Prof. Anthony Ijiola Asiwaju is a historian and African border scholar. A University of Lagos emeritus professor of History and former Commissioner, National Boundary Commission (NBC), the 80-year-old Balogun of Imeko and Asiwaju of Yewaland, Ogun State, spoke on border issues and other matters.
As a historian and border scholar, how have you applied your intellectual assets to resolve Nigeria’s myriad border challenges?
I was never a scholar withdrawn to himself. As a matter of fact, the distinct hallmark of my many decades of academic career has been in its uniquely impactful policy advocacy and opportune appointments and assignments that have enabled us to apply at all levels – local, national, regional, continental and international- what we researched and taught in comparative border and borderlands studies over the years.
Beginning with appointment and widely acclaimed achievements as pioneer Commissioner (International Boundaries) of NBC from 1988 to 1994, we have had the singular honour of serving in cognate capacity as consultant for the enunciation of Mali’s innovative border policy of “pays frontiers”, border country or Cross-Border Areas, in 2002 and its elevation as Cross-Border Initiatives Programme of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), in 2005, and the African Union Border Programme (AUBP) in 2007.
From 1997, we were appointed as a foundation member of Ogun State Boundary Committee, becoming the State Boundary Commissioner from 2003 to 2011. Through the Federal Government’s embrace of trans-border cooperation policy drive vis-a-vis each of our limitrophe neighbours in West and Central Africa, and of a special development focus on structurally neglected border regions, the hitherto rising tides of border tension with all our neighbours were dramatically reduced.
This has been so even on our most “troublesome border”, that with Cameroon, in spite of episodes of border skirmishes between our armed forces, leading to the aggressive and terribly expensive marathon eight-year litigation at the International Court of Justice at The Hague from March 1994 to October 2002.
Has the issue of Nigeria-Cameroon squabble been resolved?
I would say yes, based on the 2002 judgment by the ICJ, which both state parties have been persuaded to accept and implement. Although the judgment and its implementation modality has remained a bitter pill in the mouth of affected Nigerian local communities and politicians, the ongoing implementation process has at least halted and quietened the hitherto frayed nerves between us and Cameroon.
Against advice by Prof. Ian Browlie, a lead British international lawyer, I was edged out of the legal defence team during the eight years of the litigation. I was, however, very pleased to be significantly involved at the implementation stage, when I was appointed as Leader of the Nigerian Delegation on the Sub-Commission on Affected Populations of the main Nigeria-Benin Cameroon Mixte Commission. The sub-commission literally walked the over 1600-kilometre border from Darak in the Lake Chad to Limbe on the Atlantic coast of Cameroon, criss-crossing the borderlands, for one year, from May 2003 to April 2004.
It has been a matter of self-fulfillment for me that it was the report submitted by the Sub-Commission on Affected Populations to the main Mixte Commission that was used to draft and finalise the text of the historic Green-Tree (New York) Agreement signed by both Nigeria and Cameroon on June 12, 2006, to determine the phased withdrawal of Nigeria from the Bakassi Peninsula, which was achieved in the Presidency of Umaru Yar’Adua in 2008.
We also played some role in the highly influential presentation by the Society for International Relations Awareness (SIRA), to the House of Representatives Public Hearing, when in 2012, there was a politically futile effort to push for an appeal in the ICJ to review the court’s own 2002 judgment.
How do we reverse the alleged marginalisation and neglect of our border regions?
It is not an allegation. It is stark reality that the nation’s border regions are politically marginalised and infrastructurally deprived, to the extent of posing a terrible security danger to the nation itself, as has been demonstrated first in the Niger Delta and currently in the North East. As was agreed by the historic 1989 National Planning Conference for Development of the Border Regions and documented in the published proceedings by the NBC, which we had the honour to edit, the way out is a special development focus.
While the NBC made some feeble start, the Border Communities Development Agency, established in 2009 precisely to bring about this special development focus, has achieved little on the ground outside the huge bureaucracy in Abuja, which gulps its budget. The truth seems to be that government at all levels, local, state and federal, is yet to take border region development seriously, and the nation may expect to see the worsening of the danger posed to national security.
Why did you study History?
As with life itself, our choice has been a matter of God’s Grace, which alone explains a compelling natural flare for the subject and discipline, that began manifestation from our primary school days and maturing unabated through secondary and tertiary years of our long gestation as an academic. Following strictly the line of our disciplinary disposition and being undistracted by parental and other counseling interferences, I stayed with the historical science and its inexhaustible exploration as teacher and researcher.
Add the consideration of natural disposition to the prestige which identification as a historian and a history teacher carried over all the then known professions and academic specialisations in our own days, and it should begin to dawn why we chose history, and not any of the other available courses.
What are you doing, then, to ensure that History as a course does not go into extinction?
Let me start by drawing attention to the wider context of the policy abuse that has pushed History to the back burner of Nigerian educational system since curricular reforms of mid-1970s, that privileged sciences and technology in the name of advancing accelerated social and economic development. This new thinking about education for development, with reduced concern for the human beings as raison d’etre of development, is encountered throughout Africa and wider area of the so-called Third World or “developing economies” with similar regrettable consequences.
I have been in the vanguard for the resuscitation of History in our schools, fighting for this long in active collaboration with colleagues within frameworks, not only of the Historical Society of Nigeria (HSN) and the Nigerian Academy of Letters (NAL), but also the Association of African Historians (AAH) in Bamako, Mali, and the more global contexts of the International Committee of Historical Sciences (ICHS), to say nothing of the recently initiated Helsinki-based global network of Association of Historians Without Borders (AHWB).
The highly sustained and unrelenting advocacy for necessary policy reversal for returning History to our schools, especially, by the HSN, Nigeria’s oldest learned society, has finally borne some very good fruits with a new policy articulation by the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari for History to return to Nigerian primary and secondary schools.
Will this latest policy pronouncement not go the way of most government policies, more in their being announced than in their being implemented?
Yes, I can see the point of your cynicism. After all, President Olusegun Obasanjo was compelled to make even a more forceful pronouncement in his first term when he was convinced in a briefing session in Ibadan by a contribution of the late Professor Ade Ajayi that the main explanation why there was a worrisomely widespread armed revolt in the opening years of new millennium was that the mostly youth perpetrators of the troubles everywhere were of the generation who, if and when they went to school at all, did so without learning History, without a sense of history.
I am, for example, reliably informed by Prof. Chris Ogbogbo, president of the HSN, that the HSN has been actively engaged with the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council, (NERDC) in Abuja to produce suitable textbooks for use in the primary and secondary schools, come October this year.