The deeds of great men and women are the building blocks of history. Even in ancient times and pre-historic societies, the lives of outstanding people have been of unending fascinations to chroniclers and griots. In traditional African societies, oral traditions are meticulously passed down from generation to generation, detailing the deeds of national heroes and the precepts derivable from their lives of sacrifices and heroism. In Nigeria, access to the written words has made the quest to write about the deeds of past leaders easier and faster. Even in modern times, biographies and autobiographies remain central to the vocation of the historian in reconstructing the past and setting agenda for the future.
From the cognomen and panegyrics of past heroes and heroines one could discern the panorama of the past. In the last 700 years when foreigners, especially the Arabs and Europeans have been active in Africa, our people have moved from orally documenting the stories of the society, the community and the nation to documenting in writing the histories and deeds of outstanding individuals. Among African nationalists of the 20th Century, biographies and memoirs were also part of the weapons of the struggle. One notable example was Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s autobiography, Facing Mount Kenya. It was a widely acclaimed book across the continent on the Kenyan struggle against British colonial rule and the stealing of the African land for the white farmers. Another perspective was later provided by the thrilling memoir of Kenyatta’s first vice-president and veteran nationalist, Jaramogi Odinga Odinga in his seminal work, Not Yet Nhuru.
Kwame Nkrumah’s autobiography’s Ghana, is of the same evocative template as Kenyatta’s book. Nkrumah’s book is on the transformation of the colonial territory, the Gold Coast, into the independent country of Ghana. It also tells his role in the struggle and his personal life journey from Ghana, to the United States and returning to join the struggle with other nationalists. Dr Kenneth Kaunda, who led the nationalist struggle in Zambia, wrote Zambia Shall Be Free, which was adopted an English literature text book for secondary schools in several African countries. In more recent times, Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, is a monument to the historic struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa and the central role of Mandela in that struggle.
Nigerian nationalist leaders who fought against the British were also mindful of putting their stories on paper. The three titans who led Nigeria to independence from British rule all wrote their biographies. Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Awo, is an inspiring autobiography about a man who rose against many odds from a humble beginning to prominence and personal fulfillment. Azikiwe’s daring adventure, recorded in My Odyssey, in search of the proverbial Golden Fleece when he travelled to the United States almost ended in tragedy. Yet he triumphed against all odds to make pioneering impacts in journalism both in Ghana and Nigeria before he forged into politics emerging as the leading nationalist of his generation. In My Life, Bello tells the story of his journey from the rural Rabbah in Sokoto to become the titan dominating national politics. Yet all these could have been aborted when, to attend secondary school in Katsina, Bello had to travel on foot and only narrowly escaped being eaten by lions!
The biography is the sword in the hand of the story-tellers to reconstruct the past and create a path for coming generations. In Nigeria, biographies have been used to calibrate aspects of our history and deliberate on sociological phenomenon. For us in Nigeria, three national events have especially dominated the attention of biographers of the 20th and early 21st Centuries. These three epochs were the struggle against British rule and its immediate aftermath, the Nigerian Civil War and its consequences and the struggle against military rule and thereafter.
* Dare Babarinsa is a renowned Columnist with the Guardian Newspaper, Nigeria who crafted this piece for the BIOGRAPHICAL LEGACY & RESEARCH FOUNDATION; Publishers of Blerf’s WHO’S WHO IN NIGERIA (Online) edited by nyaknno osso.