OKIGBO, THE AFRICAN STATE, GENOCIDE AND THE PEOPLES
(Paper presented at the Christopher Okigbo International Conference, Harvard University, Boston, Mass, United States, 22 September 2007)
The state in Africa demonstrates a glaring inability to fulfil its basic role. It does not provide security and welfare nor does it enable the growth and expression of society’s transformative capacities. It is virtually at war with its peoples, having murdered 15 million in Biafra, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda, Darfur and southern Sudan, the Congos and elsewhere on the continent between 1966 and 2007.
The typical African state, 51 years after the so-called restoration of independence, is essentially a genocide-state. Christopher Okigbo’s incisive scholarship, to the poet’s eternal credit, not only anticipated these developments, but it rigorously interrogated their tragic consequences. This is evident across Okigbo’s works, especially Silence, Limits, Distances, ‘Laments of the Masks’, ‘Laments of the Deer’, and Path of Thunder. Okigbo’s decisive intervention at this historic site of mapping out the tenets of Africa’s renaissance scholarship is his focus on both redeeming the European occupation’s assault on the spiritual embodiment of African existence, in the wake of the conquest, and confronting a ruthless genocide state-in-the-making in Nigeria of the first half of the 1960s. Okigbo must have wrestled intensely with that crucial question posed by the Umuofia interlocutor in Things Fall Apart when the Igbo engaged a representative of the British occupation regime in a brief exchange of ideas on the pressing existentialist subject of the day: ‘“If we leave our gods and follow your god,” asked another man, “who will protect us from the anger of our neglected gods and ancestors?”’ Okigbo surely considered the answer to this question and other girding features related to it as a momentous task that required a rigorous and expansive scholarship of contemplation. For Okigbo, the spiritual is a crucial sphere of resistance and restoration because the ultimate objective of the occupation’s assault is aimed at funnelling a catastrophic fault-line in the soul of the people – to complicate their determined process of recovery on the morrow of the restoration of independence. Evidently, Okigbo responds to this emergency by weaving a multi-layered and panoramic canvass of often-complex fabric of overarching architecture of ideas that meditate on the variegated ensemble, which constitutes the spiritual landscape of the people. This is the creative background from which the ‘poet of destiny’, about whom the distinguished critic Emmanuel Obiechina has discussed so authoritatively, emerges. In the 1960-1966 Nigeria context, Okigbo’s extraordinary interrogative scholarship of resistance pitches its tent squarely on behalf of those who would confront blatantly-rigged election results and imposed parties and leaderships, rigged census returns, arbitrary arrests and detentions, rabid and rampant authoritarianism and, most tragically of all, the Nigerian state-organised genocide against the Igbo people. 3.1 million Igbo people were murdered during the genocide
between 29 May 1966 and 12 January 1970.
Forty-one years on, it is the case that it is the African genocide-state that is the bane of African social existence. It is what constitutes the firestorm of the emergency that threatens the very survival of the African. It is not the ‘debt’, ‘poverty’, HIV/Aids/other diseases and the myriad of socioeconomics indices often reeled off in many a commentary. Africa must resolve the contentious issues that fuel the conflictual existence of its peoples before achieving urgently needed socioeconomic transformation. This is a political question. The widespread feeling of alienation by most constituent peoples in the typical African state is palpable enough. Africans urgently need a principled, unfettered, and unsentimental debate on its genocide-state, with its ultra-centralising and utterly unviable ethos. Forty-one years on, it should be clear to all and sundry that genocide is obviously not a viable option to resolve Africa’s outstanding problems.
In 1966, soon after the world commemorated the 21st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and made the customary solemn declaration of ‘Never, Never Again’, Hausa-Fulani emirs, muslim clerics and intellectuals, military officers, politicians and other public figures in Nigeria defiled that season of reflection, commiseration and hope. They planned and executed the first phase of the Igbo genocide, the foundational genocide in post-conquest Africa. This genocide became the clearing site for the haunting killing fields that would snake across the African geographical landscape in the subsequent 40 years. A total of 100,000 Igbo were massacred across north Nigeria and elsewhere in the country, with the active support of the central government in Lagos headed by Yakubu Gowon during the months of May-October 1966. Most were killed in their houses, offices, businesses, schools, colleges and hospitals, as well as those who were attacked at railway stations and on trains, bus stations and buses, airports and in cars, lorries and on foot as they sought to escape the genocide for their homeland in east Nigeria. Thousands of others sustained horrific injuries, several of whom were maimed for life. No known safe passages for the Igbo (victims or would-be victims) for flight or escape to their homeland from north Nigeria or elsewhere in the country were planned by any of the prosecuting forces involved in the genocide throughout the course of this tragedy.
Just as their German counterparts, the perpetrators of the Igbo genocide would claim to be ‘very cultured’ people: for instance, they read the Koran, Ibn Battuta, Ibn Khaldun, Shakespeare, and other great world literature. Just as their Hausa-Fulani counterparts, the west regional Nigeria-based Awolowoist contingent that joined the genocide prosecuting squad on 6 July 1966 (civilian and military alike) would have regarded themselves as ‘very cultured’ – they surely read the Bible, as well as Shakespeare, Milton, Burke, Paine, Hobbes, Rousseau, Achebe, Okigbo, Soyinka. They listened to Dairo, Beethoven, Olaiya, Handel, Benson, Mozart, J. S. Bach, Okonta, Ellington, Onyia, Lawson, Ukwu, Osadebe, Mensah, Armstrong, Basie … Just as in Germany, the Nigerian planners of genocide demonstrated clearly that genocidist ‘theorists’ and colonels and generals were often calm, well-educated, cold-blooded practitioners, who were more likely to be dressed in agbada, babariga, 2-piece suits, dashing military uniform, aso oke or lace, rather than raggedly-attired, barely-educated ‘miscreants’, to quote a word often used in the Nigerian media. They were neither alimajiri nor the dishevelled so-called ‘area boys’ or street boys that abound in Lagos, Ibadan and several other Nigerian towns and cities.
Even though they had strenuously opposed the liberation of Nigeria from the British conquest and occupation, which the Igbo had spearheaded and sustained since the 1940s, the Hausa-Fulani had been assured and rigged into the supreme political power by the supposedly outgoing-British occupying state in 1960. The British intention was quite clear: they handed over power to the anti-restoration of independence socio-cultural grouping in the country that it felt confident would safeguard its vast economic and strategic interests in post-conquest Nigeria in perpetuity. As a result, the main thrust of Hausa-Fulani politics always operated on the premise that the Igbo constituted the principal ‘obstacle’ to the perpetuation of Hausa-Fulani sociopolitical hegemony in Nigeria. Hence, the plan and execution of the genocide.
Consequences of Africa and World Indifference
There was an extensive coverage of the Igbo genocide in the international media throughout the course of its occurrence. The UN, under its then secretary-general, U Thant, never condemned this atrocity unequivocally. U Thant consistently maintained that it was a ‘Nigerian internal affair,’ a cue seized upon with relish by the Organisation of African Unity, the African regional organisation affiliated to the UN, which continued to trumpet this shameful line throughout the slaughter. No efforts were made by the UN to stop the killings or bring the perpetrators to justice. On the contrary, U Thant repeatedly thwarted several Igbo initiatives, as well as those of others, to table the subject of the carnage formally for discussion at the UN, especially its security council. U Thant’s intention throughout this tragedy was to protect the interests of the Nigerian state, even at a time when its leadership had come to power through a violent coup d’état. As for the welfare of the 2 million survivors of these initial massacres who fled to their Igbo homeland, neither the UN nor the Gowon junta played any supportive role in the massive rehabilitation programme that the Igbo themselves embarked upon to integrate the returnees in society between October 1966 and June 1967.
Apparently emboldened by the scant criticism from the UN (and indeed from most of the countries of the world) for its 1966 murderous escapades, the Nigerian state expanded the territorial range of its genocidal campaign on the Igbo by attacking Biafra, Igboland, in 1967. Essentially, this inaugurated the second phase of the genocide which would go on till January 1970. Three million Igbo or a quarter of the nation’s total population were slaughtered during the period. It is precisely because the perpetrators of the Igbo genocide appeared to have been let off the hook for their crimes, by the rest of Africa and the wider world, that Africa did not have to wait very long before the politics of the Nigerian genocide-state metamorphosed violently beyond the Nigerian frontiers. Leaders elsewhere on the continent waged their own versions of the liquidation of ‘opponents’ as ruthlessly and horrifically as they could, à la Nigeria, because they expected no sanctions from either their African colleagues or from the rest of the international community. Soon, the killing fields from Igboland expanded almost inexorably across the continent as the following haunting milestones of slaughter during the epoch illustrate: Uganda, Zaïre/Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, southern Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan. Twelve million were killed in these 13 countries. Added to the three million Igbo dead, Africa has had the gruesome tally of 15 million people murdered by its genocide-states in the past 41 years.
Vulnerability and Depravity
Patrick Wilmot has argued that the sociopolitical leadership in north Nigeria has ‘no tradition for managing social change. The only answer to dissent or rebellion is the massacre.’ Yet, to offer some rational explanation for a reason or reasons for a specific act of massacre of the Igbo carried out by this leadership is fraught with difficulties. For instance, when in November 2002 it ordered the murder of hundreds of Igbo immigrants in the north over the staging, in Nigeria, of the Miss World beauty competition (organised, not by any Igbo business interests, but by a London-based business conglomerate), it would have been most intriguing for any observer to discern the ‘Igbo connection’ that elicited this monstrous act. Similarly, an observer would be hard pressed to locate the ‘Igbo connection’ to astronomy as yet another gruesome example of an ordered Igbo pogrom in the north illustrates. In January 2001, hundreds of Igbo residents in the north city of Maiduguri were murdered by rampaging youths soon after a lunar eclipse was in progress. The émigrés’ homes and business properties worth million of dollars were looted or destroyed during the carnage. In February 2006, forty years after 1966, the fundamentals remain tragically the same: the north’s leadership ordered the murder of scores of Igbo immigrants across north cities, towns and villages over cartoons published in Danish newspapers, 5000 miles away, purportedly critical of the muslim religion. No Igbo artists were the authors of these cartoons, as the world knows; no Igbo newspapers or newsmagazines reproduced these cartoons; the Igbo, who are Africans, are not in any way related to the Danes, who are a European people. Some of those Igbo murdered in their homes, schools, businesses or places of worship, were probably never aware of the existence of these cartoons, let alone the controversy surrounding the drawings before they met their untimely deaths. Yet, the north leadership’s choice of the Igbo for ‘retaliation’ over the cartoons, instead of ‘venting their anger’ on the Dane (who are visibly resident in capital Abuja where they have their embassy) or in fact on any of the nationals from the other European Union member states in Nigeria, underscores the point of the haunting historical vulnerability of this immigrant population. It was of course the 1966-1970 Igbo genocide, which pointedly began with attacks on these émigrés, that demonstrated the latter’s vulnerability most profoundly, and the depravity of the north leadership organisers, most chillingly. For the north leadership, which has since 1945 regarded the Igbo émigrés in its region as a ‘targeted population’ or ‘hostage population’ to attack at will in furtherance of its myriad sociopolitical positions and objectives, ‘dissent’ or ‘rebellion’ or indeed any other factors need not be necessarily associated or referenced to the Igbo directly for it to execute its deadly mission on the latter.
One of the tragic features of the Igbo genocide, as we indicated earlier, was the lack of concerted effort from the rest of the world, including governments and peoples in Africa, to stop the Nigerian state’s meticulously organised murders, rapes, lootings and destruction of Igbo lives and property that went on from May 1966 to January 1970. The world could have stopped this genocide, should have stopped this genocide, if it had really endeavoured to do so. What Africa needs urgently from the rest of the world, particularly from the West, is simply to withdraw their support for the continuing existence of the African genocide-state. This state’s ontological mission is to kill – and it surely accomplishes this most viciously as the Igbo genocide testifies. This state will lead Africa nowhere but to perdition. The Igbo genocide casts a distinct, enveloping shadow over contemporary Africa’s quest to formulate a way forward out of the debilitating quagmire of the genocide state. Without British complicity in the Igbo genocide, it was highly unlikely that that genocide would have been embarked upon in its initial phase by the operatives of the Nigerian state with such unrelenting stretch and consequences between May and October 1966. This great conference, being held presently in Boston, the United States, 5000 miles away, would probably have been held in a totally altered context. Without the massive arms support that Nigeria received from Britain especially, it was highly improbable that Nigeria would have been in the military position to pursue its second phase of the Igbo genocide – namely, the invasion of Igboland, Biafra – which resulted in the death of three million people between July 1967 and January 1970. The British government, despite continuously nationwide popular opposition, supported the genocide against the Igbo. Such was the intensity of the British support that even as the slaughtering worsened, Prime Minister Harold Wilson was certainly unperturbed when he informed C. Clyde Ferguson (the US state department special coordinator for relief to Biafra) that he, Wilson, ‘would accept a half million dead Biafrans if that was what it took’ Nigeria to destroy the Igbo resistance to the genocide. A senior British foreign office official, who echoed Wilson’s disposition to the slaughter, was no less chilling in his own characterisation of Britain’s strategic goal. Describing the British response to the concerted international humanitarian efforts then to dispatch urgently-needed relief material to the Igbo aimed at breaking the Nigerian comprehensive blockade of Biafra, a crucial plank of Lagos’s ‘starvation of the Igbo’-extermination strategy, this official noted that his government’s position was designed to ‘show conspicuous zeal in relief while in fact letting the little buggers starve out.’ Pointedly, both views of these very senior British government officials were hardly at variance with those expressed, during the period, by Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle, one of the most notorious genocidist military officers of the Nigerian mission, who insisted:
I want to prevent even one I[g]bo having even one piece to eat before their capitulation. We shoot at everything that moves, and when our forces march into the centre of I[g]bo territory, we shoot at everything, even at things that do not move.
It should be stressed that Nigeria did not have an arms manufacturing capacity then to embark on the latter phase of its mission without external support. Forty-one years on, Nigeria still does not have such an internal military capability. It still relies heavily on Britain, currently the world’s leading arms exporter to Africa, for its supplies. One immediate move that Britain, which earned the handsome sum of US$1.8 billion in 2004 selling arms to Africa, the West, and the rest of the world can make to support the ongoing efforts by peoples in Nigeria to rid themselves of the genocide-state is to ban all arms sales to Nigeria – and, by extension, to the rest of Africa. This must be comprehensive and not fudged. Nigeria, and the other African genocide-states, requires the political and diplomatic support from abroad and the deadly array of arms ever streaming into its arsenal from Britain and elsewhere to exist and terrorise the people(s) in its territory. This is part of the cardinal and enduring lessons of the Igbo genocide. An arms ban on such key states as Nigeria, the Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, would radically advance the current hectic quest on the ground by peoples across Africa to construct democratic and extensively decentralised new state forms that guarantee and safeguard human rights, equality and freedom for individuals and peoples – alternatives to the extant genocide-state. Africans know very well that there are alternatives to the genocide-state. They have both the vision and the capacity to create these alternatives. Britain must now effectuate some measure of closure to its sordid anti-Igbo programme of 1966-1970. Indeed, it has no greater opportunity presently to permanently erase those ‘scars of Africa’ from its ‘conscience’, to quote the sentiment that former Prime Minister Tony Blair has expressed repeatedly in many an occasion since 2001. Britain should now unreservedly apologise to the Igbo for its involvement in the genocide of 1966-1970 that cost the lives of 3.1 million Igbo and pay reparations to the survivors.
Governments in contemporary Britain appear to be steadily emerging from that mineshaft of infamy into which the Harold Wilson regime had sunk the country when it played a crucial role in organising and sustaining the 1966-1970 Igbo genocide. British governments, along side other members of the European Union, and the United States, have recently intervened robustly in the Balkans and elsewhere in the world to halt ongoing genocides or pre-empt those being planned. This is highly commendable. That essence of a shared humanity, which deserted the British government with such disastrous consequences in Igboland 41 years ago, appears to be crystallising as the core sensibility that shapes British relationship with the rest of the world – particularly beyond the West. In a move that lends further credibility to this observation, Richard Gozney, the chief British representative in Nigeria, recently condemned, without any reservations, the November-December 2005 Nigerian army and police killing of scores of young, unarmed, peaceful Igbo demonstrators, campaigning for the restoration of Biafran independence in several Igbo towns and cities. These murders and several others carried out earlier on in 2005, and in recent years, are a grim reminder to the world that Nigeria has not yet abandoned its endemic mission to murder the Igbo since the devastating genocide of 1966-1970. Of the 20,000 people murdered by the state and its varied agencies in Nigeria between 1999 and 2007, i.e., the years of the Obasanjo presidency, approximately 18,000 are Igbo. Gozney’s intervention, made in Umuahia, the heart of the Igbo country and scene of a spate of gruesome massacres by the Nigerian military 41 years ago, is therefore of historic significance. If Gozney’s predecessor at that post in Nigeria (in 1966) and the government in London at the time had adopted such a forthright and unambiguous condemnation of mass murder by the Nigerian state, instead of orchestrating and sustaining it, the Igbo people, Africa and the rest of the world would almost surely have been spared this sordid history.
Britain must now realise that that Lugardian contraption called Nigeria, which indisputably has served London’s economic and strategic interests so profoundly since inception in 1900, does not and cannot advance the well-being of the Igbo and other nations of the south of the country, especially in the Niger Delta. Nigeria murders the Igbo; it indeed murders them most brutally as we have so far shown in this paper. Presently, the Igbo and other oppressed nations in the south of the country have embarked on imaginative strategies aimed at the peaceful dissolution of Nigeria. This is surely an outcome that will create the condition for advanced socioeconomic progress in this part of southeast west Africa for the first time in nearly a century.
Britain must not stand in the way of this historic African initiative, its interests in Nigeria notwithstanding. Britain must now develop new sites of enterprise elsewhere in the world to generate the incredible level of financial returns that its Nigeria project annually accrues to its treasury in London. It is no longer tenable for these gargantuan returns to be appropriated in a genocide-state that has throughout its history sought to annihilate one of its constituent nations and devastatingly impoverishes the rest of the country. Britain, who, with its allies in the Balkans and elsewhere, has admirably been hunting down fugitive genocidist generals and their civilian counterparts to face trial for crimes against humanity at The Hague International Criminal Court, should now surrender to this same court surviving British officials (military, civil servants, politicians, academics, etc., etc) who were involved in the planning and/or the execution of the Igbo genocide. At The Hague court, these Britons must be joined by their surviving genocidist counterparts in Nigeria who include Generals Obasanjo, Rotimi, Akinrinade, Adebayo, Abubakar, Babangida, Buhari, Gowon, Haruna and Danjuma, Brigadiers Adekunle and Are, Captain King, and Messrs Enaharo, Ayida and Aminu, and tried for crimes against humanity. Most of these Nigerian officials have, in the wake of the genocide, run Nigeria as the degraded fiefdom that is shockingly recognisable by the rest of the world.
Britain should insist that any of its citizens and each and every member of the Nigerian regime who was centrally involved in the murder of 3.1 million Igbo people 40 years ago, and who, in effect, triggered off the chain of mass killings of 12 million other Africans elsewhere in the continent, must be made to account for their action at the International Criminal Court. Not to do so would be to send the wrong signal to Africa – by rewarding genocidist operatives who have the blood of Africans on their hands, and who have, in tandem, pillaged the Nigerian economy whose resources alone could easily have transformed the entire Africa. On the extent of the pillage in question, Nuhu Ribadu, the chair of the Obasanjo regime’s so-called economic and financial crime commission, recently informed a traumatised country that kakistocracy was the ‘sole guiding principle for running [the] affairs of state,’ and that the total sum of US$400 billion was squandered by the regimes of the era – led principally by the following seven genocidist generals who played the commanding role in the Igbo genocide: Yakubu Gowon, Murtala Mohammed, Olusegun Obasanjo, Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, Abdulsalami Abubakar and Sani Abacha.
Mazrui and his Sympathies
Besides the generalised African and wider global silence or complicity in the Igbo genocide, there is, finally, an equally pernicious feature of particularly Africa’s response to this carnage, which is best illustrated by the position of Ali Mazrui, the historian and political scientist. Not only does Mazrui condemn the right of the Igbo to defend themselves from the genocide (natural law, rights to life and property guaranteed by the relevant articles in the Nigerian constitution at the time, United Nations declaration of human rights to which the Nigerian state was – and still remains – a signatory), he also derides their very act of defence through his novel, entitled The Trial of Christopher Okigbo. Mazrui has written expansively in the past 46 years, valorising every conceivable islamist cause or project in Hausa-Fulani north Nigeria as well as other parts of west Africa, the rest of Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere in the world. As a result, Mazrui has never condemned the Igbo genocide unambiguously nor its Hausa-Fulani/north perpetrators, who, in addition, have carried out other series of pogroms against the Igbo since 1945 under the ideological rubric of islam, nor their British accomplices. On the contrary, to the shock of all human sensibility and decency, Mazrui exonerates the perpetrators of this heinous crime, this crime against humanity. On the morrow of its publication in 1971, soon after the January 1970 presumed end of the Igbo genocide, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo becomes a manual that rationalises genocide on the African scene, some oracular edict to any would-be genocidist operative in a Uganda, Central African Empire/Republic, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Congos, the-return-slaughters-in-Nigeria, Rwanda, Darfur, wherever!, to murder as many millions of African children, women and men as they deem fit, without any fears of sanctions from Africa and the rest of the world, similar to the Nigerian foundational genocidists who had carried out their own crime so brazenly between 1966-1970. If The Trial of Christopher Okigbo had unequivocally condemned the Igbo genocide and called for the apprehension and the trial of its leading perpetrators, perhaps Africa would have been spared the slaughter of 12 millions of its people murdered across the continent (west, east, northcentral, central), following the Igbo carnage, between 1970 and 2007.
Mazrui, the historian, is fully aware that the Hausa-Fulani/north islamists have always felt that it is ‘legitimate’, ‘justifiable’, ‘fair game’, to murder the Igbo and pillage their property in their sabon gari residential districts or those dar el harb or abodes of war enclosures dotted across north Nigeria during the spates of anti-Igbo pogroms that have occurred in this region in the past 62 years – 1945, 1953, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006 – or during the first phase of the Igbo genocide in the north (May-October 1966) or indeed during the second phase of the Igbo genocide that was carried out in Igboland itself, Biafra, in July 1966-January 1970. Each and every manifestation of this outrage, it must be emphasised, is preceded and accompanied by the familiar anti-Igbo chants and obscenities of ‘akashe nyamiri’, ‘kill the damned Igbo’ or ‘kill the infidels’ which are invigorated by the tempo of the exhortative signatures of ‘Allahu akbar’, all of which seemingly help focus the minds and brawn of the rampaging gang as it zooms unto that targeted zone of perpetual genocide, expropriation and wasting called sabon gari.
The storyline of The Trial of Christopher Okigbo focuses on the active involvement of Okigbo in the defence of his people during the second phase of the Igbo genocide in Biafra. Okigbo lost his life in the resistance. In its imaginary trial of Okigbo after his death by some ‘after-life’ tribunal, the novel attacks the poet for ‘putting society before art in his scale of values.’ Furthermore, it alleges, ‘[n]o great artist has a right to carry patriotism to the extent of destroying his creative potential.’ This is indeed a bewildering criticism coming from Mazrui, an historian and political scientist who is surely aware that hundreds of Igbo artists and intellectuals and hundreds of thousands of potential ones were murdered during the genocide. Igbo artists and intellectuals were not immune from the bullet or cudgel of the genocidist horde. The great Chinua Achebe, for instance, barely escaped with his life from Lagos to Igboland after being trailed and hunted for days by the horde. His cousin, Lieutenant Achebe, was not so fortunate. He was murdered by the genocidists. Artists and intellectuals over the ages have supported the defence of the human rights of their people. This defence has ranged from artists and intellectuals focusing actively on the subject in their areas of creative endeavour to physically defending their people, their homeland, from whatever is perceived as a danger to these rights. The African humanity has been no exception to this trend. Alioune Diop, the critic, philosopher and founding publisher of the respected Présence Africaine has noted that ‘[w]e live in an epoch where artists [and intellectuals] carry testaments, where they all more or less are committed. One has to take sides …’ Presumably, the author of The Trial of Christopher Okigbo would agree with Diop, but the world knows which side he took, whose testament he projected! The author took the side of the genocidists; the author projected the testament of the genocidists …
In sharp contrast to Mazrui’s choice, several African World artists and intellectuals over the ages have taken sides with the oppressed in the African humanity and have carried and projected such ‘testaments’ of commitment for the defence/liberation of threatened or subjugated African interests in history. These heroic Africans include Eze Nri, Olaudah Equiano, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Chinua Achebe, Mary Seacole, Pius Okigbo, Cheikh Anta Diop, Onwuka Dike, Christopher Okigbo, Sojourner Truth, Angulu Onwuejiogwu, Zora Neale Hurston, Philip Emeagwali, Ralph Uwazurike, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, James Africanus Beale Horton, Edward Wilmot Blyden, Adiele Afigbo, George Washington Carver, Eni Njoku, John Coltrane, Molefi Kete Asante, Morgan Freeman, Donatus Nwoga, J.E.K. Aggrey, Bill Cosby, George Russell, Nina Simone, Amiri Baraka, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Pettiford, Walter Rodney, Sun Ra, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Charles Mingus, Frederick Douglass, Clark Terry, Danny Richmond, Flora Nwapa, Thelonious Monk, James Brown, Harriet Tubman, Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, Elvin Jones, Chike Obi, Frantz Fanon, Uche Okeke, Horace Silver, James Baldwin, King Jaja of Opobo, McCoy Tyner, J.B. Danquah, George Duvivier, Ray Charles, Toni Morrison, Andrew Hill, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Louis Armstrong, Ben Enwonwu, Charlie Parker, Okot p’Bitek, Duke Ellington, Mbonu Ojike, Jackie McLean, Theophilus Enwezor Nzegwu, George James, Jimmy Garrison, Ousmanne Sembene, Aretha Franklin, Patrice Lumumba, Wynton Marsalis, Maurice Bishop, Michael Echeruo, Eric Dolphy, Agostinho Neto, Emmanuel Obiechina, Billie Holiday, Bud Powell, Efua Sutherland, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Aimé Césaire, Clifford Jordan, Martin Delaney, Pharoah Sanders, Nicolas Guillen, Sam Rivers, Amilcar Cabral, Mahaila Jackson, Ladipo Solanke, Booker Little, Jacob Carruthers, Steve Coleman, Steve Biko, Sunny Murray, Marcus Garvey, Albert Ayler, Casely Hayford, Alice Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Richard Davis, Spike Lee, Ron Carter, Marcus Roberts, Countee Cullen, Cecil Taylor, David Diop, David Murray, Kofi Awoonor, Peter Tosh, Ivan Van Sertima, Danny Glover, Tony Williams, Claude MacKay, Herbie Nichols, Don Ohadike, Lee Morgan, Gani Fawehinmi, Art Tatum, Oprah Winfrey, Don Cherry, John Henrik Clarke, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Jay Wright, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Art Farmer, Miles Davis, Louis Mbanefo, Théophile Obenga, George Lamming, Max Roach, Chancellor Williams, Jimmy Cobb, Billy Higgins, Julius Nyerere, Ornette Coleman, Maulana Karenga, Roy Haynes, Ama Ata Aidoo, Denzel Washington, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Jaki Byard, Kofi Anyidoho, Léon-Gontran Damas, Wynton Kelly, Mariama Bâ, Bob Marley, Sydney Poitier, E. Franklin Frazier, Stevie Wonder, C.L.R. James, Johnny Coles, Langston Hughes, Sonny Rollins, Mariamba Ani, W.E.B. Du Bois, George Coleman, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Billy Strayhorn and Alioune Diop.
It was not different in the history of the Igbo people, especially in defending themselves against the rampaging forces of genocide when it began in north Nigeria on 29 May 1966. Igbo resistance to the genocide began right from the outset in the north Nigerian city, town or village where they were being attacked. The objective of the resistance was to save one’s life, the lives of family, relatives, friends, from the marauding hordes dispatched to kill, rape, maim, burn, waste … Every Igbo caught up in this unfolding tragedy – whether they were a mother, a father, medical doctor, a school teacher, a hotelier, a pilot, a shopkeeper, a judge, a carpenter, a builder, a university professor, an artisan, a student, an engineer, a writer, a painter, a musician, etc., etc., was involved in the desperate effort to save a threatened life (or lives), beginning with theirs. No Igbo person was immune from instant death if caught by the mob ranged against them and theirs. No professions were spared. The horde’s target was defined unproblematically: ‘nyamiri’, ‘the damned Igbo’. The defence of life, the defence for life, was therefore organised and coordinated by the Igbo in the collective spirit of a shared threat and shared desire to survive. The phrase that captures the Igbo resistance here and indeed in the subsequent phases of this genocide throughout its 42 months’ duration is ‘quest for survival’. Indeed, following the 12 January 1970 ‘truce’ that Nigeria proclaimed on its campaign, the Igbo prefaced their exchange of greetings with each other for quite a while with the exaltation, ‘Happy Survival!’: ‘Happy Survival! Nne’, ‘Happy Survival! Nna’ ‘Happy Survival! Nwannem’, ‘Happy Survival! Nwanna’, ‘Happy Survival! Nwunyem’, ‘Happy Survival! Oriaku’, ‘Happy Survival! Dim’, ‘Happy Survival! Kedu?’, ‘Happy Survival! Ndeewo’, ‘Happy Survival! Ke Kwanu?’, ‘Happy Survival! Odogwu’, ‘Happy Survival! Okee Mmadu’, ‘Happy Survival! Dianyi’, ‘Happy Survival! Umu Igbo’, ‘Happy Survival Ndiigbo’.
So, contrary to Ali Mazrui’s assertion, no effort could have been nobler by any Igbo person, including artists and intellectuals, than to offer their support for such defence or resistance against genocide. It was at once a resistance for the personal as well as for the Igbo community/nation. There was therefore a concerted ‘testament’ of commitment by several artists and intellectuals in support of the defence of the Igbo at each phase of the genocide as the following examples show: Flora Nwapa, Louis Mbanefo, Michael Echeruo, Ifeagwu Eke, S.J. Cookey, Sam Mbakwe, Janet Mokelu, Obiora Udechukwu, Uche Chukwumerije, Kalu Ezera, Philip Efiong, Ignatius Kogbara, Alvan Ikoku, Celestine Okwu, Benedict Obumselu, Donatus Nwoga, N.U. Akpan, Adiele Afigbo, Michael Okpara, Akanu Ibiam, C.C. Mojekwu, Okoko Ndem, Agwu Okpanku, Tim Onwuatuegwu, Chudi Sokei, Pol Ndu, Ben Gbulie, Dennis Osadebe, Osita Osadebe, Chuba Okadigbo, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Okechukwu Ikejiani, Anthony Modebe, Alex Nwokedi, Chukwuedo Nwokolo, Pius Okigbo, Godian Ezekwe, Felix Oragwu, Ogbogu Kalu, Kevin Echeruo, Emmanuel Obiechina, Uche Okeke, Chukwuma Azuonye, Onuora Nzekwu, Chukuemeka Ike, Cyprian Ekwensi, Nkem Nwankwo, John Munonye, Gabriel Okara, Chinua Achebe, Onwuka Dike, Eni Njoku, and of course Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo. In the end, Mazrui’s choice of focusing on Okigbo in his novel, as a means of attacking the Igbo people’s right to defend themselves from the genocide, was more calculated than it might otherwise appear. This is not just the case of a non-literary scholar trying their hands on some form of literary criticism or work of fiction as some studies have suggested. Much more than that, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo was an ideopolitical statement by Mazrui, indicating, quite clearly, that in this worst act of genocide in Africa of the 20th century, his sympathies definitely did not lie with the besieged and bombarded Igbo humanity that supposedly habituate the dar el harb enclosures of islamic formulations. For Mazrui, the extraordinary Igbo defence of their lives and property in these enclosures under attack, whether in north Nigeria or in the Igbo homeland of Biafra, was an affront to the seemingly hallowed diktat of this example of extra-African continental ideoreligious dogma – the proselytisation of which has been the hallmark of Mazrui’s writings throughout his career. Extra-continental ideoreligious dogmas and sensibilities, which have in the main been anti-African – both in their propagation and their ready-use for the rationalisation of the millennium-long, dual Arab/islamist and European World conquests and occupations of Africa – were precisely part of the compendium of ideas and themes which Okigbo’s formidable African-centred poetry wrestled with in the aftermath of the so-called restoration of African independence. There was no comparable intellectual working on Africa between 1960 and 1967 who pursued with rigour and perspicacity a wide-ranging stretch of subjects from history to the arts, politics and spirituality/religion as Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo. Okigbo posits the primacy of African spirituality and religiocultural system in the quest for the African renaissance, in the wake of the Arab/European World conquest and occupation of Africa and the contemporary realities of genocidist African regimes. Okigbo’s is undoubtedly a clash of ideas, a ‘clash of civilisation’ with Mazrui’s so-called ‘African-triple heritage’ construct.
Biafra: Defence against Genocide
Chester Crocker points to the fundamental problem of the state in Africa. It is ‘not the absence of nations; it is the absence of states with the legitimacy and authority to manage their affairs … As such, they have always derived a major, if not dominant, share of their legitimacy from the international system rather than from domestic society.’ It is this question of alienability that is at the crux of the grave crisis in contemporary Africa. Crocker may have had the Igbo experience especially in mind as he wrote those lines. In Nigeria, on 29 May 1966, this form of state, supported fully by Britain, which created it in 1900, turned on its Igbo population in north Nigeria murdering, raping, burning, pillaging. By 1970, this genocide had claimed 3.1 million Igbo lives, the worst in Africa for a century.
While it is true that Biafran independence was declared formally a year later on 30 May 1967 in Enugwu, it was in fact on that fateful May day in 1966, 29 May, that the Igbo ceased to be Nigerians forever. That resolve, that renunciation of Nigerian citizenship, was the permanent Igbo indictment of a state that had violated its most sacred tenet of responsibility to its citizens – provision of security. Instead of providing security to these citizens, the Nigerian state murdered 3.1 million of them. Nigeria’s 12 January 1970 so-called truce on this campaign of genocide did not therefore, in any way, alter the fundamentals of this Igbo resolve. The resolve is irreversible. The Igbo did not return to Nigeria on 12 January 1970. To suggest otherwise would be a contradiction in terms. There could be no question of the Igbo returning to Nigeria just as the African nations in this southeast part of west Africa that made up Nigeria, before 29 May 1966, could not return to the British conquest and occupation enforcement of the 1900-1960 epoch. What has happened since 12 January 1970 has been a Nigerian state military, police and bureaucratic occupation of Igboland. As all occupations in history, this too shall end. The current events on the ground in Igboland, particularly the politics of the de-Nigerianisation of Igbo social existence spearheaded by the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, point to a much earlier termination of the occupation that only few scholars would have predicted with great certainty just a few years ago. Pointedly, the Igbo created the state of Biafra on 29 May 1966 – right there on the ground of those death camps in the sabon gari residential districts and offices and railway stations and coach stations and airports and churches and schools and markets and hospitals across north Nigeria to protect the Igbo people from the genocide unleashed by the Nigerian state and its myriad of allies. In other words, the Igbo created Biafra, the first African peoples’-centred state on African soil since the 1885 formal loss of African sovereignty, to safeguard an African population subjected to genocide by the Nigerian state, actively propped up by its European originator and overlord as this appalling crime got underway. 29 May 1966 therefore emerges as a more historic date in the annals of African reckoning than the 1 October 1960 so-called restoration of independence in Nigeria or indeed the 1 January 1956 restoration date in the Sudan – often tagged the ‘post-occupation breakthrough’ in Africa.
Biafra was tasked to provide security to the Igbo and prevent the Nigerian state, a genocide state, from accomplishing its dreaded mission. And contrary to the British-inflected, Nigerian declaration of ‘no victor, no vanquished’ on 12 January 1970, the Igbo were indeed the victor in this encounter. They survived. This was an extraordinary triumph of human will and tenacity. The Igbo overcame an amalgam of desperately brutish forces, some of whom were otherwise antagonists or nominal rivals in regional or the broader contours of international politics in the post-World War II epoch: Hausa-Fulani, Britain, Yoruba/Oduduwa, Soviet Union, Tiv, Egypt, Berom, Yergam, Nupe, Ishan, the Sudan, Angas, Urhobo, Itsekiri, Igala, Bachama, Poland, Bini, Sura, Algeria, Jarawa (central Nigeria), Jukun, Saudi Arabia, Gwari, Guinea, Kanuri, Syria, Idoma, German Democratic Republic, Iraq, Chad/gwodogwodo. The Nigerian state and its allies failed to accomplish their clearly designated goal. This is why Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president of the country, has since not minced his words about the Nigerian state’s stated desire to complete its 1966-1970 envisaged task on the Igbo people. But Obasanjo must now know that the Igbo will never go under. For all intents and purposes, Nigeria collapsed as a state with any serious prospects in the wake of the Igbo genocide. Despite earning the stunning sum of US$650 billion in oil sales in the subsequent 40 years, a significant proportion of this from occupied Igboland in the Delta, Rivers, Imo and Abia administrative regions, Nigeria has cascaded into a degenerative slump politically, economically, intellectually, socially, morally and spiritually. And this, surely, remains its epitaph in history. In this regard, it is now incumbent on the academic community of the great university at Nsukka, whose many alumni and very distinguished faculty, past and present, are attending this conference, to jettison that anachronistic name, University of Nigeria, which is a dreadful burden to bear. Such a prestigious centre of learning, the first autonomous university in this southeast of west Africa, should not be carrying the name of a genocidist state, but, instead, entitled appropriately: Christopher Okigbo Univerisity. Okigbo, Africa’s leading poet, was a librarian at Nsukka before the outbreak of the genocide and was killed defending the university town and its environs from the vandals who made a bonfire of one of Africa’s best library collections.
Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe is the author of Biafra Revisited (African Renaissance, 2006)