The Secret Furies

Time Friday, June 10, 1966

In January, when the army overthrew Nigeria's government in a blaze of gunfire, all eyes turned instinctively to the fearsome, feudal Moslem tribes that rule the northern two-thirds of the land. Led by a group of officers from the non-Moslem Ibo tribe in the South, the coup had broken the Northerners' long political hold over Nigeria. It had also taken the lives of the nation's two most prominent Northerners: Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and the revered Sardauna of Sokoto, a portly potentate who was both political and spiritual leader of 12,500,000 Nigerian Moslems. Would the North, whose ferocious horsemen warriors were once the terror of all Nigeria, accept its sudden loss?

For a while, the answer seemed to be yes. Retiring to their homes and mosques, the Moslems prayed quietly for the Sardauna and told one another he was still alive in Mecca. There were no rebellious mobs in the streets, no cries for a war of holy vengeance. Even when the military government began trimming away their regional authority, the Northerners kept their silence. But last week all their secret, pent-up furies finally exploded.

Set off by rumors that troops had fired tear gas into a mosque, Moslem mobs went on a rampage throughout the North, wielding knives, swords, spears and poisoned arrows and screaming for aware (partition). As the violence spread, it took on the shape of an Ibo pogrom. Rioters hunted down Ibo settlers, set fire to such Ibo-owned structures as Zaria's We We Hotel, descended on the sabon gari (strangers' quarter), the principal Ibo section in Kano. By the time police finally restored order at week's end, the known death toll was 115, while countless others had probably been secretly buried by their families.

All told, it was one of the North's worst outbreaks of violence in centuries of Moslem rule, and it revived all the long-held fears that Nigeria, Africa's most populous land (pop: 56 million), was doomed to either civil war or partition. Already, Ibos were fleeing the North by the thousands. And when the region's military governor, a widely respected Moslem officer, called in the North's leading sultans and emirs to plead for peace, they used the occasion to draw up a list of grievances and demands, agreed to hold their subjects in rein only if the government in Lagos quickly promised compliance.

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