- The Works of A.E. Afigbo on Nigeria:An Historiographical Essay
Nigeria in the post-independence years has seen its share of hardship. Politically dominated by military dictatorships, economically dominated by the ravages of underdevelopment, and culturally dominated by internal ethnic tensions and external stereotyping, Nigeria certainly seems to have suffered from an overabundance of problems and a dearth of solutions in the last forty plus years. This period, full of scholarly debate on these issues, also closely parallels the academic career of A.E. Afigbo. Afigbo, who graduated with a Ph.D. in History from the University of Ibadan in 1964, was the first History doctorate produced on Nigerian soil. He is both a product and a victim of the Nigerian nation, and his scholarly writings deeply reflect these contradictions. From that point in 1964—the era of hope and anguish—to the present day—the era of anguish without hope—he has been among the vanguard of scholars in Nigerian history and African studies. He wanted to write about the past, but the present pressured him severely. Starting as a "Nigerian," he became a "Biafran" during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70), and again a "Nigerian" thereafter. These transitions provide some kind of "political charter" to some of his writings.
It has been a remarkable career. He has authored or co-authored eight books, edited four more, and published well over a hundred journal articles. Afigbo has earned numerous prizes for his scholarship, has served on the editorial board of many acclaimed scholarly journals, including the [End Page 155] Journal of African History and History in Africa, and has been inducted into many prestigious societies, including the Nigerian Academy of Letters. Nigeria has also honored him with its highest academic award, the National Order of Merit.
What is most impressive about Afigbo's writings is not their quantity but their overall quality. He heavily promotes the study of history, not for its own sake, but for a purpose. Whether tackling issues of underdevelopment, racism, corruption, or educational standards, all of Afigbo's work attempts to address the present-day needs of Nigeria with an aim to improving its prospects for the future. While a broad range of literature exists attempting to explain Nigeria's present problems, Afigbo consistently traces them all to one factor in Nigeria's past, the onset of British colonial rule around the turn of the twentieth century. The problem, as Afigbo sees it, is that colonial rule initiated a social model whereby Nigeria's indigenous elite—by which we mean those Nigerians educated in the Western mould and therefore considered qualified to influence and govern the Western-modeled independent Nigerian state—became culturally disconnected from the relatively uneducated masses in a way that had not existed in the precolonial period. This cultural disconnect has continued to the present day, 45 years after the creation of an independent Nigerian government.
The educated elite, Afigbo believes, have come to rely heavily on the West for political backing, economic models, cultural values, and even academic inspiration. The problem with this, he argues, is that the models developed organically in Europe and America over time are fit to meet the specific needs of European and American circumstances. They are not, however, necessarily suited to meet the immediate specific needs of the Nigerian population, which has significantly different historical baggage. As a result, he tends to imply, Western models of governance and development have failed, and will continue to fail, in Nigeria.
Afigbo believes that the first step toward stabilizing the political system and creating policies of sustainable development in Nigeria lies in making the Western educated elite understand that they must find unique and locally appropriate answers to Nigeria's specific problems. He believes that historians, in particular, have a role to play in bringing this about through demonstrating to elite Nigerians the value and viability of their own communities' traditional ways of life, particularly through historical analysis of the precolonial period, and by helping to improve Nigeria's image in the international scholarly community through comparative analyses of their respective traditional worldviews. Through greater understanding of the precolonial past, which Afigbo...