The Nigerian history machine and the production of Middle Belt historiography

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

While existing studies on Nigerian historiography cover renowned historians, major historical writings and prominent historiographical traditions, there is hardly any exploration of the institutional processes and concrete circumstances within which historical knowledge is produced. Deploying a range of sources, from in-depth personal interviews - with historians, archivists, museum curators and publishers of history texts - archival research to museum displays, this thesis examines the production of history and the socio-political tensions and conflicts associated with it in postcolonial Nigeria. Specifically, it explores the linkages between Nigerian history as a discursive practice and the institutions where historical knowledge is produced such as history departments, archives, museums and the publishers of history and scholarly texts. I see these processes as a kind of "history machine", defined as the interconnected system of social technologies through which the Nigerian state defines the discursive limits of the nation by appropriating, packaging and relaying discrete ethnic histories as Nigerian history in specific national cultural institutions such as archives and museums. But it is not robotic or a centrally run machine. The Nigerian history machine, originally activated as a nationalist intellectual mechanism against colonialist historiography in the wake of decolonization, broke down into a multitude of regional compartments in the postcolonial period, leading to the proliferation of "extranational" discourses in areas like the Middle Belt region. The practices of collecting, organizing, classifying, naming and appropriating discrete cultural symbols activates, as much it silences, the voices of certain communities. Each site of production strives, ostensibly, to produce Nigerian history, retaining and concealing the distinctive historical repertoires of each constituent ethnic community as they go through the history machine. In the process certain communities were ostracized to which they responded by manufacturing their local histories against the institutional representation of their pasts in History Departments, National Archives and National Museums. Through a textual analysis of the writings of historians and other scholars of Middle Belt extraction, this study posits that the textual tradition of the Middle Belt historiography is animated by a discourse of marginality and resistance to the dominant interpretations of northern Nigerian history and historiography, an epistemic struggle by the minorities to reassert their "historical patrimony" or reclaim their "historical dignity" through the creation of projects that highlight their historical past.