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And how to count them.
Lately, I’ve been talking about 1973 a lot and every time I do, I talk about it in three stories.
I start in the first week of January; General Gowon is standing in the $20-million National Stadium, giving a speech to 50,000 people from across 36 African nations. There’s a punchline about everyone present being “citizens of a new and free Africa, with a common destiny,” the event is the 2nd All Africa Games. The festival lasts for 12 days.
I jump to the end of January. A Kano-bound plane returning from Makkah is carrying 202 people. As it breaks through the harmattan fog, it crashes and burns, killing up to 180 people on board.
A new casualty record for commercial air disaster is set.
I find my third story in December. It’s Christmas Eve, and mobs across 5 cities in Northern Nigeria have killed 14 people. A rumour that members of a secret society are using magic to render men impotent is why.
What do these stories have in common?
The third common factor is a newspaper that most of your google searches will lead you to. It’ll not be Guardian Nigeria – that wasn’t founded until 1983. Not Punch Nigeria, although they started printing the Daily Punch that same year. Not even the Daily Times – despite having been founded in 1926.
You’ll find them all in the New York Times. In fact, you’ll find all kinds of stories about Nigeria there.
You’ll find the story of the quiet Balewa, an epitaph for Biafra, Buhari’s diplomatic cargo. You’ll find the obituaries of every dictator from Lugard to Abacha.
What you won’t find though, are any of these stories on the Nigerian corner of the Internet. It’s not like our media didn’t exist – many of them did their jobs at great risk, sometimes paying with their lives.
There just aren’t any digital archives preserving the work.
At the time a paper leaves the press, encoded in it is a piece of the zeitgeist. As time passes, what was just short pieces of culture, bound in paper, becomes history.
This begs the question; if we suddenly had access every day of news in Nigeria’s history, what are we going to find?
“Is it possible to find old newspapers in Nigeria?”
The typical Nigerian print lives a fantastical life. When it leaves the press, it ends up at a newspaper stand, where people stand over them all day, screaming at the headlines, but never paying for them. The ones that get bought are read and abandoned in a bus or office. Some of the ones at the office end up at home, where they become wrapping paper for textbooks or kitchen cabinets. Another group – mostly the ones that never got bought at the stands – end up as wrapping paper for Suya or Puff Puff.
A small group of newspapers have a different ending, and I first learned about this at the Sokoto Museum. Most of the building has old weapons covered in dust, hanging photos of dead presidents, invincibility charms of dead warriors, ancient city gates of iron.
Another part of this building is for the archives. You’ll find centuries-old manuscripts of Dan Fodio’s children; Muhammad-Bello and Nana Asmau.
You’ll also find the Nigerian Tribune from 2005, The New Nigerian from 1983. National Concord from 1991. This ritual of collecting dailies across multiple publications has happened for decades, not just in Sokoto, but across every branch of the National Archives across Nigeria.
So, my friends and I started a weekend hobby.
From January 1, 1960, to December 31, 2010, there are 18,627 days. How much will we find if we go looking for at least one newspaper from every day within this time period?
In less than 5 weeks of looking, we found 95% of them.
Every page in an old paper feels like you’ve stumbled on a secret. You’ll find groundnut and a lot of blood in the sixties. Oil and Palava sauce recipes in the seventies. The eighties are cocaine and smoking guns. All the discontent boils into the nineties.
Finding them is not enough.
For as long as newspapers have been mainstream, news publishers have loved newsprint. It’s a low-cost type of paper that does the work and keeps the lights on.
But even with the best care, newsprint has a useful lifespan of fewer than 50 years.
If you walk into a National Archive, probably poorly funded, chances are you’ll find these old newspapers covered in dust, with their binds peeling off, and entire periods damaged.
When these newspapers eventually decompose – and they will – we will have lost the largest repository of Nigerian chronicle and perspective. All the features, ads, conflict, agony columns, recipes, letters and speeches – gone.
As humans, we first learned how to make fire before we learned how to forge metal. If there's no base of existing knowledge, there'll be nothing to improve on.
Knowledge is incremental. Content needs context.
“What’s the oldest single newspaper you remember holding?”
“Take a moment.”
”Here, hold another 18,000.”
What happens when you take 18,000 days of print, archive digitally, and make them available at the speed of a web search?
Between this question and the answer is scanning 18,000 newspapers, storing them, extracting the text, cataloguing, and building a repository for them. This requires a lot more resources, energy, and enthusiasm than a small band of people can provide.
That’s where you come in.
You’re welcome. Everyone is welcome: Designers, Archivers, Engineers, Analysts, Organisers, Fund-seeking Missiles, Journalists, Lawyers, Fire Starters, Storytellers, Economists, Students, Writers, Photographers, people with too much money that the problem appears to be how to spend it. If you work in academia, perfect. If I didn’t mention you, that is one new perspective we don’t have. Come along.
I like to think of history as a house. For every piece of history that we find, we’d be opening a window to a time we previously didn’t have any access to. By choosing 18,000 days, one newspaper per day for starters, the goal is to open a big window.
The view we’ll find? Frankly, I have no words.
P.S: This is not a substack about old newspapers. In fact, you read this post here, because this happened.
So what is this substack about? Let me send you on another adventure.