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Indispensability of the archives for development

By Michael Omolewa
15 February 2015   |   11:00 pm
Text of the lecture to mark the 60th anniversary of the National Archives of Nigeria held at the Trenchard Hall, University of Ibadan on December 2, 2014 I HAVE not been courageous enough to ask why the Director and his team that have organized this memorable event decided to  select me for this enviable honour…


Text of the lecture to mark the 60th anniversary of the National Archives of Nigeria held at the Trenchard Hall, University of Ibadan on December 2, 2014

I HAVE not been courageous enough to ask why the Director and his team that have organized this memorable event decided to  select me for this enviable honour of joining in the celebration of 60 years of the establishment of the National Archives of Nigeria. I remember that I was Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Ibadan when the name of the Department of Library Studies was changed to reflect the addition of the other disciplines of archives and information studies that had been added to the work of the pioneer Department. I also know that Professor ‘Bunmi Alegbeleye, the first professor in archival studies at the University of Ibadan, is my colleague, personal friend, and my former boss as Dean of the Faculty, who may have wanted his predecessor in office to be accorded this surprise recognition. Other than these, all my other engagements with the archives have been in my professional capacity as historian, searching the archives for the required evidence on which to base my contributions.

I am delighted to pay this public homage to our archives. Those who are familiar with my major writings would have noted my consistent appreciation of the contribution of the staff of the archives to my work. It will indeed be no exaggeration to describe the archives as my second home. I can recall the Christmas vacation which I once decided to spend at the Enugu archive, which was then headed by my classmate, to explore the work of Nathaniel Ejiogu, the hard working and dedicated mass education officer in Eastern Nigeria. I overheard the staff of the archive in the adjacent room, where whispers could be heard, as they complained that I may have fled to the archive at such a season to avoid a nagging wife. The truth is that my wife was not nagging me but had left the country to spend the Christmas with her parents according to the traditions of her own family. When I told the Director at Enugu about what I heard, as I expected, the ladies denied that they ever said any such thing about a distinguished academic from Nigeria’s premier university! And so I kept my peace at the season when the birth of Prince of peace was being celebrated. My writings which followed my exploration at the Enugu archives helped in securing a partnership between my University and a British university under the auspices of the British Council.

I wish to congratulate the Director and his staff, and the entire Nigerian nation on the attainment of the age of 60 by the National archives, and I thank the Director and all those who have been responsible for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts on the subject of the indispensability of the archives for development. You will pardon me if I use my personal experience as an academic and as president of a United Nations specialized agency to illustrate the point that I am trying to make.

Focus on the archives. 

Rather than focus on the definitions of the basic words, indispensability, archives and development, I will simply submit that archives constitute a veritable instrument for the promotion of an individual, community and the wider society. Its mission is the preservation of documentary heritage, an integral part what helps to give a person the confidence to live, recognising that there is a past for which the person is proud .The beneficiary of the archives will proceed to speak of that past with dignity and pride. Archives are indispensable for the cultivation of a consciousness by a person, community and a nation. It empowers a person to develop the capacity to actualise his/her full potentials. 

In some of the countries, the archives generate sources of funding in the way tourism does as people invest their resources on making vital visits to the archives to collect information and build the required evidence to make a case. In addition to historians, sociologists and lawyers in search for relevant evidence on which to build cases and submissions, the materials in the archives have ensured that there is credibility in evidence that is stored and preserved and that the mine of information available helps as deliverance from unscrupulous manipulators, evil people, careless officials and opportunist professionals.

It must have been a realisation of the potentials of the archives for development that led the Kenneth Dike the only African Head of the Department of History and first Principal of the University College Ibadan, and later founding Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, to embark on the pioneering mission for the establishment of the archives. For Dike had been at the forefront of proving that Africans have a past during the debate encouraged by the Eurocentric historians that contested that Africans had no history before the coming of the Europeans. Besides, Dike had successfully used the Public Records Office in the United Kingdom which those Africans who specialised in historical research also extensively consulted. The treasures of the archives were thus recognised by Kenneth Dike during his battles to defend the point of view that Africa had a past and deserving of protection and preservation: oral traditions, eye witness accounts through newspapers, interviews diaries.

The mandate of the Nigerian National Archives is familiar to most people and includes being entrusted with the permanent custody, care and control of all archives of the Federal government of Nigeria and of such other archives or historical records.

The pioneering role of Kenneth Dike who presented the “Report on the Preservation and Administration of Historical Records and the Establishment of a Public Record Office in Nigeria”. Dike had proposed in his report that an ad-hoc committee be set up to advise the Federal Minister of Education on all matters pertaining to archives. The Federal Minister of Education set up a provisional Committee under the chairmanship of Professor Kenneth Dike. The composition of that committee was published in G.N. 1933 of 1st November 1954. The terms of reference of the Committee among others were to examine and advise on the mode of preservation and administration of historical records in Nigeria. The provisional Committee was also requested to advise on the long-term proposals on the care to be taken by departments over the archives, to formulate precise regulations for the safe custody of archives in Government offices, and to advise on the elimination of documents not considered worthy of permanent preservation and on the regular transfers of records from Government departments to the Nigerian Record Office. The provisional committee held its first meeting at Ibadan on 18 January 1956. One of the fruits of the work of the committee was the enactment of the Public Archives Act in September 1957. Preparations were made for the formal opening of the National Archives Building at Ibadan by Lord Evershed, the Master of the Rolls, scheduled for 9th January 1959. The provisional Committee had its last meeting on 8th January 1959.

In accordance with the provisions of the Public Archives Ordinance, no 43 of 1957, a Permanent Committee was established. The Public Archives Act was re-enacted as cap 163 of the Laws of the Federation of Nigeria in 1958 and provided for the establishment of a National Archives Committee, the membership of which reflected the regional structure of the country that was then in place. The Committee was constituted in April 1960.  A decision was taken to relieve Professor Dike of his appointment as Director of the National Archives so that he would not occupy two strategic positions which required much time and attention. The Minister also decided to appoint the Chief Justice of the Federation, Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, as Chairman of the Committee with Professor Kenneth Dike, then acting as Director of the National Archives as member. Each of the three regions of Nigeria, and the University College, Ibadan were invited to nominate a member to the Committee. 

The Committee could not meet until the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War and the establishment of the 12-State structure on 27 May 1967. Towards the end of the Nigerian Civil War, the Federal Commissioner for  Education, Mr Wenike Briggs,  reconstituted the National Archives Committee in 1969 and retained the Chief Justice as chairman. The inaugural meeting of the reconstituted National Archives Committee was held on 5 March 1971 at the premises of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs in Victoria Island Lagos with Mr Wenike Briggs, Federal Commissioner for Education addressed members of the committee made up of eminent academics including Dr J.O.Lucas, Professor J.F.Ade Ajayi, Alhaji Junaidu, the Wazirin Sokoto, Professor A.B Aderibigbe, Dr E.J.Alagoa, Professor M.Achufusi, Professor E.A.Ayandele,  Alhaji Inuwa Wada, and Colonel M.S.D.Ilyasu. 

Strengthening the National Archives

The members of the reconstituted Committee were those with profound knowledge in the value of the archives. They took their work serious and were dedicated to work selflessly to give visibility to the archives and make it functional and efficient. This was perhaps a golden period of the archives when adequate attention, careful planning and total commitment by the government demonstrated the importance of the archives. There was no doubt about the vital role of archives in national development. Adequate funding was available. In the Address delivered by the Federal Commissioner for Education, Mr Wenike Briggs to the inaugural meeting of the reconstituted National Archives Committee held at the Institute of International Affairs, Lagos on 5 November 1971, the Commissioner reported that “the Federal Military Government has made provision in the Second National Development Plan  1970-1974  for the building in Lagos of a new headquarters for the National Archives and for the reconstruction of the facilities at the Enugu branch of the department”.

In spite of the goodwill shown by the Federal Commissioner of Education, the Committee decided to transfer the management of the archives from the Federal Ministry of Education. They observed that Ministries of Education were usually unable to provide efficient and effective service when put in charge of archival matters. A Resolution was therefore unanimously passed that “for the administration of archives to be efficient and effective in Nigeria, the archival authority had to be associated with the highest authority in the land”. When the Federal Ministry of Education appeared unhappy with that Resolution, one of the members, the articulate, and usually outspoken Professor E.A. Ayandele, expressed surprise that “the only aspect of the minutes which attracted the Ministry’s attention was that which would diminish their empire”. He insisted that the Committee should not allow itself to be persuaded from its decision because it was taken in the national interest. It was thus reaffirmed that “the National Archives should be under the control of the Cabinet Office for effective management and administration”. Another member, Dr J. O. Lucas spoke about collection of private papers. Professor Abdullahi Smith from Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) spoke about Arabic manuscripts collections, Dr Alagoa drew attention to the need to collect pre-colonial records, and the Committee called on Government to make the necessary funds available to enable the National Archives to do everything possible to recover all the records removed from the National Archives in Enugu during the Civil War. Training of National Archives professional and technical staff, recruitment of staff. 

The Committee also proposed that the National Archives should be built in Lagos, and that the building should “aim to be an outstanding building, a structure to hold the archives in perpetuity, a structure that befits the size and importance of the nation and the archives to be housed in it, a building that reflects the culture of the country and the spirit of the age”.

Challenging times

My personal experience at the National Archives at Ibadan tells me the story of some of the current difficulties of the archives. As a graduate student, I started with a study of historiographical and bibliographical study that depended on published material.  I therefore required visit to the archives to access the rare works in print. Later I began to use the archives in Africa when my area of research shifted to African issues. The archive was useful as I explored the papers in the Colonial Office files, most of which are most revealing about how the civil servants operated the system that was based on passing confidential files among themselves with the freedom to destroy characters that were not able to have an input to discussions. In one of my search of the records, I found out how some officials consistently undermined official policies which did not bring them any personal gains. Many of them exploited the loopholes and benefitted themselves, immediate relations and their ethnic groups at the expense of the national interest. Articles which resulted from these findings have remained among my best contribution to the world of scholarship.

When in later years I returned to the archives, the story was different. The staff still remained supportive and dedicated. But the facilities had disappeared or were in ruins and in lamentable status. On one recent occasion when I needed to examine past newspapers for information on the decolonization process in Nigeria, the pages of the worn out newspapers kept flying in pieces. It became difficult for me to watch the pages tear off and I had to abandon my research midstream. The principle of careful handling of materials and delicate papers is religiously being observed but archives maintenance requires more than this.

The early years of the national Archives bred professional archivists who competed with the academics in the universities. A classic example was L. G. Gwam whose regular features in magazines and newspapers provided refreshing insight into the collections in the archives. After his early death, his collection of the speeches and addresses of Henry Carr was edited by C. O.Taiwo and published by Oxford University Press. That publication remains respected in the world of scholars. Gwam travelled extensively and developed confidence as an archivist. It is important that the same opportunity is offered to his successors.

There is a further aspect of development of the archive that requires careful and urgent consideration.  In the advanced economies of the world, digitization has become a means of preservation and documentary security. This is still rare in most third world countries that will continue to lose out unless they move forward fast. Because digitization is capital intensive and requires enormous amount of money because of its value for preservation, there will be great need for the National Archives management, working with Government to ensure the support of international partners.  One secure partner is UNESCO. UNESCO recognises the importance of the archives. Indeed the fact that  archives are considered  indispensable for development  has made the entire world, using UNESCO as lead agency  introduce the memory of the world programme. It does not seem to me that Nigeria has sufficiently benefitted from that programme although nationals have attended sessions of the various meetings convened under the auspices of the memory of the world programme. For example Nigeria has not been listed in the documentary heritage list inscribed to the Memory of the World Register. The list from Africa include  Angola, Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Mauritius, Namibia, Senegal, South Africa, and the United Republic of Tanzania. Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco are listed for Arab States although they are located in North Africa. 

There is an urgent need for the National Archives to work closely with the Nigerian National Commission for UNESCO that is based in the Federal Ministry of Education in Abuja to get Nigeria inscribed in the World for possible inscription. This will require the National Archives to strengthen its ties with the inter-governmental Nigerian National Commission. From my past experience I know that the Secretary – Generals are usually very professional people with an intense interest in promoting the overall interest of the country. Here I should pay my respect to three former Secretary-Generals of the Nigerian National Commission for UNESCO: Messrs Inko-Tariah, Nwafor and Engineer Ayeni. These selfless officers worked hard to ensure that Nigeria had a visibility and made an impression on the development of the nation by their sacrifice in getting the benefit of partnership of the country with the international community. The National Commission has the responsibility to present the candidature of Nigeria and defend it. There are precedents for this in West Africa as the Government of Benin Republic successfully presented the Colonial Archives in 1997. It should be noted that Nigeria has indirectly benefitted from the List when the nomination of the Christopher Okigbo Collections by the Non-Governmental Organization, the Christopher Okigbo Foundation was successfully recommended for inclusion in the Memory of the World in 2007.  The inscription which has the caption of ‘Okigbo Will Return’, states that 

The status of Christopher Okigbo (1932-67) as the greatest Anglophonic, postcolonial, modernist African poet of the twentieth-century has been established beyond all reasonable doubt not only in two major studies of his works but in tributes paid to him in a collection of memorial tributes (Don’t Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo) co-edited by Africa’s most outstanding novelist, Chinua Achebe (1978). His major collection of poems was listed as one of the most influential 100 African literary world of the twentieth-century.

The updating of the National Archives will make access to materials fascinating and pleasurable. How fascinating would it be to find in the Nigeria Archives the instruments that brought Nigeria into a single political unit in 1914? How satisfying would it have been to discover the copy of the letter brought by the Anglican Archbishop to Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther on 20th December 1991? The Bishop had requested the daughter, Abigail, to read the letter to him after his own first reading. After listening to the letter, the Bishop who was already disturbed by the cruel manner in which he was being treated after years of dedicated service, slumped and never recovered. Professor J. F.Ade Ajayi was later to inform us that the Bishop died a few hours after listening to that letter at a quarter to one o’clock on the New Year’s eve in 1891. There are other significant documents that the National Archives can store and prepare for retrieval by researchers.

It is desirable that the national Archives is empowered materially and professionally to embark on the complete digitization of its collections, the newspapers, letters, minutes of meetings, edicts, decrees and acts of legislation. Discussion on records preservation is now on electronic documents including digitized copies of original printed or written documents, and works which have no print original, often called born-digital works. At the moment the British Newspaper Archive currently boasts of over 9 million newspaper pages at the digitized platform from which I have benefited tremendously.

But in addition, the Archives should be empowered to collect the records of former public servants who may have important information on the roles they played in various development initiatives of the country. This means that the military, civilians, public servants, professional bodies and indeed all Nigerians should be encouraged to make a contribution to the preservation of records that would be useful to documenting the development of the nation.

Strengthening the archive through adequate and constant funding, capacity building, rewards and incentives for staff. The modernisation of the archives should be a primary duty of the Federal Government. The management of the National Archives should be empowered to be part of the network of archivists at the local and international level. It is of course possible that this is already being done.  UNESCO has a profound interest in safeguarding, preserving and disseminating the world’s cultural and documentary heritage which it considers as fundamental. UNESCO also recognises its mandate to contribute to building peace through the spread of knowledge. The organisation has therefore done a lot in this area of interest of archive promotion through the Memory of the World programme which was launched in 1992 to guard against collective amnesia calling upon the preservation of the valuable archive holdings and library collections all over the world ensuring their wide dissemination. The Programme is intended to protect documentary heritage, and helps networks of experts to exchange information and raise resources for preservation of, and access to, documentary materials.

It is useful for top management staff to attend some of the major conferences on the future of the archives if this is not already being done. For example a conference was held on the topical theme of ‘The Memory of the World in the Digital Age: Digitisation and Preservation’ in Vancouver, Canada in September 2012. Girona City Council and its Municipal Archive hosted the 2nd Annual Conference of the International Council on Archives (ICA), from 13 to 15 October 2014, in Girona, Spain as part of the activities of the European Branch of the International Council on Archives (EURBICA).


The National Archives are a treasure. The work there is by no means a luxury. It is basic need. It is the quality of investment in the work of the National Archives that will determine the output of the treasure land. For as the saying goes, “As you make your bed, so you will lie”. It is imperative that adequate funding is made available and basic facilities are provided to promote research. It is also important that appropriate measures are put in place to assist in the growth of the staff members and manpower production and retention in the sector. Like the museums and libraries, the Archives are source of the vital documentation of the nation’s treasure. Massive investment is required to confirm faith in the institution that endures and prepares the nation for today and tomorrow with the use of the evidence and materials of yesterday. Once the Archives are recognised as indispensable for development, and the efforts of the heroes past in Nigeria in the area of archive promotion is appreciated, public and private partner support and partnership will hopefully bring about the required investment in the work of the archives.

* I am grateful for the access to the rich personal archives of Professor J F Ade Ajayi, member of the provisional Committee and of the first permanent Committee and the reconstituted Committee, kept at the Library in his Bodija, Ibadan residence.

** Michael Omolewa, Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON), is Emeritus Professor of the History of Education at the University of Ibadan, and Emeritus Professor of History at Babcock University. He has served as Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Ibadan and former Chairman of the Committee of Deans of Education of Nigerian Universities. He was President of the 32nd session of the General Conference of UNESCO and a Gold Medallist of the UN specialized agency.