The Philosophy of History, according to Dr G. A. Akinola

African History Project - Preview, Social - Black Man Standing Thinking Philosophy of History


G A Akinola
“Towards a Definition of Traditional African Philosophy of History”
Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 11, no. 1 (1981): 67-74.

To begin with…

In this article, Dr Gabriel Akindele Akinola aims to show that by examining oral tradition in African societies, and the role of “the past” in everyday life, an African philosophy of history can be derived. 

He begins with the premise that oral traditions are not merely historical sources, that is sources of facts, but are histories in their own right; they are the processed, synthesised and reasoned conclusions i.e. narratives, of a community about what happened in its past. This means that Akinola supports the idea that oral traditions are secondary, as opposed to primary, sources of history and capable of being subjected to the same historical critique that the works of other historians are subjected to. Such a characterisation acts to re-legitimise oral traditions which are often under-valued by the academy.

Akinola goes some way to acknowledging the practice of historical critique in the African tradition, noting the importance that is placed on past events can change as a function of prevailing geopolitical conditions. The examples he gives could be seen an a form of historical revisionism that recognise firstly, the political and social utility of “the past”, and secondly, that past events may take on new meanings in light of new realities or the unearthing of new information.

Related Course: Historiography and Historical Methods

What is ‘traditional Africa’

Akinola begins his substantive exploration by addressing two key issues: is there an indigenous philosophical tradition in Africa that is distinguishable from the Arab and European influences of the continent’s more recent past? And secondly, can that philosophical tradition be found across the continent such that it can be called a truly African philosophy. 

On the issue of indigenousness, Akinola offers that ‘any African historical tradition which either antedates, or is uninfluenced by, the Western or Islamic historiographical traditions may be taken as representative of traditional Africa’ [Akinola, 67]. On the issue of a continent-wide philosophy, Akinola offers that it is valid to assume there is one as ‘African societies display certain broad similarities arising out of their basic culture, environment and stage of development’ [Akinola, 67].

African conception of time

The second point that Akinola addresses is the African conception of time and how it affects understandings of and relationships with the past. History is a conversation with the past, therefore when considering a community’s conception of history, one must begin with understanding the community’s conception of time, principally the past. Akinola holds that ‘two basic elements which have left their imprint on traditional Africa’s view of the past are the body of religious beliefs and cosmology of the people of the continent’ [Akinola, 67]. Thus it is the observable world that shapes African temporal notions, which is to say ‘the fundamental ideas and concepts of time and space grew out of what could be observed of the physical world, especially the cycles of days and nights, the phases of the moon, and the seasons of drought and rain… [Akinola, 67]. This system existed alongside other systems, where greater specificity was provided by genealogy lists, age groups systems, and by reference to significant natural and human events [Akinola, 68].

Central to the African conception of time is the idea of continuity (as opposed to progress) and adaptation (as opposed to change). Continuity holds that the past, present and future are mutually part of each others’ consciousness [Akinola, 68]. This means that the present and the future are both functions of, and simultaneously reflections of, the past. All three co-exist simultaneously – movement in one is movement in the other; creation in one, is creation in the other; destruction in one, is destruction in the other. Therefore, the present and the future are not novel, they are iterations or adaptations of the past – there is no change, just adaptation [Akinola, 68]. 

Central to the idea of time as a continuity is the role of ancestors in African consciousness. Through their memory, intercession, and reincarnation they remain in concert with their progeny. In the same way that they led the community in life, they continue to lead it after they lose their own temporal consciousness and enter into the eternal consciousness of their progeny. The unborn too are part of the same continuum and community of consciousness, hence why ancestors can intercede in matters affecting the unborn or even in the yet to be conceived [Akinola, 68]. Akinola offers: ‘the African world view [is one] in which super- and preter-natural events occupy an important role. Life itself cannot be fully comprehended except through reference to those mysterious forces which often influence events. Thus, although a man may be the principal in the life drama, there are other forces to which he (as well as life itself) is subject’ [Akinola, 73]. This continuity means that the people who are the actors in the historical realm continue to be consequential – they can be affected by the things said about them, and they can do things to affect the living. All of this is to say that one must take great care when doing history in the African tradition – it is not merely an academic activity, it is inherently a religious and spiritual activity.

Related Lecture: The African Conception of Time

The nature of African historical practice

History, religion, and philosophy take place simultaneously in the African tradition – the same practitioners, motifs, and rituals are used in all three and they cannot be separated easily from each other. The past is not the mining ground solely of history; it is also the root stock of philosophy and religion [Akinola, 69]. From a single event can be mined historical, spiritual, and moral knowledge. This shows the multiplicity inherent in the role of the past in the African historical tradition and the multiplicity of insight that a historian in the African tradition must likewise have [Akinola, 70].

The past, esteem, and national consciousness

Another important role of the past in the African tradition is its conscious use in the cultivation and preservation of individual and collective esteem: ‘the past is used to commemorate the glorious events and achievements of a community, as well as to affirm and renew institutions, customs and moors’ [Akinola, 71]. In African society, those who preserve the past – the historians – are ministers of state, hereditary and titled community leaders. This shows the important part they play in giving life to the national consciousness, binding the people together in order to facilitate future success [Akinola, 71].

Related Article: History vs. Historiography 

The past and social harmony

The past is thus an integral part of social and political consciousness. Not only does it help in creating national identity but it is used to explain the present (e.g the original and legitimacy of the current political settlement), to understand the present (e.g. how to face everyday challenges), and to prepare for the future (e.g. teaching the mistakes of the past). In this way, the past is used to create social harmony [Akinola, 70]. The past plays a role in ‘safe-guarding the security of the community’ as the ancestors through their intercession are held to work for the ‘preservation of the social order and a minimisation of upheavals’ [Akinola, 71]. In addition, in the African tradition history, being the narratives we weave of the past, is ever-changing as a function of prevailing geo-political realities – the prominence or mention of people and events in narratives can change as real-world relationships change [Akinola, 71]. This is a form of historical revisionism being the acknowledgement that perceptions of the past are a function of prevailing relationships and the knowledge possessed in the present. Thus, history in the African tradition is inherently a tool of personal and social utility, acting as a vessel of esteem and a means of effecting social harmony. It therefore prioritises that which concerns the community as opposed to the individual [Akinola, 72].


Dr G A Akinola (1934-2018) was a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. 

There goes a Man, True and Proud by Niyi Osundare

“A historian with special expertise in historiography, he spent most of his days researching  and teaching the science and politics of remembrance, the tendentious velocity of “time’s winged chariot” ( in Andrew Marvell’s metaphysical phraseology) , the attitudinal peculiarities which often influence the recording, calibration, and valuation of events in spatio-temporal terms, and the ineluctable ontology (and capacity) of History as Art and Science. Many times, Egbon and I reached the agonizing conclusion  that a country (such as Nigeria) that banishes History from its natural niche as the core of humanistic studies, is only courting death by way of amnesia.”

Tribute the to late Dr G A Akinola by Professor Olabode Lucas

“Sir: I join the academic fraternity at the University of Ibadan and other citadels of learning in Nigeria to mourn the death of that unusual great historian, and an exemplar of academic decency, Dr. G. A. Akinola who died recently. Dr. Akinola retired as a Senior Lecturer in the famous Department of History of University of Ibadan. He did not complain about this position he attained in the University system and which was below his academic prowess because he did not believe in taking part in the suffocating system of ‘publish or perish’ necessary for promotion to the level of Professorship in our University system.

In his days at Ibadan, he went about in his characteristic short nicker, topped by a T-shirt and a pair of  cheap tennis shoe to match. Dr. Akinola was very regular every morning at the newspaper depot of the campus vendor Mr. Afolabi , situated in front of the Council Chamber. Here, he usually held court highlighting to the students and others who cared to listen, the ills of our society in Nigeria and how to solve them…

The late lecturer did not keep his thoughts on the deplorable situations  in Nigeria and ways of solving them to himself. He expressed his views in numerous newspaper articles and appreciated and commended people who did the same. He became close to me through our common interest of putting our thoughts and views on issues in newspaper articles….”