Inauguration Of James Adekunle Ojelabi Foundation Nigeria History Fund

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I am honoured by this invitation to join you all this afternoon, to commemorate the first anniversary of the James Adekunle Ojelabi Foundation and to inaugurate the foundation’s Nigeria History Fund. My brother and friend, Pastor Ojelabi and the other visioners of this foundation deserve our commendation and congratulations.

When the Federal government decided to reintroduce history into the curriculum across primary and secondary schools last year, it was a decision borne out of the recognition that first our children must know where they are coming from and have an understanding of the life that preceded them.

History is far too essential for us to deprioritise. It encourages us as individuals to not restrict ourselves to thinking in the short-term but to remember that we too are living histories.

Second, we cannot sure footedly chart a course forward without understanding where we are coming from. Vision is important but so too is memory. Nation-building requires us to develop both faculties of imagination and remembrance.

Historians and all of us who answer the call to interrogate the past bear a special responsibility as custodians of national memory. Indeed, this stewardship of national memory is a cardinal civic obligation.

The importance of recollection is embedded in our national anthem which asserts that “the labours of our heroes past shall never be in vain.”

Obviously, this imposes a burden on us to remember and study those labours and memorialize the lives of the heroes that accomplished them. Knowing that we are standing on the shoulders of giants is crucial to national and individual self-esteem walk with your head

Also, our diversity as a nation is a unique strength. However, we cannot realize the full potential of this strength without a thorough understanding of the different cultural practices and social norms that make up the mosaic of our nationhood. The future of a Nigeria that works for all of us, regardless of religion or ethnicity, depends on full and accurate knowledge of our histories.

We are blessed to belong to a nation that possesses such a rich history of art, technology, trade, metallurgy, political administration among many fields of human endeavour but this bountiful inheritance is often underexplored and underappreciated.

History is a vast reservoir of cultural, spiritual and social capital waiting to be mined by a generation that will not neglect the ancient landmarks of our odyssey as a people.

Whilst our ethnic diversity is a great strength, one of the biggest challenges to nation-building is this same ethnoreligious diversity which can also engender detrimental social conflict as we have seen in different parts of our country at various times.

Now, if you look to our history – especially pre-colonial history – you will find that, in fact, many heterogeneous groups in pre-colonial Nigeria lived together relatively harmoniously. In many areas, there were deep trade relations, cultural exchanges and well-travelled migration routes between ethnic groups.

The evidence of such sociocultural cross-pollination can be found in our languages, cultural norms and practices and traditions which have evolved over the course of several generations. The linguistic styles and cognitive structures that have survived history are a testament to a profound degree of inter-cultural communication predated the advent of colonialism.

History is an impeccable teacher. In its lessons, it gives us hope and also shows us what is possible. A deep-dive into the history of these inter-group relations in our past is an illustrative reminder that in spite of our diversity, it is possible – and most desirable – for us to not only co-exist, but to work together for a common goal of peaceful nation-building.

Nigeria will soon celebrate 60 years of independence from colonial rule and even 60 years on, colonial and pre-colonial history are of immense importance for understanding the role of our nation and her people especially in a global context. The same case can be made for the histories of many other former African colonies which, as a result of colonialism and the attendant eurocentrism of global academia, have suffered from having their histories whitewashed, erased, and rewritten without our best interests in mind.

Too often, international history books present us solely as victims of white aggression, bereft of agency and as people whose lives only began at colonialism and independence.

Although modern history is also important, books like that of James Adekunle Ojelabi that have gone as far back as 1000 AD in their sourcing are a necessary reminder that we were, in fact, heirs of great societies with sophisticated models of socio-political organization people well before the white man came.

Indeed, as a scholar, Ojelabi strenuously opposed the view of African history as consisting of a record of European imperialist-colonial activities in Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries. He described the portrayal of African history in these terms as “the height of intellectual dishonesty” and this indignation inspired his historical writings, the impact of which has endured, for 50 years.
Reclaiming our past will fortify our recognition of the key role we have played in global history and we must use this knowledge to break free from the shackles of the colonial views of the continent. As black people, as Africans, as Nigerians, we must reclaim our histories and nurture academic environments that make that possible.

Chinua Achebe whose writings were rooted in profound historical consciousness famously said, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

Decolonizing perceptions and re-appropriating our historical inheritance is essential to recovering our sense of agency, purpose and mission in the world. Our children must know that they belong to countries that they can be proud of so that they can stand tall in the face of people who may tell them a different story.

Given the size of our diaspora, the pertinence of our history runs beyond just our borders. A recent study illustrated that an overwhelming number of African Americans have Nigerian ancestry. This knowledge is not entirely new but serves as a reminder for just how important our history is – not just because it is ours because it is also the history of millions of people worldwide. We are part of something much bigger, and history helps us put that in context.

So, thorough historical research on the continent often requires going against the grain to unlearn false histories that have been propagated about us so that we can write and record them in our own voices, reviving excluded perspectives and posthumously giving voices to the voiceless.

Although a difficult task it is, it’s a most necessary one, and the sacrifices that historians make in the carrying out of their research studies is ultimately for the betterment of us all.

This is why this Nigeria History Fund is a fitting celebration of the life of one of Nigeria’s foremost historians, James Adekunle Ojelabi, whose books on West African history were so popular that they have been included on curricula across the region. As someone for whom so much of his life was dedicated to ensuring that the stories of our past were given the attention they rightfully deserve, supporting history students with a scholarship scheme is a very thoughtful tribute to his legacy.

I am also delighted to hear that the fund will keep conversations alive about the importance of history for modern-day Nigeria. As we also go about writing our own legacies and living out our own histories, like the late James Adekunle Ojelabi did, may the works of our own hands also be connected to a broader national goal.

This departed historian will long be remembered for his enlightening history books that ultimately transformed, and are still transforming, how Nigerians see themselves in the world; his books showed us as a nation where we must not make the same mistakes.

May we take heed, may we never lose the zeal to explore new areas of historical curiosity, and may we also never underestimate the immense value of Nigeria’s history for us and the rest of the world. We owe it not only to late Ojelabi, but most importantly to our children – our next generation of nation-builders.

While I commend, again, all the efforts that have gone into setting up this foundation, I congratulate the visioners and I all of us that have been able to participate in this all-important ceremony especially to celebrate one year since this foundation was established.

Thank you very much and God bless Nigeria


History is far too essential for us to deprioritise. It encourages us as individuals to not restrict ourselves to thinking in the short-term but to remember that we too are living histories.