Nigeria’s Possible Solution for Teaching History: Comic Books

LAGOS, Nigeria — In a village somewhere in Nigeria, students bicker over the origins of one of the country’s major ethnic groups, until a wise old man intervenes with a story from Nigeria’s past.

So begins a tale from “Okiojo’s Chronicles,” a comic book series that explores the history of the many ethnic groups that make up Africa’s most-populous nation. It is a history the creators of the series fear is at risk of being distorted or ignored altogether.

Comic books and graphic novels may play a key role in Nigeria, a country torn by sectarian violence and a commodity-reliant economy damaged by the dropping price of oil. Recent changes in the national curriculum mean many schools no longer offer history class. And while Nigerian authors churn out memoirs and novels that line bookshelves in the country and around the world, Nigeria boasts only a handful of historians who write for the average reader.

Oriteme Banigo, the creator of “Okiojo’s Chronicles,” says he fears for the future of the country if its young people don’t learn about Nigeria’s past.

“If you just look at the past, if you look at when we started democracy, we seem to be making the same mistakes over and over again,” says Banigo. “In our stories we emphasize … why this has happened, why we should remember it, and how we could stop ourselves from going through the same issues moving forward.”

Of the three comics released so far, two have delved into the origins of the Yoruba and Hausa peoples, both major ethnic groups.

A third depicted the subjugation of the Benin Empire in present-day southern Nigeria by British colonists, which is still controversial because the colonizers took hundreds of bronze plaque artworks back to Europe, where many remain to this day.

Tunji Anjorin, editor-in-chief of the series, says the goal is to chronicle the histories of every single ethnic group in Nigeria.

“A 10-year-old who grows up reading ‘Okiojo’s Chronicles’ for 10 years would have read 40 different ethnic groups comics and he would have a better understanding of the people who are left and right to him and [of] Nigeria as a whole,” says Anjorin.

The country today is facing major upheavals in its political and economic landscape, but many of these challenges are familiar to Nigerians. The president, Muhammadu Buhari, is a retired general who older Nigerians remember for his brief rule as a military dictator in the 1980s.

The economic health of Nigeria, Africa’s top producer of crude, has long been tied to the price of oil. With prices in a slump, Buhari’s new government is facing a drying-up of government revenues along with pressure to devalue the currency, all challenges faced by prior administrations.

[READ: Nigeria’s challenges rise as oil prices fall]

Demonstrators have taken to the streets in the country’s southeast with calls for the return of Biafra, a separatist republic that has not existed since it was defeated and reabsorbed back into Nigeria at the end of the country’s civil war in 1970.

To historian Max Siollun, events like the Biafra protests are evidence of why Nigeria should place more value on the study of its past.

“There tends to be a lack of sophistication and political debate, a lack of empathy for the other side in Nigeria, born out of not knowing the history, not knowing the historical grievances that drive the other side,” says Siollun.

But Nigeria’s officialdom gives history short shrift.

While researching the two books he has authored on Nigeria’s oil trade and military leaders, Siollun says many former government officials and political elites were reluctant to talk, perhaps out of fear of offending the powerful.

He often relied on newspaper archives and government files that were in the archives of foreign countries.

Nigerian students gain little knowledge of history from school, says Bayo Olupohunda, a secondary school teacher and newspaper columnist. Just two years ago, a new curriculum came into effect that merged history education with civics classes.

“They just teach it in passing. It’s not something that is taught holistically, as a subject,” Olupohunda says.

At his school, Olupohunda says students forsake liberal arts for subjects that are seen to lead to a lucrative career. “We live in a seriously capitalist system where people tend to have preference for financial course, commercial courses.”

With history education in classrooms scarce and few popular history books on the shelves of bookstores, Siollun says most young people learn about the country’s past from their parents or family — which he says can lead to a skewed perspective on events that remain controversial in Nigeria today.

The creators of “Okiojo’s Chronicles” aren’t alone in seeing comics as a way to spur Nigerians’ interest in their own history.

Writer and illustrator Abraham Oshoko has released two installments of his five-part “June 12” graphic novel series, which dramatizes the events surrounding a cancelled election and military coup of the 1990s.

“All over the world the reading culture has died down,” Oshoko says. “Using illustrations to tell stories becomes more appealing.”

But writing about the annulled election, which was held on the date in 1993 that serves at the series’ title, hasn’t been easy. The election remains such a controversial topic that a shipment of the most recent installment of Oshoko’s series was briefly seized by Nigeria’s secret police when it was published in 2013.

Despite the seizure, and problems getting bookstores to pay for copies they sold, Oshoko says he’s committed to finishing the series.

“I believe that when Nigerians understand [their] own history, we’re going to begin to regain that nationalistic spirit that we no longer have now,” says Oshoko.

“Okiojo’s Chronicles” has set a comparatively brisk pace for itself.

Anjorin says their goal is to produce one comic book each quarter for each of Nigeria’s ethnic groups, estimated to be more than 250. It should only take about 62 years to chronicle them all.

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