voice notes and hilarious face to face conversations we always manage to swing back to a topic that annoys and vexes us to no end: Nigeria. More importantly, Nigerian history. Compared to a number of other states, Nigeria is a relatively young country, if we only look at it from the spectrum of when we gained independence. Yet so much has happened between now and then. However, most people including myself know little to nothing about it. Much has been made about this lack of knowledge; whether it is manufactured (the troubling silence around the Biafran War) or it is a general disinterest (the fixation it seems, on politics that are not our own. I liken it to looking over into another person’s backyard). Whatever the cause, this ignorance is disappointing at best and dangerous at worst.

I spent my earliest years in a place that was not concerned about the history or background of other countries, a place where children are essentially that their country is the greatest place on Earth. I’m sure it is clear where I am heading; America. Most people would agree that to leave the education of a child up to the school system alone is a pretty stupid idea. So you may ask; alright, I can understand the dearth of world history in an American school but surely your parents spoke to you about Nigeria? I can answer that question with a resounding no. Nope. Nah. Definitely not. Another question: OK, maybe not at home but surely, in Nigerian schools this is a very important topic? Once again it’s a no from me (kinda). I am going to speak about some of the reasons why this may be so. Why we seem to know just about everything about Queen Elizabeth save for the type of underwear she dons and little to nothing about ourselves. I want to talk about the very real and very difficult to perfect art of forgetting.

There are so many places to start when it comes to the complicated, messy history of Nigeria but I’m going to talk about an era that has gripped my attention and has never let go since then. The Biafran War. This is an issue that is important for a whole host of reasons, mostly because the average Nigerian hates talking about it. Yet despite the many years that have gone by since the end of this conflict, it keeps cropping up; in political discourse, around dinner tables, on twitter timelines that lead to heated debates. The fact of the matter is, it will continue to crop up because it has never been properly addressed and as a nation we have never truly healed from that time period and until we stop suppressing this issue, it will continue to haunt us as a nation. So many topical issues that started the Civil War of 1967 thread through this country like a vein today. So let us start from the beginning shall we? The civil war can find its roots in the 1914 amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria. As we all know the differences between the Southern and Northern Protectorates in terms of culture and the religions of the people. The discovery of oil in Nigeria was a turning point because it led to a struggle of control amongst both regions. The fact that the South was not as united as the North basically ensured that Lt.Col Yakubu Gowon would emerge to be the head of state after officers from the North staged a coup. During his tenure the slaughter of Easterners continued in earnest which led to other actions and before you know it boom…we are in a full blooded civil war. Why is this so important to be aware of? To learn? In my opinion the reason why one must never forget the Biafran War and why it started is because sectarian violence in Nigeria persists to this day. Most recently, the Fulani herdsmen attacks in the South including places like Abia State, Edo State and Benue State. There have been many suggestions the general public has used to attribute to the swell of violence. The most acceptable being that as they are herdsmen they are nomadic in nature, moving to different places and in the process of doing so the herdsmen have encountered cattle rustlers. As they continue to travel, trespassing on farmland that is owned by indigenes is not uncommon attempts by these indigenes to put a stop to this has led to violence on the part of the herdsmen. With such a high level of violence committed by these herdsmen, people have attributed the general silence of Buhari because he is a Fulani man. As you can imagine, this has bred resentment. Resentment and violence are dangerous things when melded together which is why you have people like Johnson Suleman openly advocating for his church members to kill Fulani herdsmen. When looking at this example one has to ask themselves; are we so forgetful as a people? Or is that we have not fully grasped how easy it is to descend into chaos based on differences that we cannot change, and might not want to if we had the chance? Was the start of the Biafran War more complicated than the spate of violence amongst the Fulani in recent years? Definitely. That doesn’t mean we should push our luck though.

Then there is another type of cost. The cost of living with trauma. A lot of the time the fact that Igbo people tend to go to the village during Christmas is a running joke amongst us as a society. However, something murkier exists under the surface. I was talking to another friend whom I asked about this and she replied playfully ‘got to have somewhere to go if or when shit hits the fan’. This line of thinking was also reinstated in a thread on twitter as well. For a people who have seen quite literally the worst of what Nigeria has to offer, it makes complete sense to prepare for that. To never be caught off guard again. Despite the popular action of forgetting as human beings, our environment does not. The way that development recreates itself afterwards doesn’t forget as well. In keeping with the spirit of writing this piece I decided to ask my mother about what she remembered from that time period. She didn’t say that much but she did say some things that have stood out to me. The first being that Lagos changed after the war. ‘You know, a lot of wealthy Igbo families owned land in Lagos at that time. When the war broke out and even before that, with a lot of the pogroms that were happening up North…a lot of them had to abandon everything and run back East. To this day, the ownership of land in Lagos and the South-West generally has never been the same’ she said quietly. The second thing she said which in my opinion makes perfect sense is that people from the East never congregated in the North in those numbers ever again. We may not talk about it, but to pretend that the emptiness the war created isn’t really from the war at all but just a pathetically implied ‘countries change’ is just that. Pathetic.

The Civil War of the 60s is an area that is uncomfortable and painful. Another area that is uncomfortable and painful for many Nigerians is civil disobedience. I have always been slightly disgusted by the way the public at large seem happy to oblige the selfish entitlement of the people that are supposed to lead us. How we seem to have no problem with those that are supposed to protect us, carelessly crush our human rights and civil liberties as if they were the kola nuts they snacked on during their daughter’s wedding paid for with the oil from the South South that is slowly but surely poisoning the land. Once again, I have learnt with age, knowledge and a good dose of humility that nothing is as it seems. This belief that Nigerians simply take whatever is thrown at them is wrong. All one has to do is look hard enough. It may not be as easy to find but it is there. For the first example could talk about the late, great Fela. However, I feel like his story is well known held to mythical standards even. Instead, I want to focus on his mother, Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti. Firstly, because of sexism. There is still this ridiculous notion that when it comes to being heard, or protecting civil liberties, women’s voices should not be at the forefront of the issue. It’s simply not a ‘feminine’ past time. Well I am here to tell you fuck all that noise. Let me just start off that a lot of people especially women who are apart of ‘pick me’ twitter wouldn’t even be politically represented in Nigeria if it was not for her. Meaning, she fought for our right to vote as women in Nigeria. Another reason for her importance is that although she was born into an aristocratic family, she wasn’t predisposed to the elitism a lot of middle and upper class Nigerians suffer from (I know I need to have intense self reflection in order to recognize this behavior in myself and correct it). The organization she founded for women in Abeokuta had a membership tally of more than 20,000 women including both literate and illiterate women. One of her most important achieves in a life filled to the brim with milestones was her part in ensuring Nigeria’s independence. So how come she is not spoken about more? Why do we only learn about Awolowo and Azikiwe and Tafawa Balewa concerning Nigeria’s early political history as a free state? As I’ve mentioned before, quite a bit of this probably has to do with the fact that she is a woman. Then there is the ever present legacy of her son and also her nephew, Wole Soyinka. Another more controversial reason in my own opinion her death by the hands of military personnel when she was thrown out of a third floor window from Fela’s commune is one thing. Another once again points to how easily we as a people forget. In order to justify the patriarchal attitudes that are so deeply entrenched in our society we all have to collectively buy in to the idea that women never had a voice in the various conflicts that have subsumed Nigeria in one time frame or the other. To remember women like Mrs Ransome Kuti or Elizabeth Adekogbe or even further back to Amina of Zaria is to question everything that we have been told in order to be a quintessential African woman. Not only is that a painful experience, it is often one that is not easily afforded. It may be easy for a middle class 21 one year old like me to question the status quo. To ask that of a working class housekeeper that is simply trying to survive is asking too much.

As I mentioned above, Nigeria is not a country that is truly old. A lot of the tragedies and horrors were not that long ago. The perpetrators are either alive or well or died relatively recently. All this means is that our parents and grandparents lived through these happenings. At first, I was truly angry over the lack of discourse. Then I realized how truly difficult it must be to take oneself back to a time where nothing was certain, not even the day they were living in because they were in the middle of a war they didn’t ask to be in as a civilian. I realized just how scary and heartbreaking it must have been to look up to a woman who was intelligent and brave and whip smart be treated so callously and horrifically by the country she loved and fought for. To forget is to survive, and there is nothing braver than that.

Recently, I had a conversation about the Nigerian education system with someone I consider to be a very close friend. I have spoken to this person about a long list of grievances but this conversation struck me as particularly important to the both of us. Over twitter messages, lengthy whatsapp voice notes and hilarious face to face conversations we always manage to swing back to a topic that annoys and vexes us to no end: Nigeria. More importantly, Nigerian history. Compared to a number of other states, Nigeria is a relatively young country, if we only look at it from the spectrum of when we gained independence. Yet so much has happened between now and then. However, most people including myself know little to nothing about it. Much has been made about this lack of knowledge; whether it is manufactured (the troubling silence around the Biafran War) or it is a general disinterest (the fixation it seems, on politics that are not our own. I liken it to looking over into another person’s backyard). Whatever the cause, this ignorance is disappointing at best and dangerous at worst.

I spent my earliest years in a place that was not concerned about the history or background of other countries, a place where children are essentially that their country is the greatest place on Earth. I’m sure it is clear where I am heading; America. Most people would agree that to leave the education of a child up to the school system alone is a pretty stupid idea. So you may ask; alright, I can understand the dearth of world history in an American school but surely your parents spoke to you about Nigeria? I can answer that question with a resounding no. Nope. Nah. Definitely not. Another question: OK, maybe not at home but surely, in Nigerian schools this is a very important topic? Once again it’s a no from me (kinda). I am going to speak about some of the reasons why this may be so. Why we seem to know just about everything about Queen Elizabeth save for the type of underwear she dons and little to nothing about ourselves. I want to talk about the very real and very difficult to perfect art of forgetting.

There are so many places to start when it comes to the complicated, messy history of Nigeria but I’m going to talk about an era that has gripped my attention and has never let go since then. The Biafran War. This is an issue that is important for a whole host of reasons, mostly because the average Nigerian hates talking about it. Yet despite the many years that have gone by since the end of this conflict, it keeps cropping up; in political discourse, around dinner tables, on twitter timelines that lead to heated debates. The fact of the matter is, it will continue to crop up because it has never been properly addressed and as a nation we have never truly healed from that time period and until we stop suppressing this issue, it will continue to haunt us as a nation. So many topical issues that started the Civil War of 1967 thread through this country like a vein today. So let us start from the beginning shall we? The civil war can find its roots in the 1914 amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria. As we all know the differences between the Southern and Northern Protectorates in terms of culture and the religions of the people. The discovery of oil in Nigeria was a turning point because it led to a struggle of control amongst both regions. The fact that the South was not as united as the North basically ensured that Lt.Col Yakubu Gowon would emerge to be the head of state after officers from the North staged a coup. During his tenure the slaughter of Easterners continued in earnest which led to other actions and before you know it boom…we are in a full blooded civil war. Why is this so important to be aware of? To learn? In my opinion the reason why one must never forget the Biafran War and why it started is because sectarian violence in Nigeria persists to this day. Most recently, the Fulani herdsmen attacks in the South including places like Abia State, Edo State and Benue State. There have been many suggestions the general public has used to attribute to the swell of violence. The most acceptable being that as they are herdsmen they are nomadic in nature, moving to different places and in the process of doing so the herdsmen have encountered cattle rustlers. As they continue to travel, trespassing on farmland that is owned by indigenes is not uncommon attempts by these indigenes to put a stop to this has led to violence on the part of the herdsmen. With such a high level of violence committed by these herdsmen, people have attributed the general silence of Buhari because he is a Fulani man. As you can imagine, this has bred resentment. Resentment and violence are dangerous things when melded together which is why you have people like Johnson Suleman openly advocating for his church members to kill Fulani herdsmen. When looking at this example one has to ask themselves; are we so forgetful as a people? Or is that we have not fully grasped how easy it is to descend into chaos based on differences that we cannot change, and might not want to if we had the chance? Was the start of the Biafran War more complicated than the spate of violence amongst the Fulani in recent years? Definitely. That doesn’t mean we should push our luck though.

Then there is another type of cost. The cost of living with trauma. A lot of the time the fact that Igbo people tend to go to the village during Christmas is a running joke amongst us as a society. However, something murkier exists under the surface. I was talking to another friend whom I asked about this and she replied playfully ‘got to have somewhere to go if or when shit hits the fan’. This line of thinking was also reinstated in a thread on twitter as well. For a people who have seen quite literally the worst of what Nigeria has to offer, it makes complete sense to prepare for that. To never be caught off guard again. Despite the popular action of forgetting as human beings, our environment does not. The way that development recreates itself afterwards doesn’t forget as well. In keeping with the spirit of writing this piece I decided to ask my mother about what she remembered from that time period. She didn’t say that much but she did say some things that have stood out to me. The first being that Lagos changed after the war. ‘You know, a lot of wealthy Igbo families owned land in Lagos at that time. When the war broke out and even before that, with a lot of the pogroms that were happening up North…a lot of them had to abandon everything and run back East. To this day, the ownership of land in Lagos and the South-West generally has never been the same’ she said quietly. The second thing she said which in my opinion makes perfect sense is that people from the East never congregated in the North in those numbers ever again. We may not talk about it, but to pretend that the emptiness the war created isn’t really from the war at all but just a pathetically implied ‘countries change’ is just that. Pathetic.

The Civil War of the 60s is an area that is uncomfortable and painful. Another area that is uncomfortable and painful for many Nigerians is civil disobedience. I have always been slightly disgusted by the way the public at large seem happy to oblige the selfish entitlement of the people that are supposed to lead us. How we seem to have no problem with those that are supposed to protect us, carelessly crush our human rights and civil liberties as if they were the kola nuts they snacked on during their daughter’s wedding paid for with the oil from the South South that is slowly but surely poisoning the land. Once again, I have learnt with age, knowledge and a good dose of humility that nothing is as it seems. This belief that Nigerians simply take whatever is thrown at them is wrong. All one has to do is look hard enough. It may not be as easy to find but it is there. For the first example could talk about the late, great Fela. However, I feel like his story is well known held to mythical standards even. Instead, I want to focus on his mother, Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti. Firstly, because of sexism. There is still this ridiculous notion that when it comes to being heard, or protecting civil liberties, women’s voices should not be at the forefront of the issue. It’s simply not a ‘feminine’ past time. Well I am here to tell you fuck all that noise. Let me just start off that a lot of people especially women who are apart of ‘pick me’ twitter wouldn’t even be politically represented in Nigeria if it was not for her. Meaning, she fought for our right to vote as women in Nigeria. Another reason for her importance is that although she was born into an aristocratic family, she wasn’t predisposed to the elitism a lot of middle and upper class Nigerians suffer from (I know I need to have intense self reflection in order to recognize this behavior in myself and correct it). The organization she founded for women in Abeokuta had a membership tally of more than 20,000 women including both literate and illiterate women. One of her most important achieves in a life filled to the brim with milestones was her part in ensuring Nigeria’s independence. So how come she is not spoken about more? Why do we only learn about Awolowo and Azikiwe and Tafawa Balewa concerning Nigeria’s early political history as a free state? As I’ve mentioned before, quite a bit of this probably has to do with the fact that she is a woman. Then there is the ever present legacy of her son and also her nephew, Wole Soyinka. Another more controversial reason in my own opinion her death by the hands of military personnel when she was thrown out of a third floor window from Fela’s commune is one thing. Another once again points to how easily we as a people forget. In order to justify the patriarchal attitudes that are so deeply entrenched in our society we all have to collectively buy in to the idea that women never had a voice in the various conflicts that have subsumed Nigeria in one time frame or the other. To remember women like Mrs Ransome Kuti or Elizabeth Adekogbe or even further back to Amina of Zaria is to question everything that we have been told in order to be a quintessential African woman. Not only is that a painful experience, it is often one that is not easily afforded. It may be easy for a middle class 21 one year old like me to question the status quo. To ask that of a working class housekeeper that is simply trying to survive is asking too much.

As I mentioned above, Nigeria is not a country that is truly old. A lot of the tragedies and horrors were not that long ago. The perpetrators are either alive or well or died relatively recently. All this means is that our parents and grandparents lived through these happenings. At first, I was truly angry over the lack of discourse. Then I realized how truly difficult it must be to take oneself back to a time where nothing was certain, not even the day they were living in because they were in the middle of a war they didn’t ask to be in as a civilian. I realized just how scary and heartbreaking it must have been to look up to a woman who was intelligent and brave and whip smart be treated so callously and horrifically by the country she loved and fought for. To forget is to survive, and there is nothing braver than that.

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