Cultural and historical resources have become more accessible in Nigeria following the internet's introduction in the country in the 1990s. Yet, while journalists, researchers and artists can more easily share their work with a large audience online today, portions of Nigeria’s history are rotting away on paper across the country.
During the 2009-10 school year, the government made the decision to remove history from primary and secondary schools’ curriculum in Nigeria. According to The Guardian, “official reasons given [for removing history] were, among others, that students shun the subject; only a few jobs were available for history graduates and that there is a dearth of history teachers. Lamentably, Nigeria today has no official account of the 1967 to 1970 civil war,” referring to the deadly war between the Nigerian government and the separatist Republic of Biafra in the country’s southeast.
Having access to historical documents online can advance knowledge of the past and scholarship, while helping inform the choices people make in the present. Likewise, journalists are better equipped to engage larger audiences, including those who historically have been marginalized.
A lack of available historical resources can lead to misinformation, falsehoods and a dearth of context with which to engage with the past and reimagine the future. To remedy the issue, several projects in the country have been launched to ensure that Nigeria's history is more readily available online.
Nigeria Railway Corporation Endangered Archives Project
In January, Alex Ugwuja, a historian and lecturer at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, launched the Nigeria Railway Corporation Endangered Archives Project, in collaboration with Legacy 1995, an organization that identifies and protects historical buildings and monuments. The project’s objective is to restore and digitize Nigeria’s railway materials located in Ebute Metta, Lagos. “Our greatest motivation is to preserve documents that are of historical significance,” said Ugwuja. “We may not know how important railways were to colonial Nigeria, [but] by looking at the records left, more details about the railway as the economic hub of Nigeria are revealed. Not only does this content reveal deep insight into the past and the actions of the British government [on colonialism], but also in understanding the future of the country.”
The project focuses on the railway’s mechanical and civil engineering archives. These documents must be handled with care due to their age and state of disrepair. “Once you come close to it, it dissolves into dust,” said Ugwuja. “But because we have been trained, we try to recover as much as we can and digitize them before they finally crumble.”
The project is funded by the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme, which funds archival projects across the world, and helps digitize resources that are endangered due to neglect, poor storage conditions and environmental factors. The initiative also trains personnel, like Ugwuja and his team, on digitization techniques.
According to Ugwuja, the final digitized resources are owned by the British Library, the Nigeria Railway and the National Archives of Nigeria, headquartered in capital city of Abuja. “There are a lot of legal formalities we must adhere to,” he said. “The entire thing will be hosted on the server of the [Endangered Archives Programm]. We’re hoping that before the end of this year, the British Library will [publish the resources].”
Archivi.ng was founded in 2020 with the goal of digitizing one newspaper everyday from January 1, 1960 to December 31, 2010. “Google creates recency bias,” said Fu’ad Lawal, a former journalist and project lead at Archivi.ng. “[Nigerians] tend to engage with Nigeria without a lot of context. The single most important medium that attempts to capture everything that happens in history is the media.”
Having worked in newsrooms such as Pulse and Big Cabal Media, the parent company of Tech Cabal and Zikoko, Lawal recognizes the importance of digitizing information that only exists in newspapers. For him, it comes down to one question: “What if we suddenly could access every single day in Nigeria’s history, especially headline worthy stories, from 1960 to 2010?”
Digitizing also opens avenues for presenting history through media. “76 [a Nigerian historical film about a military coup set in 1976, six years after the country's civil war] was made out of two weeks worth of newspaper,” said Lawal. “What type of films would we make if we had 18,000 days worth of newspapers?” The hope is that digitizing 18,000 days of Nigeria’s history will shine further light on the political and economic landscape of the country today.
Documenting police brutality
Another project in the digitization and accessibility space is the Police Brutality in Nigeria Project, known as the POBIN Project, which was launched in August 2020 by Socrates Mbamalu, Similolowa Akinbode, Ayoola Salako and myself.
This project was created to highlight the magnitude and lifelong impact of police brutality in Nigeria so that the government and police force could more effectively be held accountable. For decades, there have been countless undocumented cases of police violence in the country. Many citizens have died and become forgotten hashtags. We at the POBIN Project felt the need for a repository to keep alive the memories of those who have been killed by police.
The POBIN team, including volunteers, speaks with victims of police brutality and their relatives. Stories have also been collected from old newspapers, with the earliest record on the project’s website dating back to 1981. The project aims to become a readily available data resource on understanding police brutality in Nigeria for the general public.
Challenges of digitizing archives
Digitizing archives comes with a number of challenges. For example, it was difficult for the Archivi.ng team to get their project registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission, among other setbacks. After the project was launched, the team soon realized that newspapers are categorized under literary works. “You can’t just take other people’s copyright and start scanning,” said Lawal. “The rights belong to the publisher.” Finding these publishers and getting them to consent has been an additional challenge.
COVID-19 also created unique obstacles. Scanning large-format documents, like the pages of newspapers, requires scanners that cost over $30,000. “And because of COVID-19, there’s a supply chain crisis. It’s been extremely difficult to get a scanner,” said Lawal.
“There’s a culture that is not favorable to knowledge production in Nigeria,” said Ugwuja. “That culture is what we call documentary recklessness — the inability to see the value in things that are not of immediate use. Even though [historical documents] are not of immediate use today does not mean that you won’t need them in the future. “Inability to find what was in the past may not give you the room to project what will come in the future,” he said.
The challenges notwithstanding, archival projects like these can preserve information that might otherwise be inaccessible to journalists. By contextualizing historical events while better engaging audiences, these initiatives can help guide more informed decision making in the future.